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What is the best way to gain a full-time position in higher education?


Vanessa Wood Fredericksburg, VA

I have numerous adjunct positions and teach in K12, but I want to leave K12 and become a full-time faculty member.

13 October 2020 5 replies Career Advancement



Sabrina Singh New York, NY

Hi Vanessa,

If you're looking for multiple adjunct positions, I would suggest reaching out to the institutions where you have already been employed. This is the easiest method because you have a relationship with the faculty in those departments which makes it easier for you to get hired and be retained as a regular adjunct. I will note that there are no guarantees with adjuncting and you can be dismissed without a moment's notice. When I say "be retained" I mean that the department will keep renewing your contract, barring any financial issues within the university.

If reaching out to these prior institutions of employment is not an option, then I suggest reaching out to your local universities, especially community colleges (I think a community college might be ideal for you given your background - you may not have complete flexibility over your schedule, but you have a great deal more than a K-12 teacher. I suggest "The American Community College, 6th edition" as a good resource for understanding the landscape of community college). Universities have different methods of hiring adjuncts (i.e., contacting the department chair vs a formal application) so I suggest starting early with contacting potential institutions. 

I just want to note (although I believe you're already aware) teaching college students is not simply knowing the deadlines and meeting them. A lot of these students have a lot on their plate and need an instructor that cares about them beyond being a warm body in a seat. I don't know your background with teaching students online, but "The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips" is a good resource for putting together an online class. 

If you're interested in teacher-training pipeline opportunities, I would potentially suggest consulting as a way into that area. I do not have much experience in consulting, but I would suggest leveraging your dissertation topic and other qualifications as to why you should be hired to assist with teacher-training opportunities. If you want to teach in writing programs as opposed to education, just make sure you meet accreditation requirements which is typically having a certain amount of graduate coursework in a subject (again, each higher education institution varies so double check).

Finally, you mentioned an interest in dissertation committee work. In many cases, you will not get paid anything for being on a dissertation committee. Dissertation committee work falls in the gray area between teaching and service. It counts as teaching because the doctoral student is registering for course credits, and as a committee member, you are expected to give feedback on the dissertation. It counts as service because you are helping to expand what is known about your field by assisting a doctoral student with their research study. Additionally, if you are not at a research intensive university, you may not meet the requirements to be on a dissertation committee (when I was looking for dissertation committee members, the universities I was interested in wanted an outside member from a comparable university in terms of research caliber). You might have more luck being on a master's thesis committee, but again, you will not be paid for efforts in most cases. You could always direct independent studies at undergraduate institutions which I think can be as fulfilling as working with doctoral students (not all universities will let you do this as an adjunct, but some might be more open to the idea). 

Please let me know if you need any additional resources, and I would be happy to point you in the right direction.  


Robert Rahni White Plains, NY

Hi Vanessa,

Currently I work with military connected students at The New School in NYC and have spent the better part of the past decade in higher education. I’ve also served as an Adjunct Professor of Psychology.

Sabrina’s contributions below is highly comprehensive. A terminal degree, in most cases a PhD is required for tenure track Professorship along with a specialized area of research and subsequently publications.

The only thing I’ll add is higher education as an industry is constantly evolving and presently in a very precarious place across the board due to the financial constraints brought on by COVID-19.

Happy to continue the dialogue and make appropriate introductions for you in my network. If you wish, feel free to DM me and we’ll take it from there.

Best of luck!


Vanessa Wood Fredericksburg, VA

I would actually prefer, I think, multiple remote adjunct positions because this would allow me to arrange my schedule around tasks to accommodate my family. I have been researching medical and dental options, but the key for me (outside of a livable wage) is to be able to arrange my schedule around my family. As long as I know the deadlines, I can complete the tasks. I am trying to find more roles in the teacher-training pipeline, but I would also enjoy introduction to writing and college success programs. Additionally, I like doing dissertation committee work.


Jeff Martin Ashburn, VA

I’d suggest that you network at the target company or industry. Use LinkedIn to find people already working there and reach out to them. Ask them the process they used to get hired and ask them to help you navigate the hiring process and if they are willing, ask them to submit you as a referral. These activities require much more time on your part but in my opinion would greatly increase your chances for success. Good luck!


Sabrina Singh New York, NY

Hi Vanessa!

Higher education is an amazing field to be a part of (you get to help students every day), so I don't blame you for wanting to pursue a full-time position in the field! The answer is a bit complicated, so feel free to respond if you need any clarification on any of my points or would like follow-up information.

When you say full-time position, what do you mean exactly? Full-time in higher education can mean different things to different people. Below are some of the ways it can be conceptualized: 

1. Stringing together a couple of adjunct positions at higher education institutions in your area
2. Being a lecturer at a college or university (these positions are typically not tenure track)
3. Tenure track assistant professor at a college or university 
4. Alt-Ac

Before continuing, let's break down these options. Keep in mind that this breakdown is based on my values (I dislike people being exploited by organizations and I equally enjoy research and teaching). 

While some individuals are able to string along several adjunct positions and call themselves "full time employees," the fact of the matter is that they have no standing at their institutions. You are not eligible for health insurance, tuition remission for dependents, or even have the same voting rights as your tenure track or tenured colleagues (universities are exploiting you and you need to know that upfront if you take this option). I would avoid this situation because you are not being valued as a person. However, if you truly want to be in higher education because you want to be teaching college students and cannot find another avenue into higher education, adjuncting is always an option.

A non tenure-track lecturer position is not always bad. Some universities pay these individuals a livable wage and allow them to have decision-making rights within the department. Additionally, community colleges may have lecturerships more often because they don't always subscribe to the tenure track model. If you enjoy teaching, then this is a good option. You should expect to be teaching four to five courses a semester (again this varies depending on your contract with the institution). If you still want to pursue research, it's still an option, but you need to make time for it/overlap your teaching and research interests as much as possible.

For better or worse, tenure track at a research intensive university is still the gold standard for many individuals prizing a full-time job. I won't get into the nitty-gritty of a tenure-track position or the different types of institutions you can work at, but essentially you work really hard for 5-6 years and then your colleagues decide if you should have the privilege of being a permanent professor. Hiring in higher education was already fraught before the pandemic and it is even worse now. Hiring will not recover for about 2-3 years and that number is a conservative estimate. This type of position is acceptable if you're willing to move anywhere for a job and you want to be a researcher and an educator. 

Alt-ac stands for "alternative academic." These positions can be within higher education institutions and you can typically use the skills acquired during your PhD. Examples of alternative academic positions are being a research associate for a research center on campus or working in student affairs. These can be amazing positions and you can still teach a class if you are so inclined. You can conduct your research, but depending on your job position, you may not get any credit in terms of career advancement. 

Now that we've defined the term "full-time position" a bit better, we can move on to your question. Below are some steps I would take if I were you and was considering moving into higher education (numbers two to four are the most pertinent to your question, but it really depends on what type of position you want):

1. Think to myself about why I am moving out of K-12 into higher education? Many K-12 teachers have moved into higher education, so you are not alone. One reason I've seen is that after impacting students for so many years, teachers have seen faults in the K-12 system, so they want to be in higher education to improve the training of teachers who will end up in K-12 classrooms. Are you interested in research and want to be left alone to do your work? Whatever it is, get in touch with your values and reasoning because the hiring market is going to demoralize you. If you know why you're pursuing this course of action, it's easier to take the punches

2. Attend some conferences, watch some panels, and interact with conference attendees. Conferences are a good way to see the discussions going on in your field and to see if these are the types of people you want as colleagues. More importantly, they are an opportunity to network and make yourself a bit more known in your field of education. No one is going to hire someone they don't know, and you don't have the institutional resources from your PhD institution to slide on your dissertation advisor's good name. Finally, since COVID-19 has made in-person conferences a lawsuit waiting to happen, many conferences are remote right now which in some ways make them more accessible. 

3. Reach out to former professors at your PhD granting institution.  Any program worth its salt should be willing to help it's alumni. Speaking to these professors allows you a chance to understand the particulars of hiring in your field. Plus, you'll need their support in the forms of recommendation letters if you decide that academia is the path for you. 

4. Publish Well. I don't know your field, so I don't know which journals are the most coveted in your field. For general guidance, I always recommend The Professor is In (most resources are free and she's extremely blunt about the realities of getting hired). Publications are your ticket to moving to other institutions and the standard is still a solo peer-reviewed article in a top journal in your discipline. 

5. Read about the Trajectories for Teaching and Alt-Ac. There are too many resources to name so again I refer you to The Professor is In. If you feel more drawn to one track over the other, please respond and I'll list some of the books I recommend to graduate students contemplating their options.

I don't mean to intimidate you with all this information! Academia is an amazing landing pad for some people, but it's getting increasingly harder to find a home in it and not be exploited. My answer to your question may be a bit vague, but that's only because I cannot tailor advice without knowing your preferences for a "full time position." The clearest path for obtaining a full-time position depends on your wishes. You clearly care about your students and doing research with real-world implications based on your profile and I wish you the best in whatever you decide.

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