Tenure-Track Jobs and “Non-Elite” Institutions

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom
Career outcomes data

Career outcomes data for Duke Ph.D. graduates in humanities and humanistic social sciences. To explore the data, visit https://gradschool.duke.edu/statistics.

Recently, the Duke University Graduate School posted updated career outcomes data for all Ph.D. programs. For the many graduate students who aspire to careers as faculty members, the most sought-after data will likely be the ratio of degree recipients who obtain tenure-track jobs. Across Duke Ph.D. programs in the humanities and humanistic social sciences, that figure currently averages around 50 percent.

Remember, however, that “tenure-track jobs” is not a monolithic category.

Even programs that do an otherwise excellent job preparing students for academic careers can fall short of educating them in this respect. Sometimes academics at elite universities conflate “tenure-track” jobs with positions at R1 institutions, and perhaps also positions at the most well-resourced liberal arts colleges.

Not surprisingly, graduate students may be inclined to imagine themselves as tenure-track professors at places with attractive brick or granite backdrops, a 2/2 teaching load, and intimate seminars filled with highly prepared students.

If this vision helps sustain you through the rigors of doctoral training, (as it did for me), then enjoy it. Yet I’d also encourage you to imagine other future paths, at the kinds of institutions where, statistically speaking, you are more likely to end up. As Jim Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, observes of career outcomes in his discipline (emphasis mine):

For the most part, historians employed in higher education occupy teaching-intensive positions. Only half end up on the tenure track, with only one-third of those at research universities.


Let’s parse that out, shall we?

Only half end up on the tenure track: For those who are focused on obtaining faculty positions, this statistic is of course worrisome.

Only one-third of historians in tenure-track jobs end up at research universities: Does this statement make you worry? If so, we need to ask why.


How Much Do You Enjoy Teaching?

The majority of tenure-track jobs (likely in all disciplines) are at teaching-intensive institutions. So it’s imperative for future academics to think carefully about what this means for them personally.

It may be that you like research more than teaching, and your initial teaching experiences have only confirmed this preference. If this is the case, congratulations for realizing this early. Teaching forms a large role even for most R1 faculty members, and the last thing you want to do is spend a career in which you are constantly trying to manage your ambivalence about one part of your job, so you can focus most of your energies on the part that brings you joy.

——- ♦ ——-

… so much of our collective academic perception of teaching-intensive jobs is fueled by snobbery, stereotypes, and just plain lack of information.

——- ♦ ——-

If this scenario seems likely, you may need to accept the fact that you will only seriously consider certain kinds of positions, and not apply for a teaching-intensive jobs just because they promise tenure. After all, what’s the point of job security if it secures you to a position that’s not a good fit?

However, I’m far more worried about the grad students who enjoy teaching and show great potential for it, but still recoil at the thought of taking a job with a heavy teaching load. Many years ago, as a new assistant professor, I ran into a graduate student at a conference who asked me what my teaching load was. His immediate response to my answer: “If I had to teach a four-four load, I’d hang myself!”

The arrogance of this young graduate student (who was not in a top-ranked program) was breathtaking, but it did get me thinking about the academy’s ingrained bias against teaching-intensive positions, and how much that attitude hurts graduate students.

Of course, some of the anxiety about teaching-intensive jobs is entirely justified. They are a great deal of work, and it’s impossible to dismiss the expectation that young academics have to maintain at least some semblance of a research agenda even at places that don’t require a book for tenure.

Yet so much of our collective academic perception of teaching-intensive jobs is fueled by snobbery, stereotypes, and just plain lack of information. When you’ve spent your entire academic career at elite liberal arts colleges or research universities—taught by faculty with experiences similar to yours—you pretty much have no clue about what to expect at what are so widely considered “non-elite” or “low-prestige” institutions.


“A Load of Hooey”

In a recent post on his blog, Small Pond Science, Terry McGlynn—a biology professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills–complains about similar forms of snobbery and ignorance among academic peers who work at more elite institutions. For example, he notes that when these colleagues spend time visiting at CSUDH, they are consistently blown away by how good the students are. As McGlynn notes:

There’s a broad perception that students at low-prestige universities are not “high quality students.” In short, people think that students end up at non-elite universities because they’re not good enough to be there. Which really, really is a load of hooey.

McGlynn conveys the most delightful discovery for career academics who land at so-called “non-elite institutions.” If, despite all the social science we now have at our disposal, you are still inclined to think that the best and brightest somehow manage to float up into the stratosphere and congregate at places like Duke—you are sorely and sadly mistaken. A single semester with a group of highly motivated working adults in an evening college program will be enough to convince you that: 1) some of them are smarter than you; 2) smart people “are a dime a dozen” (as a nonacademic friend of mind once observed), 3) your brains don’t make you, the professor, so terribly special after all.

Of course, just as “tenure-track jobs” is not a monolithic category, neither is “teaching-intensive jobs.” If you really want to find the diversity in American higher education (and I’m not just talking about racial and ethnic diversity here), spend some time off the R1 track.

I encourage you to round out your professional development in the meantime by learning as much as you can about the different kinds of colleges and universities out there. There are resources close by to help you out, such as The Graduate School’s excellent Preparing Future Faculty program. But you can also do a lot on your own. Survey current job postings in your field and take the opportunity to analyze (and learn about) the different institutions that are hiring.

Finally, seek out alumni from your Ph.D. program who have gone on to different kinds of tenure track jobs. Talk to them. Ask them about the joys and challenges of their work. You will come away with far more than statistics to equip you for the upcoming search, and develop a stronger professional network as well.