An Academic Foster Child: Life as a Visiting Assistant Professor

18 Mar

3debe0880801c8b6746f251554a2d651Like many recent PhDs, the process of getting a tenure track job was not what I thought it would be. While working my way through grad school, I watched newly minted PhDs ahead of me move from grad school into their “forever” jobs. Naturally, I assumed that if I played my cards right (network, publish etc.), I’d follow the same track. But I happened to finish up the year after the economy tanked– just in time for budgets to be slashed and positions cut. The number of positions plummeted. After two years on the market, applying for dozens of positions, and I ended up in a VAP.

And I’m lucky that it was a great VAP. I had healthcare, a travel budget, and I wasn’t paid slave adjunct wages. My colleagues were nice and my teaching load was reasonable (2/2). It was the ideal place to spend a couple years learning how to teach, learning that I loved teaching (I didn’t do much teaching in grad school), and getting acclimated to post-PhD. But I also hated the professional limbo of VAP-hood. I had to keep applying for jobs, finally revamping my application materials to reflect someone no longer a student. And I hated having that “visiting” label tagged onto my email signature and business cards.

I received lots of advice about being a VAP from mentors near and far. They told me to keep working for my next job, not to spend time serving a college that hasn’t made a commitment to me.  Not to settle into the area too much (hard to do when it happens to be your home state). That I should always keep one foot out the door, using whatever resources are available there for my career. But, then others would tell me that if I wanted a shot at a TT job there, I should ingratiate myself with them– attend student and faculty functions, work closely with students, develop the courses they need etc. Don’t be invisible. Make it hard for them to imagine life without you, I was told. But, if you’re the inside candidate for a TT job there, things will be awkward to say the least. They’ll believe in you– that you can be successful, but not there. Someplace else. In face, one piece of advice that really stuck with me, although I tried to pretend it wasn’t always the case, was that:

[VAP] hiring is often decided based on personal relationships, but tenure track hiring almost never is. Tenure track hiring is absolutely cutthroat, and is dominated by an ethos of “desire for the unattainable.” This means that the unknown, who promises seemingly limitless possibility for achievement and contribution, will almost always prevail over the known.


In short, the tenure track search is about making THEM want YOU. If you pander to them, cater to them, overtly appeal to them, and try to play off of pre-existing personal relationships and your ethos of “giving” to the department, you are defining yourself as, fundamentally, NOT TENURE TRACK MATERIAL.

So I was there, but temporarily. I kept one foot out the door– genuinely enjoying my students and teaching, and continuously applying for other jobs. All while I tried to ingratiate myself and be what they needed, just in case that coveted TT line opened up in my area.Because in spite of all the advice I received to the contrary, I planned and plotted to make them want to keep me forever. I liked the area, and didn’t want to go through the hassle of moving again. But all along, I knew that even pandering to their needs might actually work against me. I tried my best to balance on that undefined line in that liminal space of VAP-hood for 2 years.

In reality, I was only an academic foster child. They paid/fed me, sheltered me, and welcomed me into their fold, to a degree. But, I was, by very definition, temporary.

I didn’t see that for what it was until recently, now that I’m settled into my shiny new, completely wonderful “forever” TT job. A job where they wanted me— and would love to have me stay and build my career there permanently. The differences are startling. I have the space, freedom, and encouragement to develop my own teaching, scholarship and service. Having that support and encouragement actually makes me more productive as a writer and researcher. Instead of living year, to year, job app to job app, I can shift my plans to real short term and long-term goals. I’m a nester. I can settle in and organize my time around what I want to write and where I want to go with my research. I can begin to think about developing courses that I want to teach that fulfill area requirements at my school. I can contribute to shaping something larger than myself. It’s fantastic not to be a foster kid any more!

I recently asked my mentor why she thought I needed that VAP for two years. Yes, the VAP shielded me from the bad job market and gave me teaching experience. But what was the larger point of all that living in limbo? She answered: “So that you would appreciate what you have now.”


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