Understanding the Academic Job Market: A Guide to Contingent Job Titles in the US & Canada

Paula R. Curtis
April 13, 2023

The academic job market is confusing. This is true across different institutions, disciplines, and countries. When graduate students first enter the job market, and even as they continue to navigate academic terrain as their careers progress, the amount of information available can be both overwhelming in its volume and frustratingly opaque. How do academic systems work in different places? What titles might you encounter when you read a job advertisement? What do they actually mean? This article, the first of several, is intended as a starting guide to some of the ins and outs of the most common terminology and processes one encounters on the academic job market. Given that many systems of hiring and promotion are region-specific, each article will be broken down accordingly to provide as much clarity as possible.

Beginning with explanations of the United States and Canada, whose job markets are closely intertwined, in each article I will be speaking primarily to humanities and social sciences disciplines, as these are the systems with which I am most familiar. Each article will discuss paths to promotion in academic jobs, the various titles encountered when job seeking, and offer examples from some institutions and job advertisements. Although my background is in East Asian Studies, this information is applicable well beyond area studies specializations. Along with my East Asian Studies job data collection for the 2022-2023 cycle, this article series is supported by the Association for Asian Studies – National Endowment for the Humanities “Striving for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Asian Studies” Digital Humanities Grant.

Academic Job Titles in the US & Canada: Contingent

There are as many reasons why early career (or even later career) scholars seek out contingent positions as there are different types. “Contingent,” is used to refer to a variety of short-term or limited contract jobs–in other words, jobs without long-term security. This could include being hired to teach a single-semester or single-quarter class or even be a multi-year lecturer or researcher role that extends four to five years. The level of commitment, compensation, benefits, and prestige varies wildly, as do the reasons why people take these positions.

At the graduate student level, some individuals who have little to no financial support from their programs may take on classes as an adjunct at local institutions or seek them out after graduation if unsuccessful in acquiring a longer-term position. Other early career scholars may also seek multiple short-term, contingent positions or annual contract roles out of necessity, particularly if they have complex visa issues or wish to work in a field like language education, which rarely offers secure, multi-year opportunities. Even experienced academics may find themselves cobbling together a number of contingent positions out of necessity or conscious decisions, given that the careers of partners, family needs, or other everyday life choices may require them to navigate career decisions that do not fit neatly into the tenure track path even if the opportunity arises. On the other hand, some contingent jobs are created with emeritus instructors in mind, who simply enjoy teaching; emeritus are retired faculty who retain an honorific title and certain university privileges, one of which may include courtesy appointments. The stigma attached to many forms of contingency and the diversity of their forms and conditions deeply complicates discussions of how they fit into the changing landscape of higher education.

Without a doubt, the “adjunctification of academia” has been and remains a current and pressing issue across the globe. Along with threats to and the gradual decline of the tenure system at many academic institutions, recent years have also seen a dramatic increase in reliance on contingent (as well as graduate student labor) to maintain robust programs and reduce their overall operating costs. In addition to the underlying insecurity of these temporary positions, many do not pay a living wage or offer health insurance and other benefits, meaning many contingent educators have to take on multiple part-time positions, often at different institutions, in order to make ends meet.

According to a data report released several years ago by the AAUP, non-tenure track (non-TT) positions accounted for approximately 73% of all instructional positions in US academia in 2016. Whereas in 1987 tenure track faculty comprised 14% of positions and part-time instructors were roughly one third of faculty, by 2021 this decreased to only 9% of instructional staff with at least half being part-time; furthermore, women and members of traditionally- and historically-marginalized groups are more likely to occupy part-time positions rather than tenured or tenure-track roles. With the increased reliance on the contingent labor of pre- and post-graduates without adequate compensation for their work, union movements on North American campuses have also expanded over the last several years, with a historic strike of some 50,000 academic researchers and students in the University of California system in 2022 as well as growing unionization efforts at places like Columbia, Rutgers, Georgetown, Harvard, Illinois State, Tufts, Brandeis, Duke, and more.

Adjuncts, Lecturers, & Instructors

Teasing apart the differences between contingent positions is made more difficult when numerous colleges and universities insist on their own technical terminology. However, if an advertisement does not make clear exactly what they mean when they use a specific title for a job, you can usually double-check the characteristics of positions by visiting the school’s HR page or faculty handbook. Below I will cover some of the more standard titles and definitions (along with some deviations I have found), but if any doubt lingers while reviewing an ad, be sure to dig a little deeper into institution-specific guides as needed.


The term “adjunct” or “adjunct faculty” broadly refers to positions that are part-time, short-term, ineligible for tenure, and typically hired on a course-by-course basis rather than for a year-long contract with a full course load. Adjuncts may be sought out well ahead of time if a department knows they will have a specific teaching need (e.g. when someone full-time may be on leave) or may be a last-minute addition to a department based on last minute changes in staffing or over-enrollment in a popular course.

Depending on the rules of the hiring institution or department, adjunct faculty may be required to have a PhD, an MA, or only a BA degree. You may occasionally see advertisements for “Adjunct Pools,” which refers to when a department maintains a collection of applications from qualified individuals for current or potential openings to adjunct. That is, in the event that enrollment requires another course be opened, an emergency situation arises, etc., someone can be called and offered that position. Those who have put in applications to adjunct pools may or may not be called on at the last minute to teach a course.

On occasion, if someone who already has a tenure-track rank takes on an adjunct position at an institution, they may receive a job title of “Adjunct Assistant Professor,” Adjunct Associate Professor,” or “Adjunct Professor” as appropriate. Confusingly, the average adjunct may also be referred to as “adjunct instructors,” “adjunct lecturers, or even “adjunct professors.”

Lecturers or Instructors

While “adjunct” may appear as a title in certain job ads, it may also refer to the category of contingent faculty as a whole. You may therefore find “adjunct/part-time” listed in an advertisement but see other job titles used, particularly “lecturer,” “instructor,” or in the case of Canada, “sessional lecturer” or “sessional instructor.” These titles can sometimes be used interchangeably with each other and with “adjunct.” For example, in this advertisement at UC Berkeley there is a “Lecturer Pool” (much like the aforementioned “Adjunct Pool”) and it lists these positions as including both part-time and full-time roles.

Often (but not always), lecturers or instructors are hired on a year-to-year basis with a full course load and hold some kind of advanced graduate or professional degree. This full-time appointment typically allows them to also receive benefits (such as health care coverage), which one might not otherwise receive if adjuncting for a single course. You might see the distinction between “lecturer/instructor” and “adjunct” more clearly in advertisements for language teachers being hired on annual or multi-year contracts.

One example that highlights the sometimes interchangeable but clearly defined nature of these job titles is the University of Michigan, which has a Lecturers’ Union (LEO). LEO protects both lecturers and adjuncts (which are distinguished from one another but both referred to as “lecturers” more broadly, rather than both “adjuncts”), but any position that is a less than 75% appointment does not receive certain benefits. The ability to access benefits like health care is certainly an important consideration for those seeking contingent appointments, and it is important to familiarize yourself with how each university defines and protects (or does not protect) its contingent faculty.

Some institutions create tiered systems to distinguish between different types of lecturer/instructor/adjunct positions based on their qualifications, percentage of appointments, or duties. In the example above, Michigan uses “Lecturer I, Lecturer II, Lecturer III,” etc. and separates them by the types of duties performed, such as solely teaching or also certain administrative tasks. Some universities that offer split responsibility posts do so as “dependent lecturers.” At California State University, Sacramento, however, lecturers are divided into ranks based on their experience and degrees:

  • Lecturer A: Master's degree in the discipline or equivalent educational experience; or Bachelor's degree plus the equivalent of at least five years teaching or relevant professional experience.
  • Lecturer B: Doctorate or equivalent educational experience; or Master's degree plus the equivalent of at least five years teaching or relevant professional experience.
  • Lecturer C: Doctorate or equivalent educational experience plus at least five years of teaching experience.
  • Lecturer D: Doctorate or equivalent educational experience plus at least ten years of teaching experience.

At both institutions the pay rate for such positions is also adjusted accordingly.

The job titles used for different types of contingent faculty vary. In addition to the above, some institutions, like Boston University, use “lecturer” to refer to either part- or full-time appointments, but also reserve “senior lecturer” or “master lecturer” as an elevated rank for those who have been teaching with distinction in such a role for five or ten years respectively. Be careful not to confuse these non-tenure track positions in North America with the permanent “lecturer” positions in Europe.

Other Adjuncting Terms

In addition to the myriad variations on adjuncts/lecturers/instructors mentioned above, you may also see some other terms. “Pro-tempore” or “pro-tem,” meaning “for the time being” in Latin, is another way of referring to adjunct positions being hired on an as-needed basis. An example of this can be seen for the University of Oregon’s pro-tem language pools. The title “preceptor” is one used for language or skill-oriented instructional roles, as seen for foreign language teaching at places like Harvard. Faculty that are not tenure stream may also be referred to as “non-senate” faculty.

Clinical, Practice, and Teaching Professors

The terms “clinical professor” or “professor or practice” or some variation on the two are fairly common contingent positions. As with other non-tenure track roles, the exact terminology and/or characteristics of these positions are not standardized across institutions, but more often than not refer to a full-time, non-permanent instructor who is responsible for some kind of practical (“clinical”) or skill-based teaching. For this reason these job titles are associated with the fields of science, law, and business more often than the humanities. Nevertheless, because we do find that one such “clinical” or “practical” skill is teaching, and teaching is the emphasis of these positions, one may also find them referred to as “assistant professor of teaching.”

For example, at New York University, clinical faculty are defined as

…full-time Continuing Contract Faculty positions that provide coordination, continuity, and consistency in instruction and/or administration. Appointees must be experienced or highly knowledgeable in their particular fields and, where relevant, have had experience in curriculum development and supervision of laboratory facilities and teaching assistants. Appointees should possess relevant advanced degree or scholarly or professional credentials, which may vary by discipline and department…
  Clinical appointments are primarily teaching positions, and often include some administrative and/or supervisory responsibilities. Research is not part of the clinical faculty’s formal obligations.

Accordingly, this year NYU was hiring for a “non-tenure-track Clinical Assistant Professor in Korean Language.” Based on degrees and years of experience, NYU breaks down its clinical faculty into “clinical assistant professor,” “clinical associate professor,” and “clinical professor.” At other institutions a lower “clinical instructor” may also be in use.

The University of Southern California offers one potentially confusing example whereby terms like “clinical scholar,” or “professor of teaching [or a discipline] with distinction” are in fact honors on par with (but not including) tenure and specifically distinguishes from other clinical titles that appear similar but more closely align with the average clinical role, like “clinical professor of [discipline],” “professor of [teaching/discipline],” etc.

However, at some institutions, clinical or “teaching professors” may have opportunities for promotion or be tenure track faculty. In the case of the University of British Columbia, professors of teaching are tenure-stream. So whereas this position in Chinese at University of Notre Dame is a full-time “assistant teaching professor” with a one-year contract and possibility of renewal (e.g. contingent and non-TT), this position in History at UBC is a tenure track position as an “assistant professor of teaching.” The difference between a TT job as a professor of teaching and a more “typical” TT job that we tend to think of would be that progress to tenure is more focused on teaching, developing curricula, and other educational service work rather than research.

To add to the complexity of the individual labels and terms at different institutions, some may expect that these temporary, contracted positions also come with additional stipulations about rehiring. For example, after several years of full-time employment in a lecturer or clinical role it may be possible to be promoted to senior lecturer or principal lecturer with an accompanying salary increase and subsequently enter the tenure track, or, alternatively, after several years renewal of any kind of contract may not be allowed at all. This is entirely dependent on practices at the individual college or university. So, although broadly speaking, clinical, practice, or teaching positions are contingent, be careful to double check the ad for language about tenure status and/or contractual terms about renewal.

Visiting Faculty and Postdoctoral Positions

If some lecturers or teaching professors can be both full time and also on limited term contracts, you might be wondering how these differ from a “visiting assistant professor” (commonly abbreviated as “VAP”) role or a “postdoctoral” position (commonly referred to as a “postdoc”). As you can imagine, because of differences across institutions, the answer is not always clear.

Like full-time, annual contract lecturer positions, visiting assistant professor jobs, which can sometimes be referred to as “limited term assistant professor” or “limited term lecturer,” may be announced for a number of reasons–a specific need for a topic or regional area to be taught upon the departure or retirement of a colleague, covering courses while someone is on sabbatical, etc. VAPs in the US and Canada are usually one to two years, though sometimes may run as long as four or five years. This might happen, for example, if a faculty member has taken on another role at the institution for several years (such as dean) and is on leave from teaching for a longer duration.

The main differences between the two are typically education, course load, and status. Most VAPs will expect that you have completed (or will soon complete) your PhD, whereas not all lecturer positions will require that level of education. Though both lecturers and VAPs are hired primarily for teaching purposes, course loads may vary widely, as VAPs (typically given more leniency) may be understood as intending to pursue a TT position after their contact is complete. And, generally speaking, a VAP is considered more prestigious than a lecturer role, which is more closely associated with adjuncting. Note that sometimes in Canada a “Visiting Assistant Professor” title may be used to indicate professors from another university who are invited to teach for a specific term.

Visiting assistant professor and postdoctoral positions are usually the most sought after by people who are ultimately pursuing tenure track positions in the future. Comparing the two, VAPs are often more teaching heavy, as postdocs may require little to no teaching. This one-year VAP in Chinese Studies at Radolph-Macon College, for example, is a full 3/3 course load, including a January term. That said, some postdocs are listed as “teaching postdocs,” the focus of which is education and curriculum development; they may therefore come with more teaching requirements than other postdoc positions. Even so, generally speaking, VAPs are seen as teaching-focused and postdocs seen as research-focused. Postdocs are therefore considered to be more competitive, prestigious, and desirable, given that someone interested in continuing to a TT position can use a postdoc to focus more on getting their first book completed or publishing articles without worrying about new teaching preps and adjusting to a fresh tenure track role.

There are many different titles associated with postdoctoral jobs. The teaching vs. research focus may be reflected in titles such as “postdoctoral teaching fellow” versus “postdoctoral research fellow.” Others are less clear at a glance, with titles like “postdoctoral research associate,” “postdoctoral researcher,” “postdoctoral scholar,” or “postdoctoral employee.” These distinctions are largely based on the institutional definitions of postdocs and are largely defined by the pot of money that is used to fund that particular position. For example, at Yale, “postdoctoral associates” are funded through research grants, contracts, or other university-based funds, whereas “postdoctoral fellows” are funded by external fellowships. At Ohio State, a “postdoctoral scholar” is an employee of the university who receives a salary, whereas a “postdoctoral fellow,” is a trainee who receives a stipend.

These distinctions might seem like splitting hairs, but it can make a BIG difference when tax season rolls around. As a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA in an area center I received a stipend that only withheld funds for healthcare. As a postdoctoral employee the following year in a department, I received a salary with taxes withheld. This meant that I had very different financial burdens each year, and the first year’s were very high. As you transition to a postdoc or other similar research positions, be sure you understand how your institution handles compensation, as they might look the same when they hit your bank account every month but have very different demands when it comes to tax season.

The combined title of “postdoctoral readers and lecturer” often refers to when a person holds a postdoc but also has teaching responsibilities under the title of “lecturer.” This was the case for me at UCLA, where my appointment was split between “postdoctoral fellow” and “lecturer” in the quarter I was teaching. This also meant that I was both protected by and beholden to the restrictions of the postdoc and lecturer unions.

Other Postdoc Terms

Occasionally you may encounter other job titles related to postdocs, though not typically in job advertisements. For example, at University of Washington, there are roles as a “postdoctoral scholar conditional” when a person has been appointed as a postdoc but their degree is pending conferral, or an “interim postdoctoral scholar,” for when a recent graduate who has completed their PhD holds a short-term (max 6 months) postdoc in order to complete a project or program in progress.

Will a VAP or postdoc turn into a tenure stream position?

Given the instability of higher education at present, it is less and less likely that contingent positions, even visiting or postdoctoral ones, are being converted into tenure stream roles. If you are in one of these temporary jobs, you should always be thinking about the future outside of your current institution. In some rare cases job advertisements will explicitly state that there is a possibility (or even expectation) that a VAP or postdoc may convert to a tenure track position in the future, but this is not the norm. If you are happy at your institution, you may also want to consider shifting to a staff-level position that is adjacent to or informed by your present faculty role and knowledge of the school.

How Do I Prepare for Contingent Positions?

Needless to say, there is no one way to prepare yourself for applying to or entering contingent academic positions. Your individual circumstances will determine what type of role is feasible for the present demands on your life and your career goals. Some general recommendations include:

Research these positions well ahead of time and get a sense of what their demands are. Although many academic positions have similar application requirements, a department will likely have slightly different things they’re looking for (and performance or service expectations) when it comes to an adjunct pool versus a postdoctoral scholar. As with any job, you’ll need to tailor your materials accordingly. Similarly, if you see a specific type of contingent position in your future, be thinking well ahead of time about how you might develop relevant materials like syllabi, certifications, research plans, etc.

Do what is right for your life, needs, and emotional well-being. Being on the contingent circuit out of need, rather than casual interest, can be absolutely exhausting and intensely stressful. Some people choose to do part-time or temporary roles as interim positions because they have a partner whose job demands they move, some need additional income to support themselves or family, and some are falling back on these positions holding out for a long-term academic career in the tenure. No matter the reason, be realistic with yourself about what is right for you and what fits with your life. No matter your decision, you (and your work) have value.

In a similar vein, it’s important to have a Plan B and Plan C that considers the alternatives. The state of higher education right now is disheartening, to say the least, but tenure track positions are not the only way one can apply their academic skills. What comes next? What will you do if you’re not successful in getting that contingent or permanent position? Whether you plan to tough it out in hopes for a more secure position, shift gears to academic-adjacent roles, or leave academia entirely, these are conversations you should have with yourself and those in your life.

How Do I Make the Most of Contingent Positions?

One of the most difficult parts of being in a contingent academic position is finding yourself in a liminal space within an institution. You may or may not have an office. You may or may not be introduced to other faculty. You may or may not be included on mailing lists that provide vital information about what goes on in your department or school. As adjuncts, lecturers, or even postdocs, it’s easy to feel disconnected and simply pass a year or more in isolation from the goings on at an institution. To make the most out of a contingent role as well as your time as an academic and educator, consider the following:

Be proactive about engaging your local community. Depending on the institution and your role in it, this may be difficult. But insofar as you’re able, reach out to colleagues you’re interested in getting to know, and, if time permits, figure out how you might become part of the community or department (such as service appropriate to your position). It may be anxiety-provoking to put yourself out there, but there’s no guarantee that someone else will reach out to try to include you, particularly if your time there is short.

Take advantage of the resources available where you are. Does your institution offer professional development resources for faculty? Will they evaluate your syllabi? Observe your teaching and provide feedback? Do they have grants for faculty that you are eligible for? Funding for travel or research? Do they offer writing workshops or review manuscripts? While you are affiliated with an institution you may have access to a number of helpful resources or centers for your teaching and research–be sure to fully investigate what is or is not open to you, you may be surprised at what exists that even permanent faculty are not aware of!

Take advantage of the resources outside of where you are. That said, look beyond your current institution! Given the state of academia, there are an increasing number of resources specifically designed to support contingent faculty, whether for professional development, collective bargaining, or other topics. You may want to look to disciplinary organizations like the American Historical Association or the American Sociological Association, or broader ones like the American Association of University Professors and Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education in Canada. It might take some legwork to find what you’re looking for, but there are resources out there.

Do as good a job as you would anywhere else. Just because your position is temporary does not mean the work and experience is not valuable. Despite the frequent abuses of contingent faculty by institutions, early career scholars of the last decade or so have produced some of the most outstanding teaching and research in their fields to date. Do not let the stigma of contingent labor affect your performance or feel that your work is less than.

Know that you have value beyond your work, and your work is valuable. Given the cultural and institutional hierarchies of academia, the decline in job opportunities available to highly qualified candidates, and the demoralizing grind of many mentally and emotionally demanding positions in higher education, it’s easy to feel disrespected and depressed where you are. Many people caught in cycles of contingency that they would not have chosen for themselves lose confidence in their abilities and struggle with acknowledging their own worth. But it’s crucial to remember that many of the difficulties we face are not a reflection of us but rather structural inequities beyond our control. We are highly qualified, intelligent, talented specialists whose labor has value and who have value beyond our labor. It’s helpful to remind ourselves and our colleagues of that from time to time.

Assess your goals and how to keep making progress on them. This is probably the hardest part of being in a contingent position, particularly one where you may have a heavy teaching load or other duties that prevent you from working on your own research or professional development goals. How are you supposed to get any writing done when you have a 4/4 teaching load, new course preps, and tenure stream job applications to do, while juggling personal and family obligations? Even one of these demands can be enough to completely wipe out your mental and emotional energy. Sit down with yourself and assess what you think is achievable and what your priorities in the long term are. There are some who adjunct at several institutions simultaneously but do not have any plans to go tenure stream or publish and some who choose teaching-heavy VAPs over research-only postdocs to gain teaching experience. But you should still attempt to keep a realistic schedule that works towards your goals, whether you aim to publish, develop innovative pedagogy, or something else entirely. How you prioritize your time is relative to your capabilities and future plans.

Have a Plan B and C. Having alternatives is as much a part of preparing to enter contingent positions as it is part of being in one. There are many bureaucratic machinations at work for any academic position that determine whether or not it will be continued the next semester, year, or at all. Sometimes funding sources fall through at the last minute, sometimes enrollments drop. Be prepared to have a backup (or two), even when you’re presently in a contingent position. If your position has an annual contract, that is added security for at least the year. But what the next year will bring can be uncertain even up to the last minute before an academic term begins.

Be realistic and honest with yourself. This is perhaps the most important part. Informational articles like this are difficult to write, even while acknowledging the uncertainty and particularities of every institution and individual. One of the certainties academics often confront when making short or long term decisions about their careers is that we will all face difficult decisions about what we are and are not willing to do to stay in a highly competitive and precarious profession. Be open with yourself and others about your experiences and do not hesitate to seek advice from your friends and colleagues.

The explanations of contingent faculty positions above can offer a starting point for understanding the somewhat amorphous and often bewildering aspects of contingent academia. For more information and data on contingent faculty positions, you can refer to the many resources created by the AAUP. Contingent faculty are an absolutely crucial part of higher education and deserve recognition and support from permanent faculty and institutional administrators. We can only hope that there are more (and better) opportunities ahead for those who manage to navigate this arduous territory with empathy, kindness, and dedication.

A special thanks goes out to Noah Blan, Tristan R. Grunow, and Lauren MacIvor Thompson for their editorial assistance and input on this article. It takes a village.

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Last updated 2023.04.13

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