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Why are a majority of jobs in academia offered on a fixed term basis?

I have noticed that most teaching or researching positions have a contract term (e.g. 3 year contract). Some contracts may be renewed, subject to additional funding, while others simply end.

I am wondering if there is an academic reason for this system (akin to the system being designed to compel the incumbent to continually publish in order to remain in a position).

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It is cheaper... –  Zenon Feb 3 '13 at 22:42
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up vote 3 down vote accepted

I agree that there are many positions in academia that are fixed term. However, I would question your claim that a "majority" of positions are fixed term. Presumably this varies a lot by country and other factors.

From my casual observations in Australia, some positions tend to be fixed term or casual. E.g.,

  • Post docs
  • Research assistants
  • Positions filling teaching gaps (e.g., related to maternity leave, short term increases in demand for subjects, filling-in while)
  • A selection of lower-level teaching positions
  • Research only positions funded by external grants or contracts

while others tends to be continuing positions most notably

  • Standard faculty positions that combine both teaching and research

Standard faculty positions are often funded broadly out of revenue from teaching even if there is an expectation that you will secure additional sources of research funding. Teaching revenue is generally more stable than research funding that tends to be linked to particular grants of particular duration.

Continuing academic positions in Australia typically have a probation period lasting several years as one means of encouraging performance. That said, the promotional system means that there are other extrinsic rewards to continue performing well once a continuing position is acquired.

As can be seen from the earlier list pure research and lower tier positions tend to be fixed term. This can be because the funding is inherently uncertain or perhaps because the employer feels that they can recruit an adequately skilled employee without incurring the additional costs associated with continuing positions.

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In 2010, 47% of American university faculty were part-time or adjuncts, and that fraction is increasing. So at least within the US, a majority of open faculty positions are for fixed-term faculty. –  JeffE Feb 4 '13 at 14:34
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This is a product of various reasons that are academic, economic, legal and institutional:

In many jurisdictions, it's easier and cheaper to remove staff at the end of a fixed contract: it can be very very expensive to remove staff on a permanent contract.

Enough able people are willing to work on fixed contracts that universities don't need to offer permanent contracts for every post.

Track record, CV and references are not enough to tell how good someone really is, nor how productive they'll be in your team; that needs an extended probation, which a fixed-term contract effectively functions as.

Funding tends to come in bursts, with no guarantee of follow-up funding; so while it can be possible to ensure a post can be funded for 6 months or 5 years, at the end of the funding, there may not be the money to fund that post. On a permanent contract, the resulting severance can be very expensive for the university. The fixed contract gives clarity to both employer and employee.

Productivity changes over time. Some employees are more productive when they have a lot of job security; others are more productive when their future employment depends on the current performance. I'd love to see some studies on the impact on productivity of needing to repeatedly apply for funding: oddly, it seems to be one area where we academics don't take a scientific approach to analysing!

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