A Non-Tenure-Track Bird in the Hand

One of my graduate student advisees has interviews lined up at the MLA convention, for tenure-track and non-tenure-track positions. She also just learned that she has been offered a position—non-tenure-track but with good conditions. In spite of the fact that the MLA Guidelines suggest allowing candidates a minimum of two weeks to accept or reject job offers, and further suggest that offers without tenure not require decisions before January 31st, the chair who extended the offer wants a response within a week. I understand departments’ interest in making hiring decisions early, but I also sympathize with the student, who now must make a very difficult decision. How do you suggest I advise this student to navigate this situation? How can I respect the needs of all hiring departments and my fellow chairs while also doing what I can to empower this student at this critical point in her career?—Professor Take It Now?

Dear Prof. Now:

This is a sticky situation, for sure. We want our students to get academic jobs, and this particular grad student seems well positioned to do so (several interviews at MLA? She’s doing something right!). But Non-Tenure Track University (NTTU) is putting her in a difficult spot. Is a bird in the hand worth two in the bush in this context?

First, I think that you should reach out to the MLA and let them know that this department is straying far from accepted practice, in both running a job search well before the standard timetable begins, and giving your student so little time to make a decision. Personally, I find this objectionable — this take-it-or-leave-it approach forces an applicant’s hand before s/he even knows what else is out there. We are weeks away from the MLA convention so it’s impossible for your student to know what other options she has. NTTU surely knows this, which is why they’re pouncing now, but that doesn’t make it okay — indeed, their understanding of the usual schedule makes it more indefensible. If you feel comfortable doing so, you could contact the chair at NTTU yourself and let them know that you don’t think the bind in which they’ve chosen to put their candidates is acceptable.

Second, check in with her and help her consider all the pluses and minuses of this offer. Is the job in a place she’d like to be? What was her impression of the department when she had her campus visit (if there wasn’t a campus visit, you can regard that in itself as a red flag)? How heavy is the teaching load? Does she intend to maintain a research profile, in which case an NTT job might not be a good choice for her? Does she have a partner and/or children, in which case the quality of life in NTTU’s location is even more important? If she’s single, are there other younger faculty who could be a social group for her? Of course, it’s hard to project far into the future, but if NTTU feels like a place she’d like to be and none of her other interviewers strike her in the same way, that pushes the scale towards this offer. If, on the other hand, there are other job options that feel much more desirable or about which she’s more excited (more resources, lower teaching load, better working conditions, etc), it might be worth holding out for them.

All other things being equal, the NTTU job is probably not as attractive as at least some of the other places she’s interviewing. The question then is: Is she willing to risk not getting anything by turning down NTTU and going on these other interviews? This is at the heart of what you’re asking. How would she feel if none of her interviews turned into a job offer (unlikely but not impossible)?  Since she’s still a grad student, I assume that this is her first time on the job market, so she still has the opportunity to try again next year — not ideal, and emotionally bruising, but an option she can consider. Personally, I’ve had enough colleagues who accepted the first offer they got out of fear that they’d get nothing at all and ended up unhappy, that I’d lean towards her taking her chances at the convention.

At the same time, I’d strongly encourage her to look at job opportunities outside academia, where the hiring process is far less opaque and baroque. If she’s not familiar with the MLA’s terrific Connected Academics program, she should be — it is a field-changing project that expands our imaginations about what PhDs can do. I’m not suggesting that she leave academia, but rather that she have some help standing outside the very mentality that NTTU is exploiting: that an academic job, any academic job, is better than none. Once she understands all her options, she might find it easier to make this decision.

—The Chair

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