The truth is out there: The number of tenure track faculty positions is shrinking relative to the number of eligible candidates.
Adjuncting may be viewed as a stop gap for departments who need instructors and candidates who are timing the job market, but these positions aren’t meant to be long term. For many scientists, this eventually crystalizes their decision to leave academia and pursue roles in industry. That’s great if you want to keep doing science, but what if you want to teach? What if you still love education?
This can be a struggle, but I encourage you to think creatively about what opportunities exist that would fulfill your interests. Who do you want to teach? What material do you want to teach? Is there anywhere else that might support those passions?
If your answer is defined quite narrowly (I’m an immunologist, and I want to teach future immunologists about cutting edge immunology), you might find the best place for you is in academia. But I found that when I very honestly answered these questions, I like to help people learn about technical subjects. And I don’t honestly love being in the classroom. I prefer small group settings or preparing materials for others to use.
There are some alternatives to being faculty you may have heard of. You can teach kids, and if you work at a private school, this might pay better than that entry level faculty job.
You can work at a museum, or do other non-formal education like run summer camps and after school programs. These may be soft money arrangements, but you will likely have a lot of autonomy on what and how you teach if you can bring enthusiasm and expertise. Or perhaps you can teach adults. You can write text books, you can join a training department in an industry role, or you can be a mentor in any number of roles.
As for me, I love my job. I get to think about learning and teaching, I support people to solve real world problems, and I get to think about technical issues all day. I develop eLearning content (think training delivered online without an instructor) to teach people how to use Tableau software, which helps to visualize data. I don’t have a classroom. I work closely with a team of eLearning specialists, instructional designers and writers, and trainers to figure out how to best produce the learning outcomes we need.
My office is casual, quirky, and full of enthusiastic people, and I have a lot of opportunities to develop new skills myself. It probably goes without saying that I have better job stability than an adjunct. But, I can certainly admit that if you thought you were going to be a professor, this isn’t quite the type of role you imagined for yourself.
In April, I hosted an event with the Seattle Chapter of the Association of Women in Science (AWIS) about non-traditional roles in education. I found in my time at Bellevue College, that I encountered many people who had essential roles in education that weren’t faculty. These were the faculty development specialists, the subject matter experts who researched and prepared course materials, and the wonkish folks who researched what skills employers would need in the near future, and developed programs to address those needs.
There were also program managers, who ensured that each degree program would be offering courses when students needed them, made sure faculty were hired to teach them, and helped students connect to other resources to support their success. All of these folks had the benefits of working on a college campus, but had administrative roles that were not tied to soft money, and in some cases were unionized. The women I brought in to share their career paths found them challenging, fulfilling and seemed to be able to find a realistic work-life balance, but still enjoyed the flexibility of academia and the opportunities to work closely with enthusiastic peers to help students succeed.
My point is that those of us who want to teach should do the same type of soul searching that we recommend to everyone else earning PhDs these days. Knowing you have a passion for education might not provide enough details for you to map out a career plan. Think creatively about how you can match your skills, interests and needs to a job, to a company or to an industry.
Sandlin Seguin, Ph.D. earned her doctorate in molecular biology in 2011 from the University of Pittsburgh. She currently is an eLearning Specialist at Tableau Software. Previously, she has worked as is a Curriculum and Faculty Development Specialist at the Life Science Informatics Center at Bellevue College.