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Career Advice

Getting a tenure-track edge through sessional teaching

Sessional contracts can be ideal for catapulting into a tenure track position - if you use them strategically


In between comps and being offered a tenure track position, it’s almost de rigeur to take on a few sessional contracts. Some academics are justifiably leery of getting caught on the contract treadmill, but for many, sessional positions provide an opportunity to get an extra edge in what is undeniably one of the most competitive career paths in today’s work force.

The disturbing trend toward using non-tenured faculty to fill the growing gap between increased university enrollment and the level of funding for universities has garnered considerable attention, although specific numbers to quantify this trend continue to be elusive in Canada. We have all heard stories of PhD graduates forced to teach what amounts to more than a 100 per cent teaching load spread out among several institutions in order to survive. Of course, this existence leaves little time or energy for the research required to land a tenure-track position, with the result that highly qualified academics feel like “also rans” stuck on a perpetual contract-teaching treadmill.

But there is another side to the story which is rarely acknowledged within this drama: having an extended period of teaching can, in some cases, offer PhDs the opportunity to develop an edge in the tenure-track market. By understanding the potentials and perils of such a strategy you can decide how to leverage contract work to your advantage while you are preparing yourself for the highly competitive tenure track market.

Using specific strategies to move the process along

Diane Zorn, a PhD candidate in philosophy of education, discovered her passion for teaching through an intensive series of contracts at York University – over 30 in six years. She became so deeply engrossed with the theory and practice of teaching at the university level, particularly in terms of using internet-based technologies such as video streaming and podcasting, that she actually changed the focus of her dissertation to develop a concept of educational theory and pedagogy.

Consequently, in the past two to three years, she has been nominated for four significant teaching awards and was awarded York’s University-Wide Teaching Award in 2007. York is one of the few Canadian universities that allows contract faculty to apply for conversion to tenure track faculty, and Ms. Zorn is counting on the strength of her teaching along with the research she has been working on around teaching to give her an edge as she goes through this process next year.

Although she, like most sessional workers, has not been able to publish extensively because of the demands of her teaching (she currently has three articles in print), Zorn has proactively developed a four-part strategy to compensate for this.

She has intentionally developed what she calls “personal branding”, meaning she has actively sought to associate her name with the areas of her research – previously the “imposter phenomenon” and, currently, pedagogy of teaching and technology – by speaking at conferences, actively networking and following up on leads where people have expressed interest in her work to land invitations to speak at other institutions.

She “found, used and honoured” a number of mentors in her field in areas where she wanted to teach at York’s Centre for the Support of Teaching, and sourced others who taught her how the culture of academe works and how to maneuver within it. In some cases, these have led to collaborations with other scholars and experts, opening up new opportunities to extend her impact on campus.

Ms. Zorn encourages PhDs not to shy away from self-marketing inside academe, and her advice is well-taken. When you know someone – ideally a mentor or tenured faculty member who admires your teaching – don’t just ask them to write a reference letter: suggest they nominate you for an award and make it easy for them by supplying the information and details they need. Making sure your students know how to make a nomination if they feel you or any of their teachers is particularly stellar is also a good practice. Many times deserving faculty miss out on nominations simply because potential nominators don’t know how to proceed or are hesitant about the process.

Ultimately, your published research will be what establishes your professional reputation, but, as Ms. Zorn believes, having your scholarship on the radar of people on the selection committee, along with your other accomplishments such as teaching awards, can help bridge the gap while you wait for submitted articles to go through the review process or be published.

Once Ms. Zorn has finished her dissertation, she plans on spending one more year contract teaching as she beefs up her publications to be more competitive. Although the newer articles won’t be in print when she goes through the conversion process, they will combine convincingly with her teaching track record to make a competitive application file. Without the practical and theoretical expertise she developed through her time as a sessional teacher, Ms. Zorn may not have been able to distinguish herself significantly from other candidates applying for the same positions.

Income-producing goal

For Fiona Whittington-Walsh, sessional contracts at Ryerson University helped increase her confidence and skills as a course director while providing welcome income for herself and the daughter she was raising on her own through her doctoral degree. With a two-year limited-term faculty position ending in 2008, Ms. Whittington-Walsh believes her experience as a course director has helped her integrate within the university culture, and thus made her better able to present herself for a tenure-track position (although she admits that the workload of a fulltime teaching contract combined with the responsibilities of childrearing and finishing her dissertation can be stressful). Ms. Whittington-Walsh’s experience highlights two factors to consider when determining whether or not contract teaching will help or hinder your journey to a tenure track position.

Will the income from a TA-ship be enough, or will you have to take on additional employment? This is the question for many doctoral candidates, especially those with children or other financial responsibilities. Although most programs forbid fulltime students from teaching more than 10 hours a week, it may be worthwhile to investigate the pros and cons of the options are allowed within your program for sessional teaching opportunities beyond the 10 hour limit. You may need to dig for these – not every possibility can be addressed by institutional policies.

A course directorship, where you have at least some control over course content, readings, structure and assessment, carries much more weight in the eyes of a selection committee than a TAship where you typically have little input into curricular design or assessment. All other factors being equal, when screening applicants, committees prefer candidates who are ready to hit the ground running with minimal need for supervision and will favour those with several course directorships supported by favourable student evaluations over those who have only run tutorials.

To sum up

It’s no secret that not every PhD candidate has a tenure-track position as their primary career goal. You may not be sure you want to go through the process, or you may have other professional interests you’d would like to develop. In both cases, the financial and experiential benefits of contract teaching maybe attractive, and should not be dismissed simply because it’s temporary. A couple of sessional contracts can give you an ideal opportunity to see how the culture of the university works from a perspective that is very different from what you have known as a graduate student. I have spoken with several PhD candidates who came to me to explore career options after completing contracts: after going through the teaching experience, which revealed an underbelly to academic life they hadn’t been aware of, they decided they didn’t want to pursue the tenure-track further. Other students may have creative interests and/or businesses that they would not be able to afford to develop if that was their sole source of income; but by combining other pursuits with sessional work, they would have a sustainable level of income while getting established. Some students, particularly those who opted for a part-time doctoral program, may already be established in a career and see their PhD as a reflection of a serious interest that they would like to foster through teaching and perhaps occasional conference presentations without the pressure of having to compete for a tenure-track job.

Questions to ask yourself

  • Current funding – Do you have adequate funding to meet your day-to-day needs or will you need extra income to finish your PhD in a reasonable amount of time?
  • Access to contract positions – Is there a high demand for contract workers in your area? Are you well connected to people who can tell you of contract opportunities and/or recommend you for such positions?
  • Quality of experience – Do you enjoy the teaching process and would you relish having the opportunity to develop more expertise in this area? Or would do you feel this would take you away from what you really want to be doing in terms of research?
  • Progress of your research – Are you far enough along in your dissertation research or post-graduate publishing that the added responsibility of a course directorship would not derail your progress significantly?
  • Institutional support – Would there be any consequences to you accepting a contract position in terms of your status at your university, in your program or in the eyes of your supervisor and if so, can you manage these or would they be problematic?

While the dearth of tenure track positions is a critical issue for Canadian universities and one the government will need to address, especially in face of the recent mandate to increase enrollment in graduate level education, the resulting surplus of contract work is not necessarily a black hole to be avoided at all costs. Sessional teaching can, with careful planning and the support of mentors, provide a good opportunity to strengthen your leadership as a university level instructor, learn more about the culture and norms of the administrative side of the university or even enable you to keep your ties to academic life intact while trying on an alternative career.

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