Within the next few weeks, the streams will cross—for the fourth time in the last five years, the number of non-tenure-track jobs in German advertised in the MLA Job Information List will surpass the number of tenure-track jobs. The number of non-TT jobs on the wiki is already higher. Will being hired into one of those positions give you the inside track to a tenure-track position? Does the experience gained in a full-time temporary academic position make you a stronger candidate for tenure-track positions?
The short answer appears to be no. The slightly longer answer is that it may make you a more compelling applicant next year than you would be if you didn’t have a VAP position, so accepting the VAP position may raise your chances of landing a TT job compared to not accepting it, but it won’t make you much stronger as a candidate than you are right now. Or to put it into concrete terms, let’s say that you just defended your dissertation and applied for TT jobs in German Studies last fall. You had some interviews, but none of them resulted in an offer. Now you’ve been offered a VAP position. Should you take it? If you take it, you’ll probably do about as well on the job market when you apply in the fall as you did this last year; if you don’t take it, you’ll probably do worse. A VAP position will keep your qualifications current, but it won’t make you a stronger applicant than next year’s crop of new Ph.D.s. In our profession, experience only makes you as good as a fresh Ph.D., not better.
There are a few ways we can measure the effect of holding a VAP position. One way is to start with all the Ph.D.s from a range of years, in this case the 257 people who earned Ph.D.s in German between 2007 and 2010. Of those, 121 (or 47%) were hired into nationally advertised jobs of some sort by 2013. Of that number, 78 (or 30%) were hired into nationally-advertised tenure-track positions at least once; 64 (or 25%, including some of who were later hired into TT jobs and therefore also included in the previous figure) were hired into nationally-advertised non-tenure-track jobs at least once (in two cases, as many as four times) without having previously held a tenure-track job. Of the 64 who were first hired into NTT positions, 21 (33%) were later hired into tenure-track positions, 6 of them as the inside candidates at the school where they already held VAP positions.) So those hired into VAP positions through a nationally advertised search have a later rate of hire into TT positions little better than the entire group of Ph.D. earners. The former VAPs hired were on average around one year farther out from degree completion at the time of hire than the total group, however.
Another way to look at it is to compare people holding VAPs at a given time with the outcomes of new Ph.D.s who are facing the same years on the job market as the more experienced VAP holders. Let’s start with the people who were hired into nationally-advertised VAP positions that were advertised in 2008-9, 2009-10, or 2010-11, all post-crash job market years. Of the 89 individuals who were hired and who completed their Ph.D.s between 2000 and the present, 23 (or 26%) have subsequently been hired into TT positions to date. As there have been three complete TT job cycles since then (2011, 2012, 2013), that figure is unlikely to change significantly. Notably, 7 of the 23 were hired into TT positions at the same school that had hired them initially. Of the original 89, therefore, 8% were hired as inside candidates, while 18% found TT jobs at other schools. The rest have not yet found TT employment through competitive national searches (although some may have been hired onto the TT as spousal hires or other non-competitive processes). Of the 23 hired following VAP experience, 6 were hired into Ph.D.-granting departments, none as inside candidates.
We can compare the outcomes for those 89 individuals with the outcomes of the (partially overlapping) 245 individuals earning PhDs in 2009, 2010, and 2011, who have had access to approximately the same TT job cycles as VAPs hired in the 2008-10 job cycles. Of those 245, 52 (21%) have been hired into nationally-advertised tenure-track positions by now. Considering that 2011 is the latest degree date under consideration, that figure is unlikely to change significantly.
So again, the likelihood of being hired onto the tenure track is not substantially higher for those who are hired into VAP positions through a competitive search process than it is for the overall population of those earning Ph.D.s in German studies. This is surprising, and not just because it runs counter to the assumption that professional experience makes one a stronger job applicant. The larger group includes Ph.D. holders who did not actively seek academic employment or made only a token effort to do so, while the smaller group of VAP holders by definition includes only those who actively sought academic jobs. (The size of the group that doesn’t seek academic employment after earning a Ph.D. is not known, but it may be large enough to explain the difference in TT hiring by itself. Around 5% of new grad students aren’t sure they want to be professors, and faculty jobs are listed as the top future career by only 75% of new grad students; see Fig. 12-13 over at the blog of the MLA Office for Research.) So the small difference (26% vs. 21%) between outcomes for the two groups again suggests that VAP experience is not an overriding factor when TT search committees are evaluating candidates.
Another strong possibility is that the post-Ph.D. teaching profiles may not look all that different for those who were hired as VAPs and those who weren’t. It is possible that many or most of the non-VAPs did have some non-TT teaching experience through the large number of unadvertised non-TT positions, whether adjunct or full time. (The large segment of unadvertised non-TT positions makes it all but impossible to determine the non-TT teaching experience of TT hires, or to establish a sample composed only of those without any non-TT experience.) Since job titles are not standardized between universities, it may be impossible to tell the difference between a part-time lecturer who picks up a few courses each semester and a full-time visiting faculty member with the same title who was hired into a highly competitive non-TT job that comes with benefits, a respectable salary, an office, and a 2-2 teaching load. Search committees evaluating these two applicants may not see any difference between their CVs.
So it appears that holding a VAP position (and, presumably, adding additional items to one's publication list) only keeps a candidate’s credentials current so that he or she remains a viable candidate, but with little or no advantage over applicants who have not had such positions. As a qualification for TT employment, part-time or unadvertised non-TT teaching may be the equivalent of being hired into a VAP position, or perhaps it does not matter at all. Rather than seeing a VAP position as the first step towards an academic career, applicants should see it as only providing what is in the contract: one or two years of full-time participation in the profession of German Studies, with job market prospects at the end that are, for better or worse, close to those of a new Ph.D.