Career Paths for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty: Study Finds Passion and Uncertainty

IEEE Computer Society Team
Published 07/24/2023
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For faculty members in higher education, tenure is typically viewed as the gold ring, offering career security and increased power both in the department and beyond it. Tenure, however, can also add to a faculty member’s workload and decidedly shift the focus away from teaching and toward research and publishing.

To investigate how full-time non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty members view these benefits and drawbacks—and their options for career progression in the absence of tenure—researchers from the University of Oklahoma’s College of Engineering conducted a qualitative study based on semi-structured interviews with 10 full-time NTT faculty who teach electrical engineering at eight large, public research universities.

The study offers candid insights into how NNT engineering faculty view their work, along with clear guidance for universities on how they can best meet the needs of NTT faculty and thus attract and retain top professionals in the field.

The study’s researchers—Cliff Fitzmorris, Randa Shehab, and Deborah Trytten—found that none of the contingent faculty members they interviewed were interested in tenure; as one respondent noted candidly, “I do not want to do what the tenure-track associate professors do. They are held to a publish-or-perish standard and that has always been a big turn-off for me.”

Nine of the 10 respondents said that their primary motivation for being a full-time faculty member was their love of teaching. In fact, three of the 10 participants spontaneously said that they viewed their teaching and their work with students—particularly undergraduates—as “a calling” that they weren’t willing to compromise to satisfy the research and publishing demands common to the tenure track.

Despite their lack of interest in pursuing tenure, however, all respondents said they wanted opportunities for growth and advancement in their departments. Most of the study’s participants had migrated to academia from careers in industry, which typically offer clear paths for promotion. In the studied departments, however, the paths to advancement were varied and sometimes vague, ranging from a nine-cell title matrix to paths with titles that mirrored those of tenured faculty but with an array of modifications including “Professor of Practice” or “Lecturing Faculty.” Among the study participants, four found their requirements for promotion clear, four either did not know the requirements or found them vague, and two chose not to comment.

Many respondents also mentioned a desire for greater career stability, typically in the form of longer contracts, as well as a desire for better recognition of their work. For universities, addressing these needs has never been more important. Indeed, in its 2022 report on tenure, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) noted that as of 2019, one in five faculty positions in the United States were full-time NTT.

To better attract and retain NTT engineering faculty, the authors of the qualitative study recommend that universities create a clear NTT career track, including a progression through defined ranks based on teaching excellence and years of service. Their study offers other practical insights for universities as well and includes candid quotes from respondents that highlight the values of NTT faculty members—and what they need to feel valued on the job.

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