When do Colleges and Universities Hire Faculty?


Photo by Changbok Ko on Unsplash


Classes at my university started yesterday for the Fall. One of my teams manages the course schedule, and one of the things we hate to hear is when a program does not have faculty available to teach. For the many people looking to teach in higher ed, this problem might come as a surprise. How can anyone not have enough faculty to teach?

The problem is two-fold. First, the programs do not want to over hire faculty. When they do, they have people who are not teaching or at least not teaching as much as the faculty would like. While in one semester student demand might be high for a specific course, in future semesters it might not be so high. As a result, we take a gamble on how many faculty we need. Second, the process for hiring new faculty takes time.

When I was first hiring faculty in the late 1990s, there were times I would hire someone the week before classes started. This was never desirable. The preferred process is to hire someone in a thoughtful interview process and then provide training before exposing students to new faculty. Those processes take time, and not all candidates will make it to the end. That complicates the process of getting faculty into the classroom.

While I don’t hire faculty anymore, one of the misunderstandings I witnessed when I did was that people would apply for faculty positions based on when they had decided they wanted to teach without realizing that there is a natural cadence to when colleges and universities hire faculty. This is true for both full-time and part-time positions, and I am going to focus on the part-time faculty hiring process.

Understanding when schools hire is important to understand why your job search might not be producing the results that you hope for. In the olden days, most faculty were hired in the winter and spring to start positions in the fall. The growth in online learning and shift to hiring adjuncts has changed this classical hiring pattern. While many positions still follow this traditional calendar, other patterns have emerged.

The Academic Calendar

Schools that follow traditional semester calendars only have three class starts a year, including summer. That means that they only hire and onboard new faculty in advance of those starts. A few schools still use a quarter calendar, which means four starts a year.

In advance of the start of the term, schools will post positions and begin the recruitment process. Since many colleges essentially shut down for the summer, for September classes, this process can begin as early as January. For January classes, searches will begin in November or earlier. On the quarter calendar, there will be a start in March or April as well with recruiting starting in January. Summer terms are usually lighter than any other time of the year and require less hiring.

The bottom line is that for schools with a traditional schedule, hiring really only occurs twice a year: January through April for September classes and October through November for January courses.

The academic calendar can be found on the institutional web site, and it is worth looking at when and how frequently courses start to get a sense of when the school is actively recruiting for faculty.

Almost Year-Round Hiring

Most online colleges and universities do not follow a traditional semester calendar. In my years as an online faculty member and student I have seen classes in a variety of lengths including 5-weeks, 6-weeks, 8-weeks, 10-weeks, and 12-weeks. This means that faculty can be hired and onboard much more frequently than the traditional calendar. Often enrollments do not decline as much during the summer months in these institutions.

More frequent starts mean more opportunities to onboard new faculty. Rather than hiring faculty twice a year, there can be four or more times per year.

Hiring and Onboarding Timing

The length of the recruiting and onboarding process is a key variable in this process. Some schools have recruiters do an initial screening on candidates before hiring managers get involved. Applicants may have multiple interviews and potentially a teaching demonstration. Most schools have orientation and training following selection. These processes can require weeks if not months before the start of teaching.

The impact of the hiring and onboarding process adds lead time to the hiring process. When I was a campus dean, I had a couple of instances where I had to hire a new faculty member the week before classes started, but online does not offer the same type of flexibility. Faculty are almost hired and trained before classes start. There will be windows where schools are actively hiring based on when a new onboarding session starts, then hiring often slows down.

From the applicant’s perspective it can be a lot of hurry up and wait while applying for positions. It is easy to take it personally. It is not personal. It is the nature of the process.

Why Do Schools Have Openings

Schools hire when one of three things are occurring: growth, up credentialing, and turnover.

In the early days of online learning, early pioneers in the space grew very rapidly. There was a constant demand for new faculty to support the growth in online learning. During the recession from 2007–2009, online enrollment further swelled. I remember a Chronicle of Higher Education from the early 2000s that feature that included a profile of a former colleague who was making six-figures a year teaching online classes at multiple institutions.

Since the end of the recession, higher ed enrollments in general have been decreasing. Online enrollment has been increasing, but not at the rate that it once did. There has also been a shift of enrollment from early leaders in online higher education to new players. In many cases these are traditional universities experiencing decreases with their ground enrollment. Existing faculty are transitioning to online courses, which limits opportunities for new hires.

COVID changed all of this as all faculty had to become online faculty. Online enrollments also increased dramatically. As the COVID waters recede and we see some return to normalcy (for now at least), many more faculty have experience with online teaching. This is likely to continue to make it harder for new faculty to breakthrough into teaching positions.

Growth can also occur when institutions add new programs that require new faculty. Usually, a new program starting up requires very few faculty until enrollment increases substantially.

Universities occasionally need to hire new faculty based on accreditation requirements to up credential faculty. Usually this occurs just prior or just after an accreditation visit. A school may discover it needs to add faculty with terminal qualifications. Unfortunately, this action displaces existing faculty.

Universities and colleges also have to hire new faculty to address turn-over. Faculty will retire or resign for other purposes. Some schools will remove faculty for performance issues. In these cases, new openings will occur.

When the government changes the limits on how many hours a part-time employee could work before being eligible for benefits, many colleges and universities instituted lower limits on how many courses adjunct faculty could teach. This resulted in a temporary increase in hiring, but it is unlikely that we will see such a unique event again.

Sometimes schools will post and recruit ahead of actual openings to be ready if an opening occurs. This delays the time it takes to get an interview or even after an interview an offer to teach. Several years ago, I was hired to teach at a university that I have no recollection of applying for as it was so far in the past when I applied to when I was hired.

The takeaway here is that there are not as many openings as there used to be, and sometimes postings are not even for real openings. This is very frustrating to applicants who want to start teaching or expand their teaching to new schools.

How to Find Openings

Related to the timing issue is where to look for openings. The big academic job boards are a common place to look. In my experience, different schools post ads in different job boards, so following all of them is important. Keep in mind that many people are following those job boards, so competition will be fierce for any position posted.

Another option are college-specific job boards for openings at those schools. These are less popular, so you probably have better chances if the position is not advertised anywhere else.

The other approach to finding a job is networking. The key here is not to network for a job, because unless you are very lucky, the people you network with will not have an opening today. You want to build a relationship, so they reach out to you when they do have an opening. Over the years I have received many bad cold emails from people asking for a teaching job. Never has this been successful, and you want to approach this process with more thought and strategy.

Being Top of Mind

If you want a teaching job, you can either chase the openings and hope to get lucky, or you can position yourself to be top of mind when someone has an opening. This was how I landed my first job. The dean needed someone for a course he could not fill, and he called me. My cv was on the top of his stack. This adjunct position led to a full-time position which led to my being the dean and the rest has been an awarding career in higher education. Identify the schools that you are interested in, network to find out who the decision makers are in your area and build a relationship with them so that when they have an opening, they call you first. On the surface that seems like a longer game than just applying for any posting that you see, but in reality it can be much more productive.

If you are interested in a career in higher ed teaching, you might find my book How to Become a Professor a useful guide. It is very affordable and available digitally or in printed form from Amazon.