“Good” NTT vs. “Bad” TT: A Conversation (Part III)

This is Part III of a three-part series on weighing the pros and cons of taking a good NTT position vs. a less desirable tenure track position. I use “good” and “bad” advisedly just as a shorthand, because of course these judgments will vary across individuals and context. But many readers have faced versions of this choice and contributed guest posts. I’m sharing their stories.Find the previous ones here and here. Like the others, this is a guest post.


On the pros and cons of term/clinical positions versus the TT….

As an occupant of such a position (a term position, in my case) with fairly recent experience of the academic job market and front row seats to the TT journey of multiple friends, here are my thoughts on the pros and cons. I’m writing this partly to contribute to Karen’s project, which I’ve found enormously helpful through the years, and partly because I’ve had enough annoying conversations with grad students about this that I think it merits raising in the wider community. What lies at the heart of this question, I think, is that we as academics are all conditioned to think of a TT track position as a “real” job, and of everything else as a stop gap measure at best and a failure at worst.

This isn’t a tenable formulation—not for our graduate students heading out into the market, and not for the rest of us, who create and perpetuate the problems of that market–partly because this is what we have to think with. It isn’t tenable on an individual level (TT jobs are much fewer in number than term positions, thus the odds of landing one aren’t great, while the personal and professional costs of chasing often are), and it isn’t tenable on an organizational level (because it effectively serves to justify the abuse of people occupying those other positions, rendering academic institutions houses divided against themselves).

So, when I was on the market, what I was after was a job that would allow me to live a full life while offering me the opportunity to do the work that I enjoy, employ my training and my talents, and pay a decent salary with good chances of stability and growth.

Such jobs don’t neatly divide into the TT/term categories, and my advice would be to evaluate the pros and cons of each individual position, not the entire category. To that end, the pros of some term positions:

-They can occupy a structural niche in the university. If not funded by soft money, this can translate to considerable stability.

-They can afford a lot of opportunities for really interesting work

-They are more likely to enable their occupants to skirt departmental politics.

-They pay a decent salary and come with benefits. As for the cons, they all stem from that house divided phenomenon I mentioned.

Basically, what we have by virtue of this division is a class system within the university. Term/clinical faculty are second class citizens, period (adjuncts in this metaphor are basically serfs).

As a result, many of those pros seamlessly transition into the cons:

–the utility to the organization translates to a lot of work. Since term employees aren’t on the TT, there’s little organizational incentive to make sure their work loads are reasonable.

–there’s no guarantee that the work will, in fact, be interesting. Many contract positions exist to do the rote work of a department—teach introductory courses, handle the routines of administration, etc.

–The ability to skirt department politics is in part a result of being less consequential to them (unlike tenured faculty, term contracts are much easier to dispatch, and term faculty can’t participate in university governance on equal terms with the TT).

Then again, a TT job is no golden ticket—it doesn’t protect you from exploitation, burn out or abuse. And a good term job isn’t a step down from a bad TT one.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


“Good” NTT vs. “Bad” TT: A Conversation (Part III) — 3 Comments

  1. As someone in what many would consider a “good” NTT position, if anyone starting out on the job market asked me now, I would say take *any* TT position over a NTT one, even if everything else about the TT position seems worse than the NTT one. This is especially true if you are in a smaller/niche field that doesn’t have a clear path to industry positions. The thing is that once you have tenure, all the other aspects of your position become more manageable. On the NTT, even mildly unpleasant aspects of your job will only get worse over time, and you will have less and less control over your own life.

    TT faculty become more valuable to their employers over time if they have a publication record or do other things that their position allows them to (e.g., create new classes or initiatives). In contrast, NTT faculty’s main value is taking on classes that others don’t want to teach and keeping students happy, so they are always replaceable with another decent teacher, especially in a youth-oriented work culture. Because NTT have to justify their value every year (or 3 or 5 years), and because the university knows that a 50+ year old who has spent their who career teaching writing is very unlikely to find another job, NTT faculty become more and more vulnerable–to toxic colleagues you get whiplash from trying to keep happy; to administrators who want to save money by replacing you; to demanding students whose course evals will make or break your renewal.

    Compare this to the TT: you may have toxic colleagues, hostile administrators, and unreasonable students all evaluating you. But if you make it through tenure, you are no longer as dependent upon them. As you age and potentially slow down, you are not as vulnerable to their whims, and you don’t have the extra stress on your physical and mental health of having to keep them all happy with diminishing resources to do so.

    I’m about 25 years away from a traditional retirement age, and I make a decent salary with full benefits, but I can see the toll that this constant insecurity has had on my older colleagues, and I’m beginning to see it in my own job. As you age, there is nothing as valuable as job security–especially the kind that allows you to preserve your dignity.

    Tl;dr: Sure, people on both tracks can suffer from exploitation, burn out, and abuse. But worse case scenario, TTers only have to suffer for 6-7 years. NTT suffer for the entire career, and those things will probably cut their careers short.

  2. Nice series, thanks for sharing. I’m in a non TT position and resonate w many of the points about the work being interesting, more diverse opportunities, skirting some of the politics, but also able to be promoted w longer-term contracts.

  3. I appreciate this series on NTT and TT positions and your website in general. I would like to reiterate the points made by “NCTQI” on November 19, 2019.

    At the start of my career 18 years ago, I took what might be considered a “good” NTT job at an R1. The pay was initially low, but I had an office, benefits (health, retirement, etc.), could vote, could (and did) become ranked, and there were resources. The teaching load was a bit heavy, but all in all it was very doable and over the years, the load actually got a bit better, and our former chair worked very hard to assure my (and the other NTTs’) pay increased as he was quite opposed to our exploitation.

    Still, there were those in the department who very firmly believed that NTTs were second class citizens– at best. They would occasionally attempt to reduce our rights (like our right to vote at departmental meetings), but would be defeated by the leadership of our chair and fairer minds.

    Unfortunately, our good chair kept getting older (as do we all) and eventually retired and was replaced by a blatant careerist who has on occasion announced that NTTs are not qualified for anything. Her systemic and relentless bullying and harassment of me (in particular) has only intensified during her term as chair damaging me physically, psychologically and economically (by cutting my overloads). Until she became chair, I scored above a 4.0 (out of 5.0 possible) on ALL of my evaluations for 18 years, and have received glowing evaluations from students, colleagues and administrators alike. I even won a university-wide teaching award. This year, she gave me a 1.6 on my annual evaluation (like I suddenly went from a 4.5 to 1.6 in my job performance!)! Although my five year contract is not up until 2023, yesterday she sent me a document that she wants me to sign, that would effectively terminate my employment in 2021. I am eligible for (partial) retirement in July 2022. Because my institution has no system of recourse (no union, no ombuds, even HR only handles staff–not faculty–issues), I feel I have no choice but to hire a lawyer.

    The extraordinary gift of tenure is given to teachers so that they can teach without fear of repercussions– for teaching unpopular subjects, grading “too hard,” holding “the wrong” political beliefs– including the “wrong” political belief that teaching undergraduates is important and valuable work.

    That bullying or “academic hazing” is PANDEMIC in academe is gaining a lot of attention. Although I only teach the undergrads in our department, many of our graduate students come to me to share the deep, dark secret that what they really want to do is teach. I have to advise them to not ever take a NTT because they could end up like me — about to be fired in my mid-50s a year prior to being eligible for retirement.

    (Please withhold my name)

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