Negotiating the Non-Tenure Track

July 06, 2001

The data tell the story: From 1975 to 1999, the proportion of full-time faculty members in non-tenure-track positions increased to 28 percent from 19 percent. Recent estimates suggest that 45 percent of all new hires in academe are on the non-tenure track, including 65 percent at research universities.

A good many faculty members in non-tenure-track positions are unhappy with that state of affairs although it's unlikely to change. They are unhappy, in part, with the low salaries and high teaching loads that characterize many non-tenure-track positions. But it would be a mistake to assume that all of these academics would prefer the tenure track.

The Project on Faculty Appointments, where I work at Harvard University, conducted a survey of more than 2,000 doctoral candidates at 65 top-tier universities in 1999-2000. It showed that 20 percent of students in the social sciences and humanities, 29 percent in the sciences, and 28 percent in the professions of business, education, and engineering would accept a non-tenure-track offer over a tenure-track offer holding everything equal about the two positions. That's a rather startling conclusion given that the ultimate goal for most aspiring faculty members has always been to land a tenure-track job.

Throughout graduate school, scholars are socialized to tenure, an employment policy so entrenched that it defines the culture of the academy. Economic security, academic freedom, and autonomy -- what's not to love? Why settle for anything less?

Senior scholars may raise their eyebrows, but in fact, more and more scholars are opting for life off the tenure track. Does this mean they are settling for less? The answer is no; in fact, many are negotiating for more in the process. There appear to be three logical groupings of doctoral candidates who prefer the non-tenure track.

The strategists

Many young scholars are shrewdly calculating the trade-offs when choosing the non-tenure route over the tenure track. They will opt for a non-tenured post if, for example, it means being on a campus in a prime geographic location and securing a favorable balance of research and teaching duties. These young scholars say quality of life is what most matters to them. They are not interested in living like their professors -- all work and no play, all job and no family time. Here's what some of the strategists we surveyed had to say:

  • "I traded security for prestige, I guess. I accepted a non-tenure-track job at the most prestigious university. Hopefully, it'll keep me. If not, the track record I establish while here will help me land my next job. Having a non-tenure-track position at a "good" school is better, in my view, than a tenure-track one at a "bad" school."

  • "For me, the decision was not difficult at all. I took a non-tenure-track position in a beautiful location that is one where my husband can find work, my children can grow up happily and in safety, and we can experience all that this area has to offer. In addition, I get to focus on research. That was not the case with the tenure-track jobs I was offered. I would have had to do everything -- teaching, research, and service."

  • "In my field -- business -- there is absolutely no stigma associated with the non-tenure track. This option offered more money than tenure-track offers, and I'm allowed to pursue my research interests. I may decide to leave academe in a few years anyway, so why spend them toiling on the tenure track for a low salary?"

The pragmatists

For others, the decision to take a non-tenure-track job is less about trade-offs than about accepting reality. For this group of scholars, their decision was based on pragmatic considerations. Bottom line -- they needed a job and the odds of it being on the tenure track seemed long. And many pragmatists feel that tenure is no longer a guarantee anyway. Here's what some of them had to say in our survey:

  • "Sure, tenure would be great, but I need a job. I have loans to repay, a family to feed, and a life to live. I can't waste too much time searching for the perfect offer that might never come along."

  • "Given the tight job market for faculty in math, there is no shame in taking a non-tenure-track position. I'm applying for anything for which I'm reasonably qualified. You go where you get an offer, tenure track or not."

  • "From what I've been reading, tenure is just another old sacred cow that might get slaughtered. Tenure is like the Social Security system; I'm not going to count on it. I was much more interested in where the job was and what I'd be doing than in whether it was tenurable or not."

The nonconformists

These are the folks who want greater flexibility in their careers. They like the idea of working free of the tenure clock, and are simply less, or not at all, concerned about their economic security and their academic freedom. Some dislike the very idea of tenure, or have concerns about the process. Here's what they had to say:

  • "For me, there really was no dilemma. I only considered non-tenure-track jobs. The tenure-track offers I had would have required excellence in all areas. With this job, I can focus on what matters to me -- teaching."

  • "I could not do my best work to the ticking of someone's arbitrary tenure clock. Where's the sense in that? This way, I do my job more to my own terms (and of course also to the terms of the contract). And as long as I perform well, I have every reason to believe that I'll be renewed each term."

  • "The tenure process is completely screwed up as far as I'm concerned. I've seen what it does to people. You can't speak your mind for seven years while you do what everyone else tells you to do and you get mixed messages about what's important in the tenure process. Too many of my colleagues on the tenure track are miserable. I chose the non-tenure track and I'm so happy that I did."

Making the most of the non-tenure track

If the only job offer you received was off the tenure track, you have little room to negotiate better terms. But if you have received both tenure-track and non-tenure-track offers, you have some thinking to do. Don't automatically dismiss the non-tenured post. You might use your tenure-track offers and your willingness to work under contract as leverage to negotiate a sweeter deal.

Here's what you might negotiate:

  1. A higher salary. It is not uncommon for certain non-tenure-track positions to pay salary premiums of 10 to 12 percent over the tenure-track rate.
  2. Your work and workload. Most entry-level, non-tenure-track positions allow the scholar to focus on either teaching or research, instead of both. Some institutions offer promotions in rank to non-tenure-track faculty members.

  3. More-frequent sabbaticals. Some institutions that offer junior scholars a choice of positions give more sabbatical time to those who opt for the non-tenure track.

  4. Seed money. Scholars most interested in a research position may be able to negotiate more start-up money, laboratory space, and graduate-student assistance by choosing a position where they are ineligible for tenure.

  5. A stepping stone into a tenure-track job. You might be able to prove yourself in a non-tenure-track position, and then move into a tenure-track slot when one becomes available. However, when tallying the figures for the tenure clock, many institutions do not count the years spent off the tenure track.

A non-tenure-track position does not come without some sacrifices, however. Here are some of the things you might have to give up:

  1. Status and prestige. Many non-tenure-track professors feel like second-class citizens on their campuses and in their disciplines. One factor that affects status is whether promotion in rank is available for non-tenure-track scholars. Several recent studies have suggested that such promotions are available at about a third of U.S. institutions.

  2. Academic freedom. The research on this issue is mixed. Some contract faculty members feel that their academic freedom is secure under due-process laws and campus policies that apply to all faculty members. But others say they feel vulnerable and hesitate to provoke controversy or voice opinions radically different from their colleagues. Many observers, however, would argue that junior scholars on the tenure track feel much the same way.

  3. A voice in governance, hiring, and curriculum. The degree of involvement that non-tenure-track professors have on these matters varies widely from one campus to another -- from little or no say to complete voting privileges. Be sure to read a college's policy manuals if this is an important issue for you. Private institutions are much more likely than public ones to allow contract faculty members to participate in governance.

  4. Support for professional development. Professors on the tenure track are much more likely to receive such support, especially when it comes to sabbatical leave. Only about a quarter of U.S. institutions offer sabbatical leave to non-tenure-track professors.

As you're mulling your options, remember that being on the tenure track is not the same as having tenure and does not guarantee that you will get it. And even tenure is no guarantee of a job for life. It doesn't happen often, but institutions do have the power to dismiss tenured professors for financial exigency, program closure, or sustained poor performance. Read the faculty handbook on your campus and review all faculty appointment politics thoroughly -- you might be surprised by what you find.

While you're at it, read your employment contract carefully. Term contracts have varying lengths. Some institutions employ faculty members on term contracts for only a finite period.

Finally, ask about the success rates of junior professors both on and off the tenure track at institutions where you are considering employment. What proportion of faculty members who come up for tenure in the department actually get it? And what proportion of faculty members working on contract get renewed? If people in the department can't answer these questions, that also tells you something.

Full-time, non-tenure-track appointments are here to stay. And some institutions are making changes to overcome the negative aspects of these positions and to ensure that all scholars, whatever track they are on, feel fulfilled and motivated. After all, a happy faculty is a productive faculty.

Cathy Trower is a senior researcher (not eligible for tenure) at the Project on Faculty Appointments at Harvard University, sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts. These are her views and not the opinions of the foundation.