13 Academics Speak Out: “What Would I Do If I Had No Hope of Tenure?”

It’s a situation none of us want to be. You’ve defended your dissertation, published articles, and even found a publisher for your monograph. Your research is top-notch and your reviews are glowing. But you can’t get tenure. Maybe your are adjuncting, but your department only opens up one tenure-track position every four years. There are only 10-15 openings in your field each year, with each one flooded by hundreds of applications

What do you do now? What do you do if you were stuck in a low-paying adjunct teaching position job with no hope of tenure? I asked this question to academics who have wrestled with this question for years.

The answers were great. From poignant to hilarious, you all shared great insights that will be a huge benefit to all of us, giving hope and clarity to any academic. This is the information that we at The Scholarpreneur will curate and share in our mission to offer information to academics who want to take their knowledge to the market and build their own living.

Chris Thornton

National Geographic Society, Lead Program Officer


The answer to the question of what would I do if stuck adjuncting is: cast a wider net

Don’t be afraid to look outside of academia.  Look at government jobs, museum jobs, publishing companies, etc. PhDs are always in demand and you get paid well.  Plus, if you’re willing to put in the nights/weekends work on your own research /publications, then you can remain current in your field and even re-enter academia if that’s the desire

Dora Farkas


I believe that you are never stuck. Your personal network is the most important asset that you have. If I were looking for a new opportunity, I would start networking, think about what I would like to do (writing, working in industry, etc) and then talk to professionals to explore career options. Keep in mind that the job search for PhD level jobs usually takes 6-12 months, so start as early as possible.

Margaret Hiley

DE>EN Translation and Language Editing


To answer your question “What would I do if I were stuck in a low-paying adjunct teaching position job with no hope of tenure?”: I would ask myself what needs I had envisaged being met by a tenured academic position (e.g. income, recognition by peers, working in a subject I love, working in a manner I enjoy), and how it would be possible to have most (or all) of these needs met in another field of work. I would also ask myself what particular strengths and weaknesses I have in my work (e.g. good rapport with students, self-motivated, able to research and summarize material in a way that others find easy to understand) and how I could use these outside academia.

We often slide into an academic career because it seems the logical thing to do given our interests and because it’s familiar, and don’t think clearly about what our real motivations and needs are. If we take the time to get in touch with them, however, it becomes much easier to view our situation objectively and gain a real sense of the value of our talents and strengths – which firstly makes us less willing to put up with being exploited by universities (I know, exploitation is a strong word, but that is what’s happening!) and secondly will give us ideas for what we can do to earn a decent, sustainable living that uses our skills and experience without setting ourselves up for further (self-) exploitation (not charging dumping prices for our services/products out of fear or lack of confidence).

Elizabeth Covart

Historian, Writer, Podcaster


I think all adjuncts, PhD candidates, tenure-track job seekers, and any one who has a PhD who wants to transition out of the academy needs to take control of their narrative. They need to create a professional-looking website that explains who they are, what skills they have, and how they intend to employ their skills inside or outside of the academy.

Jennifer Polk

Academic Career Coach, From PhD to Life


This is a big question you’re asking! I was never in this position, but was in my own version of this. I decided to sign up for free workshops, read books (from the public library) about how to get a job, and hired a career coach. The last thing was expensive, but the others only required time and energy, which I had. People that don’t need to carve out a bit of both every day. Even a few minutes will help. And to support this, get, er, support and start a gratitude journal, or do something similar. You need to keep your spirits up and cultivate optimism and positivity because the road ahead may be long and hard. But it’s worth it; you’re worth it!

Gene Bunin

Independent Scholar


You should look at your own goals and aspirations, and ask if being in a teaching position without hope of tenure is in any way in conflict with those. Certainly, tenure is not a stamp of success for all people – some pursue it, others don’t. You do not need tenure to do good research, and you do not need tenure to make an impact on the students you teach. If you want to pursue tenure for its stability, high salary, and supposed academic freedom, then you should obviously go to another institution if you cannot get tenure at your current one. If tenure and high salary are not important for you, and you can do good research and make an impact on your students at your current institution while making a sufficiently decent living, then why not stay, if you like the environment there?
That being said, I also think that it’s important to consider the moral implications of tenure in today’s academia – i.e., it is a sort of enslavement, since anyone on tenure track is ultimately forced to please their superiors, which can lead to all sorts of detrimental effects on the person’s students and research. Once one chooses to pursue tenure, one is fully at the mercy of the academic system. Namely, one is at the mercy of its publish-or-perish mentality and its implicit need for conformity – a tenure-track professor cannot really take a year or two to ‘ruminate’ on a topic before publishing anything, nor can they really choose unpopular stances or topics, since all of these things tend to work against them when it comes to evaluating their performance later, in general. A person thinking of pursuing tenure should probably reflect on whether or not they really want to take part in this dog-eats-dog game before choosing to pursue it.
Finally, another choice, if the person has some funds saved up, would be to take some time off and to use this period to reflect. One could travel, pursue a hobby or interest that interests them, or to simply do scientific research on their own terms out of their house. All of these could create new opportunities or perspectives that would make the original quandary easier to solve or that could perhaps even transform it.

Floor Basten

Independent Scholar


[This] question triggered me. I worked at a university from 1994 to 2002 and have had six temporary jobs, of which only the last one, a postdoctoral position, was an academic one (I was hired to do other things than graduate, so I was an external PhD candidate). In the Netherlands, six temp jobs are the max and after that you’re either offered tenure or you’re fired (‘let go’), which was my case […] I never wanted a university career but I wanted to do research, so career-wise I never felt stuck and hopeless. I felt stuck and hopeless because my colleagues kept pulling from all sides, demanding my devoted loyalty in their political games and keeping me away from my research. I felt stuck and hopeless when my manager persisted in trying out outdated motivational theories—the sticks and carrots one, for instance […] I wanted to do research, but realized that doing so within a university would require some adjustments on my side that clashed with my temper. In fact, the idea of becoming self employed had crossed my mind every time I got a letter saying I was sacked. ‘Now is my chance’, I thought, ‘now use this time pressure to start to make work of an enterprise.’ When the legal max of six temp jobs was reached, the decision was made for me, although again I stalled. After hundreds of job application letters written in vein, I finally started my own business in 2003.

So this is my answer to the question “What would I do if I were stuck in a low-paying adjunct teaching position job with no hope of tenure?” Even though the question doesn’t really apply to me, I’d probably have done the same as I did: stay. Until that was no longer an option and I went. In the twelve years that followed I learned a lot. I’m not here to tell anyone what to do, but I think independent scholarship deserves sincere consideration. Hence my weekly blog.

Michelle Cleere

Elite Performance Coaching


I’ve been in the position of having no hope of being tenure track and for a while it did bother me because I thought it was what I wanted. Initially, teaching seemed attractive because it included: teaching, research and working with students. I love doing research and love helping students grow into professionals. It took a couple of years of teaching for me to realize that I actually did not want to teach full time. It was good that I didn’t get what I thought I wanted because that is not what I wanted. Tenures at my university don’t do research and while I like working with students teaching can be hard. Being an adjunct is enough for me alongside a thriving private practice. I like that I am involved in a variety of things: teaching, supervising interns, working with clients, doing workshops, giving talks, writing, etc. Thankfully the variety works best for me!

Paula Di Rita Wishart

Professional Development, U-Michigan, Rackham Graduate School

I would take some time to reassess my career goals in relation to my talents and interest and then I would begin seeking positions that hit the sweet spot of things I want to do that I am also good at. It might be still in some sort of teaching role but I may look for areas like training in corporate settings or teaching/consulting on my own. But I know if I would seek employers that had a better security than adjunct, where i could be more apart of the organization and there were opportunities for growth.

Gail Mccabe

University of Toronto Humanist Chaplaincy


My own approach to the two-tiered model [of tenure vs. adjunct] was to always refer to myself as a Professor despite being a contract grad student or PhD instructor.  No one ever questioned my approach.  It is a good one!  Now that I am retired, when I include my various appointments at York, I use the designation Acting Professor.  One wants to reject the two-tiered system and it is possible to do so.

That said I was actively teaching all through graduate school because I loved teaching and I was born to teach.  Who knew?  At a certain point in the sixth year of my studies, a professor couldn’t resist saying to me: “Gail, they want you to teach; they are using you. You should go on and finish your doctorate.”  I took her seriously and from that point on it took me about a year to complete my comprehensives, doctoral thesis and defense.  My anecdote illustrates to some extent how graduate students/PhD holders are enticed into contract teaching. There absence from their studies does not enhance their CVs.  Better to spend time writing and publishing their work!  Because publications are the stuff of tenure.

My defense committee passed my thesis with no revisions.  They said that it was the first time any of them had ever done that.   The dreaded defense was a gratifying experience for me.  At that point in time, I  had an appointment as an Academic Advisor at Calumet College, York University and I continued with that appointment and the teaching contracts that came with it.  But I defended my doctorate at the age of 59.  So I had no interest in tenure in fact.  And I had no revisions because I had a long life in the printing and publishing industries prior to taking any post-secondary studies.  So my thesis was already in book form.  I published it on the About page of my website, gailmccabe.com.

Marvin Shaub

The Taos Institute


I approached academic life late, after having a long business career.  I had one year as an adjunct and one year as an Assistant Professor (possibly the world’s oldest).  Finally the commute to Montclair State University from my home in Princeton proved too much to do every day for someone my age and I called it a day.  The problem you describe is a real one for many people.  Certainly an adjunct’s life is not easy and not fully appreciated by most universities, who look at adjuncts as a means to the end of being able to offer certain courses at low cost and without longer term commitment.  Actually, for curricula dealing with practical topics the adjunct is probably a better teacher as his/her life experience deals with reality rather than just theory.

At first glance I see the problem as broader than what you have described.  I believe that the overall system is seriously deficient in that the cost of college is ridiculously high, beyond the ability of most families to pay it, requiring taking on unfortunate amounts of student debt which then has to be paid back out of salaries that either aren’t there at all or are insufficient.  I believe President Obama’s junior college initiative could be an important key.  One aspect that hasn’t come out yet is that there needs to be a connection to local industry where the need for trained graduates exists.  Working to develop such links might be one way to augment adjunct pay.  Not sure how to go about this but it is at least theoretically a solid source of money for relevant experience.

Jill Kelly

Author of “Fog of Dead Souls”
Skyhorse Publishing, 2014


I left academia 18 years ago. I left a tenure track position for family reasons but also because I was fed up with the politics and personalities. I worked as an adjunct for three years and stopped because of the low pay and because I had developed a different career. The fact that higher education is now an industry and not a profession is a main reason I left

Tracy Hampton

I’m a medical writer and have never been a professor. I suppose my answer to your question would be similar to the decision I made as a postdoctoral fellow — leave that line of work and find an alternative career that uses my abilities. In my case, I turned to science/medical writing instead of continuing down a path of research.

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