The Long Look Back

Russell Olwell considers the process and benefits of applying to become a full professor.

May 22, 2009

Tenure and promotion to full professor are two common landmarks of academic careers, but the former looms far larger in the popular imagination and in writing about academic careers. While Tenure, the movie, is slated to arrive in theaters in 2009, no one would pitch a movie based on promotion to full professor – it lacks both the drama of the quest, and the comedy that often ensues.

The literature on tenure - preparing narratives and files, managing the review process, and mentally surviving the ordeal - is voluminous. However, the next big step in an academic career, promotion to full professor, is less written about, as the situation is so different. There is not gun to your head, and your job is not in danger, but the stakes are still high – a new title, respect, and often a substantial raise.

The dangers of being an associate professor indefinitely are different – an unsuccessful assistant professor risks homelessness, but as a recent article in Change magazine puts it, post-tenure professors can “settle into a dull routine or begin to invest their energies in activities outside of their professional lives.” The problem of stagnation at associate professor is not atypical – a recent Modern Languages Association report notes that the average time for promotion for some groups of women academics was over 9 years.

For those just receiving tenure, this is a good moment to think about what will make for a solid promotion document in just a few years, and to write out a concrete plan to get there. This may include having a teaching agenda of new classes or revising moldy academic programs. An expanded research agenda should a part of the plan, especially since tenure brings freedom to pursue important research topics, not just quick publications. Finally, service obligations need to be pursued strategically. For each obligation, ask whether it will serve your career goals, or just create one more burned out associate professor?

The promotion process measures good habits. The MLA report revealed that, on average, men spend two more hours per week researching and writing than women, and are promoted almost 2 years earlier. For faculty emerging from the tenure gauntlet, there is a need to recommit to spending time each week on research and writing, even if it is measured in minutes. Over the next years, this commitment to stay active in the scholarly field will be the different between promotion to full professor and being in a career holding pattern.

Even as a graduate student, I was aware that something had happened to people who were forever associate professors, even decades into their academic career. Not everyone gets promoted to full professor, leaving a proportion of faculty eternally associate, often with little hope of advancing further. Those trapped in this state have it written all over their title, a public pronouncement of their failure to make it to the top.

My experiences compiling materials for promotion and moving them through the system have convinced me that that promotion process can be valuable to mid-career faculty, and can help professors renew their commitments to their field. While the tenure process left me only with a feeling of relief that I would continue to have a job, the promotion process gave me a stronger sense of what I had done, and what future agenda I might pursue.

One colleague who wrote a letter for my promotion file stated the difference between tenure and promotion to full professor quite elegantly. He wrote that tenure is a question of your promise as a scholar, teacher, and colleague, and that promotion to full professor is a measure of “promise fulfilled” – that you have delivered with real accomplishments. At the time of tenure, it is too early in most fields to see more than someone’s potential and work ethic, and some evidence of success in the classroom and as a researcher.

By the time of promotion to full professor, a full decade has elapsed since hiring, and sometimes it shows. Faculty members who stopped all research with their dissertations are fully tapped out by year six or seven. Presentations at conferences might become less interesting than the free wine available at textbook receptions. Teaching, once fun, can get mighty stale in 20 or more semesters. Simply put, academic middle age can be unkind, with some faculty becoming less promotable each year.

Promotion to full professor is, in part, a measure of a faculty member’s intrinsic motivation. The tenure system, and the threat of firing, can focus people to write, present and lecture at a level they may not have thought possible. But over time, and without a stick chasing them, the reasons that people were drawn to research, write, teach – even read – in an academic field can become less important. The promotion process offers an opportunity to think about what has been important to you in a career, what has been accomplished, and what remains to be done. Since it is not a high stakes decision, your colleagues and superiors can give you a more honest opinion of your work, and since they know you better, their words can have more of an impact on you.

Examining over a decade’s worth of work also gives faculty a longer perspective on their careers. Publications and other materials needed for the tenure process need to be completed so quickly that there can be little thought to the “why” behind them. As the tenure application moves closer, material needs to be written, sent, off, revised, printed and put into the binder.

The promotion process is more leisurely, allowing some time to see where different research agendas have gone, to look at older work anew, and to see where you might be headed in the future. The promotion application also offers a chance to examine impact- which pieces have been cited or become part of scholarly conversation, and which pieces have simple dropped out of sight.

For teaching, the years between tenure and promotion also change the perspective on your effectiveness. When you are applying for tenure, you are simply looking at ratings, positive comments, ways in which you did a solid job in the classroom. An extra five years actually allows you to examine where your students ended up, and how mentoring them in college and afterwards helped them develop their careers.

In the letters of support I received from students for my promotion application, they pointed less to big picture items in my teaching (concepts, ideas) and much more to some of the small touches of teaching - taking students to a conference in my car, helping students put together resumes, having lunch with them to talk about their job search, helping them pass a licensing test. This kind of feedback, and seeing how these small items helped my students become employed professionals, is a good reinforcement of mentoring practices that I could have just as easily dropped over the years.

The promotion process can also be good for your relationship with your department and supervisors. Often, people know only a fraction of what you do, whether in the classroom, committee meetings or on paper. A promotion portfolio lets the people you work with see the full range of activities, and to give credit where it is due. As academic is a criticism-rich environment, promotion evaluations are a rare opportunity colleagues and superiors can compliment your work and effort, and to thank you for your contributions.

From the day after you turn in your promotion papers, you will catch yourself falling into back into old thought patterns – “I need to publish this paper in …” for my next report. But suddenly, you really don’t. You need to think about what you want to do, and how you want to make an impact in your field, without necessarily thinking of how it will look in an annual report or personnel report.

Applying for promotion is a way of addressing psychologist Erik Erikson’s central question about adulthood – are you still creative in your work, or are you stagnating? These questions are at the core of productive “midlife crisis” – and for faculty, these questions can help you focus your agenda for the next long segment of your career.


Russell Olwell is director of the Gear Up program and associate professor of history at Eastern Michigan University.


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