When I received an offer from the University of Oregon to become a visiting assistant professor this fall, I decided to try and find out as much as possible about what it meant to be in this role. Although sessional, adjunct, and visiting professor positions have become much more common in recent years (in what some call the “adjunctification of academia“) I really couldn’t find many articles out there on what it was actually like to be a visiting prof, and those I did find were on the negative side.

I should preface this by saying that in community and regional planning, it is common for adjuncts teach many of our courses, as practical experience in planning is considered a major strength to bring to the teaching environment. We aren’t “ivory tower” academics in planning–for the most part, anyway. At UBC, where I did my Ph.D., courses such as cost benefit analysis, regional planning, and housing policy were routinely taught by planners working at local municipalities or in private practice. Often these were well-known planners like Ann McAfee, Larry Beasley, Mark Holland, and Michael Gordon. Although the Planning Accreditation Board sometimes frowns on the practice, the reality is that the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses of incorporating adjunct teaching into planning degrees. Here at the University of Oregon, non-tenure track faculty regularly teach courses such as land use planning, professional development, environmental impact assessment. They also lead the Sustainable City Year Program, Community Planning Workshop, and Oregon Leadership in Sustainability (OLIS) certificate, three hands-on opportunities for students to work on real projects with community partners. One of the reasons UO hired me was because I have a lot of practical experience, including consulting, working for non-profits, provincial and federal governments, and private practice.

This is not to discount the very real problem of universities taking advantage of young scholars, particularly since the Great Recession, but really since the mid-1980s, as full-time tenure-track positions have given way to part-time, temporary, adjunct positions. But, as planning is perhaps “more practical” than many other degrees out there, it means that our PhDs are often able to find jobs in government, non-profits, private practice, or in research organizations. I can think of two colleagues from UBC: one works at a very successful development firm and the other worked in government for several years and recently started a non-profit organization. It’s also very common to have years of work experience before starting a Ph.D. in planning. So we aren’t as hard pressed to shoehorn our academic skills into “real world” jobs if academia doesn’t provide us wtih opportunities, as I found when I attended meetings of the Versatile PhD in Toronto. Young people in PhD programs such as history, english, and sociology who were thinking about non-academic (or alt-ac) careers were having a particularly hard time transitioning from cv’s to resumes, research to practice, and scholarly work to client-based work. Even those in the hard sciences were facing a transition from lab work to industry professions.

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Getting used to the UOregon campus, this is me in front of the Dads’ Gates

Since I had a hard time trying to make the experiences of visiting profs in non-planning fields apply to my own situation, I’d like to describe what things are like so far. I think it’s important that other potential visiting profs out there know more about this option. First, it’s important to note that I am fully accepted as a member of the UO faculty, including attending faculty meetings, having an office where students can come during office hours, attending the annual faculty retreat and orientation for new Masters students. I’ve read other articles where the authors noted their peripheral status as a faculty member, but I’m happy to report that isn’t the case at UO, where I was whole-heartedly accepted and introduced to everyone from department staff to faculty in allied departments to students that I will be advising this year. Second, I’ve been given the opportunity to attend new faculty orientation, benefits orientation, and Canvas training (as the UO is switching from Blackboard to Canvas this year), all of which I’ve done in my first few weeks on campus. There are lots of other training opportunities through the Teaching and Learning Centre and the university library as well. Third, my colleagues have been exceptionally welcoming and excited about me becoming a part of their team for the coming year. They’ve helped get me used to the administrative structure of the department and university and answered lots of questions on teaching responsibilities, assignments, grading, and advising Masters students. The staff has also been exceptional in helping me adjust to life in PPPM (Planning, Public Policy and Management).

I am in a teaching-only position, as it only lasts from September to June, which doesn’t leave a lot of time to apply for/receive research funding. I am replacing two faculty members who are on sabbatical, and teach two courses per term for three terms. I have so far had ample time to plan the courses for the Fall term, which are familiar to me: a seminar in sustainable transportation and the masters research methods course on research design, very similar to the two courses I taught at the University of Amsterdam. The Winter term includes housing policy and an introduction to planning, which will require more work to prepare, and in the Spring term I will repeat the intro with a larger class (with TAs) and add land use planning as well. The schedule means that I start out easy (with courses I have taught before and smaller class sizes) and gradually need to put in more time (developing new courses and teaching larger classes), another clue that my fellow faculty members really thought about how to transition me into teaching this year.

The obvious downside is that I had to relocate from Toronto to Eugene, and an international move is not the easiest thing to do with just a couple of months notice. The administrative adjustment is not quick or easy, nor is finding an apartment and furnishing it for nine months–I was super lucky that a staff member in the department helped out with these tasks. Luckily, Eugene is a college town and everything from rental leases to internet service is based on nine-month contracts! There is also no guarantee that this position will lead to other positions in academia, tenure-track or otherwise. For those of you keeping track, I have been searching for a more permanent position in academia since 2010, but have been able to secure a two-year research gig, a ten-month government contract, and start up my own consulting practice in the meantime. I chose to see this gig as a nine-month contract similar to the one I recently completed in the provincial government in Ontario, and to accept the fact that the world is moving away from permanent employment and that there is a lot to be gained from learning new perspectives and teaching in a new context. Because UO’s focus is on integrating research and practice in sustainability, I will be able to take this experience into future teaching either as a tenure-track or adjunct professor. I’ve come to accept that in the future I’ll be doing some research, some writing, and some teaching–whether it’s as a consultant or as a tenure-track faculty member.

Classes start this week, and I’ll be updating you on how the term goes. But so far, this visiting prof gig is pretty sweet, and for those of you who are on the academic market, it may be a good option for you if you’re willing/able to relocate for a mere nine months, you are able to work in a supportive work environment and are well compensated. If you have small children or family to support in your current town, a partner with a location-dependent job, or if the salary you’re offered is not enough to compensate your relocation for a short term (e.g. for planners, it is less than you would make in a practical planning or consulting position in your own town), then you might want to forgo these types of opportunities. Also, if you have your heart set on a career in academia and can’t accept the fact that this type of position may not lead you there, you might want to skip it. There is no right or wrong path, only the one that makes the most sense for your life and situation.

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