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October 16, 2018 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

What’s it like to be an Associate Professor? (Research University version)

Several years ago, I tried to sum up the perspective I had gained on being an assistant professor at a research university. I attempted to capture all of the things I either wasn’t told in graduate school or didn’t have a real grasp on until I was on the tenure track — and they were largely behind-the-curtain, what-the-job-is-actually-like details, including lots of meetings, emails, and teaching prep-work, alongside the demands of publishing and other scholarly activity. What does the job look like on the other side of tenure? Mostly the same, but there are some important differences.

sisyphus

Sisyphus and his beloved rock (representing institutional demands post-tenure)

The ink was barely dry on my tenure contract when I was asked by my dean to serve in an administrative role. It was probably about two weeks between when I was notified of the administrative approval of my tenure and this request on the part of my dean, which made it kind of difficult to say no to it (but it was really compelling administrative work, so I probably would have said yes anyway). In a nutshell, if the road to tenure is largely anticipatory and structured by tenure demands, the associate professor road is characterized by managing social relationships — with other faculty, with administrators, with students, with colleagues at other institutions, with journal and press editors, with university bureaucrats — many of whom helped on the road to tenure, and are now calling in their debts.

“Debt” seems like a slight mischaracterization, but “favor” also seems too light. These activities can range from work like peer reviewing for presses or journals (especially those you’ve published with) and reviewing grant applications, which I had been doing pre-tenure, but after tenure there was a significant increase in requests. It can also include serving on committees at departmental, university, and national organization levels — and being asked to do that rather than volunteering for it. In addition, there’s serving on ever-more dissertation committees as well as doing tenure review for colleagues at other institutions. Singularly, they don’t seem like much, but taken together, they can be time consuming — and for some faculty, they seem to provide a trajectory while they figure out what their path to full professorship looks like. This isn’t to begrudge these various debts and favors and the people attached to them, but just to note how they pile up — and continue to pile up — and to recognize that strategies need to be developed to handle them maturely.

I’ve been thinking about the non-arrival of tenure for years. After all the stresses around tenure and its quasi-mythological nature, when it happens, it’s actually a slow and drawn out process, which makes it less of a rite of passage and more of a long, bureaucratic process (which is what it is). Between the department vote, the dean’s approval, the university personnel committee, the chancellor or provost, and the president (and regents), there are a lot of not-final approvals (i.e. it’s still not a sure thing). At each stage, the appropriate administrator makes sure to tell you congratulations, but it’s not over yet. And by the time the tenure contract arrives, it has both felt inevitable and had some of the wind taken out of its ceremonial sails.

At least that was my experience. Some of my feelings about the tenure process may be due to the fact that I met my institution’s tenure requirements early and was able to go up for tenure a year ahead of schedule. I’m sure that for people who are in more precarious positions, tenure might come as more of a relief. But in any case, the non-arrival of tenure is also about what happens after tenure.

The assistant professor period is characterized by the project that is getting tenure — there’s real momentum around publishing the requisite amount of stuff, and there’s a deadline. But between associate and full professor, there’s not usually a deadline even when there’s clear expectations (usually doubling whatever it took to get tenure in the first place). Sabbatical is meant to serve as a research period, but it seems like most people use it as a period to reconnect with family and catch up on what they missed during the march to tenure. And unless you’re primed to get to work on the next big research project immediately, it can be hard to use sabbatical to its full effect. For better and worse, things slow down after tenure for a lot of people.

Part of that slow down is bureaucratic and an effect of the job and its duties. Part of it is also just straight up existential. After being told that tenure is the most magical thing in the world, the reality is that the job doesn’t fundamentally change — and, in many respects, there’s less time for research and writing when all of the other institutional demands are factored in. Teaching might be at a new plateau — you might get to the point where you’re teaching the same classes with few or no revisions and can autopilot them. But in my case, I was tired of teaching the same classes and needed to change things significantly (I moved from teaching mostly medical anthropology courses to teaching more general intro and social theory classes). And that meant spending more time prepping classes than I had in several years.

I had started working on my second book before I finished my first one, but like so many people’s second projects, it didn’t work out quite the way I had planned (insufficient funding, lack of dedicated time, difficulty with the IRB, etc.), leading to some redevelopments in the project and some slow down. Because it was a significant shift in focus, it also needed some time devoted to developing new contacts, reading new stuff, and just thinking through the problems of the project — all of which started during the assistant professor phase, but couldn’t really take off until after tenure. I also had a second child, changed institutions, and moved across the country, all of which slowed things down too. For some people, any of those events or aforementioned difficulties might have led to abandoning the project and starting over from scratch with something new — so I can understand why some people take a long time between getting tenure and going up for full professor.

But here’s the other thing: if tenure is marked by its non-arrival, full professorship is marked by its deferral. The difference between associate and full is largely administrative (yes, there’s a pay increase, and maybe there’s some prestige?), meaning that most associate professors are protected from being department chairs or serving as associate deans or conveners of university committees. For some people, it seems like the pay increase isn’t worth the trouble — which is compounded by the difficulties people face in getting a second project off the ground. Maybe we need better incentives, but more likely, we probably need better support to help people have time, money, and space to develop new projects.

This isn’t to diminish tenure — it’s important job security and helpful to have the bandwidth to explore new ideas and projects — but to point out how it isn’t a panacea. In some respects, tenure is integral to the kinds of favors that need to be returned (i.e. with tenure, you can be asked to do things that you can’t be asked to do without it). But the job is the job, and that fundamentally doesn’t change with tenure.

So what do I wish I knew about the post-tenure phase?

1. If you can change when you take sabbatical, wait until you know it will be immediately useful and not for preliminary work (like seeing if a project is viable). Make sure that you have the funds and access to get the data you need, and then use sabbatical time to make it happen.

2. Change your teaching only enough to freshen it up, unless you’re committed to finding a new niche in your department’s curriculum and spending  year or two doing so.

3. Be selective about what you agree to do. Sometimes opportunities quickly become obligations, and there will be plenty of both. It’s okay to say no to an invitation, especially because there will be more coming.

4. Develop small projects that can result in an article or a book chapter. These might be collaborations with graduate or advanced undergraduate students, experiential learning classes, or cannily constructed classes. Steady projects like these help to allay the big existential dread that might present itself in the absence of a second book-length project.

Post-tenure is a strange place. Prepare yourself.

One Comment

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  1. Barbara Piper / Jan 9 2019 5:48 am

    Apologies for the terribly late note….

    I believe that you teach in the SUNY system, and if so you don’t have “tenure” in the most technical sense, but rather a “continuing appointment”. There are some differences between the two, though most senior faculty don’t notice those differences. For a simple example, the SUNY faculty contract guarantees academic freedom to all faculty, while academic freedom is a benefit most narrowly only of tenured faculty in other states and in private colleges/universities. There have been a couple of notable cases in which this has made a difference for junior faculty, so it’s not always a trivial issue.

    I have often noted that the promotion from associate to full professor is not a promotion in any understanding of labor theory, but a change in job title, and I like your points about the rewards of this change possibly not being worth the effort to achieve it. I’ve been a faculty member long enough to have been promoted fairly easily at each level, but the standards and expectations for both tenure and promotion to full have expanded and increased as the job market has deteriorated, and I see more of my younger colleagues now asking if that next “promotion” to full prof. is worth it, especially when the major reward — a small salary increase — translates into a few cents an hour for the labor involved!

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