Non-tenure track vs tenure track faculty positions

Navigating academia’s terrain can often be a confusing task, especially when considering career paths such as tenure track and non-tenure track faculty positions.

This blog aims to provide clarity by detailing the pros and cons, qualifications, working conditions, and nuances associated with each path. We delve into crucial concepts like academic freedom, workload, evaluation, job security, and the implications for both full-time and part-time faculty members at an instructional institution. 

This comprehensive guide caters to aspiring assistant professors, lecturers, associate professors, and academia’s myriad of stakeholders.

We welcome you to explore the world of tenure and non-tenure track faculty positions, understanding how they shape our colleges and universities today.

What is academic tenure?

Academic tenure is a status awarded to professors, typically after a predetermined period, for demonstrating substantial contributions in:

  • teaching,
  • research, and
  • service to the university.

This status, originating over a century ago, provides scholarly independence, protecting faculty members from job displacement due to the contentious nature of their teaching or research.

This unique predicament preserves freedom of thought and has significantly driven prolific research in U.S. universities.

Tenure virtually secures a lifetime job, granted after fulfilling certain prerequisites set by a tenure committee.

The highlight of tenure includes safeguarding academic liberty and a clear, well-structured path to attainment.

It’s crucial to note that several schools may have a limit on the number of tenure roles per department, and fiscal constraints can also influence the number of tenure grants.

What is a tenure track position?

Academic tenure track refers to a policy that grants job security to professors after a six-year probationary period.

Initially, a tenure-track assistant or associate professor is hired, and their progress is annually evaluated.

Towards the end of the probationary phase, usually after five years, the professor can be considered for tenure based on a detailed review of their teaching, research, and service contributions.

This includes feedback from students and peers, both at the home institution and elsewhere.

A formal assessment, accompanied by a faculty vote, is forwarded to the department chair, Dean, and ultimately the Provost.

The decision for tenure considers not just the candidate’s academic performance but also adherence to due process.

The final authority to grant tenure resides with the Board of Regents, based on a formal presentation by the university President. Candidates are kept informed about their status throughout the process.

What is a non-tenure track position?

A non-tenure track position is a type of teaching role in academia where the individual doesn’t follow the path to secure lifetime employment known as tenure.

Instead, they are employed under contracts that typically span between 1 to 3 years.

The principal focus of those in non-tenure track roles is teaching and service, often with a higher teaching load compared to their tenure-track counterparts. 

While they have the option to conduct research, publications resulting from such activities don’t significantly impact their annual assessments.

There are disadvantages, including less pay compared to tenure-track posts, and the chance of being released first due to fiscal constraints or low enrollment. Hence, despite the emphasis on job renewal for those who excel in their roles, these positions don’t guarantee lifelong employment.

Pros and cons of tenure track positions

ProsPermanent job security (tenure grants lifelong employment).Reduced pressure to publish and do research.
Freedom to explore and express academic interests (academic freedom is protected).Ability to focus more on teaching, which is ideal for individuals passionate about education.
Career trajectory is generally well defined.Contract renewals are often available, given satisfactory performance in teaching.
ConsPressure to adhere to institution-directed teaching and publishing priorities.Typically lower salary compared to tenure-track positions.
May deter individuals from experimenting with new areas, once they’ve attained tenure.More vulnerable to job cuts in the event of financial issues or low enrollment.
Initial challenges with expressing oneself fully until tenure has been awarded.There’s no guarantee of permanent employment.

How to get a tenure track position

Tenure is granted after a careful review of a faculty member’s teaching, research, and service. Each institution may have slightly different expectations and criteria, but the following are general strategies that can help you secure tenure:

1. Understand Expectations: Each institution and department has its own expectations for tenure. Make sure you clearly understand these standards and focus your efforts accordingly.

2. Publish Quality Research: Your scholarly output, usually in the form of peer-reviewed articles or books, is critical. Quality often matters more than quantity. Try to publish in reputable, high-impact journals and aim for work that pushes boundaries in your field.

3. Teaching Excellence: Demonstrating effectiveness as an instructor is crucial. Use student feedback to continually improve your teaching methods. 

4. Service to the University: Serving on committees, participating in administrative tasks, and contributing to the university community is often an important factor for tenure.

5. External Funding: For many research-intensive institutions, securing external grants and funding can significantly improve your chances of achieving tenure.

6. Collaborate: Collaborate with colleagues both within and outside your department. This will not only potentially enhance your research, but also demonstrate your ability to work as part of a team, which can be an important consideration for tenure.

7. Mentorship: Take on the role of a mentor for students. This can demonstrate your commitment to the institution’s academic community.

8. Maintain a Strong Professional Network: Building strong relationships with colleagues in your field, both inside and outside your institution, can provide you with collaborative research opportunities, external letters of recommendation, and support when you go up for tenure.

9. Document Your Achievements: Regularly update your CV and maintain a record of your teaching, research, and service activities. Having a well-organized dossier will make it easier when you go up for tenure.

10. Seek Feedback: Regularly meet with senior colleagues or your department chair to discuss your progress and receive feedback. This will help you understand if you’re on the right track or if there are areas you need to focus on more.

Securing tenure is a multi-faceted process that requires consistent effort across teaching, research, and service, so balancing your time effectively is essential.

Wrapping up – non-tenure-track faculty vs tenure track

In the realm of academia, understanding the differences, benefits, and challenges of tenure track and non-tenure track positions is crucial.

This blog unpacks these complexities, offering insights into the inner workings of both paths, their implications for full-time and part-time faculty members, and their impact on the landscape of higher education.

From exploring academic freedom, job security, and faculty workloads to breaking down the procedural journey to tenure and the realities of non-tenure track positions, we hope this guide has offered a comprehensive overview for individuals navigating their academic careers.

It’s evident that while tenure track positions offer job security and academic freedom, they come with the pressure of publishing and potentially limiting experimentation once tenure is achieved.

Non-tenure track roles, on the other hand, while lacking permanent employment assurances, offer the opportunity to focus more on teaching and less on research. Ultimately, the choice depends on personal career goals, aspirations, and the kind of balance one seeks between teaching, research, and service in the academic world.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.