Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Ask My Readers: One-Year Gigs and Undergraduate Research

A returning correspondent writes:

I have been skimming the latest crop of advertisements for physics
faculty, and every so often I run across one that is for a one-year
appointment. The ads ask for candidates that will teach
undergraduates *and* involve them in research.

I ignore these ads, but lately they've started to nag at me... Who
wants to accept a one-year position and start sending out
applications in the first months of the new job? Are the ads not
really intended for non-local candidates? Who in the blazes can
teach and involve undergraduates in research in one year (start
research, maybe; finish a project, no way)? Does this mean the
department actually wants a candidate for longer than a year, but
prefers to keep their options open by giving themselves the option of
not renewing their appointment? Or is the reference to undergraduate
research just a throw-away phrase?

I've seen you answer similar questions on your blog, and generally it
comes down to, "Well, it all depends on the department and the search
committee; things could mean *this*, or things could mean that
somebody is behaving very strangely." I think this may be the case
here, but perhaps you can shed some light on what these limited
appointments can be intended for (and who might want to apply for them)?

I have to admit being a little out of my element here, so I'll throw it open to readers who know this field better than I do. (In the cases I know, undergraduate research occurs at the junior and senior level, beyond the reach of cc's.)

Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I'm not sure, but my cc doesn't do one-year positions. One-semester positions occur when somebody falls ill at the last minute, and we basically annoint a native adjunct to finish out the term. But we don't make a habit of it, and we don't post for temporary gigs. In terms of full-time faculty, you're either on the bus or off the bus.

The context in which I could see a one-year position making sense is a sabbatical replacement. At institutions at which sabbaticals are a full year, I can see the logic. But the part about involving undergrads in research doesn't fit my sense of a one-year position.

It's possible that the folks posting the position are actually trolling for a full-timer and using this as a first screen. I've gone on record opposing that as unethical, since it winnows the applicant pool with irrelevant criteria, but that doesn't mean it never happens. Even with tenure-track faculty, non-renewal is an option prior to tenure, so I don't think the ability not to renew is the critical variable.

My guess, honestly, is that they took the desiderata for a tenure-track hire and simply duplicated it for the one-year hire. If they had taken the time to reflect on what they were doing, they'd realize pretty quickly that the job they've posted doesn't make sense. But critical reflection – like self-awareness – is distressingly rare, even among very intelligent people. They may simply have a sense of “this is what professors do,” and gone with that, not stopping to ask whether it made sense in a one-year gig. It isn't conspiratorial or sinister or even dishonest; it's just thoughtless, in the literal meaning of the word.

Wise and worldly readers – especially folks in the sciences – what do you make of this?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.