What Is a Visiting Professor?

What Is a Visiting Professor?

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With so many different titles professors go by—assistant professor, associate professor, full professor—it’s hard to keep track of them all. So what about a course taught by a visiting professor? It sounds like a prestigious position, but is it?

A visiting professor teaches for one to three years at a university. Some visiting professors take a leave of absence from another school to teach or do research, but most work on yearly contracts. They have little job security, and their position won’t lead to tenure.

Although it sounds glamorous, most visiting professors aren’t coming from another university.  Instead, they’re filling the position of a professor on a sabbatical. Keep reading to learn what a visiting professor does, why universities hire them, and how they’re different from adjuncts, lecturers, and graduate students.

The Two Kinds of Visiting Professors

One type of visiting professor teaches full-time at another university and is taking a leave of absence. The other visiting professor is a person who’s working at the university with a yearly contract. The two have similar responsibilities and perks. However, the first will return to their old position while the second only has job security for that academic year.   

Regardless of whether they have a position to return to, visiting professors have significant advantages over adjunct professors. Visiting professors will receive a professor’s salary and have the same benefits as full-time professors. 

Although a visiting professor is contracted on a yearly basis, an adjunct professor’s contract is semester to semester. Also, pay for an adjunct is much lower, and the adjunct rarely receives any benefits.

Visiting Professor Taking a Leave of Absence

Many visiting professors who take a leave of absence arrive to collaborate or do research with other instructors on campus. Their expertise will help students learn from a project new to that university, or they can contribute to a project.  

For example, in science, a finding must be independently replicated before it can be considered successful. Therefore, the visiting professor can participate in the experiment so that when they return to their university, they know how to carry out the experiment correctly.

Additionally, a visiting professor might teach at another university to learn from other professors and then take that knowledge back to their home college. 

Visiting Professor on an Annual Contract

A visiting professor on an annual contract isn’t focused on collaborating with other professors.   Rather, their primary assignment is lecturing and teaching. A visiting professor might do research, but if they have time to do so, it’s for their careers.

The annual-contract visiting professor has fewer opportunities to collaborate in long-term research. Other faculty members won’t want to start new projects with a professor who may only be at the university for a year before leaving. Therefore, research projects are designed to benefit visiting professors as they build their curriculum vitae (which is academic-speak for resume).

At many universities, visiting professors just starting in their careers are usually given priority. These positions are seen as trial positions that provide a scholar experience to help them land a full-time position. Harvard, for example, states that: “When appointing visitors, departments are expected to give priority to scholars who are at the early stages of their careers.”

Fairly or not, a person who has been a visiting professor for a decade is seen as less capable.  The reasoning is that a good candidate would have landed an associate or assistant professorship at that point.

Why Do Universities Use Visiting Professors?

Universities sometimes use a visiting professor as a temporary replacement for a professor who’s on sabbatical. That visiting professor is therefore serving as a long-term substitute until the professor returns from sabbatical. 

Of course, a university could choose to cancel the classes, but that might not be possible if students need them to graduate.  

To further complicate matters, full-time professors will be hesitant to take on additional courses.  

First, many faculty members are involved in research and wouldn’t want to take on the extra workload. Second, most faculty members focus on courses in which they have expertise. If they took on a new class, they’d have to develop new course materials and lectures for a class they might teach only once or twice.

Third, a faculty member would want to be paid their usual rate for a course. For example, an associate or tenured professor making $60k for six courses would ask to be paid an additional $10k for a course. Colleges could pay a visiting professor much less.

Therefore, it’s in the university’s best interest financially to hire a visiting professor. They cost less and are often asked to teach an additional class. But why have visiting professors in the first place? Adjunct professors get paid substantially less, so why not rely on them and save even more money?  

What Other Responsibilities Do Visiting Professors Have?

Universities can ask visiting professors to take on more responsibilities than they can ask of adjunct professors. 

Universities need visiting professors because of these additional responsibilities they must take on while working. Since they’re replacing a full-time professor, they must hold office hours. In most universities, they’re required to take over some, but not all, of a full professor’s duties.

For example, a visiting professor might be asked to advise other students and attend faculty meetings. On some campuses visiting professors can also supervise graduate students or student workers. In addition, they might be asked to take part in or lead faculty training.

However, they won’t be involved in decisions such as granting tenure or how grant or donation funds should be used. Since such decisions affect the institution and other professors; it’s not in the university’s best interest to involve them in those kinds of decisions.

Accreditation and the Role of Visiting Professors

To be accredited, universities need to have a minimum number of full-time professors. The exact percentage depends on the size of the university and the regional accreditation organization that makes sure the university meets its requirements.

Accreditation organizations are regionally based, and their guidelines vary somewhat among regions. However, even if they don’t cover a specific percentage of full- versus part-time faculty, the organizations are pushing schools toward relying less on visiting and adjunct professors. 

A college that’s sufficiently above the national average of 46% part-time instructors is more likely to be perceived as not providing a rigorous education.

How Are Visiting Professors Different From Adjuncts?

A significant difference between visiting professors and adjuncts is how much they’re paid. For example, a visiting professor may get a salary of $45k for teaching three classes per semester, while adjuncts would make $18k for the year with no perks for three courses in a semester at $3k per class. 

Tragically, this predicament is typical for thousands of overqualified adjuncts. Indeed, many adjuncts teach at several institutions and colleges to make ends meet. Though visiting professors are almost as insecure and prone to budget cuts as other academics, visiting professors may live above the poverty line, at least for the duration of their contracts.

For that reason, a visiting professor can teach at one university for the entire academic year.  Even if an adjunct professor was willing to teach five classes per semester, universities cap the number of courses an adjunct professor can teach. Otherwise, if an adjunct were to teach a full-time course load, they’d be eligible for additional benefits, such as insurance.

An adjunct will often teach at more than one institution to eke out a living. For example, they might teach two classes at a university and another two at a nearby community college. In some cases, they’ll get a part-time job to augment the meager pay they receive.  

Universities can get away with this practice because the number of students who graduate with a Ph.D. is larger than the number of available positions. Therefore, if an adjunct gets fed up and finds a full-time job outside of education, there’ll be other unemployed graduates who’ll teach on a contract basis in hopes of landing a full-time job.  

Also, many adjuncts are content to teach one or two courses a semester. They have a full-time job and look at teaching a class to make extra money or use their expertise to pass on their knowledge. For example, a high school math teacher with an advanced degree might teach one course each semester.  

Other Perks

Along with insurance, visiting professors have additional perks. They usually have an office, an assigned parking spot, and sometimes a secretary. Since they’re replacing another professor, they might as well have access to that professor’s amenities.  

Adjunct instructors don’t get those perks and also often don’t have offices. If they do, they usually share them with other adjuncts. Also, they don’t serve on committees or participate in a meaningful way in other university activities. Adjuncts aren’t expected to advise students, although they must hold a minimum number of office hours.

Their primary responsibility is to teach the assigned courses. And since the many adjuncts are scrambling from one campus to another, it’s all they have time for anyway.

Are Adjuncts the Same As Graduate Students?

Adjuncts are different from graduate students because they’ve already earned their degrees. A graduate student is doing the coursework to earn the degree. In some programs, graduate students will lead study groups or labs. A graduate student might be responsible for an entire course also.

Unlike an adjunct, a graduate student will generally teach to have their tuition reduced. In addition, graduate students can only teach at the school they attend, while an adjunct can teach at any institution that’ll accept his credentials.

How Are Visiting Professors Hired?

Visiting professors have to apply the same way other professors do, but who hires them depends on the institution. They can be hired by a committee or the head of a department.  Renewing a contract is usually done through the department head.

First, a potential visiting professor must find and apply for a job. Universities post jobs online and in periodicals like the Chronicle of Higher Education. Job postings will include requirements for the position and other responsibilities.  

Application requirements will almost always include:

  • Curriculum vitae 
  • Letters of reference
  • List of published work
  • Cover letter

Most universities require that applications be made electronically, including letters of reference (sent directly to the university). This is done to streamline the process. For example, if a committee does the hiring, each member can look over the materials without the need to photocopy and share the information.

The hiring process will typically follow these steps:

  1. First, the department head reviews the applications and eliminates those candidates whose qualifications don’t meet the minimum requirements.
  2. The committee or department head chooses several candidates to interview.
  3. The interviews take place.
  4. The committee or department head makes a final decision and sends a letter of acceptance.
  5. The applicant accepts or declines the offer.

This process is typical for universities, with the biggest variable being who makes the hiring decision.  A larger or more prestigious institution is more likely to have a group of people involved in the hiring process. A visiting professorship position from a prestigious institution can be the first step toward a full-time, tenure-track position at another university.

In some cases, a recent Ph.D. graduate can apply for a visiting professor position at the same university. This gives the graduate additional time to complete a research project or get more teaching experience. Some universities discourage such hires while others encourage them.

What Kind of Courses Do Visiting Professors Teach?

The courses visiting professors teach are dependent on factors related to both the needs of the university and the qualifications of the professor. The department chair ultimately assigns the courses, but a university’s size plays a role in those assignments, as well.

For example, graduate students often teach introductory courses at a large university with graduate programs. An introductory writing course will be led by a student working on a graduate degree in English. A larger university would neither want nor need a visiting professor to teach those courses since the graduate students usually teach to get a tuition break.

Colleges that don’t have graduate programs need visiting professors to teach introductory courses since they don’t have access to graduate students. At a university, visiting professors will often teach graduate-level courses, but they can only teach undergraduate classes at a junior college.

The number of courses is another factor. A university that offers numerous sections of the same course might need an additional instructor to ensure each section has an instructor. On the other hand, a smaller college might have a class that none of the full-time faculty are qualified to teach (or don’t want to teach), and that class will be assigned to the visiting professor.

Regardless of the course, a visiting professor teaches, that person is responsible for developing a course outline, lecturing, assigning student work, and grading it. The visiting professor may have some say in what textbook to use, but the course needs to cover the same material outlined in the college’s course descriptions.

Can Visiting Professors Get Tenure?

Visiting professors can’t get tenure at the universities they’re visiting except in rare cases. It’s usually written into their contracts as per the university’s policy. 

In most universities, the contract also stipulates how many years a visiting professor can teach, and typically the length of time required to get tenure is longer.

It’s generally assumed that a professor needs to teach for six or seven years at a university to get tenure. Universities outline the steps necessary to become tenured and the requirements for each step. 

The ladder to tenure usually begins with an assistant professorship, followed by associate, and then full professor. More prominent universities, like Berkeley, for example, will award an associate professor tenure, but that person doesn’t get proper tenure until becoming a full professor.

In some cases, visiting professors can receive a more long-term contract. They won’t be able to work toward tenure, but it’ll give them additional security. Typically, contracts such as these turn visiting professors into university employees, making them eligible for the same benefits as other employees.

These contracts are rare, but a professor who has had several stints as a visiting professor might welcome the additional security. Their title is neither visiting, assistant, associate, or full professor, but simply professor.

Do Visiting Professors Do Research?

Visiting professors who wish to find a secure, tenure-track position will do some research in their field. This research might be part of their contract or something they do on their own. In either case, one goal of the research is to make them more competitive in the highly competitive job market.

What Is a Lecturer?

A lecturer has a similar position to a visiting professor, except they typically have longer contracts that can be renewed. These positions are often for classes that the university needs to have but doesn’t have enough demand to offer a full-time position.  

For example, if a Latin teacher is needed, but enrollment will be low, a university might hire a long-term lecturer on a part-time basis to fill the position. A lecturer’s degree is dependent on what courses will be taught. Sometimes an individual with a Master’s degree can teach first- or second-year courses.  

Bottom Line

Unfortunately, most visiting faculty members serve a long-term substitute position while a faculty member is on sabbatical. Some visiting professors are in a position that the university wants to make permanent but doesn’t yet have funding to do so. Occasionally, a visiting professor is truly visiting from another institution, but that person is the exception.

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