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As Athena Vongalis-Macrow so aptly noted, “Any midcareer professional will tell you that being left alone in a new organization is the last thing that they want or need.” Our midcareer faculty members face a troubling trend. While other industries and fields invest in, and require, continuing education for their midcareer professionals, higher education does not.

Accounting, K-12 education, law and various medical fields require their practitioners to complete a minimum amount of professional development to maintain their licenses. This type of long-term professional investment certainly makes sense. It encourages lifelong engagement in one’s field and ensures that a professional’s skills, knowledge and abilities stay relevant and current.

Yet higher education has no such requirement for the professoriate. Once a faculty member earns tenure and promotion, professional development opportunities are limited. That raises important questions about the implications of a lack of investment in the people whom scholars have referred to as the backbone of the academy and future institutional leaders: midcareer faculty members.

The Path to the Professoriate

Doctoral students immerse themselves in their fields. They take courses, engage in research and/or teaching assistantships, spend countless hours in labs or studios, and make many personal and professional sacrifices. Doctoral education is an all-consuming endeavor that, while not for the faint of heart, can be very rewarding.

Faculty advisers and supervisors, along with staff members and peers, hopefully invest a great deal of time in grooming this next generation of academics. Doctoral students are taught the methodological, theoretical and conceptual tools in their respective fields, and they develop their research and teaching skills under the guidance of experts in their programs. Such experts help doctoral students review their curricula vitae, prepare their job applications and practice job talks to help those students be competitive on the academic job market.

Once a newly hired faculty member earns a tenure-track position, that person continues to receive development and training. Most institutions provide some type of mentoring program, whether formal or informal, to provide needed support to the early-career colleague to help them navigate the path toward tenure and promotion. Additionally, most institutions have some type of interim review process, which, ideally, provides ongoing developmental feedback to them. Meanwhile, the newly hired faculty member is often shielded from duties that take time away from such professional support and development.

Then it happens: the faculty member earns tenure and promotion. And along with tenure and promotion come varied roles and responsibilities, and the shielding that once was, is no longer. Membership on campus committees that do not do much to advance professional goals becomes assumed. The mentee now becomes the mentor of early-career colleagues, with little to no support to successfully manage this transition or career stage -- one characterized by less clearly defined milestones and even fewer formal supports than before. Essentially, midcareer faculty members find themselves in a new organizational role -- a role that is not clearly defined and for which the professional development opportunities to be successful are sparse.

Success After Tenure

Higher education institutions can take some important steps to help faculty members through this ill-defined career stage. They can start by understanding that, while the issues midcareer faculty members face often transcend institutional settings, it is up to individual colleges and universities to provide the support and advocacy those faculty members need.

Research in the area also suggests four key takeaways for both faculty members and colleges:

  • Earning tenure and promotion does not mean professional development opportunities are no longer needed. In fact, it’s quite the contrary, given the ways in which the professoriate is evolving and expanding at this career stage.
  • To be successful, faculty development supports (particularly at the midcareer stage) must be situated at the intersection of institutional priorities and individual needs and goals. For example, if one goal of an institution’s strategic plan is to forge sustainable local partnerships and global collaborations, faculty development programming should be aimed at helping faculty members foster such relationships with key local and global constituents, as well as providing monetary and developmental supports to facilitate collaboration. This intersection is a strategic sweet spot that results in the achievement of institutional and individual outcomes.
  • National and institutional contexts matter. The face of higher education is changing, and campuses must respond. These contexts must be accounted for when envisioning, developing, implementing and assessing the effectiveness of midcareer faculty development efforts. For example, faculty developers and those tasked with faculty development responsibilities should provide resources and programming to faculty members on how to advise and support first-generation students and mentor a diversifying professoriate.
  • A one-size-fits-all approach to faculty development is antiquated and a poor use of resources. Each institution should collect data on a regular basis and use those data to inform midcareer faculty development programming to ensure it is appropriately serving both the institution and the intended population of midcareer faculty members.

More than 15 years ago, Walter Gmelch, professor of leadership studies at the University of San Francisco, posed a simple yet powerful question: Why do we think we can develop a department chair or another institutional leader in a weekend workshop when it takes years of engagement and immersion in one’s field as a doctoral student and early-career colleague to develop disciplinary and field expertise?

Unfortunately, this same approach to developing -- or, in fact, not developing -- institutional leaders is very much relevant today, and it does a disservice to the midcareer faculty members who seek to serve their institutions and re-envision the next phase of their careers. Senior administrators have an opportunity to ensure their colleges and universities are in capable, well-developed hands by investing in the next generation of institutional leaders: midcareer faculty.

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