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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

“Visiting professor” title demystified

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In higher education, perhaps nothing is more shrouded in mystery than the realm of the professor. Indeed, for many students, the words ‘professor,’ ‘assistant professor,’ and ‘instructor’ all bear equal weight, in that they signify a wearer of funny robes. However, these titles contain subtleties that are influential to professors’ salaries, respect from colleagues, and long-term job security.

In the pursuit of a tenure-track position, many professors with new PhDs find it desirable or necessary to make a pit stop along the way. This is known as the ‘visiting professorship,’ which at Carleton usually signifies a stint of one to two years, usually to cover for someone on sabbatical. I sat down with a visiting assistant professor of chemistry, Buck Taylor, to find out what the process of becoming a professor is like, and to find out what those words ‘visiting professor’ actually mean for students.

Tenure-track or not: that is the question. For new professors, like Mr. Taylor, it can often seem intimidating to choose the institution where they would like to spend their next 40 years. Choosing a tenure-track position (i.e. an assistant professorship) would likely lead to fully tenured position for a lifetime. Becoming a visiting professor, however, is an attractive short-term alternative:

“The visiting professor position is usually like a stepping stone to a tenure-track position,” said Professor Taylor. “There are a lot of advantages. You get to really focus on teaching courses that you’re probably going to teach wherever you go.”

Additionally, this brief position can give valuable insights when searching for future employment. For instance, in the chemistry department, many professors decide whether to focus their careers on teaching or on research.

“I spent eight years in a large research group, working as a part of a big team, and then you come here to lead a small group of students. You’re making sure that this is the type of school that would fit for yourself,” said Mr. Taylor. “It does happen that people go to a small college, and then think, ‘I’m really frustrated, I can’t do enough research.’”

Yet, even if the fit is correct, it is unlikely that a visiting professor would be hired on as a tenure-track professor. In most circumstances, a professor would need to retire for a position to become available. Though visiting professors will likely not be kept in the long run, they still have similar responsibilities to students and faculty.

“Most things are the same between a visiting professor and an assistant professor,” Mr. Taylor noted. “The teaching load is usually the same. The only difference is the research expectation. My area of research is not so important because I’ll only be here a couple years, and I’ll do a little research, but it’s not going to be long-term projects that need to be complementary to other faculty.”

As a result, the hiring process for the two types of positions is fairly similar. For both non-tenured and tenure-track, the open positions require highly specialized candidates. In some cases, there may only be 10 open positions in the country for a given type of professor. Thus, the interview process is intensive, and requires candidates to submit a plan for how students would fit into research work. Yet, for visiting professors such as Mr. Taylor, this idea is much more exciting than it is obligatory:

“A lot of us went to colleges like Carleton, and very often, students fall in love with this type of environment—small, teaching centered college—and then we go to grad school at big universities, but decide to come back to a place like where we started.”

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