When I was a VAP

In line with my previous experiences in academia, shortly after I was told that I might have a few more years of future in my postdoc position, I got canned because the money on a major project got cut off.  I was basically given 6 weeks notice.  It almost became a “living in my car” situation, but the people on the project who were less on the science side who could easily get other jobs did, so there ended up being progressively more money left to keep me around month-to-month for 6 months.  Of course, this still left me scrambling for my career; my field or sub-field or whatever you want to call it doesn’t have a lot of huge groups where it’s easy shift someone around, and nobody at the institution other than my postdoc advisor seemed to give a shit.  The situation was bad enough, but fortunately my anxiety disorders weren’t so bad back then, and I was able to cope.

I knew I needed to try for a tenure-track position at some point, but it was near the end of the job cycle, so I was doubly screwed.  I didn’t even apply for any tenure-track positions at that point, just temporary positions, usually advertised as “Visiting Assistant Professor”, or VAP.  (In the interest of grammatical full-disclosure, I will also use the abbreviation VAP for “Visiting Assistant Professorship”.)  Although there was little chance of me getting a tenure-track position at a research-intensive institution by that point, this pretty much killed any possibility.

In the sciences, a VAP is not really the ticket to anything.  The progression is grad school, almost always a postdoc (or two), tenure-track position.  If you look at scientists who are at research-intensive and/or otherwise elite institutions, you don’t find a lot of them who ever did the VAP thing.  For the rest of us, it’s not necessarily a career-killer, but not necessarily a bonus, except that it keeps you in academia and some places might look favorably at the teaching experience.  I had some non-trivial teaching experience before I started my postdoc, which would be a plus now.

In that sense, I was fairly lucky in that I landed a VAP at an elite liberal arts college.  On the other hand, like many of such places, this one has a very generous sabbatical policy, so they and other similar schools need VAPs on a regular basis.  Even with fewer than ten full-time faculty members in the department, they had VAPs pretty much every year, and I was one of three that year.  (I lost track of one of them, but the other one is *still* knocking around in VAP positions, long after I went down the yellow brick road to tenure and beyond at my current institution.)

Of course, what with the monthly paychecks that kept coming, I ended up moving halfway across the country the day after my postdoc job ended, and less than two weeks before the beginning of classes in VAP-town.  That ended up being rather less than optimal, but I couldn’t really afford to have a month without a paycheck.  I ended my postdoc in the $40K’s and the VAP was the same, but spending $10K per year on a 600 square-foot apartment in postdoc town and paying off student loans didn’t leave a lot of wiggle room.  Anyway, it’s a lot of stress moving like that by oneself to a place where you really don’t know anyone.  (Packing, moving, and unpacking are a lot of work, too!)

Some VAP positions are expected to be multi-year to support an ongoing series of sabbatical leaves, or for other reasons.  Of course, you still have to perform well year after year to be renewed.  Based on the sub-field mix of the department vis-à-vis moi, we all knew that mine was a one-year position, barring a tragic catastrophe.  However, at the time and in retrospect with a lot more experience, I was treated well.  I was allowed (and expected) to take part in our monthly department meetings and episodic pedagogical discussions, supervise undergraduate research, and supervise the senior “capstone” projects that all of the students had to do.  The teaching load was not onerous, 5 courses for the year, plus the undergrad research and capstone projects, which effectively counted as a sixth course for everyone.  (With the generous sabbatical policy, the VAP teaching load was the same as for a tenure-stream positions because the latter got time off from teaching fairly often.)  I didn’t serve on committees, but did various department service activities including some public outreach.  And, I engaged in a full-on job search, which was supported by the department in the sense of writing letters of recommendation, covering for us when we had interviews, etc.

I did make a conscious effort not to get too attached, though.  That might have raised a few eyebrows when I didn’t participate in every event I maybe should have, but I hope that the other faculty generally understood.  I did go to most of the department events, but not as many campus events.

In reality, this wasn’t always the happiest time, just because of the shock to the system of my ill-timed departure from my postdoc position, the all-or-nothing sense of the tenure-track search, and the whipsaw of moving back and forth across the continent in a 11-month period.  Although I still wonder if it was a Pyrrhic victory, I did land a tenure-track position and I’m still cashing the checks.  The location of the VAP position did probably make me look better to the four undergraduate departments where I ended up interviewing (receiving two job offers), so I can’t blame them for my mediocre job!

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