Should I Turn Down a Tenure-Track Position?

I have two job offers in hand, which in this academic market qualifies as an embarrassment of riches. Now for the dilemma. One is a tenure-track offer, but it’s not what I want — it comes with a 4-4 teaching load and is not in a great location. The other offer is a three-year position as a visiting assistant professor (VAP) at a better-but-not-top-10 kind of university.

So should I take the tenure-track job or the visiting one?

That depends on several factors: How marketable are you? What is your end goal? How good are the conditions at the university offering the visiting gig?

The first thing you need to do is a self-audit. That involves taking an objective look at how you are situated in the economy of value that is modern-day academe. If you are a brand new Ph.D. or an A.B.D. from a Top 3 program in your field — and you have a (supportive, good-letter-writing) megastar adviser — you can “afford” to turn down a less-desirable tenure-track job and go on the market again next year. By contrast, that would be a major mistake for someone on the market for the third year in a row whose degree is from a program ranked No. 49 in the field.

Ask yourself the following questions about your “capital” within your discipline, and be brutally honest:

  • Do you have a publication pipeline? I mean work you’ve already published and/or expect will soon be published.
  • Was your grant proposal assessed as “fundable”? Meaning, either you won the grant or, even if you didn’t, reviewers found the project promising.
  • Did you get five or more first-round interviews, via Skype or at scholarly conferences?

Academe in some ways reproduces the American meritocracy myth of “You can be anything!” The academic version: You can go to a low-ranked doctoral program and have an unknown adviser and yet you, too, can get a tenure-track job at an R1 university if you have enough commitment. They will have to hire you when they see how passionate you are about your research, right?

That myth clouds the judgment of many a Ph.D. job candidate. Your self-audit has to see clearly through the obfuscation and evaluate the structural advantages and disadvantages of your specific position coming into the faculty job market.

Next you have to figure out your end goal. That’s a different set of questions:

  • Do you want a tenure-track job at any cost? Location notwithstanding?
  • Do you want a tenure-track job at a particular kind of institution, or in a particular region or city?
  • Is location more important to you than the possibility of tenure?
  • What are the costs and benefits of each offer in moving you toward your end goal? Is it a choice between taking the VAP and buying yourself a few more tries on the market versus settling for a less-than-ideal tenure-track job? Or will you be on the market the very next fall anyway, and you’re trying to figure out whether the VAP would position you better in that respect? Is the wisdom of “It’s easier to get a tenure-track job when you already have one” still valid when the tenure-track job in question is not so dreamy?

Part of your calculation has to be the results of your self-audit, but the other part has to weigh the institutional brands against each other. A three-year visiting position at an Ivy League university is not the same as a three-year VAP at a top 50 liberal-arts college. A tenure-track position at a major state university — however severely underfunded — will have a brand that will be more legible to institutions going forward than an assistant professorship at an obscure, super-religious college — even if the salaries and teaching loads are on par.

The prestige math here has to be stacked up against your sense of how competitive you are as a candidate, and how well you are likely to do on next year’s job market.

The visiting position is almost certainly a transitory job. Even if the search committee implies the possibility of a tenure-track conversion down the road, treat the VAP as a temporary situation in making your assessment. You must weigh how helpful it will be to your career goals. Some visiting jobs resemble postdocs — the teaching load is not onerous, there are no service requirements, and there is good support for research and conference attendance. Will you be able to use this three-year period to get a book contract (assuming you’re in a book field) and ideally churn out a couple of articles as well?

Yes, I know that some people want specifically teaching-oriented jobs, but those people are more likely to welcome a tenure-track job with a 4-4 load in the first place. In addition, many teaching-oriented colleges are nevertheless aspirational in that they still want active researchers. And those colleges can easily find such candidates, since the faculty job market is oversaturated with Ph.D.s. Someone with a book contract from a top press is likely to beat you out at a middling university with a 3-3 course load if teaching excellence is the first and main criterion for tenure there.

Bottom line: If the conditions of the VAP would help jump-start your research output, the position is worth considering — provided your own marketability and the institutional brand make the choice feasible for you.

But even if you are a super academic, with the odds ever in your favor and all that, please be clear on one fact: Turning down a tenure-track offer is a gamble, and a very high-risk one at that. As I tell my clients, who are sometimes delusional about their ability to pick and choose tenure-track jobs, most people get only one tenure-track offer in their lifetime. That is the reality. You can gamble — and some people are in a better position to gamble than others — but be aware that what is at stake is very likely the only tenure-track offer you are likely to get.

Karen Kelsky is founder and president of The Professor Is In, which offers advice and consulting services on the academic job search and on all aspects of the academic and postacademic career. She is a former tenured professor at two universities. Browse an archive of her previous advice columns here .

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