A Full View of Faculty Jobs

Professors' careers need advancement well beyond being promoted from one rank to another, writes Kerry K. Karukstis.

August 20, 2010

Success in the academic world is often equated with attaining certain significant career milestones. For assistant professors, tenure is their holy grail. The aspiration of mid-career faculty is generally promotion to full professor. Receiving an endowed professorship – an honor conferred upon a select few faculty members – is definitely a landmark occasion. Indeed, these are highly coveted achievements. Any beginning faculty member presented with a genie in a bottle would likely have three wishes that included one or more of these goals. Yet those of us in higher education don’t gauge our day-to-day level of satisfaction with our careers solely by these momentous – albeit highly desirable – milestones. While these accolades are rewarding, they are generally not sustaining. If faculty members relied only on a formal institutional reward structure to provide their motivation, the lack of such incentives, especially after tenure and promotion, might lead to professional paralysis.

Defining Job Satisfaction

Despite reward structures, most faculty members would profess passion for their teaching and scholarly pursuits as the personal motivating factors that provide career contentment and drive them to continued growth and success. Also gratifying are the high degree of autonomy and independence of our positions and the level of job security that comes with tenure – both justifiably prime reasons for entering and remaining in the profession. Thus, it is not surprising that faculty members report higher levels of satisfaction with their occupations than the general American public. According to a report released earlier this year, only 45 percent of 5,000 American households surveyed say they are satisfied with their jobs. That statistic represents the lowest level of job satisfaction in two decades. In contrast, an overall job satisfaction of 74.8 percent was reported in the recent Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) survey of over 22,000 full-time faculty members at nearly 400 accredited four-year colleges and universities who teach undergraduates as all or part of their duties.

Despite the apparent contentment with our professions, do faculty members believe there is room for improvement? Absolutely – even at the full professor level! A closer look at the results of the HERI survey at predominantly undergraduate institutions reveals several components of job satisfaction with low ratings, particularly at the full professor rank and especially for women. Of course, increases in salary, adjustments in teaching load, enhanced levels of clerical support, and greater availability of child care are always desirable. But what is most striking is the discontent with three factors that one would assume would not be issues for those faculty members – full professors – at the pinnacle of their careers. These factors are: visibility for jobs at other institutions/organizations (62.8 percent of male full professors cited satisfaction vs. 54.2 percent of female full professors); prospects for career advancement (67.2 percent vs. 58.2 percent); and opportunities for scholarly pursuits (66.0 percent vs. 50.8 percent). These data suggest that professional development initiatives that are directed toward enhancing the visibility, leadership, and productivity of senior faculty – particularly women – might enhance careers and contribute to greater job satisfaction.

Career Resources for Senior Faculty

Professional development for senior faculty? Such a notion is the antithesis of most faculty development programs today, with institutions typically providing an extensive array of support mechanisms for junior faculty. Balancing faculty resources among all ranks would be a more logical approach to ensuring institutional success through faculty career growth. The absence of formal services for experienced faculty can be viewed as the opportune circumstance to create the appropriate resources needed and to simultaneously promote the notion that such career support is designed to allow successful faculty to thrive even more. So, what type of career assistance might be most beneficial to senior faculty at baccalaureate institutions, especially for women? Let me suggest three key approaches.

Opportunities for periodic professional renewal. Of course, the concept of a sabbatical is well-entrenched in academic life. But professional enrichment must and can occur on a more frequent time scale than the seven-year cycle. Experiences that provide faculty with the time and resources for growth and reflection enhance an institution’s success and should be both encouraged and rewarded. This is especially important because established faculty members often neglect their own continued professional development in deference to the service needs of their department or institution. For example, the HERI survey indicated that significant proportions of full professors at baccalaureate institutions mentor new faculty “to a great extent” – 29.8 percent of male full professors and 44.5 percent of female full professors reported serving in this capacity. Furthermore, whereas 36.8 percent of female assistant professors and 27.7 percent of male assistant professors at predominantly undergraduate institutions report spending five or more hours per week on committee work and in meetings, 51.5 percent of the female full professors and 43.0 percent of the male full professors at these institutions report similar time commitments.

How does an institution demonstrate its belief in the importance of professional development and encourage faculty members to not view scholarly activity as the only means of career development? One way is to provide separate funds (distinct from research support) for a variety of professional development strategies to suit the needs of each faculty member. For example, participation in conferences sponsored by professional organizations such as the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the Council on Undergraduate Research, and Project Kaleidoscope enable faculty to examine the latest issues in higher education, enhance professional skills and exchange successful practices, and network with others at similar campuses or facing comparable challenges. Professional coaching services offered by the Association for Women in Science, the American Council on Education Fellows Program for those interested in exploring higher education administration, the ACE Department Leadership program for chair development – all are examples of specialized career development programs that will benefit a contingent of faculty members. Allowing faculty to suggest individualized programs of professional development would serve the greatest range of career needs. Institutions can provide faculty with both the time and the resources to receive this enrichment.

Opportunities to build a faculty member’s leadership capacity. Faculty governance is an important characteristic of predominantly undergraduate institutions, and formal positions such as department chairs and associate deans certainly develop leadership skills. But such positions of responsibility can be small in number and infrequently available on some campuses. Informal mechanisms for creatively sharing major responsibilities can enable additional faculty members to take leadership roles in department and college administration. For example, many departments have created “vice chair” positions to relieve the chair of some administrative tasks such as assigning teaching responsibilities and scheduling classes. Ad hoc positions, such as directing the development and implementation of departmental curricular revision, also can serve as occasions to enhance supervisory and organizational skills. Faculty members should also consider officer positions and advisory committees in professional societies as outstanding ways to build both leadership capacity and professional visibility. These are meaningful ways to address career advancement ambitions.

Opportunities to foster connections. The exchange of ideas through interactions with colleagues and with others with varied career experiences can serve as a rich resource for valuable career guidance and recommendations. Such interactions are even more essential for those who experience a sense of professional isolation, often the case for those at geographically-isolated institutions or in disciplines with low representation on a given campus. With women representing only 16 percent of the full professors in the sciences at predominantly undergraduate institutions, efforts to promote occasions for female faculty to meet, interact, and develop connections are essential to overcome gender isolation. One way to accomplish this objective is for institutions to use existing consortial arrangements to foster opportunities for senior women faculty to meet.

Creative approaches that look beyond our institutions to address the professional development needs of senior faculty are also viable alternatives to on-campus programs. With funding from the National Science Foundation ADVANCE Partnerships for Adaptation, Implementation, and Dissemination (PAID) program, I have been a part of an enormously transformative initiative to investigate the efficacy of using a “horizontal mentoring” strategy involving the formation of five-member alliances of senior women faculty members in chemistry or physics at different institutions to address professional development issues. As a culminating event of the project, 51 senior women professors in chemistry and physics from 46 liberal arts colleges gathered in Washington to tackle that challenge of identifying the elements that make for a satisfying academic career. The two-day working meeting considered the practices, infrastructure, and campus climate needed to support and enhance the professional careers, visibility, and leadership of senior women science faculty on liberal arts campuses. This first-ever summit meeting focused on the Advancement of Senior Women Scientists at Liberal Arts Colleges generated a set of recommendations for individuals, departments, institutions, professional societies, and funding agencies to promote the professional development of women STEM faculty at liberal arts colleges. These recommendations for advancing women in the professoriate will be disseminated in a final report to be published later this summer.

Maintenance of faculty vitality in terms of professional expertise, enthusiasm, and engagement is the primary responsibility of the faculty member. As George Bernard Shaw said, “If you do not take the time to get the career you want, be prepared to take what you get.” By the same token, an investment by an institution in the continuous development of a faculty member’s career will have a broad impact on the faculty member, his/her students, and on the ability of the institution to attract and retain excellent faculty. A faculty development program based on the synergetic interrelationship between faculty and an institution might just provide the career satisfaction that we seek.


Kerry K. Karukstis is professor of chemistry and chair of the faculty at Harvey Mudd College and holds the Joseph B. Platt Chair in Effective Teaching.


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