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Applying to the Academic Music Job, Part III: The Lexicon of Higher Education

The third in a seven-part series on applying to academic music jobs.

Higher education has its own language. In this post, I’m going to explore some of the key terms. They’re organized in three categories: teaching and tenure; professor ranks; and types of higher ed institutions. These terms are decidedly arbitrary and by no means exhaustive, but I find them to be the most frequently used and sometimes most frequently misunderstood. Understanding their nuances can make a big difference as you navigate the academic job market. [Note: these terms are specific to U.S. academic positions, as terms in other countries can differ.]

Teaching and Tenure

Teaching load. The number of classes a professor teaches per semester. Institutions calculate loads in a variety of ways, but essentially, an average load for a professor is 2-4 courses per semester. Five courses would be considered high, though this can be standard at a community college, in which the focus may be more on teaching than scholarly activity. Generally speaking, the higher the load, the greater the emphasis on teaching; the lower the load, the greater the emphasis on (and time for) scholarship. For musicians, scholarship could include performing, composing, or research. And the more senior the professor, the smaller the load, typically. Loads are usually described across two semesters. For example, a 3/3 would mean three classes in the fall and three classes in the spring semester.

Sabbatical. A temporary leave of absence for a professor, usually to engage in creative activity, such as performing or research. Travel can often be involved. A sabbatical is typically granted after tenure is awarded, a sort of “break” from teaching that allows the professor to focus on creative activities that may have been restricted while on the tenure track. Note that, primarily due to an emphasis on teaching vs. research, community college professors may not be granted a sabbatical.

Tenure-track (TT). A full-time position leading to a “tenured” job. You are on the TT— something of a probationary period— for as little as three and as much as seven years as you build a “tenure file.” The entry level TT rank is typically assistant professor. TT positions include a full benefits package and other potential perks, such as travel funds or new equipment (called a “start up” package).

Tenure. The awarding by the institution of a stabilized position as a means of protecting academic freedom. Achieving tenure requires consistently high quality job performance over the TT period plus the attainment of specific goals, primarily publishing, though teaching and service can be weighted equally depending on the institution. In music, publishing can include books and articles but also scores and recordings. The assistant professor builds a file of accomplishments, ideally under the aegis of an assigned mentor who is a tenured professor, and goes before a tenure board. The board reviews the file, and if it judges the assistant professor’s work worthy, awards tenure. The assistant professor is then promoted professor to associate professor.

One reason tenure is so desirable is that it has traditionally been difficult to get fired from a tenured job unless you mess up profoundly. There have been instances, however, in which tenured professors were fired for reasons such as financial exigency, a shrinking program, or dwindling enrollment. Occasionally, I also read stories of tenured professors who were fired for what essentially amounts to politics. This has raised eyebrows in the higher ed community regarding the sanctity of tenure. Even so, tenure seems to be relatively secure for the time being— though some would argue it is fading away and will eventually disappear altogether— and is the gold standard for most full-time higher education positions. One could theoretically stay in a tenured position for 30 years and retire from that position, called “emeritus” or “emerita,” male and female respectively.

Occasionally, some professors are denied tenure. In some cases, they may re-apply for tenure a second time. But if they are ultimately not awarded tenure, they are let go. It is not extremely common, but it does happen, and it can be challenging for a professor in this situation to find a new teaching position. They may be perceived by potential employers as “damaged goods,” because, “if University X didn’t award this professor tenure, then they must be flawed in some way, and therefore, we, University Y, don’t want them.” Again, it’s rare, because if a tenure-track professor is producing good work and is a good colleague, tenure is usually awarded.

Professor Ranks

Adjunct professor. A part-time professor. Adjuncts play an important— if controversial— role in higher education. They may teach one or more classes at an institution, however they are typically paid far less than full-time professors. They also usually do not receive any type of benefits and must share office space and resources (computers, printers, etc.) with multiple adjuncts from one or more departments. At the same time, adjuncts are not required to engage in additional activities, like research or service, holding office hours, or advising student organizations. Due primarily to economic factors, institutions have increasingly come to rely on adjuncts. Most departments have far more adjuncts than full-time professors, and they could not operate without their adjuncts. Essentially, adjuncts may be viewed as “cheap labor.” In turn, the “adjunctification” of higher ed has become a major issue, and special interest groups have formed to advocate for adjuncts’ rights and redress what they perceive as an exploitative system.

For some professors, however, adjunct work is perfect, especially if they already have a full-time industry job. They may teach one class at the local college as a way to earn a little extra money or as a way to give back, and this arrangement suits them just fine. They don’t desire to convert their part-time adjunct position to full-time. They are happy just dipping their toes in the academic pool, and the institution benefits from having them. Suffice it to say that, overall, adjuncting can be a complex issue.

Instructor. A part-time professor, essentially synonymous with “adjunct,” though sometimes “instructor” can be synonymous with assistant professor. Instructor can also be the generic name given to any college professor.

Lecturer. A non-tenurable professor, either part- or full-time. The lecturer can be similar to an assistant or associate professor in terms of teaching duties but is usually paid less and, in turn, may not be responsible for maintaining a high level of creative or scholarly activity— a lecturer position emphasizes teaching. If full-time, the lecturer position comes with full benefits and is typically renewed on a contractual basis. If part-time, the lecturer may be equivalent to an adjunct. Usually, if full-time, the first contract is a one-year probationary, and if everything goes well after a year, the lecturer may sign something like a 3-year contract. But there is no guarantee that the position will be renewed indefinitely, and it may be terminated at the pleasure of a college administrator who deems it superfluous or straining a tight budget. In turn, institutions seem increasingly to hire lecturers to cope with limited funds.

Senior Lecturer. Essentially the same as a lecturer but paid more and with a longer contract. A lecturer may be promoted to a senior lecturer after a certain number of contracts; or someone may be hired directly as a senior lecturer. The senior lecturer may have a longer contract, perhaps 5 years.

Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP). A full-time temporary position at the assistant professor level, usually intended to fill a temporary vacancy, such as a sabbatical, maternity leave, or unexpected firing of a professor. The position may offer some valuable academic teaching experience and/or research, but it comes to an abrupt end (usually within 1-3 years) when the full-time professor returns, and the former VAP must now find another job. In truth, because the position can be quite brief, the VAP may have to look for a new job as soon as he arrives. In some cases, a VAP position is created because of an unexpected vacancy, and the VAP may be appointed to the position full-time after one year as part of a search for a full-time assistant professor. Ostensibly, the VAP is considered an “internal candidate” and may have an edge over external candidates, but this is not always the case.

The term “visiting professor” may also be applied to a professor who is a short-term “guest” professor at a university, perhaps while on sabbatical.

Assistant professor. The entry level full-time teaching position on the tenure-track, a junior professor. This is the rank to which most entering the academic job market apply. Assistant professors tend to teach the introductory or core level courses in a department but may teach some courses related to their area of specialization. Assistant professorship usually ranges from 3-7 years, and, if tenure is awarded, the assistant professor is eventually promoted to associate professor.

Associate professor. A mid-level professor who has been awarded tenure. The conventional wisdom was that an associate professor with tenure could finally kick up his feet and relax. With the dwindling of higher ed jobs, however, and financial pressure on institutions, associate professors do not really have the luxury of kicking back. They often take on greater administrative functions in their department and are expected to continue producing high quality work. They also have the opportunity to teach some upper level and speciality courses specific to their area of expertise. And if they have any hope of achieving full-professor status, they must maintain a high level of output.

Professor of Full Professor. A senior professor, the terminal rank. Perhaps the full professor can ease up just a tiny bit (maybe through delegation) but is still expected to engage in high quality work. After all, full professors are the senior members of their institutions, to whom junior professors look, and they should set a positive example. At this point in their careers, full professors may be well-known in their field, and they often teach the most upper level courses, particularly with respect to their specialized expertise.

Note: The general title “professor” (one who “professes” knowledge on a given subject) is applied to anyone who teaches in higher education. Thus, all the different levels of higher ed teachers are professors, whether full- or part-time, tenured or untenured, or whether or not they have the word “professor” in their title.

Types of Higher Ed Institutions

Community college. Generally, a two-year institution of higher learning. The community college mission is to accept any student, regardless of academic standing, and provide them an opportunity to begin their college education. Community college tuition is usually a fraction of what a four-year school would cost. Thus, for students with poor grades in high school or with limited financial resources, a community college can be an effective start to their college education. After two years of mostly core academic courses (some potentially remedial), a community college awards an associate’s degree and offers the student the chance to transfer to a four-year institution to complete their bachelor’s degree.

Small liberal arts college (SLAC). As the name implies, the SLAC is a small (in terms of student population), four-year bachelor-granting institution that emphasizes a liberal arts education, that is, a broad-based curriculum that exposes students to a variety of subjects intended to make them well-rounded and able to think critically across disciplines. SLAC’s tend to be private, meaning they are not funded by federal or state monies but operate through a combination of donations, fundraising, endowments, and other non-governmental funds. SLACs also tend to emphasize teaching but may have a fair amount of research. Tuition is also generally somewhat costly. Many SLAC’s are considered elite institutions. They tend to offer only bachelors degrees, but some also offer master’s degrees.

University. A comprehensive institution that offers multiple levels of degrees: bachelors, masters, and doctorates. Research is often an integral part of a university’s mission, primarily because it brings in funds, garners prestige, and may be instrumental in advancing a particular field. Teaching, however, may be hit or miss, as some professors conceive of their role primarily as researchers and therefore may devote less attention to teaching. Universities may be private, or they may be public, meaning, government-funded. As such, public universities may have to comply with certain federal or state guidelines in how their funds are distributed to students and programs. And because public universities are often dependent on government funds, a bad economy may mean that the university takes a financial hit, forcing it to find “creative” ways to continue operating. Research universities in particular tend to be the most prestigious, and they are tiered: an R1 is a top research university, while an R2 may be considered less elite.

In the next installment of this series, we take a look at the unique academic hiring cycle.

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