Monday, February 04, 2008

Ask the Administrator: When Should I Turn Pro?

A new correspondent writes:

I'm a graduate student in a field that's lucky enough to not have that
many people clamoring for faculty positions. In fact many small
universities are so desperate that they're willing to accept faculty
with only an MS in the field.

With this background in mind, I'm about to finish my master's degree
and I would like to teach, preferably at a small liberal arts school.
I've also have the chance to finish most of the requirements for my
Ph.D. rather early in the game(I've already been to a refereed
conference and a journal article is in the pipe). I'm seeing lots of
jobs at liberal arts schools for visiting professor positions where a
MS is acceptable.

This brings me to my question. What should I do? Should I jump at the
chance now and try to get my feet wet as a faculty member? I think I
can finish my dissertation and teach at the same time(famous last
words) but I'm wondering, from your perspective as an administrator at
a teaching school which would be better, a candidate that did things
the conventional route(Ph.D. and working as a TA) or a newly minted
Ph.D. who had real faculty experience under his/her belt?

Also how would you advise someone like me to approach schools like
this? I have industry experience as well as a year of being a TA.
What's my angle?

First off, congratulations on being in a position to have the choice. Most of us – myself included – can only gaze in awe at that. Imagine – the ability to command respect in the marketplace. Wow.

This is one of those situations in which personal life variables make a tremendous difference. If you have spousal/partner considerations or other financial exigencies to make the decision for you, then so be it. But you don't mention that, so I'll go on the assumption that there's no deal-breaker on the personal side.

Observation and experience both tell me that one of the great lies in the English language is “the dissertation is nearly done.” At this point, for my money, a dissertation is either Done or Not Done; there is no 'almost.' I've seen far too many smart, well-intentioned, hardworking people discover that 'one more semester' becomes 'one more year' becomes 'three more years' very quickly.

A decade's worth of observation has also taught me that it's much easier to finish a dissertation without a full-time teaching load. Yes, it involves living the grad student life of Ramen noodles a little longer, but once the thing is actually done, you'll be in much better shape than someone with a Master's who is struggling to juggle writing with teaching with the demands of committee service and a jaundiced tenure committee.

Some folks, I suspect, jump on the market at the first possible opportunity with the expectation that they'll be able to 'write their way out' of a middling job in a few years. It does happen, but it's rarer and harder than many grad students seem to think. For one thing, the lower-tier schools – the ones people try to escape – typically have higher teaching loads than the higher-tier schools. (What this says about the value higher ed places on its core function, I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.) Unless you're flat-out superhuman, you'll produce less research with a 4/4 load than your competitors at schools with 3/3 or less. There are only so many hours in the day. Add to that that the lower-tier schools are less likely to offer you RA's or TA's to do the dirty work – grading, say – and you can't just skate on charisma, like you could in a more elite setting. Teaching at the lower levels is more time-consuming, because the students need you more and your ancillary resources are less. Add to that a higher load in absolute terms – more courses per year -- and you'd be working at a serious disadvantage.

(The disadvantage is compounded when you look at 'visiting' positions. A 'visiting' position expires in a short time – typically a year – so you don't get a break from the market, and you have to move again in a year. Both the job search and moving are serious time sucks. I wouldn't advise going that route if you can avoid it.)

From an administrative perspective, too, I'll point out that it's much more common to advertise entry-level faculty positions than senior ones. So if you get a few years under your belt at Nothing Special State and then try to move, you may have priced yourself out of much of the market. Although that probably seems maddeningly arbitrary from a faculty perspective, it makes perfect sense from my side of the desk. The only way to maintain reasonable full-time staffing levels and still balance the budget, especially when seniority is the prime determinant of salary, is to hire folks initially at the low end of the scale. We've actually had to turn away some wonderful applicants with fifteen years' experience, simply because their salary expectations would have broken our budget. When 'productivity' and 'salary' are mostly disconnected, these things happen.

Unless there's some major external reason you haven't mentioned, which is certainly possible, I think you'll probably get the best outcome overall if you're willing to defer gratification a little longer. Finish the dissertation while you have the relative luxury of a light teaching load. Then hit the market at the peak of your value.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

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