The Chronicle of Higher Education's Career Network

Monday, April 22, 2002

Learning the Lingo


Career Talk

Practical guidance for academic job seekers from professional career counselors

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Just because graduate students have been around academe awhile doesn't mean they all understand the lingo of the faculty job market. In fact, we get a lot of questions from readers about words or phrases that are so commonly used in academe that people may hesitate to ask colleagues what they actually mean. In this month's column, we offer a glossary of those terms and phrases, with a little commentary thrown in where we couldn't resist.

AAUP: That's an acronym you'll hear a lot when the subjects of tenure and academic freedom come up. It stands for the American Association of University Professors. This organization has done a great deal to establish rights for university professors and to protect their academic freedom, and also has a collective-bargaining arm. When the AAUP determines that academic freedom has been seriously undermined, the institution responsible is censured. The organization's censure list may be of interest to job seekers. The reasons offered for the censure give an idea of some of the things that can go wrong in higher education. In addition, job candidates may also want to check out the AAUP's annual report on the economic status of the profession, the most reliable information available on faculty salaries.

A.B.D.: Someone who occupies the no-man's land between fulfilling the course requirements of a doctoral degree and completing the dissertation is A.B.D. -- All But Dissertation. We know someone who says that "A.B.D." will be engraved on her tombstone. The term is unfamiliar to most outside the academic world, so we suggest that you not use it in applying for nonacademic positions. If you're applying for faculty positions in higher education, you have a much better chance of success when your vita can honestly say "Ph.D." rather than "A.B.D."

Adjunct: When the term modifies another job title, it means that the position is temporary and not on the tenure track. But an adjunct is also a noun that refers to someone who teaches part time, is often paid proportionately much less than his or her colleagues in full-time positions, and receives few benefits. You might have to teach as an adjunct for a few years in some fields before you land a tenure-track job. Plenty of Ph.D.'s these days have had to make careers out of adjunct teaching. 2010 Update. Contingent is now synonym for adjunct.

Annually Renewable: This term, or the phrase "with the possibility of renewal for subsequent semesters," are sometimes found in job descriptions for non-tenure-track instructor, lecturer, adjunct, and visiting positions. Ph.D.'s often view these positions as "foot in the door" opportunities. Sometimes they can be, but often they won't lead to anything more than another short-term contract.

Assistant Professor/Associate Professor: In your first full-time position on the tenure track, your title is assistant professor. It signals that you don't have tenure but are on the track to potentially achieve it. Once an assistant professor earns tenure, he or she is usually promoted to associate professor. Associate professors can be promoted to full professors. Assistant professors are also called junior faculty members while associate and full professors are senior professors. Professors holding these titles make up what is called the "standing faculty." Position announcements that call for an "assistant or associate professor" indicate that the department is open to hearing from both new Ph.D.'s and experienced candidates because they want to see who's "out there." Sometimes when an assistant professor at one institution is hired by another, he or she may negotiate for a shorter time to review for tenure.

Assistant Research Professor: You'll see this title most frequently in medical schools. If someone is hired as an assistant, associate, or full research professor, it usually means their positions are financed entirely by "soft money" (defined below). A speaker at a recent program on our campus made the very good point that people sometimes seek these positions thinking they'll be less stressful than tenure-track ones, but in reality they, like tenure-track jobs in medical environments, offer the stress of needing to secure continued grant dollars for your work without many of the rewards of tenure.

Campus Interview: A candidate is brought to campus so the department or search committee can assess the "fit" (shorthand for, How well will this person fit in?). A campus interview involves a research presentation -- commonly called a "job talk" (defined below) -- and an interview with the search committee and other departmental faculty members. Sometimes instead of, or in addition to, a presentation on your scholarship, you may be asked to teach a class. Other aspects of the visit may include an interview with a dean or provost, an interview or formal discussion with graduate and/or undergraduate students, and social events such as dinner, lunch, or a cocktail party. A campus interview will last a minimum of a day but can stretch to two or even three days.

Convention interview: This is the interview that takes place at a the annual meeting or convention of a scholarly association and usually lasts for 30 minutes to an hour. Search committees interview many candidates this way and usually determine who will be invited for campus visits (see above) based on these "screening" interviews.

CV: Also called a curriculum vitae, or just plain "vita," it is used by candidates seeking college and university teaching positions as well as for applying for fellowships and industrial research jobs. Candidates for administrative jobs in academe may be asked for résumés or CV's, depending on the usual vocabulary of the person writing the job ad. A CV includes details about your academic work, including your publications, and is usually much lengthier than a résumé. The purpose in preparing either is to interest a prospective employer enough to invite you for a personal interview. In order for a résumé or curriculum vitae to be effective, it must be targeted to the employers who are going to read it.

Degree in Hand: When a job ad stipulates that a candidate have a degree in hand, it means that all work for the degree has been completed and the Ph.D. will be conferred, either by the time the candidate takes the job, or the next time the institution regularly confers degrees. Most hiring committees are skeptical of a CV that describes a degree as "expected 200_" and will ask an adviser for verification before accepting your oaths that you really will be finished by a particular date.

Evidence of Excellence in Teaching: Here's another open-ended term found in many job ads, allowing you to submit in your application whatever you can come up with to demonstrate your teaching skills. If your institution has a system in which students evaluate course instructors and your marks are high, you can submit those. You can ask one of your recommenders to write extensively about your teaching. You can offer examples of your work itself (for example, syllabuses), but bear in mind that hiring committees don't like to deal with lots of extra volume in an application. What they look for is evidence that others view your teaching as excellent.

Gypsy Scholar: This term and others like it (e.g. "freeway flier") are commonly used to refer to a Ph.D. who takes a series of adjunct positions (defined above).

Independent Scholar: You're one of these if you conduct scholarly research but make your living outside academe. The National Coalition of Independent Scholars recognizes that many serious scholars do not have university appointments.

Job talk: This is the presentation that you give on campus about your research when you are invited for a visit as part of the hiring process. It can vary in length. The audience may include only faculty members, or some mix of professors and students. It may even be advertised campuswide, so make sure you clarify all these important details at the time the campus visit is scheduled.

Postdoc: Short for "postdoctoral fellow," it refers to someone who holds the Ph.D. (or M.D., other doctorate, or the equivalent) and goes to a university, research center, industrial business, or other institution with the purpose of engaging in research or participating in advanced training programs. We urge candidates to look at particular positions to be sure they will indeed be receiving professional development rather than merely serving as underpaid laboratory workers. Postdocs receive appointments that are for a specified number of years.

Provost: The senior academic administrator of an institution is often called the provost, or sometimes, the vice president for academic affairs. In most institutions, the provost is the chief academic officer for the entire institution.

Send Credentials: Sometimes candidates will see this phrase in job ads. It's maddeningly vague. At minimum, it means send a cover letter, a CV, and either letters of recommendation or the contact information for recommenders. However, the only way to tell for sure is to contact the department and ask. (Note to our readers in a position to hire: Please simplify life for everybody by making your job ad entirely clear as to what you want submitted.)

Soft Money: Sometimes the occupant of a position that is partially or wholly financed by "soft money" (i.e., grants) is responsible for raising the dollars for the position. At other times, someone else has the primary responsibility for fund raising. In either case, such positions are usually thought of as less secure than those supported directly by the employing organization itself.

Standing Faculty: All the faculty members who have tenure or are on the tenure track -- i.e., those with the titles of professor, associate professor, and assistant professor -- are considered members of the standing faculty.

Statement of Purpose: Another ambiguous term that appears in some academic job ads. It's basically a cover letter.

Tenure: Once a university gives you this, it has a very difficult time getting rid of you. Your job is virtually guaranteed for life -- you can be fired only for gross misconduct (e.g., you fail to show up for classes the entire semester), "moral turpitude" (e.g., you offer students A's in exchange for sex), or because of a "financial exigency" within the university (e.g., the university eliminates your department for budgetary reasons). The security implied by the term is changing somewhat as financially pressed institutions eliminate or consolidate departments.

Tenure Track: It's the path to tenure. When it's seen in a job ad, modifying "assistant professor," it indicates that the position can lead to promotion to tenure. Some forms of temporary or permanent appointment cannot; for example, a position as a "lecturer," "instructor," or "visiting assistant professor" typically does not offer the possibility of tenure.

Time to Degree: Also known as "time to doctorate," this refers to the number of years it takes to complete a doctorate. The amount varies by discipline.

Are there any other terms that you find mysterious? Please send us an e-mail message and let us know.

Have a question you'd like the Career Talk advisers to answer? Send it to us at


Mary Morris Heiberger and Julia Miller Vick are the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press). They have provided career services for thousands of graduate and professional students since 1985. Ms. Heiberger is associate director and Ms. Vick is graduate career counselor at the Career Services office of the University of Pennsylvania.

You can order their book directly from the University of Pennsylvania Press or from either of the on-line booksellers below.

Copyright 2002
The Chronicle of Higher Education