More About A Career in Academia
An academic career involves some combination of teaching, scholarship, and service. "Scholarship" means doing research and writing books and articles for publication. "Service" often means serving on departmental and university committees, formulating policies about, for example, the curriculum; it may also mean using one's scholarly skills for the benefit of the community. Teaching, scholarship, and service are weighted differently at different institutions. At research universities, you are expected to spend a lot of time on scholarship, and some time teaching courses. At other kinds of institutions, you are expected to spend a lot of time teaching courses, and some time on scholarship.
An academic career has many advantages: flexible scheduling; lots of independence; job security after tenure (through some people do not get tenure); changes of pace throughout the year; continual learning; summers (often devoted to reading and research); the excitement and pleasure of teaching and doing research in a field you love; some chances to change the world; a job that seems truly meaningful in an age where many jobs do not (see Goldsmith, Komlos and Gold 7-10).
A standard academic job is a full time, "tenure-track" position on the faculty of a college or university. One normally enters such a position as an "Assistant Professor." After about 6 years, the university decides whether or not to make you a permanent part of the department (the "tenure decision"). If you get tenure, you are usually promoted to "Associate Professor," and may be promoted to "Full Professor" later in your career. Getting tenure means, basically, that you cannot be fired, except in the case of certain very serious infractions of academic or university policies.
Increasingly, however, colleges and universities do not hire full time, tenure-track faculty to teach all of their courses. Instead, they hire "instructors," "adjuncts," or "lecturers" on contract (for a period varying from one semester to three years), to teach a particular course or set of courses. These positions are "non-tenure-track," meaning that you will never get tenure or be promoted. Some non-tenure-track jobs are very satisfying. Others are highly demanding but low paying, insecure positions which do not afford the kind of involvement in the academic community/life of the mind that one had hoped to find.