A reader of the blog recently wrote me the following question:
I noticed in your bio you list your past experience as including a stint as a non-TT faculty member, and I was hoping you could detail a bit more about what that position entailed (rights and responsibilities, degree of independence) and offer some advice on how to make the transition from that to TT.
So, I’ll oblige.
Indeed, my first faculty position was a non-tenure track position. In my case this was a faculty position in title only (i.e. I was not was not yet independent), and was awarded to me basically so that I could submit my own grants. I had no service responsibilities, neither did I have any rights. In my institution truly ‘independent’ non-TT positions (where you are not reliant on another PI for space, salary etc) are incredibly rare. More usually- those on the non-TT faculty track remain employed in their postdoc lab… and are simply elevated to grant submission status.
If independent non-TT positions in my institution are rare, then folks who successfully move from non-TT to TT positions in my institution are vanishingly rare. DrMrA is federally funded tenured faculty in another college in the same institution- and that wasn’t a darn bit of help. The only thing that made a difference, was moving on to a full-scale job search, submitting about a billion applications all over the country. I had quite a few interviews, and a number of respectable offers. I did not have a federal grant at the time.
Times have changed since I was converted to TT, so how this is going to work is a bit of a wild card. The national academic job market right now is DREADFUL. Why does this matter? Well, fewer jobs advertised, means fewer jobs you can apply for … a huge number of candidates means that short lists are stacked with AWESOME candidates… and all this translates into fewer offers for you. And even if all you want is to be promoted to TT faculty in the institution where you are currently non-TT, you need those competing offers. I think you get the picture…. Go on the job market anyway.
Anyway- what happens if in all of your grant writing and submitting as non-TT faculty, you land a large federal grant… let’s just say, for the sake of discussion, that you are awarded an R01. Congratulations, you are in a strong position to get a TT job, but in a year where the academic job market is practically non-existent. NOW WHAT?
My own personal opinion on this one is that you might do several things. First, go out on the job market for every job that you might be qualified for. Second, make back up plans that include working on the assumption that you are going to be staying where you are for a while and you want to have the most productive possible time. Make a mental list of what you absolutely cannot do without in the next year, and figure out who you have to talk to, to make those things happen. It seems like you might need independent space- lab and office, for yourself, any personnel you need to hire to accomplish the goals of your grant, and for equipment that you might need (everyone needs a refrigerator and a couple of freezers, and all these things have a footprint). What else might you need, animal housing space, administrative support…?
How about promotion to the next step up on the non-TT ladder– I suppose this is a personal choice but I’m not sure it is something I would bother with. It isn’t going to make much of a difference in your job search, and I’m not sure what it gets you in your home institution. How about a raise? Again- at my institution those on the non-TT are being paid by their post-doc advisor or off their own grants- so asking the department head for a raise isn’t something that would be very successful here. This probably varies from institution to institution.
Would my list of wants be extensive or conservative? I suppose my lists are always extensive- just based on the criterion that if you don’t ask, you won’t get. But at the same time I would always remember that in my non-TT status, the department didn’t owe me ANYTHING. I was not an independent member of the department, whose salary was being paid, and whose career they were invested in with actual startup $$. In some ways, although it seems counter-intuitive- on the non-TT once you have a grant, and the department is ALREADY getting something of your indirect costs (IDCs)- they don’t have very much incentive to convert you to tenure track. Why? What will they gain- they already get your IDCs.
At that point threatening to leave and take your IDCs with you, plane ticket and competing job offer in hand, is the only approach that is very motivational for departments to convert you to TT. I suppose with that thought in mind, I would plan to spend the year generating as much data, writing as many papers, and making myself as marketable as humanly possible.