Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Ask the Administrator: Adjuncting Around and Flight Risk

A correspondent who, by his own description, has been “adjuncting around” a lot sent a wonderful question. With a few identifying characteristics removed, he wrote:

What I'm wondering is how a prospective employer would view that experience when
hiring for a full-time position. Does that experience count for something
positive, or does it mark me as a loser (as some participants in a Chronicle
of Higher Education discussion forum suggested earlier this summer)? Does it
matter to a prospective employer that I have been geographically limited in my
searches by my wife's job (i.e. my wife has the perfect job here in our town, but
there's not much here for me -- all of my adjunct
positions are at least an hour's drive away, and I've not applied to full-time
positions that aren't within semi-reasonable driving distance)? Does it matter
to a prospective employer that way back when I had a tenure-track teaching
position at a four-year school, but didn't get tenure because I lacked the PhD?
Does it matter to a prospective employer that I'm getting kind of old to be
doing this adjunct stuff full-time, or does it demonstrate how much I love
teaching and working with students?

Perhaps the bottom-line questions are
these: is there such a thing as too much adjunct experience? Are there any
circumstances which those making hiring decisions would ever deem reasonable
for a large accumulation of adjunct experience?

Great questions, and probably of more general interest than most of us would care to admit.

It depends on the academic profile of the institution, its geographic location, and its needs at any given time.

In my experience at suburban, teaching-focused institutions, there isn’t really such a thing as too much teaching experience. In some ways, having experience at a variety of different institutions is actually preferable to only having it at one; it shows adaptability, and reduces the risk of culture shock.

At research institutions, my contacts tell me, the opposite is true. Doctorates have ‘sell-by’ dates, and if you haven’t achieved stardom by a certain time, it’s assumed that you won’t. The tricky middle is where it’s hard to say – the midtier schools that are really teaching institutions but harbor delusions of research grandeur. That’s where things can get arbitrary, depending on the composition of the committee, the self-awareness of the administration, etc. Too often, they try to split the difference, rather than actually making the hard choice.

(I should also mention that a nearby cc that shall remain nameless has a policy of never hiring anybody with more than five years’ experience, as a way to keep salary costs down. I consider that unethical in the extreme, but they do it.)

Having been denied tenure is a red flag, though not necessarily a fatal one. In the cc world, ABD status is generally accepted; if you can convince a committee that ABD status is the only reason you were denied tenure (as opposed to poor teaching, or blowing off department meetings, or some kind of misconduct), it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. It hasn’t been here.

The geographical issue is real, but I think its impact hits before you send out applications. Obviously, you won’t be considered where you don’t apply. That said, if you have a fairly solid history of teaching, a few gaps shouldn’t matter.

What ‘Bitch, Ph.D.’ calls the ‘brains on sticks’ model of academia presumes that we are all wandering nomads, free to take us wherever the career winds blow, when, in fact, we have lives. When I was job-hunting, I ruled out significant numbers of jobs simply on the grounds that I didn’t want to move my family there. That’s okay, as long as you’re willing to risk the search taking longer. (Even now, there are a few spots in America that beckon to me, and that I’d be happy to move to if the offer were right.)

Age sometimes matters, even though it shouldn’t. Don’t overestimate it, though. I’ve seen multiple situations in which ‘youth’ was prized in the abstract, but among the actual candidates, the older ones were just stronger. (It can work the other way, too, esp. in rural areas. An unattached young person might look like a ‘flight risk’ – we’d hire him, and he’d leave within a year or two, but a married older person would look likelier to stay. When I was hired at my current job, the vp who hired me was very excited to hear about my son, and my wife’s family’s roots in the area. In retrospect, that probably cancelled out the ‘flight risk’ factor.)

Rather than judging ‘employers’ or ‘search committees’ as if they were all the same, I’d advise giving some thought to where your particular mix of talent, experience, and qualifications would be the best fit. In other words, think like an employer. If you’ve been ‘adjuncting around’ for some time, don’t bother with the R1’s; they aren’t interested, and you’d be wasting your time. Community colleges in hot urban areas (New York, say, or San Francisco) can use location to reduce flight risk, so they might tend to favor younger, less experienced types to keep their costs down. Community colleges in exurbia, or less popular areas, might look much more kindly on an experienced, established sort, who would put down roots – flight risk is a much greater issue there. You can (truthfully ) use your freeway-flier experience to explain your interest in putting down roots – having done the free agent thing, you’re ready to commit.

I know this will rub some folks the wrong way, since the myth of ‘meritocracy’ is powerful in academe. But if a single theme has run through (the non-family side of) my blog, it’s that academic jobs are jobs, just like any other jobs. The myths are nice, but jobs are jobs. Don’t think of yourself as a failure if you haven’t found a niche; it’s not about you. It’s not about you. It’s not about you. (Repeat as necessary.) It’s about what the employer needs at a given moment. Knowing this can help you adjust your strategy. Think like an employer, and aim for the employers to whom you’d be most attractive.

Good luck!

Do you have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.