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How likely is an instructor position to be a stepping-stone for an assistant professor position?

I'm a postdoc in the US and currently applying for academic positions in the US. Is it a good move to consider an instructor position at a relatively well-known university relative to tenure-track positions at colleges that I have never heard about?

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    Are you thinking of a stepping stone to tenure track at the well known university or elsewhere at better colleges than you can apply to now? Please edit to clarify. Jan 12 at 21:40
  • It would help to know what discipline you are in, because it would help to know what kind of resources (including research time) are needed for your research. Jan 13 at 3:21
  • @AlexanderWoo Machine learning/Computational Science
    – Blade
    Jan 13 at 3:57
  • @EthanBolker My question is general, but in particular (all of this are speculations and nothing to do with the general question that I asked here), the program that is hiring an instructor has 3 instructors with a faculty director and administrator, all of which have been hired last year, so I was naturally thinking the program might evolve into a department in the future.
    – Blade
    Jan 13 at 14:01
  • The answers to this question may be institution-specific. For example, at my institution, Instructor is a tenure-track rank used for hires who are ABD. Instructors are automatically promoted to Assistant Professor when they complete their doctorate, so for my institution, the answer is "Not only is this common, it is baked into the definition of the rank/title." I suspect that by "instructor," you mean a non-tenure-track position. Could you edit to clarify?
    – Ben Norris
    Jan 14 at 3:06
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As a general principle, ceteris paribus, if you have the choice between offers of an instructor position at an elite institution versus a tenure-track position at a non-elite institution, I would think that the latter is a bigger stepping stone towards a faculty position at an elite institution. The main reason is that a tenure-track position will have a substantial focus on research work, whereas an instructor position is heavily focused on teaching. It is valuable to gain teaching experience and do enough of it to remain good at it, but competition for tenure-track positions at elite institutions is heavily based on research/publication/funding records, which is something you will more easily build up in a tenure-track position at a non-elite institution than an instructor role at an elite institution.

Since you are a postdoc, you should already have some research experience, and hopefully you have the ability to progress your own research with minimal or no supervision. An Instructor position can be a stepping stone to an Assistant Professor position in the sense that it provides you with some teaching experience and general university experience that will bolster your candidacy for the latter position. However, the main drawback is that it might not give you much time for your research. If your research work does not progress adequately, that is likely to make it difficult to compete with other candidates for an Assistant Professor position.

Of course, in practice, all other things are never equal, and so you will want to take account of all sorts of differential factors, including where you would prefer to be located, marriage/children, which set of job duties you prefer, which set of job duties will advance your skills more, which place/institution has a culture you prefer, etc. It also seems from your question that you are not talking about offers of positions, but just opportunities to apply for these positions. In this case you could cast a wide net over both types of positions and see what offers you get --- after all, you gotta eat!

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    Yes! Seeing a teaching-focused position as a "stepping stone" towards a research-focused one is a trap, for you and the institution. For you because your research CV might actually get worse during the time as you won't have much time to do research, and for the institution because they likely have different goals with this position than have it serve as a parking space for future research professors.
    – xLeitix
    Jan 13 at 17:26
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Very, very few assistant professors in the sciences in the USA have ever been instructors.

Some instructors have gotten promoted to a higher rank within their university, but it was not called "assistant professor." There can be a separate system of ranks.

If you like teaching, either "instructor at major university" or "assistant professor at a little known university" might suit you. If you want to write grants, neither is likely to suit you.

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    Why wouldn't tenure track staff at a little known university write grants?
    – Vladimir F
    Jan 13 at 10:35
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    @VladimirF From what I have heard as a postdoc, agencies tend not to award the grant to proposals from less research focused universities. As a result, assistant professors in those universities are merely expected to have something submitted to advance their position, but assistant professors in reputable research institutions are evaluated based on their successful grant applications.
    – Blade
    Jan 13 at 14:59
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    @VladimirF That's not quite what I said. Grant funding is biased towards researchers who already have many resources they can leverage. Faculty who have more teaching responsibilities have less time to write grants. Working for a large, wealthy university where little teaching is required makes it easier to write grants. Jan 13 at 14:59
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There are no guarantees, but it can help at the margins if you do a good job. The issue is that most "relatively well-known" universities are bound by rules that require a public, national (at least) search for tenureable faculty. You would need to apply and be judged along with others.

It is possible for a department to write an publish a job description that describes you almost perfectly so that you are guaranteed to meet the requirements. But I've seen it happen that this was done by an R1 State University and the committee got three candidates (among others) who met the criteria at least as well as the one they wanted (really wanted) to hire.

But, it isn't a step backwards. Get involved with the "life" of the department to make the transition as likely as possible. Don't just teach your courses and go away. Get involved with faculty research seminars, for example.

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In the U.S., in math, at research-oriented universities, there are at least two sorts of "lecturers". (And, note, this title is entirely different from that in the UK.)

First, there is non-permanent, but long-term, contracted sort of adjunct faculty, whose duties are exactly teaching, nothing else. There is not a progression to assistant professor, etc. It is not at all tenure-track.

Second, analogously, there are explicitly temporary versions of "lecturer", to fill teaching needs. No long-term commitment at all. Similarly for more elevated titles (and pay?), but no long-term commitment: visiting assistant prof, visiting X.

Third, there are some fancier "lecturer" or "instructor" positions intended as approximately post-docs, sometimes with honorific names attached. So-and-so instructor/lecturer in mathematics. But, again, no long-term commitment.

And, as @Buffy says, these days there is usually a legal requirement to conduct a well-advertised nation-wide search for any tenure-track position. Since lecturers/instructors are usually not in the pipeline for tenure at a given place, they have to compete with everyone else. Sure, it's good to have cultivated good-will and appreciation, but that's not a guarantee.

(So, most likely, if you have a lecturer/instructor position for a year or two, you'll be back to the same spot at the end, of applying for tenure-track positions all over again, with no promise that the place that made the offer this year will make you another one that year.)

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    I think the OP is asking about an instructorship at a good school as a step toward a tenure track job at a better other school than he can apply to now, not at the good school. Jan 12 at 21:39
  • @EthanBolker, indeed. Clarification is needed... Jan 12 at 21:47
  • @EthanBolker Both are correct. The instructorship is offered at a school that I may not successfully get an assistant professorship at. I may need couple years of post-doc at a top 10 university to get an assistant professorship there.
    – Blade
    Jan 12 at 21:50

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