What is a full professor? Judging by the actions of some of my overly eager colleagues, who put themselves up for promotion too quickly, and by the peers and administrators who sometimes allow them to be promoted too early, it is clearly a misunderstood rank.
At institutions with research missions, it is relatively easy to quantify what is required to receive tenure. You have to establish your potential and demonstrate a real reputation in your field, as measured by research productivity and the measurable quality of your research. Although tenure requirements rarely pronounce in black and white how many articles and/or books are required to get tenure, everyone knows what the magic numbers are. Barring horrible outside letters, a major irregularity in teaching and or service, or having the (mis)fortune to be at a university that pretends it only tenures those who are in the top three in their field, anyone who meets the "magic number" more or less will get tenure. The meaning of the promotion is quite clear: You are not unknown, you are establishing yourself within your field.
But what about full professor? It’s quite different. First, there’s no set timeline. Secondly, it goes without saying that the applicants to full professor are established to some degree in their fields of study because they earned tenure at some point in the past. So the question is, how have they taken their reputation to an entirely new level? It’s certainly not just publishing a few more things, or the same amount that they published to get tenure. It means publishing to whatever degree necessary to become something much greater than anyone who comes up for associate professor. And that greater thing is this: A NAME.
What is A NAME? A NAME is a force in the field. A go-to person in the field. Someone who everyone in the field has heard of somehow, somewhere. A NAME has published work that is cited a lot and is in some way foundational to certain conversations in the field. A NAME is something that is earned not only through actions (research, conferences, etc.) but through time, because it is with the passing of time, and the accumulation of achievements, that a person begins to achieve that special status. It takes time for books to be reviewed and read, and for articles to trickle down into other articles. Nothing happens fast. Being seasoned and getting respect takes time, and patience. Brilliance, hard work, ego and ambition are indeed important, but time is essential to make it all coalesce into…. A NAME!
There is something else that a full professor is, and that is an indispensable member of his or her university community. That means being a vital member of departmental or university life; it means throwing yourself into your place of work and making some sacrifices along the way. It’s not about counting beans, like how many baby departmental committees you’ve been on, but about the big guns: running a department, or serving on university committees that mattered and running job searches. And this, too, takes some time. It takes time to be known and to gain the respect of your colleagues across the university.
I’m not going to talk about collegiality because it is almost axiomatic that the eager early birds are precisely the members of the university community who are lonely and isolated, and for very good reason. No one likes them and their attitude.
So early birds, who do you think you are coming up for full professor within a few years of getting tenure at your institution? By sheer dint of will and ego, and determination, and the weak will of promotion committees composed of equally confused faculty, you may very well succeed, but will you really be a full professor? That honor, in a more intrinsic and meaningful sense, is reserved for those who take a different path, a more patient, methodical and dedicated path, driven by a deep desire to be something really special as a scholar and as a member of his or her university community. You’ll have the title for some years before they do, but theirs will actually mean something.
It’s really quite simple. You don’t rush good cheese and you don’t rush good wine. Don’t rush full professor.
Marc Nouri is the pseudonym of a hard-working associate professor at a large university in the Western United States who is looking forward to coming up for full when he feels he has earned it, not before.