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Career Advice

Hanging on in precarity: life on a contingent contract

What you can expect to encounter as a contract faculty member.


Contingent contracts are the new norm. These contracts vary widely in hours and benefits depending on discipline and/or institution; at the same time, however, there exists a general pattern to contingent contracts overall. What follows is a summary of what to expect based on that pattern from my experiences as a contingent faculty member in Canada and the U.S.

Who’s contingent?

“Contingent” covers contracts ranging from part- to full-time, single-term to multi-year, teaching and research, with a variety of titles; in my discipline, for example, 2018-19 saw more than 25 different titles in English and French for contingent positions in North America. The common denominator is precarity. Contingent contracts (especially part-time ones) lack the security and many, if not all, of the benefits of tenure contracts.

Overall reliance on contingent contracts for university hires is increasing. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-funded study “Contract U” found that 54 percent of all faculty hires are contingent, while 42 percent of all faculty hires are part-time. The consequences of this trend are that contingent faculty who teach for a living must cobble together multiple contracts, perhaps at multiple institutions, to make a living wage. Because of this, the most important thing to stress is that you as a contingent faculty member must put your well-being first.

Getting to the job offer

When, or if, you are offered a contingent job, take a good look at it. What are the teaching requirements in terms of course load, prep and grading? What is the compensation? Can you live on it? Will it allow you to save for a bad year or pay off student loans? What are the demands on your time? Is there a service component? Is there guaranteed research support? Email and ask if the answers are unclear; it is best to get clarification at this stage, upfront and in writing.

Remember that you can always say no. If a job feels exploitative, it probably will be. I suggest you have a bottom line for what you will and will not accept before job offers come in.

The summer break offers the best time to finish any outstanding writing and to set up your research so that you can devote short chunks of time to it during the term. Be strategic: what will keep your CV fresh? What will hiring committees value? Get a publication pipeline going that you can display in your job materials.

When you prep your courses, you will likely do so unpaid as many contingent contracts do not start until the beginning of September. If you are not employed over the summer or a term, you can apply for employment insurance, and should, if you have been paying EI premiums throughout the year. Make sure to familiarize yourself with the EI system in advance.

Fall and winter terms

Once the term kicks off, remember to take time for yourself. To help prevent email and lecture prep from snowballing, guard your time: determine the minimum you need to prep for your lectures, add a buffer and time for departmental activities, and then block off the rest of your working day for applications and writing. Do not give this time up. Try to schedule when you answer email, and only look at it and answer it then. Additionally, be firm about when you are on and off the clock; hold to working hours as best you can and make any breaking of this rule an exception, not a commonplace.

At some point, your students may ask you what you will teach in the next term; this can be an awkward conversation. Be honest with your students and invite them into a discussion about the contracts some of their instructors are on. They are one of the biggest resources for advocating for better conditions for contingent faculty, in part because they are the ones most affected by the growing reliance on contingent labour.

So now what?

Contingent contracts are here for the foreseeable future. There is much that needs to be fixed about them and universities’ relationships with contingent faculty. Yet, while it may seem as if you, as an applicant or contingent faculty member, have no power in this process, you do. You interview the institution as it interviews you; you say “yay” or “nay” to the offer.

Saying no to a job is hard and absenting yourself harder still. But it is in the ability to occupy a space and leave it when you choose that your power rests.

Jessica Romney is an assistant professor of Classics in the department of humanities at MacEwan University. She worked as a contingent faculty member for four years before joining MacEwan.

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  1. Helen / January 10, 2020 at 15:30

    The complacency reflected in this article is exactly what is wrong with academia today. Academics need to collaboratively reject the contingent contract. The problem with “just saying no” is that there will always be someone willing to accept the contract and poor conditions because it is a foot in the door. After a decade of post-secondary education, people are willing to sell themselves short for an opportunity to inch themselves out of student poverty. No, these contracts and their undermining effect on the quality of education students receive are not here to stay. They’re only here to stay if we stand idly by and allow administration to fall back on them.