Friday, August 23, 2013

VAPs: Ladder or Dead End?

I began thinking more about visiting assistant professor positions when one of my postdocs unexpectedly left this week to take such a job.

A few years ago, the NSF formalized mentoring postdoctoral researchers, which requires a statement to accompany all grants requesting support for postdoctoral researchers. Even without such a requirement, helping our students and postdocs reach their career goals is perhaps the most important job of a PI. In mentoring postdocs as well as students, I've routinely discouraged applying for or accepting temporary teaching positions. These positions have many titles: visiting assistant professor, assistant professor in residence, adjuncts, etc., but all share the common feature of short-term (and possibly terminal) contracts. Certainly, these positions fill a desperate need for colleges with instructor shortages, but what does this do to the career trajectory of the postdoctoral researcher? Unfortunately, the evidence appears to be largely anecdotal. Both Chemjobber and Andre the Chemist have written on this, and the Chronicle of Higher Education recently recounted the famous cautionary tale of Stan Nadel. I haven't found much hard data or attempts to distinguish between the sciences and humanities. There is also the related issue of whether colleges are using these positions as a cheap substitute instead of hiring tenure track professors or full-time instructors, but that is a topic for another day.

All three postdocs who have entered the workforce from my lab have taken positions as VAPs, although not via the same pathway. One followed the typical pathway of the postdoctoral researcher, working hard and producing results for 12-18 months before applying for industrial jobs. This chemist is immensely talented, one of the best I've worked with. While it oversimplifies the situation somewhat, the perfect storm of the economic crisis and concomitant downsizing by the pharmaceutical industry led to a drawn out job search that ultimately ended in frustration. For personal reasons, he finally relented and took a VAP position. Fortunately, his excellence as an instructor eventually was recognized by a change in title to a more stable position, albeit not on the tenure track. The latter 2 postodocs aspire to careers in academia. One directly from the lab, the other after spending time in industry following a previous unsuccessful tenure track job search. It remains to be seen what will happen when they come to the end of the temporary contracts.

My warnings, founded only on anecdotal information, to postdocs are as follows:

1. If you aspire to work in industry, a temporary teaching position does more harm than good. Even if you are offered the opportunity to participate in research while teaching, the workload of a VAP will be prohibitive. Justified or not (and likely not), a gap in research record will either be viewed as a lack of commitment or talent. Someone coming directly out of a research intensive position will be deemed to have more current skills and knowledge of the research world. Also, it will be assumed that you were unsuccessful in previous job searches, and thus were judged already as being inadequate. There may be no defensible justification for this assessment, but don't expect prospective employers to factor in extenuating circumstances.

2. A temporary position is not a high percentage route to the tenure track, especially at a research school (even at an undergraduate institution). The same argument from above applies, candidates currently involved in research are more current in their knowledge and have not been passed over already. While teaching is an important skill for tenure track professors, all candidates have experience as TAs and search committees assume that on the job training is sufficient to become an effective instructor. Experience teaching as a VAP will not be weighed heavily when comparing candidates.

3. At best, a VAP or similar position could lead to a semi-permanent teaching job (i.e. longer-term contract) if you have an excellent record in the classroom. If your career ambition is to be a lecturer or teach at a community college, then this is a reasonable plan; however, I know very few people who aspire to this because the salaries are usually lower and the workload is high.

In a tight job market, it is hard to condemn postdocs from taking VAPs since a job is better than unemployment. If an individual aspires to a tenure track or industrial position however, I recommend remaining a postdoctoral researcher as long as it is feasible/tolerable. Even a second postdoc may be a better stopgap measure than a VAP. Even though there appear to be problems aplenty with VAPs, other job seekers may find them less problematic. Retirees interested in a second career are likely less sensitive to long-term job prospects, uncertainty and compensation issues associated with VAPs. I know several people in this category, and all bring a unique perspective to teaching that has added value for their students. Laid off workers from industry may have similar problems to postdocs breaking out of academia once they have taken VAPs, however. This is a catch-22 in reconciling present realities with future opportunities.

While this is my advice, I would be much more comfortable dispensing it if I could cite solid employment data.


  1. A perspicacious post... Our department has recently hired three VAPs, and similar arguments have been circulating here (although not expressed quite so well).

  2. Psst... you're link to me actually goes to Chemjobber's post.

    As someone who teaches at a primarily undergrad school (and has been deep in that culture for a little while now), it's rare for chemists or science-types to move from visiting to permanent (this is a little more common in humanities). However, this is partially due to visiting positions typically being sabbatical replacement positions, so no new tenure line is available unless a different professor retires at the just right time to allow the direct transition.

    When I have seen someone go from visiting to tenure track, it's been an emergency visiting position for a sudden, unexpected vacancy (prof leaves for better school, industry, or heaven). In this case the tenure position isn't approved for the first year so the candidate has to go through another interview.

    For undergrad schools, a visiting position is very good for getting teaching experience. Typically you can get a job at an equal or lower quality school from a visiting position. Always ask where former visiting profs in the department have gotten jobs before taking a visiting position. If they aren't getting tenure track positions, be suspicious.

    1. Also, "you're" = "your" because I can't do English today.

  3. I appreciate our insights Andre. I'd still like to have a study in the Chronicle of Higher Education (or some similar publication), so I could convince postdocs I wasn't being influenced by self-interest (i.e. keeping them around longer) and/or not a crazy person talking out of my backside.

  4. It's an awfully tight and sad job market, as well as a terribly tight and sad funding climate.

  5. I too can cite examples of VAPS being a dead end or, at least, a ticket to endless more VAPs. In fact, a friend at a prestigious primarily undergraduate institution told me the following. "To hire VAPs, we dangle the possibility of giving them the inside track for tenure-track jobs in front of candidates. But the truth is that we conduct a full search for tenure track positions, and the VAPS really don't help them. We view a VAP the way any future employer does, as a lesser position indicative of some weakness in their employment history."

  6. Very interesting topic. I've had more than one VAP and I noticed that getting these positions seemed relatively easy (at least pre-2008). I thought maybe it was because I was just that awesome, but perhaps it's because they're just not that desirable for most people. I do believe though that VAPS provide a good experience for a longer term instructor position or tenure-track position at a small college as you suggest in point #3.

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