I've been thinking a lot about taking risks, so I'll make that my first post. One reason why the tenure-track is considered good is that it leads to a tenured position and that provides a certain amount of job security. There's also some freedom to pursue longer term projects (to a point). It is a relatively stable low risk career choice (not thinking about the heart-burn caused by the shenanigans that go on in academia here - that's another post).
Industry positions in large companies are also quite stable. There is less job security and less freedom to follow pet projects, but the salary is larger. You get paid more to absorb the risk of a lay off and your willingness to contribute to the profits of the company.
Positions in smaller companies and start-ups are less stable (unless your start-up is Google). Not to say there aren't people making a good living happily working for small companies. Just that there is little job security, even if you do fantastic work. An SAP programmer hopping from start-up to start-up is considered routine. A Ph.D. somehow seems to have more baggage to lug along (sigh).
Science writing has been a topic of discussion frequently. Probably if the position is in a large company it will be more stable than smaller companies. Science writing positions in academia tend to depend heavily on grants. So one has to always look for the next position to be on the safe side.
Coming to alternative faculty posts, academia always had temporary assistant professors, instructors, and adjunct faculty. The primary tasks in these positions are still teaching/research/service in varying ratios, just as in the traditional tenure-track. The difference is that there is little job security in these temporary positions. I wish these positions are given the same respect and stability that regular faculty positions automatically get (more in another post).
There are also temporary faculty positions where the job expectations are different from the usual teaching/research/service. These can be highly individualistic. There isn't much stability though and too much depends on the whims of the PI. Having held one such position I can offer some general suggestions with the benefit of hindsight:
- Get as many details about job expectations as possible. If you are told you have to do what it takes, be careful. You could end up doing some tedious and time-consuming work that won't add anything to your resume, or worse. It would make finding the next job difficult.
- Ask how you will be evaluated and what kind of promotion you can earn.
- Negotiate in advance how much research time you will get (unless you don't want it). If you are told you can do research on your own time, realistically evaluate if you will be able to do any research at all. Same goes for teaching.
- Negotiate in advance when your position will be renewed. I know someone who had to ask her PI every month from January till July before finally getting the letter of renewal.
Perhaps we could use this blog as a forum to lobby for more stability in these alternative faculty positions.