Working in the academy comes with distinct advantages – a great deal of scheduling flexibility, autonomy, and yes, time in the summer to unwind or write a book or big research proposal!

There are 4 key considerations for academic roles:

  1. Faculty or staff?
  2. Research or teaching focused faculty role, or a combination?
  3. Tenure track or non-tenure track faculty?
  4. Type of institution: R1, R2, or other? Public or private? 

Faculty or staff?

Most PhD graduates will naturally want to consider a faculty position to focus on teaching and/or research (see below). Yet colleges and universities also employ staff with PhDs in roles such as research associates and administrators of research centers, and in various leadership roles related to student affairs, advising, continuing education, and community programs. When you examine a college or university’s job listings, include both faculty and staff classifications. Pay close attention, however, to whether the position is hard (e.g., part of an academic unit budget) or soft (e.g., part of a time limited grant or contract) funded. 

Research or teaching focused faculty role, or a combination?

How do you want to spend most of your day as a faculty member? Preparing lesson plans and grading or collecting and analyzing data and writing manuscript drafts? Have you taught before? Do you find it exhausting or energizing? I spent 9 years in a teaching-focused role, teaching 8 or 9 courses per year (including summers) and was highly motivated to earn my PhD so I could conduct research and teach less. I still teach and enjoy it greatly, but I am heavily involved in research, which I also enjoy. 

Tenure track or non-tenure track?

Tenure track = more pressure but greater (potential) stability. The degree of pressure, particularly to publish, depends on the type of institution. Whatever the requirements to secure tenure, it’s hard work. If you finish your PhD and are looking forward to working less, a tenure track faculty position is probably not be for you. Generally speaking, anticipate that the amount of effort you had to expend getting your PhD will remain unchanged until you get tenure. However, the upside is that many colleges and universities “protect” your time by giving you reduced teaching and service responsibilities during your first couple of years so you can focus on getting your research off the ground (publishing dissertation papers, launching projects). You may also receive discretionary funds to support your research!

Many faculty members not on a tenure track enjoy stability and feel every bit a part of the faculty as tenure track faculty. In 9 years in this role, most years I worked under a single year contract, but I never felt my job was in jeopardy. Still, if a college or university runs into financial problems, tenure track jobs are better protected. And at some colleges and universities, non-tenure track faculty feel very under-appreciated and have little power. That wasn’t the case for me, but it’s a possibility. Also, non-tenure track faculty are expected to do more teaching and advising and have less time for research than tenure track faculty. But you don’t have the pressure to publish that tenure track faculty do.

Another type of non-tenure track faculty position is adjunct. This means you teach just 1 or 2 courses per year or semester. This could be a good option if you really enjoy teaching but want to maintain a full-time social work position as an administrator, therapist, organizer, etc. In other words, it’s better to think of being an adjunct faculty member as a sort of side gig, not your main livelihood.

Type of Institution

The Carnegie Commission on Higher Education classifies colleges and universities based on their level of research productivity. R1 universities such as UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State are considered “very high research activity”. R2 universities such as UNC-Greensboro and N.C. A & T are considered “high research activity”. R1s place greater emphasis and resources on research and have higher research expectations (# of publications, high impact journals, grants secured) for tenure-track faculty than R2s, though pay and an academic prestige tends to be higher in R1s. Teaching loads (the # of courses faculty are required to teach) may be higher at R2s, but not dramatically so. Teaching-focused colleges and universities, such as Western Carolina University and Bennett College, will have, not surprisingly, higher teaching loads – perhaps 4 courses a semester compared. 

Public colleges and universities are larger and tend not to pay faculty as well as private ones due to lower tuition revenue and less in endowed assets. But this is probably true just among R1s and R2s; teaching-intensive private institutions may pay no more and or even less than public ones. Public institutions, which are subsidized by taxpayers (though state funding has been declining for several years now), also tend to be more public service oriented. However, the distinctions between public and private appear to be fading due to changes in state funding, tuition increases, and private institutions incorporating more public service oriented missions.

Whether R1, R2, or teaching-focused, public or private, another consideration is whether you want to teach undergraduate or graduate students (or both). In North Carolina, there are 23 BSW and 12 MSW programs.


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