The strange academic career ladder

In a BBC interview that was brought to my attention by Matt, this year’s co-winner of the Nobel prize in physics Donna Strickland was asked why she was still an associate professor and had not been promoted to full professor, something that I had noted in my earlier post, and she replied that she had never applied for promotion to full professor. Matt asked me to explain the weird academic rank system, so here it is.

At colleges and universities, there are three basic ranks for permanent faculty, though in the US they are increasingly being supplemented by an array of other categories of faculty (often called contingent faculty) who are hired on an as-needed basis on temporary contracts as universities become increasingly corporatized and try to cut costs by hiring lower-paid temporary workers. In the US and in an increasing number of countries, those three ranks are called assistant professor, associate professor and (full) professor. All the other positions (dean, provost, president) are not academic promotions but administrative positions that many academics do not aspire to and even look down upon, even though they pay a lot more, because it means you have given up the academic life of research and teaching and chosen to become a bureaucrat.

What is unique about universities is that nobody is simply given the promotion because the higher ups think they merit it, as would be the case in many other spheres of work. Instead the individual is expected to make a strong case for each of the two promotions, an extremely tedious process that requires creating a portfolio of accomplishments along with getting letters of recommendation from people all over the world. Once the dossier is complete, it has be evaluated and approved by multiple committees, starting with the department, then moving on to the school in which the department sits (arts and sciences, engineering, etc.), and then the university level. If it is approved by all three, then it goes to the provost and the president and finally the board of trustees. A negative decision at any stage can doom the promotion since appeals are rarely successful. The whole process takes about a year.

What is even stranger is that after you get a promotion via this long and difficult process, almost nothing changes other than getting a different title and a salary increase. Unlike in every other sphere of work where promotion brings about all manner of changes in your work, in the university your daily life is exactly the same as before: no new office, no new responsibilities, no more people to supervise, nothing. It is not surprising that pleasure with being promoted is often followed by a deflated melancholy sense of “Is that all there is?”

All universities tend to use three basic criteria when evaluating promotion dossiers: research, teaching, and service. What differs from place to place is how those things are weighted. At research universities, research measures are paramount. Someone with an excellent research portfolio can get promoted with just the bare minimum attention paid to teaching and service, which is why the teaching at top research universities is often so lousy. There is simply little incentive for faculty to devote much time and effort to teaching, even if they love it, when it counts so little. Things are changing a bit as parents shelling out big bucks for their children’s education at major research universities are getting ticked off that the teaching is so poor, so even research universities are paying more attention to improving teaching and creating centers like the one I headed at my research university. At primarily teaching colleges, the balance is tilted the other way with teaching and service counting a lot more than research.

When you first get a tenure track job, you usually start at the rank of assistant professor. After six years, your colleagues in the department have to decide if they want you as a permanent member and they vote on whether to grant you tenure. This is based on many factors such as their estimation of the quality of your research (as evidenced by the number of papers published and the quality of the journals in which they appear), your reputation among leaders in the field (as evidenced by the letters of support they write for you), your promise of future success, your teaching, your service to the academic community (on university and professional society committees), and (especially in the case of the science-related fields) on the amount of external grant funding you have been able to secure. Whether your department colleagues like you enough to want you as a permanent colleague also plays a role. Getting tenure usually means that you also get promoted to associate professor.

The next promotion is to full professor. This usually requires the candidate, in addition to the quality of their research record and amount of grant funding, to have become a leader in the field, evidenced by being named to the editorial boards of leading journals, being invited to be keynote speaker at major conferences, having leadership roles in professional societies, and so on. Strong letters of support from leaders in your field attesting to your international prestige are essential.

There is a time limit for promotion to tenure/associate and it is usually seven years, though the decision is usually made after six years to allow people time to find another job in case they do not get tenure. But there is no fixed schedule for promotion to full professor. People have to decide if they have a strong enough case to try for it. If they try and fail, they remain at the associate level and can try again. Some people give up after a couple of failed attempts and remain as associates for the rest of their careers.

It takes a huge amount of work to put together the ‘promotion packets’, as they are called, for each stage, involving getting many letters from prominent academics that say that you are a leader in the field. There is no choice but to do this for assistant professors since if you don’t, you lose your job if you do not get tenure. But once you get tenure, going for promotion to full professor is optional. Most people do want it, because it carries with it greater prestige and an increase in salary but some either try and fail (sometimes repeatedly) or others, like Strickland, do not even try. There may be many reasons for the latter. Some are too modest and may feel they are not good enough to be promoted while others may just not care enough about being promoted to put in all the work to put together a promotion packet and are happy enough to continue their work as associate professors. I am not sure which of those two explanations apply to Strickland’s case but the former seems likely. Strickland seems like a modest person, as evidenced by her statement in the interview that “nobody expects the Nobel prize”. She may not have but some people do, and even campaign for it and are upset when they don’t get it.

There have been concerns that, especially in the sciences, too many women are stagnating at the associate professor level because they were not pushy enough to try for promotion to full professorships. Women seemed more likely to think that they did not deserve it or would not get it if they applied and thus stayed at the associate level. That’s seems to have been Strickland’s attitude. At the university where I worked, there were efforts to help assistant professors, as soon as they were promoted to associate, to think strategically and plan for their next promotion and the center I headed helped a little in those efforts. Having a senior faculty member willing to serve as a mentor to guide the junior member through the process and help push through the promotion is very helpful. Department chairs also have a responsibility to not allow faculty to stagnate at the associate level.


  1. Queex says

    This seems very different to the UK system. We have a pay spine, with grades that tie directly to seniority and responsibilities. The specifics vary by institution, but in general you go up a point on the pay spine every year. You generally have to apply for another post (even in the same institution) to go up a grade, and thus have to interview for the new responsibilities you are taking on.

    Plus, of course, there are no such things as ‘assistant professor’ and ‘associate professor’. Professor is a very senior title, the rest of us are doctors (and those of us who entered academia on the strength of a Master’s degree, not even that).

  2. jrkrideau says

    Would you like to describe an academic’s CV?

    For readers here who are used to an industry résumé or CV, whichever term you use, an academic CV is amazing.

    I am not an academic but I have run into them from time to time and just the fact that they can be 30 or 40+++ pages is a bit impressive. An RCMP background check could not be a through.

    Ah, here is a tarted-up, on-line, version of a C.V of a former prof of mine, Gerry Wilde. I am sure he will not mind me pointing to it as it is a public document. It may be a bit more than most but he fairly distinguished. Still, just imagine getting that on paper. There’s half the boreal forest gone at a stroke.

    Just think if you were the hiring authority and you got 15 or 20 of those across your desk though no assistant prof is going to have anything like that.

    And, aha! A new edition of Target Risk. If anyone is interested in risk-taking in everyday life I can highly recommend it though it is really not light reading.

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