In academia, one of the biggest trends in recent years is the rise of adjunct teaching. Since the early 1970s, tenured positions at colleges and universities in the U.S. have steadily been replaced by adjunct or non-tenure track professorships. There are many reasons for this decline, but it’s clear that the tenure system is changing rapidly — and academia is having a hard time catching up. The overwhelming majority of Ph.D. candidates do not secure a tenure-track teaching position within the first year of graduating.
Why Many Still See Tenure As The ‘Gold Standard’
The decline of tenure isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Not all teachers want to be tenured professors, and there are aspects of securing tenure that can be a big pain in the you-know-what. Still, many academics want a tenure-track position and view it as the ultimate get. In higher education, tenure is often considered the “gold standard.” Compared to adjunct teaching, the main benefit of tenure is job security and a higher salary, but there are other advantages to obtaining tenure as well:
- Academic freedom — Tenure offers professors academic freedom and independence. Tenured professors also get to design their own research and concentrate on a specific interest.
- Protection from censorship — Censorship is an important issue in academia that can have a huge impact outside of higher education. One of the best, most recent examples of this is Marc Edwards, an environmental engineering professor from Virginia Tech. Edwards spent years going after state and federal governments for failing to protect residents in multiple cities — including the situation in Flint, Mich. — from lead poisoning in the water supply. While doing his research, Edwards was harassed and threatened. Tenure protects professors like Edwards from being silenced by powerful corporations or government agencies.
- Having a voice in institutional decisions — Tenured professors have a strong say in the future of their department and the long-term changes a college or university wants to make. They also play a big role in recruitment and mentorship.
- International collaborations and travel opportunities — Tenure gives professors the chance to work with other institutions, both in the U.S. and internationally. Tenured professors can also take advantage of researcher-in-residence programs or teach at a college or university in another country.
Tenure Sounds Great, But Getting There Isn’t Easy
Many academics spend much of their career trying to obtain tenure, but there can be hidden downsides to the tenure track:
- Long hours and heavy workload — It often takes many years, and many unpaid hours, for a professor to obtain tenure. Tenure-track professors can also be under a lot of pressure to “publish or perish” in order to succeed in academia.
- The academic hustle doesn’t end when you get tenure —Tenured professors have to spend a lot of time applying for research grants. At some universities — research universities in particular — it’s not uncommon for faculty salaries to be paid through federal research funding. At these schools, professors have to raise a significant portion of their own salary.
- Your promotion can depend on anonymous peer review — When a professor applies for tenure, their research, publications and teaching qualifications are at the mercy of the tenure committee. A professor might not know who is on the committee or be able to defend themselves against negative evaluations.
Option B: Ditching Tenure To Become An Academic Entrepreneur
While there is merit in debating the pros and cons of tenure, the reality is that securing a tenure-track position is becoming increasingly difficult. There are simply too many people with doctorate degrees and not enough tenure-track jobs for everyone who wants one. This axiom is true for many careers in many different industries. Not all actors become movie stars. Not everyone with a business degree becomes a CEO. Not all teachers become tenured professors.
In certain academic circles, tenure is viewed as every professor’s dream: the holy grail. However, there are many teachers who have had a successful career as an adjunct, part-time or non-tenure track professor. These professors, which some have dubbed academic entrepreneurs, have figured out a way to do what they love — teaching — while also seeking opportunities beyond academia.
The Upsides Of The Non-Tenure Track
As colleges and universities in the U.S. swap out tenured positions with more adjunct and part-time teaching jobs, it’s imperative that professors open themselves up to other career paths. When you think about it, adjunct professors are already free agents, but they don’t always see themselves this way.
For some professors, not seeking tenure takes the pressure off. It allows them to focus more on teaching, doing research and sharing their findings, speaking at conferences, and exploring their options outside academia. On a personal level, teaching as an adjunct or a non-tenure track professor could also make it easier to have a better work/life balance.
Academics who truly desire a tenure-track teaching position shouldn’t give up on their ambitions. However, for those who want to embrace an alternative academic career path, there are many ways to pursue your passion for teaching, expand your expertise to the business world, and get paid well for doing all of it. In higher education today, tenure doesn’t have to be the only goal. For professors who get off the tenure track, possibilities abound — if you know where to look.
Branching Out Into The Business World
Inside Scholar is an educational resource that helps adjuncts, part-time professors and anyone in academia find and pursue opportunities in the business world. Inside Scholar encourages academics to adopt an entrepreneur mindset in order to grow their skills, increase their salary and utilize their talents to become successful both in and outside of the classroom. Inside Scholar also connects small businesses, large companies, startups, recruiters and nonprofits with qualified and experienced professors. Keep reading Inside Scholar to learn more about trends in higher education — and how to move from adjunct professor to academic entrepreneur.