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I am looking for answers from the perspective of U.S. institutions. At some institutions (e.g., mine), a faculty member is allowed to switch tracks at the institution once in their career at that institution. For example, a person who was hired as a non-tenure track research assistant professor can petition or apply to be a tenure-track assistant professor. The process is a bit vague, but it happened to someone at my institution recently, which got me thinking about the question.

The person--let's call him Dr. X--started out as a research assistant professor in Department Y on Well-Funded Project Z. Due to administrative...restructuring, which dissolved Department Y, all of the professors in Department Y had to choose a new department in the School, and all of the professors working on Well-Funded Project Z ended up moving to Department A.

I am curious whether this is a common occurrence. I was casually talking to another, more senior professor (who also involved in Well-Funded Project Z), when it was revealed to me that our institution allows professors to change tracks once in their career. I was wondering if others had seen something similar at their institutions, and related to that, is it ever a good idea to ask when interviewing for a non-tenure-track position whether there is a possibility of switching to a tenure-track position down the road or what the institution's policy is surrounding switching tracks?

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    If there's a tenure-track opening at your institution, you can always apply to it, so in that sense there's always a possibility. I don't know that most institutions will have a policy on switching tracks (and even so, policies can change), but I would guess it's usually handled on a case-by-case basis. – Kimball Jun 17 '16 at 21:38
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    I've seen this done at my institution and others. If you do a good job as a non tenure track faculty member then the search committee is likely to at least give serious consideration to you as a candidate for a tenure track position because you're already in place and a somewhat known quantity. . However, the competition for tenure track positions can be some extreme that you might not reasonably have a chance of becoming a finalist. – Brian Borchers Jun 18 '16 at 3:00
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    There is something unclear about your question, to my mind: when the people changed departments, presumably also your non-tenure-track friend somehow became tenure-track? The reason I ask is that when departments evaporate, sometimes the tenured positions evaporate, too, though this is "not nice". So "switching tracks" might mean "changing departments without risking loss of tenure", which itself can be a serious issue. It mildly surprises me that non-tenure-track "switches" to tenure-track (in the U.S.) because there's more-intense competition for tenure-track... Might have to recompete? – paul garrett Jun 18 '16 at 17:32
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    I am a research postdoc in a mathematics dept. here in the US and I somewhat recently applied for a tenure track open search in my dept. I was on the shortlist, interviewed, etc. but was not offered the position. One thing that came up during the process: my application received much higher scrutiny from outside the dept. (administrators, deans, etc.) because they want to avoid nepotism. – tkr Jun 18 '16 at 17:35
  • @paulgarrett, it also surprised me that he was able to "switch" to tenure-track, hence the original question. But, he is very productive (as is the entire research group), so that may have been a factor. I should also note that the other 2 tenured professors in that group got promoted to full professor with the switch, which I think is also unusual. – marquisdecarabas Jun 20 '16 at 16:31
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Like many things in academia, the answer will likely depend upon the institution. In most, I would think that a non-tenure-track and a tenure-track position are actually different positions. You aren't just changing a title, but you are leaving one job and starting another (at the same institution). I would imagine that most do not have official rules about the number of times you can change jobs, although there may be unofficial scuttlebutt to the contrary. This should be outlined in the faculty handbook/guide.

Is it ever a good idea to ask when interviewing for a non-tenure-track position whether there is a possibility of switching to a tenure-track position down the road or what the institution's policy is surrounding switching tracks?

If you are interested in a tenure-track position, I think this is a very important question to be asking, and is not viewed negatively by any reasonable person. The chair or hiring committee should be able to let you know about this possibility.

  • In terms of my relevant experience for this answer, I've been on the job market a few times myself, been on hiring committees, as well as chair of a department that had many rounds of hiring. – ParanoidGeek Aug 22 '16 at 17:17

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