What They Don't Teach You in Grad School Part III

by Paul Gray and David E. Drew
Inside Higher Ed
December 28, 2005

In our first two lists of tips for an academic career, we covered finishing the dissertation and finding a first job, and then offered an overview of various academic responsibilities. In this piece, we turn to the career path tenure, academic ranks, and department chairs.

I. Tenure

1. The most dreaded experience for an academic is the tenure process. Without tenure, you cannot stay permanently at an institution as a professor and must go job hunting in an uncertain market. Some colleges may consider it as a stain on your record if you tried and failed. On the other hand, colleges that rank lower than the one you are at may want to hire you because that gives them bragging rights. We know of at least two universities, for example, that hired ex-Harvard and MIT professors. With tenure, of course, you remove uncertainty.

2. Things are changing, but it is still true that tenure is the prize in academia. There are many exciting non-tenure track jobs in higher education and in research organizations (Both of us worked full-time for think tanks after our Ph.D.s prior to our university positions). But most new Ph.D.s seeking academic careers will want to become tenured professors.

3. Understand why tenure is such a hurdle. Consider the cost of a positive tenure decision to your institution. Assume for simplicity that you are making $66,666 per year and will serve the university 30 years after tenure. Assume your academic raises only cover cost of living (the worst case from your point of view, the best from the universitys); that is, your salary is nearly the same in real terms for the rest of your career. From your point of view, you certainly think of yourself as worth the $2 million dollar the university must make. But think of it from administrators view. If they give tenure when they shouldn't, they made a bad $2 million dollar bet. If they deny tenure to someone and that person many years later wins a Nobel Prize, everyone will conclude Old Siwash was stupid. However, they will say it only for a few days and it will blow over. Although it will cost something to hire your replacement, with any luck that person will work for even less than you do. Any statistician will tell you that, given these upside and downside risks, universities are absolutely rational to err on the no side, not on the yes side.

4. The tenure clock is really four and a half years, not seven. Remember that the rule is that the seventh contract is forever. Thus, the latest the decision can be made is in year six. Your dossier will have to be completed for the powers-that-be by the beginning of year. Although you can count publications that have been accepted, journal (or book publisher) review time averages over a year in most fields. Thus, you have to submit your work for publication by the beginning of year five. It will take you six months to write up your results. Ergo, four and a half years!

5. Tenure committees look almost exclusively at publications that appear in peer-reviewed journals or in scholarly books. It is, in a sense, a tragedy that you get much more credit for what appears in a write only journal (i.e., a journal with minute circulation) than what appears in a high circulation, widely read popular magazine. But that is the way the game is played.

6. If, by chance, you have tenure, never take another appointment without it. The people who promise it real soon may not be there when the crunch comes.

7. Like research support, tenure can be negotiated on the way in. Nobody tells you (and nobody admits it) but tenure is, in effect, transferable. Be firm in your position that since you have tenure, you wouldn't think of moving without it.

8. New cross-discipline fields are tougher to get tenure in because you are judged by the standards of people who made their mark in a single, well-established discipline. For example, the field of Information Systems, which is taught in business schools, combines a hard science (computer science) and two soft sciences (organizational behavior and management). People in this field publish at the intersection of disciplines. However, they are judged by people in the pure disciplines and are expected to contribute to these pure disciplines. Research that combines existing ideas from several disciplines is discounted by the purists even though it is the essence of the field.

9. Tenure as we know it today may not be here forever. The problem stems from changes in the retirement law and in public attitudes. Beginning in 1992, you could not be forced to retire because you had reached a mandatory retirement age. Thus, colleges that grant tenure are stuck with you as long as you want to work whether you perform or not. The teaching life is fulfilling and the paycheck is better than your retirement income (Your income even gets better if you reach 70 because you can then take out of your tax-deferred retirement nest egg and can still collect your paycheck as well as your social security.) Beside which, what would you do with yourself in retirement? When our late colleague, Peter Drucker (who was still teaching at 92) was asked why he didn't retire, replied, Why retire at 65? I cant see myself driving a Winnebago for 25 years.

10. Universities have a different objective than you do. They want to avoid deadwood and take age as prima facie evidence of your being past it. They certainly want you out of there before Alzheimers strikes. If the number of positions is constricted, they prefer to take your slot and give it to a bright young person who is more current, may work for less, and who revitalizes your department. Tenure forces them to hold on to you because firing you for age would be discrimination. They are joined in this view by the younger faculty who want new opportunities. As a result, some universities already introduced a rolling tenure arrangement where people are reviewed every five years, and may be encouraged to leave after poor performance.

11. The number of tenured slots in some universities may decrease. Jack Schuster and Martin Finkelstein, in a forthcoming book on the American professoriate, report data that show that the number of part-time and full-time hires who are off the tenure track increased significantly in the last several years, from a few percent in the late 1970s to over 50 percent today. It is not clear whether this change is the result of universities hedging their bets because they fear enrollments will go down in some areas, or whether it is a deliberate move to reduce the size (and with it, the power) of the tenured faculty, or whether they simply want to reduce their payroll. Our advice is not to accept a position off the tenure track because your chances of ever getting back on could be between zero and nil.

II. Academic Rank

1. Just as there has been grade inflation, so has there been rank inflation. It used to be that people with new Ph.D.s were hired as instructors and there were four ranks. Today there are only three, assistant, associate, and full professor. Tenure usually is the transition to associate. Full professor is, of course, the desired state.

2. Being a tenured full professor in a research university is as close to freedom as you can come in American society. Yes, you must meet your classes. However, when you walk into your office in the morning, it is you who decides what you should be working on, not someone else. You can decide to continue what youv'e done previously or delve into something new. You are limited only by your imagination. It is a state much desired by others and one you have achieved.

3. When you reach the exalted state of tenured associate professor, the time has come to see the big picture and undertake large, long-term research projects so that you can become a full professor. Unfortunately, you have spent the previous six years (and your thesis time) doing small, short-term research projects, each designed to earn you a publication or two so that you can achieve tenure. The system never taught you how to conduct a large project. You are therefore put back into a learning situation. Merely doing more of what you did as an assistant professor doesn't hack it in major institutions because the promotion committees ask different questions. Having survived the tenure hurdle, everyone knows you can do research. But, to be a full professor, you have to be known for something.

4. Avoid becoming the dreaded permanent associate professor. It is a dead end. You are given all the committee assignments that no one else wants. Although people are nice to permanent associate professors, behind their back they cluck about poor Smith. It is important for you to remember that if you stay as an associate professor for too long, the time for promotion passes you by. This interval varies from institution to institution. However, while still an assistant professor, it will pay you to gauge how long it takes people in your college or department to be promoted from associate to full professor. Try to be in the middle or earlier. Remember, too, that you have to have done something to merit promotion.

5. Promotion to associate professor, or from associate to full professor, provides a unique opportunity to request a substantial pay increase. Most colleges provide minimal raises for faculty each year. Many make exceptions for a promotion.

III. Department Chairs

1. Department chairs will seem to be lofty people to you, having a job to which you will think you should aspire. Its not quite all roses and wine.

2. Never, never become a department chair, even an acting department chair, unless you are a tenured full professor. Yes, it will reduce your teaching load. Yes, it will give you visibility. Yes, you will be the first person contacted by an outside firm seeking a consultant. No, it will not confer power on you. The job carries with it some onerous burdens. First and foremost is that most department chairs do less research and publish less while in that position than they would as a faculty member. Thus, you are producing less portable wealth per year and you are reducing your chances for tenure or for promotion. The service you perform does not get you tenure. Don't feel flattered if the job is offered and you are pressured by the dean to accept it. What is really going on is that there is no other viable candidate who is willing to do it. If you must accept, realize that you are in the same bargaining position as a new hire. The dean wants you badly. Use the opportunity to obtain something in return. If you are untenured, accept the job subject to the condition that tenure is granted in the next academic year; if an associate professor, insist on a promotion to full. Be clear beforehand that you will resign the chairs job if the agreement is broken and, if it is (as is often the case!) follow through. As the advertisement says, deans operate on the principle promise them anything but give them.

3. Be aware that the powers of a department chair are few. One of us wrote down the seven absolute powers he had at a particular university. The list was as follows:

The right to attend meetings of the department chairs with the dean.

The right to chair meetings of the department.

The right to interview candidates for department secretary.

The right (subject to a few side conditions) to select which classes he/she would teach personally and at which times.

The right to approve (or disapprove) student petitions.

The right to greet outside visitors to the department.

The right to resign as chair.

4. You will spend a considerable amount of your time solving problems given to you by your faculty colleagues. he faculty will want you to obtain goodies for them (space, computers, research money, reduced teaching loads, and on and on). On the other hand, the dean will want you to act as a first line manager whose main role is to keep the bastards down so they cause no trouble. The job is best characterized by a line from Gilbert and Sullivans Gondoliers: But the privilege and pleasure that we treasure beyond measure is to run a little errand for the Ministers of State!

5. You will learn a lot about bad management by observing the various chairs, deans, and higher administrators. You will feel that any dolt could do better than they do and you will often be right. At some point, however, management may become real for you as you are asked to become a department chair or an assistant dean. Now you have to provide leadership and avoid the traps that your predecessors fell into. Management is a discipline that you can study and learn. Those people in the business school really do know something and what they know about is leadership. Like teaching, leadership is a learnable art.

6. If you do become chair, recognize that most students who come into your office do so while in crisis. They are unhappy about a grade. They want to be exempted from a course or an examination. They need to explain to you that they did not cheat even though their term paper was word for word identical to one submitted by another student last year. You are the end of the line for them. You cannot throw them out. You have to listen and be firm while at the same time being sympathetic. It takes a strong stomach and a feeling for people.

7. Despite the foregoing caveats, being a department chair does have some redeeming social values. If you have a vision of where you think the future of the department lies, you have the ability as chair to use moral suasion to move people in the direction you believe right. Notice we use the term moral suasion, not power. You have to develop a constituency for your ideas. In academia, Theory X management (I tell, you do) does not apply. Japanese Theory Z management (nothing happens until there is consensus) is the appropriate model.

8. If you are department chair, don't stay in the job too long. You become a victim of your past decisions. You become locked into doing what you have done before, whether that is still the appropriate thing to do or not. Fortunately, unlike industry, you can keep pace if you step down and work for someone who previously worked for you. When you step down, don't second guess your successor(s) on every little point. They, like you before them, need all the help they can get.

David Drew and Paul Gray are professors, respectively, of education and information science at Claremont Graduate University.