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11 A Professorship in Your Future?

Dianne Prost O'Leary
Last modified October 12, 2016.

This material has been written for graduate students who are considering an academic career. It may raise more questions than it answers. Please consult a sympathetic faculty member for further information or advice.

11.1 Why Choose an Academic Career?

You've been in school for most of the years of your life, and you've been around universities for more years than you may care to count. Why would anyone choose to stay in a university environment?

11.2 What Is a Professor's Life Like?

A professor's career is marked by two major transitions: from assistant professor to associate professor with tenure, and from associate professor to full professor. The period before tenure is essentially a probationary time during which the candidate has a chance to establish a reputation as a good researcher and teacher. The job can be terminated at the end of each contract period (generally 2-3 years). Generally, this would be done only if the candidate's performance was unsatisfactory or if the institution is redirecting its mission. After a professor has tenure, then job termination can generally occur only due to serious misconduct or if the institution eliminates the entire department, and then only after a prescribed appeals procedure.

Some educational institutions avoid giving job security by labeling positions as part-time or as ``visiting". Unless this fits with your career goals, these are generally bad deals.

11.2.1 The Beginning

The first year teaching as an assistant professor can be quite a shock. Suddenly the ``soft'' deadlines of graduate study become ``hard'' deadlines, as teaching responsibilities claim a large proportion of time while the ``tenure clock'' ticks in the background. There are compensations, though: the feeling of liberation is comparable to that of leaving your parents' home.

Almost all beginning teachers devote a tremendous amount of time to class preparation. This eases with experience, but initially it can be overwhelming.

At the same time, there are other important goals for your first year: writing journal papers from your thesis and submitting them for publication (if you have not already done so), introducing yourself to people at granting agencies, applying for research grants, undertaking a mild amount of committee work for your department, getting to know the other faculty members, watching and learning how the department functions, and continuing your research. The first year out is quite taxing!

As in graduate school, it is a tremendous advantage to have a mentor, a colleague (or colleagues) who can review your research proposals, teach you about the workings of the department, give advice on teaching, and help you achieve visibility in the professional community. Luckily, if your new school can't provide all of this, you can rely on your advisor and other faculty from your graduate institution as well as on remote mentoring programs in your field.

In a good department, senior faculty members treat junior faculty as full colleagues. That doesn't mean that assistant professors will never feel intimidated by the senior faculty, but if the department functions well, they should be able to trust that disagreements with senior faculty members will not affect their career.

11.2.2 Preparing for the Tenure Decision

Each university is different, but in general, there are four criteria for promotion and tenure: teaching and mentoring, service, research, and reputation. A deficiency in one area can sometimes be overlooked if there is excellence in another. Here is one variant, perhaps relevant at a university with a Ph.D. program, but the weights of each criterion and the method of evaluation vary, and it is important to learn the local criteria early.

  1. A ``satisfactory'' record for departmental and professional service. Conscientious performance on one committee assignment per year, plus serving as a referee, etc. is average.

  2. A ``good'' record as a teacher and mentor. This is gauged by peer and student evaluations (numerical as well as personal comments), teaching awards, lecture skill, course material, and supervision of graduate and undergraduate students.

  3. A ``very good'' record as a researcher, with potential for future achievement. This is gauged by impact of the work, number of publications, quality of journals and conferences, and research grant support.

  4. ``Strong'' letters from outside referees concerning research reputation. The candidate is asked for a list of 3-5 referees. The evaluation committee adds others. They should generally be full professors at ``peer'' institutions, or occasionally senior industrial researchers at a top company. The letters that carry the most weight specifically cite important research results and compare the candidate with contemporary stars, rather than making vague complimentary statements.

An undergraduate institution would put much more weight on teaching and service, and a state university might have higher standards for teaching than a private one.

Choose your referees carefully. Contact them, making sure to tell them of all of your important accomplishments. Don't just ask if you can use their name as a referee; ask if they can provide a strong recommendation. Try to guess the names the department will choose, and make sure that these people are also aware of your accomplishments.

11.2.3 The Tenured Life

No, tenure is not equivalent to retirement. In fact, many faculty members are shocked at the sudden imposition of departmental responsibility into their previously free time. Making tenure decisions about colleagues is a serious burden. There are also additional meetings and duties. But the major change is that there is the expectation that to maintain the respect of colleagues, each faculty member will take a leadership role in, substantial research initiatives, in development of the educational program, or in departmental administration.

Duties to the professional community also increase. Senior faculty are expected to serve on editorial boards, conference organizing committees, and as officers of professional societies. These commitments must be carefully chosen: worthwhile tasks well suited to the individual, providing some professional recognition, and not crowding out other responsibilities.

11.3 How Should You Prepare for an Academic Career?

There are several things you can do (beginning in your first year of graduate study!) that will make the prospects of success as an academic more likely. Luckily, they are also good preparation for the business world, so you do not need to sacrifice any of your options.

Don't sell yourself short: if you are a successful graduate student at a strong institution and if you enjoy teaching and research, then you have the potential to be a very successful assistant professor. Be prepared to work hard, but don't be afraid to accept the challenge.

11.4 How Do You Find a Job?

Start working on the application process early in summer or fall for an appointment the following fall. Ask your advisor and other helpful faculty members for advice on where and how to apply.

11.4.1 Applying

11.4.2 Interviewing

Interviewing can be exhausting. Often appointments and talks span a 13 hour period each day. The first few interviews are fun, but it is difficult to keep up enthusiasm over a long series. Choose carefully if you are lucky enough to have many invitations.

11.5 Some Fallacies about the Academic Life

Tenure, of course, was instituted solely to protect faculty from the political consequences of scholarly research. As a consequence, there is tremendous pressure on non-tenured faculty to prove their competence during a short (6-7 year) probationary period. This system is far from perfect, but for better or worse, that is how most U.S. universities operate.

Here are some common misconceptions about university life.

There is a good reason for my lack of productivity: if only I had a better laptop, grader, secretarial help, travel support, software, books, etc. I could do so much more.

Be aware that most department chairs will do all that they can to accommodate reasonable requests from junior faculty, and you have little to lose by asking.

You should also actively seek outside funding from government agencies (such as USA NSF, DOE, DOD) and from industry.

If you still need resources, write your own research grant. Not a proposal but a grant! Academic salaries are not opulent, but they are certainly adequate for supporting most people. Allocate some of the surplus (maybe $10,000 per year) as your own ``research grant'' that you can spend guilt free to make your life easier. It is an investment in your future, as well as in your sanity.

In order to get tenure, I must work 70-90 hours per week.

If you want to work such hours, by all means do so. But it is neither necessary nor sufficient.

Slavery in the Unites States was officially abolished well over 100 years ago. That doesn't mean that slavery ceased to exist - only that no one can be legally enslaved without consent. Many untenured faculty members seem to give that consent.

If your professional responsibilities are overwhelming you, consider your options: asking that the tenure clock be stopped, learning to say ``no" to unreasonable demands, moving to another university in order to restart the clock, taking leave, converting to part time employment, or taking a position in industry or government.

University life would be so nice without the students.

It is rare to find a good teacher who does not enjoy teaching, so if you feel burdened, consider a career change.

11.6 Some Notes (Not for Women Only)

See Section 15.11 for some links on women and minority career issues and Section 15.4 for pointers to some useful meetings.

The role model issue. Yes, women (and minorities) are underrepresented in the sciences and engineering, and it is especially important to demonstrate to students that diversity is useful and expected among computer scientists. A good woman can make a tremendous difference to students and to the academic environment but must avoid the pitfall of being stretched too thin. Each stands on the shoulders of her predecessors who faced somewhat different but quite daunting challenges.

Family issues. Yes, the academic life does have time pressures, and family responsibilities can be difficult to juggle. Some people believe that it is foolhardy to seek tenure if your family duties have a high priority in your life, but many people have been successful at both. Compared to industry, academic hours are more flexible and the deadlines somewhat softer. Tenure clocks can be restarted if necessary by a move to another university after three years or so, and such an upheaval can be stimulating to research.

Personal information on the c.v. Personal information (birth date, gender, minority status, marital status) is optional, but it is sometimes useful to mention if you are a woman or minority. It is also especially appreciated if your name does not reveal your gender, since it is awkward to acknowledge applications without knowing whether ``Mr." or ``Ms." is appropriate.

The uncomfortable interview. If a question seems out of line (too personal, etc.), dodge it as gracefully as you can, trying not to take or give offense. Usually the questioner means no harm but is lacking in social skills. If the issue is serious, follow up later, either directly to the individual, to the chairperson, or to a sympathetic faculty member at that institution, but don't let it distract you from the goals of your interview.

Negotiating. Negotiate for what is important to you: salary, teaching load, workstation in your office, access to teaching assistants, support for a graduate student, summer support, etc. Make sure that your requests are in line with the support given to other faculty members at that university, though.

The decision. Don't agonize. If you have a choice, there is usually no ``wrong'' choice, just different ones. Consult your advisor. Ask questions. Assess how each offer helps you toward your long term goals. Then prepare for your first encounter with undergraduates, who will suddenly consider you over the hill.

next up previous contents
Next: 12 Careers in Government Up: gradstudy Previous: 10 Career Options   Contents
Dianne O'Leary 2016-10-12