Taking a Position as a Visiting Assistant Professor

30 Oct

The Scenario

It is December and you’ve applied for a handful [or more] tenure-track positions. Maybe you’ve had some success (short list, phone interview); maybe you haven’t. In some years, there is a second wave of tenure-track postings… but that isn’t always the case. At about this time, you should expect to see an increase in the number of Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP) positions and you ask yourself, should I apply for a VAP? As somebody who took a VAP out of my postdoc, I had many questions about whether this was a good career move… and I quickly found that there weren’t too many answers for my questions. Here is my experience during my application process and my road to a tenure-track position.

My Job Search

I knew that I wanted a position in a liberal arts setting about 3 years into my Ph.D. so I applied almost exclusively to PUIs. I was on the job market for 2 years (the 1st year I was hardly competitive and probably wouldn’t have left my postdoc position at that point anyways). I had guaranteed funding for another couple years as a postdoc and had the luxury of applying at a leisurely pace. My 2nd year, I applied to 5 tenure-track positions and 1 VAP (at Allegheny). I got two offers for tenure-track positions, both of which came about 1 week after I interviewed for the VAP at Allegheny. I immediately turned one down and bought enough time with the second offer to consider my options and ruminate over a daunting question: do I turn down a second tenure-track offer without an offer from another school? After talking with the chair of the department regarding the VAP position, I did the unthinkable — I turned down a second tenure-track offer for a potential offer… for a non-tenure track VAP. My feeling about the VAP at Allegheny paid off and I was shortly offered the position. That position turned into a tenure-track position at Allegheny and I rarely think about how chaotic those couple weeks in 2013 were.

Consider These Before Taking a VAP

After I selectively applied to colleges and universities that met my specific set of requirements for what I wanted in an institution, I had a couple of “must haves” before I would even consider taking a VAP.

Is the position a 1-, 2-, or 3-year position? To me, this was probably the biggest factor and I would not have taken the position at Allegheny (in fact, I likely would not have even applied for it) if it were not a 3-year position. A 1-year was out of the question for a number of reasons (one of which I discuss below). A 2-year position didn’t even make my cut because the last thing that I wanted to do was have to start immediately applying for new positions within my 1st year on the job. I think that a 3-year is enough time so that you can establish some type of cohesive story in your CV, be that starting and finishing a research project and an opportunity to teach a course more than a single time.

Will you have any lab space and/or start-up funds? To me, this went hand-in-hand with the previous question and was a deal breaker. Although I knew my priority as a professor at a PUI would be teaching, I was not going to abandon my research program in any way, shape, or form. Thus, it was a requirement that I would be offered some type of lab space (shared was OK) and some type of start-up package to fund my research. I knew that I would be on the job market again during year 2 of my 3-year position and it was my goal to start and complete at least 1 project with Allegheny students.

Can you see yourself growing as an instructor and researcher? Your goal is to land a tenure-track position and you should only take a VAP if you can see yourself benefiting from the position. During my interview for the VAP, I identified 2 faculty that could potentially serve as informal teaching mentors and 2 faculty that could potentially serve as research mentors were I to get an offer. This was important to me because I wanted to learn from their experiences on how I could be a better professor.

Is there any possibility that the position could be converted to a tenure-track position? Before I even started preparing my application for the VAP, I asked the chair 3 questions: would I have lab space? would I get start-up funds? is there a possibility that the position could be converted to a tenure-track line? I was open from the get go and our chair was just as open back: yes, yes, and possibly. I gently pushed the issue a couple of times and learned more about the hiring history at Allegheny (one that includes a track record of retaining VAPs by converting them to tenure-track lines). By scanning CVs of the faculty in Biology, I also noticed that at least 2 tenure-track faculty started off on VAP contracts. This was enough for me and felt about as good as anybody could about there being at least a possibility that my position could be converted.

Is This Common?

Well, I don’t know how common, but I know of a couple of folks in our department who were converted from VAPs. I also know that at least 1 other tenure-track professor in our department did a VAP at another institution before coming to Allegheny. I also know 2 very good friends who took VAPs before tenure-track positions, and they both ended up as highly competitive candidates and landed very nice tenure-track jobs (one of which is at an R1).

So, would I recommend doing this? Yes… but it depends. My guess is that with the bleak outlook for landing tenure-track positions, this route may become even more common than it is already. It worked for me and I landed my dream job. Best of luck to you all as you search for yours.



4 Responses to “Taking a Position as a Visiting Assistant Professor”

  1. Mizuki Takahashi October 30, 2014 at 4:32 PM #

    VAP definitely helped me land on this tenure-track position. But most of VAPs are for leave substitutions for a year. So VAP to tenure-track conversions are rare cases, I would say. Regardless, having teaching experiences as a VAP is almost essential to get a tenure-track job at a high profile liberal arts college nowadays Anyway, I am glad that you got to say at Allegheny.

    • Matthew Venesky October 31, 2014 at 2:22 PM #

      You are right that most are substitutions for sabbaticals, but I’ve seen a number that are for 2 and 3 years. For instance, mine was a 3 year position to fill 3 leaves (sabbatical or teaching release awards) in consecutive years. You are right w/ your last point = I think conversions to TT are rare. Regardless, I hope I made the argument that taking a 2 or 3 year VAP under the right conditions could be very beneficial, regardless of whether they will be converted to TT at your current institution.

  2. Gary Chang November 6, 2014 at 12:30 PM #

    I’m another example of someone who started at a PUI as a visiting assistant professor and then landed a tenure-track position at the same place. I spent 3 years as a visiting assistant professor (or non-tenure track, in my university’s jargon). That was primarily due to our department having gotten so large that at least one person was taking a sabbatical every year.
    It’s great that some places have startup available for visiting faculty. I spent two field seasons not collecting data, which was a mistake. Even when there isn’t startup or obvious space available for research, I think it is pretty important to keep active in research. Ask to use an empty classroom — even my first two years into the tenure-track position, that was my research space.
    Taking a VAP in the right department can be a great experience — and a bad experience in the wrong department. You’ll want to look at what has happened to former VAPs in the department (if applicable), similar to when one considers a potential PhD or postdoctoral advisor. A good department will nurture their VAPs, and that should translate into former VAPs who go on to secure tenure-track positions in that department or elsewhere.

    • Matthew Venesky November 6, 2014 at 7:52 PM #

      Gary, thanks for the comment. Your additions are quite nice — all things that I didn’t consider given the conditions of my VAP; but, nonetheless, very helpful to keep the research going during a VAP. Happy to heat you also had nice success and landed a TT position.

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