From Associate to Full Professor

Keisha N. Blain shares some tips, strategies and resources to help midcareer scholars overcome barriers to promotion.

May 22, 2020
 
 

In the academy, the path to tenure is a very difficult one. Yet many resources are available for anyone who has questions and needs advice along the way. With a myriad of books and articles on how to earn tenure to workshops and mentoring programs, there is no dearth of material on how to secure tenure.

By contrast, many fewer resources are available that offer clarity on the path toward becoming a full professor. In fact, recent responses to one of my tweets on this issue suggest that public resources on how to become a full professor are hard to come by. That poses a distinct challenge for all midcareer scholars, but especially for black and Latinx scholars, who currently make up an estimated 7 percent of full professors on college campuses.

As Manya Whitaker argued in a recent article, “It is essential that the professional train not stop at ‘associate’ for Ph.D.s who are women and/or members of marginalized groups.” Becoming a full professor opens up a wealth of leadership opportunities on a campus. In some departments, for example, professors cannot be considered for the position of chair or director of graduate studies until they are full professors. Holding those kinds of leadership positions allows scholars to maintain some institutional power, which makes it possible to advocate for other people and push for meaningful change.

In this way, promotion to full professor is not simply about individual success. It is about the ability to harness institutional power and influence to help open doors and create opportunities for people who might otherwise be shut out. For those of us who are deeply committed to transforming the academy -- even as we recognize its many limitations and challenges -- becoming a full professor is an important step. How do we get there?

Although some of the scholars in my Twitter community shared my frustrations about the scarcity of resources on the path to full, many offered valuable tips and strategies that you might want to consider if you are an associate professor seeking to be promoted to full professor. They also shared some links to resources that they found most useful.

First, many emphasized the need for tenured professors to do careful research about the requirements for full professorship. That includes speaking to your chair as well as other colleagues and mentors. Because each institution has its own expectations, you should try to get a general sense of what your department and university requires.

According to Ellen Muehlberger, a full professor of history and Middle East studies at the University of Michigan, associate professors need to carefully survey their departments, paying close attention to those who were promoted to full in the last few years. “Make a table of everyone in your department/s or unit/s who has come up in the last 10 years,” she tweeted, “and list what they came up with or when their book came out.” Muehlberger went on to add a nugget of truth that is perhaps most relevant for women and scholars of color: “that table is a great tool for sussing out what is going on if anyone tells you [it's] ‘too early’ for you to go up. Looking at it together can point out when/where social categories are bending their sense of your readiness.”

Second, many people emphasized the importance of being strategic about your next book project. Requirements for promotion to full professor will vary based on the type of institution in which you work. For those of you who teach at R-1 (and some R-2) institutions, the general expectation is to write a second book. That is especially true for academics in fields such as history and English.

Historian Katherine Rye Jewell, a tenured professor at Fitchburg State University, shared a tip she found especially valuable from one of her mentors: “look for projects with small archival collections requiring only a day trip or an overnight and digitized materials … [plan with] materials in mind.” With the mounting pressures of service, teaching and mentoring, tenured associate professors are often stretched too thin to make substantial progress on their research and writing. Adopting a practical approach to research, as Jewell emphasized, may hasten your path to completing a second book -- especially while juggling so many new responsibilities as a tenured member of the faculty. Completing the second book will make the goal of becoming a full professor all the more attainable.

Third, many encouraged associate professors to take advantage of opportunities that might be available on their campuses -- and beyond. While it is true that resources are scarce, some institutions and professional organizations are working to provide more help and support for midcareer scholars. The University of Missouri-St. Louis, for example, recently launched a new initiative aimed at helping associate professors prepare to go up for full. Led by Marie Mora, associate provost for academic affairs at the university, the yearlong program called Associate-to-Full provides participants in the program with a mentor, additional research and conference travel funds, and the opportunity to attend two full days of sessions that address the challenges of becoming a full professor.

Similarly, Michigan State University hosted a symposium aimed at offering “ideas and strategies that will assist midcareer academics.” The symposium, which featured a keynote address by Kiernan Mathews, executive director and principal investigator at the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Education at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, was recorded and is now available for public viewing. At Purdue University, the Butler Center for Leadership Excellence holds an annual conference for associate professors on the campus, specifically targeting women professors who are underrepresented as full professors in the academy.

For those of you who are unable to find these kinds of opportunities on your campus, other resources are available to everyone, regardless of your institutional affiliation. The National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, for instance, provides a wealth of such resources for midcareer scholars, especially those of color. They include an informative and dynamic webinar, “Moving From Associate to Full Professor,” led by Joy Gaston Gayles, professor of higher education and program coordinator in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy and Human Development at North Carolina State University. Many institutions maintain an active membership in NCFDD, allowing faculty members to sign up for an account and easily access these materials. In this article, Gayles highlights some of the strategies and tips she discusses in depth in the NCFDD workshop.

In addition, various institutions and scholarly societies offer workshops for midcareer scholars at institutions that require a second monograph for promotion to full. These include an annual book workshop offered by the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic and a new workshop, led by Robert J. Patterson, professor of African American studies at Georgetown University, for midcareer scholars writing second books in the field of black studies.

Several published works on the subject offer additional feedback and guidance for midcareer scholars. Patricia A. Matthew, editor of the must-read book Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure, recently shared a journal article on the dynamics of race and gender on the path to full. The article, “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” presents the results of a recent study by scholars Crystal R. Chambers and Sydney Freeman Jr. on the experiences of a group of tenured black faculty who were promoted to the rank of full professor.

Amanda Jeanne Swain, executive director of the Humanities Commons at the University of California, Irvine, recommends Success After Tenure, an edited collection that grapples with many of the challenges tenured professors face at a variety of institutions. (A symposium at Harvard University, based on this book, was recorded and is now available for public viewing.) One of the chapter titles, “Where Did All the Mentoring Go?” captures the feelings of so many midcareer scholars who are now on the path to becoming full.

While there are many barriers to promotion, including systemic inequalities in the academy, the tips, strategies and resources offered here may offer some clarity, wisdom and guidance.

Bio

Keisha N. Blain is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and current president of the African American Intellectual History Society. She is the author of the multi-prize-winning book Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom. Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain.

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