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Margin Notes

It’s a good time for junior faculty in Canada

Satisfaction is high, pay is good, and the work hours not so bad, a new study finds.


It is sometimes assumed that junior (i.e., pre-tenure) professors work much harder and have lower levels of job satisfaction than their more senior, tenured peers. However, a new study of full-time Canadian university faculty published in the April 2012 edition of Higher Education Quarterly (vol. 66, no. 2) concludes that this assumption is incorrect. Junior and senior faculty report working approximately the same number of hours each week, and both groups report high levels of job satisfaction.

Combine these findings with other data indicating that Canadian faculty are well remunerated, particularly at the early stages of their career, and also enjoy a wide range of workplace benefits, and it would be reasonable to conclude that a junior faculty position at a Canadian university is currently a very good gig. Or, as the authors put it more moderately: “Generally speaking, the findings suggest that full-time early-career faculty in tenure stream positions are doing well.”

The study’s lead author is Glen Jones, who holds the Ontario Research Chair in Postsecondary Education Policy and Measurement and is a professor of higher education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. The other authors are Julian Weinrib of U of T, and Amy Scott Metcalfe, Don Fisher, Kjell Rubenson and Iain Snee at the University of British Columbia. The study is based on data from the Changing Academic Profession Survey, which involved the administration of a common survey to professors in 18 countries in 2007-2008. Over 1,100 faculty members responded to the Canadian component of the study.

(At the time I post this, Higher Education Quarterly has not yet placed its April edition online – I received a copy of the article in PDF format directly from Dr. Jones. However, you can download an earlier version of the manuscript here, which was presented at a conference in the U.K. in April 2011.)

Looking more closely at the numbers, over 70 percent of both junior and senior faculty in Canada report high or very high levels of job satisfaction. Parallel figures for young faculty at American, Australian and British universities were 61percent, 53 percent and 43 percent, respectively.

The authors did find some differences between junior and senior faculty. While both groups report working approximately 48 hours per week (during teaching terms), junior faculty spend slightly more time on teaching-related activities while senior faculty spend more time on administrative duties. During non-teaching terms, junior faculty report spending slightly more time on research activities and senior faculty report spending more time on administrative duties.

As well, junior faculty report higher levels of stress than senior faculty. Approximately 46 percent of junior faculty indicated that the job “is a source of considerable personal strain” compared with 35 percent of senior faculty. The authors say these findings “are interesting but not unexpected. … For those who have already attained the highest rank in Canadian universities, those at the full professor rank, it is not unreasonable to expect that the absence of promotional pressures and the attainment of the highest position in departmental hierarchies would lower overall stress levels and usher in a more favourable opinion of personal and professional circumstances.”

The authors conclude that there exists a “relatively stable and healthy professional environment for both junior and senior faculty in Canadian universities.”

There is the elephant in the room, however, not directly addressed by the paper: what about the burgeoning ranks of PhD graduates toiling away as part-time, sessional instructors? The authors do acknowledge that “there is evidence that the global shift towards more contingent labour is also occurring in Canada.” However, reliable data are lamentably scarce. Anecdotally, I have heard estimates that perhaps half of all courses are taught by contingent faculty, but that can’t be verified. “The implications of these broad changes in the balance of academic professionals in these quite different employment categories require further study,” the authors write.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Nora Loreto / April 11, 2012 at 15:05

    The biggest danger with these kinds of studies is that it renders invisible the majority of people who try for years and are forced to give up because they’re simply not hiring enough full-time tenured faculty. Why focus on the few lucky ones and not a scan of the difficulties that new/young PhDs face? Well for one, it hides the problem. Hiding the real issues doesn’t help anyone but the ones who’ve advocated to limit faculty hiring.

  2. Ernie / April 11, 2012 at 15:48

    It would be interesting to know how the numbers compare between science and arts faculty. As it gets more difficult to secure research funding, life as a junior science faculty becomes more stressful…

  3. Melonie / April 11, 2012 at 22:03

    Another thing about this survey they used: the response rate was just over 17%. Shouldn’t we be asking why that response rate is so low? Who’s not filling out the survey?

    I also think that 46% is still too high, if we’re talking about work being “a source of considerable personal strain”. That’s a pretty extreme sentiment, and almost half of early-career profs are expressing it.

  4. K. Faucher / April 12, 2012 at 09:06

    Nora –
    You are right that the study appears to pay only minimal lip service to the burgeoning numbers of contract faculty, and are able to (legitimately) beg off providing numbers that central administration does not have, will not record, or will not give. Their reasoning usually accords with the “high turnover rate” which makes such record keeping challenging. This, of course, keeps contract faculty in the status of invisibility, and it ignores the existence of longer-serving contract faculty. These issues persist, and have been chronic for quite some time (although a decade old, I would recommend picking up “Hidden Academics” by I. Rajagopal). There is hope, however. Those who are among the precarious, contingent labour force are encouraged to sign up to CAUT’s listserv for contract faculty, and CAUT is also still accepting essays, studies, and reflections for an upcoming book, The Casualization of the Academy (see the last CAUT Bulletin for the details). The only way to make a strong case to central administration to take action is to have a strategy by which one can collect the necessary data. They will not act on anecdotes, so it is essential that the real numbers be obtained and verified as to what proportion of teaching is done by contingent faculty. One way is the tedious one, which would be by a method of regression: for all courses being taught at your university, investigate which are being taught by contract faculty and which are not. Tot up that number and divide by the number of total courses offered in the academic year (or simply one semester), and that should yield up an approximate percentage. Again, that is the tedious route. Some universities will keep this data, however, and it may simply be a matter of looking at their budgetary documents (which are generally public, or at least available to all faculty and staff).

  5. Canadian Scholar / April 12, 2012 at 11:24

    The results of this survey initially surprised me, until I read a little further and learn of the 17% response rate, which renders any conclusion meaningless.

    The results of my own non-scientific survey (i.e., a running straw poll of everyone I know who is precariously employed, and I’m talking about over a dozen promising young scholars) suggest that young PhDs in contract or sessional teaching positions have no kids, do not live where they want, have no assets, and limited prospects for financial security in the near future, and zero job satisfaction. They burn out by their mid- to late-30s, and entertain suicidal thoughts when not seriously thinking of just disengaging and checking out altogether. This is what sitting at the bottom of the academic caste hierarchy does to you.

    What makes this all the more poignant is that all the people I know who are in such a situation are Canadian-trained PhDs who keep getting passed over in tenure-track competitions by middle-of-the-pack US-trained ivy leaguers, freshly-minted, with no teaching experience and hardly any publications.

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