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Usable Knowledge

Battling the Midcareer Slump

How colleges can cultivate a vital and engaged faculty throughout their careers
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Contrary to conventional wisdom, the recognition and security of tenure does not send the recipient on a permanent trip over the rainbow to bluebirds and cheer. In fact, as the years pass following tenure, faculty at the associate professor level are increasingly prone to dissatisfaction with their jobs and a sense that their prospects are limited, according to a white paper [PDF] from the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. And the unfortunate truth is that feelings of professional discontent arise just at the stage in an academic career when university resources for faculty development are ebbing, directed more prominently toward pre-tenure faculty.

The Burdens of Success

According to Kiernan Mathews, the director of the COACHE initiative and the author of the white paper, the joy and relief of tenure can fade quickly in the face of increased teaching loads, greater expectations for service and advising, a more competitive market for grants, and the disappearance of mentoring programs that supported them as early-career faculty.

“The toll of these obligations is heavier on women and faculty of color who, given their fewer numbers at this rank (in many disciplines), are asked to serve more, advise more, show up more — and not just for their department and the university, but for their discipline, too,” Mathews writes. “These populations are also less privy to informal networks that provide support and clarity on promotion processes and criteria.”

The dissatisfaction can be fueled by a blurry sense of career trajectory, Mathews notes, and a gap between the expectations of senior academic leaders and the perspectives of department leaders and faculty themselves. His research has found that the one opportunity for promotion that is available to tenured associate professors — a promotion to full rank — often goes unrealized. Although most university provosts expect their associate professors to work toward promotion to full professor, department cultures often don’t reflect these expectations.

“Nearly 45 percent of experienced associates disagree that there is a culture of promotion in their departments,” according to the white paper. “Nearly two out of three experienced associates say they have never received formal feedback on their progress toward promotion. They are more than two times more likely than recently tenured associates to report that they have no plans to submit their dossier for promotion. In fact, nearly 20 percent say they intend never to come up for full professor.”

COACHE Recommendations

Through its work with partners in the field, COACHE has identified interventions that can help academic leaders identify midcareer challenges and support faculty in their advancement. Here is a summary; you can find real-world examples in the paper.

  • Frame the issue with data. Before you take steps to address the challenges, be sure you understand them. Use your “frozen” data — numbers of associates, time in rank, numbers by department, by gender, by race/ethnicity — and your transactional data: research productivity, teaching loads, and other activities you track. Are there patterns where women and faculty of color are disproportionately stalled or service-burdened? Are there associates who are ready for promotion?
  • Partner with your faculty. Engage them in researching and solving the problem. Look to former chairs, emeritus faculty, and recently retired faculty for leadership.
  • Design orientations that span the career. At new faculty orientations, describe the faculty career life cycle, including a description of the realities of newly tenured life and possibilities for success at the associate level.
  • Implement a career re-visioning program. Talk with faculty about what excites them, and develop a plan that allows them to do it.
  • Open doors to reengagement through tenure and promotion reform. Consider whether you need to broaden the criteria required for promotion or define more inclusive notions of mid-career “excellence.”
  • Require departmental plans for mentoring associate professors. Institute an expectation of mid-career mentoring, but allow departments to discuss and identify the mentoring plans that best solves their particular challenges.
  • Recognize that there is no “capital F” Faculty, but many faculties. The needs and challenges of departments will differ, but common themes will emerge from open-ended, faculty-led discussion.
  • When all else fails . . .  Engage faculty in candid but circumspect discussion about the few professors whose behavior may be causing problems for their colleagues and departments.

Additional Resources


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