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PhDs - The Transition from Graduate Student to Assistant Professor


Finally, the opportunity to teach your own syllabus and not have to worry about how to diplomatically deal with your student's complaints that the lectures and readings are boring, out of date, and lack the intellectual frisson that you can bring to your chosen field of study. What does it mean to make the move from GSI and research assistant to assistant professor? No single summary can provide an adequate description of the variance to be found among different departments and the many different types of colleges and universities.

The paragraphs below are designed to give you a broad sense of what is expected of you as a tenure-track, junior faculty member. For more about the specifics of your field, talk to the faculty in your department and ask for the names of some recent PhDs from your department's placement advisor. If there is a bias in what follows, it is towards smaller colleges and universities because in the smaller departments found in such institutions you are less likely to find peers who can advise you, and expectations based on your experience at Berkeley are likely to be less helpful as a guide.

Types of Positions

With rare exceptions, there are two types of junior faculty positions: visiting/adjunct faculty and tenure-track. The difference between them is merely night and day. The other key distinction is between institutions that emphasize research and those which stress teaching. Here, the differences can be more subtle, and are often very difficult to gauge.

Visiting/Adjunct Professor - These positions are either part-time and/or limited, fixed term appointments. Visiting positions range from one semester to three years, and at times are renewable. Typically, visiting professors are hired to replace faculty on leave or to provide coverage in an area where the administration doesn't want to commit a tenure slot. Visiting/adjunct faculty generally carry higher teaching loads at a significantly lower salary than their tenure-track brethren. Often they must share an office, sometimes located in the basement or some other out of the way place, and lack access to computers and other resources. You are also less likely to have control over which courses you teach and how you teach them. Given the heavy teaching demands, and especially if you have a lengthy commute, you may find it difficult to get much scholarly work done. Visiting positions can provide you with teaching experience and help keep body and soul together, but they are rarely an avenue into a tenure-track position. When such positions come open, they almost always entail a national search. Your status as the incumbent may help, but is not likely to be a decisive factor.

Lecturer - Lectureships are typically longer term than visiting/adjunct positions, but are non-tenured positions. Contracts can range up to five years, often renewable, but as above with a higher teaching load and less infrastructural support than a tenure-track position. These positions are generally found in areas such as foreign language instruction or the arts which may or may not require a PhD.

Tenure-Track (aka The Promised Land) - These are positions for which there is every expectation, and administrative budgetary commitment, that the person will receive a tenure review within seven years that if passed successfully provides for lifetime employment with the college or university. Most newly-minted PhDs are hired as assistant professors, promoted to associate upon achieving tenure, and go through an additional review, five to seven years later, for promotion to full professor. The rank of associate professor does not necessarily imply tenured status. An experienced, assistant professor who moves to another university or a PhD with significant, relevant, non-academic experience may be hired as a non-tenured associate professor generally with tenure review to follow within a year or two. An instructor is generally an ABD (All But Dissertation) hired for an assistant professor slot and is usually listed as such as soon as the degree is awarded.

Once you are hired, the tenure clock begins to tick, and usually you will come up for tenure in your sixth year. Typically, you will receive an initial two to four year contract, and go through a review in your second or third year. At some schools, these reviews are perfunctory, but at others they are a major production requiring you to assemble a substantial file including outside letters of support for your scholarship at least some of which are from people who were not on your committee or in your placement file. If you are successful in this first review, you receive an additional contract that will take you through the probationary period. If not, you usually have a remaining academic year on your contract to find a new position. At most research-oriented colleges and universities, you will receive a semester or year-long paid sabbatical after successfully navigating this review.

Tenure Review

The tenure review generally occurs in your sixth year, though at most institutions you can choose to come up for tenure earlier. If you are hired as an ABD, are injured or disabled for a significant period of time, get grants to take an unpaid leave, or have a child during your probationary period you may be able to negotiate having your clock stopped for a semester or a year. If you are offered a tenure-track job as an ABD, the time to raise the possibility of an extension is when you are hired (and they are still dazzled by you) and not two years later.

The review process is one of the most demanding and nerve-wracking experiences you will ever have to go through - with good reason. You are asking your department and institution to allocate a significant share of their resources to you for the next thirty to forty years. On the other hand, if you receive it you gain a measure of security and freedom in your chosen profession that is extremely rare in contemporary society. You need to start thinking about what you want to have in your tenure file from the minute you accept their offer.

The tenure file begins with

  • Evidence of your teaching record and evaluations,
  • Copies of all your publications and/or artistic creations,
  • Outside letters assessing your scholarship and standing in the field, and
  • A record of your service to the institution and administrative contributions.
The file is usually completed by October and made available to all the tenured members of the department.  Letters are then written by every tenured member of the department (if it is small) or tenured members of your sub-field and interested others (if it is large) which then become part of the file.  There is a formal vote by the department, and the resulting recommendation is communicated in the form of a final letter from the chair, representing the overall view of the department. The file is now complete.

At most but not all schools, the recommendation of the department is then forwarded along with your dossier to a committee of tenured faculty drawn from a range of departments which may or may not endorse the recommendation of the department. Depending on the size of the institution, your file may pass up through more than one such committee. Finally, it is up to the president, provost, or chancellor to make the final decision. Presidents et. al. usually have absolute discretion in this regard, and may choose to reject unanimous recommendations from below.

Throughout the following paragraphs, there are references to choices that should be made by junior faculty (the non-tenured) with at least some consideration of how it will impact your ability to present as impressive a tenure file as possible. This is not meant to convey cynicism, but it's important to realize that absent tenure you will be unable to accomplish most if not all of the goals you set for yourself when you decided to enter academia. You will need to ask yourself whether a given project, course, or commitment should be started now, or deferred until after you've satisfied the powers that be that you deserve the commitment that tenure entails.

The Job: Teaching

As an assistant professor your job consists of three components: teaching, research, and service to the institution (serving on academic and administrative committees). The relative importance of these three varies widely depending on the institution and its requirements for tenure.

At a major research university or top-ranked small college, the teaching load is typically 2-2 (two courses per semester, and at a university you may teach graduate and undergraduate versions of the same course each semester) in the social sciences and humanities - less in the sciences and engineering.   At the other end of the spectrum, there are many colleges and some universities where faculty carry a 4-4 teaching load.  Even in the latter case, it is unlikely that you would be asked to teach eight different courses, and a distinction is commonly made between the number of courses you teach and the number of preparations (i.e., teaching the same syllabus more than once in a semester or year). The number of preparations you are required to teach may be almost as important as the number of courses, and this is often negotiable for first year faculty if you remember to ask.

Creating new courses can require an enormous investment of time and energy especially if you teach in a field where textbooks are rarely utilized.  No one (rather no "sane" one) teaches five new courses their first year.  Borrow from your friends, and remember imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Some institutions and departments have set curriculum and teaching methods, especially for intro and core courses, but for the most part you will enjoy wide latitude in designing and teaching your courses as you see fit. It is important, however, to think about how your style of pedagogy fits with the prevailing culture of your new home. Students at small colleges (especially the better ones) will resist having to listen to lectures on an ongoing basis without the opportunity to participate. At the same time, a purely Socratic approach is likely to bog down in an intro class of 500. You want to find a style and approach that fits your personality and your pedagogical philosophy, but it also makes sense to recognize that you are not teaching in a vacuum. If you encounter difficulty, as most do, talk to your new colleagues. Everyone has gone through the same adjustment, and most are happy to help.

In addition to coursework, the teaching function typically involves advising incoming freshman, majors, and supervising independent studies and senior theses. First year faculty are usually exempt from these duties. They can be among the most satisfying parts of the job, but they can also be very time consuming. In a similar vein, you may be asked to teach as a part of a multi-disciplinary team (e.g., The Renaissance, or The Emergence of the Pacific Rim). This can be a fun and stimulating experience and a good way to get to know faculty from other departments. But team-taught courses tend to be more work, and you are very unlikely to get much credit for being a good corporate citizen when the tenure committee meets.

The Job: Research

Higher education is getting increasingly competitive, and there are very few colleges and universities that are not keenly interested in their relative status and prestige as reflected in guide books and, especially, US News and World Reports. One of the keys to increasing an institution's visibility and ability to attract good students, in the minds of most senior officials, is the reputation of its faculty as reflected by publications and other markers of recognition and achievement (e.g., getting grants). You may find yourself at a place where many tenured and senior faculty haven't published for years, if ever, but times have changed. Many schools which used to look only at teaching, service, and general amiability, now expect publications in a tenure file.

Across the spectrum of institutions, expectations have ratcheted upwards. Where a few articles would have sufficed a few years ago, you now need a book. Instead of a book, you need a book (at a university or prestigious commercial press) and clear evidence of progress on a post-dissertation project.

You are unlikely to ever get a clear answer to the question how much am I expected to publish for tenure. The best you can do is try to assess what recently successful candidates have done in similar fields. You need to be aware that different disciplines, even if closely related, may have different standards. Political scientists for example write books, economists write monographs and articles. If your primary medium of scholarly expression is relatively new (computer software, multimedia, internet-based journal) or unusual (e.g., plays directed, dances choreographed, exhibitions curated) you need to educate those who will evaluate your scholarly production sooner rather than later. Don't assume that they must have done it before, especially at a smaller institution.

Don't delay sending out draft articles and manuscripts until you have it just right. You will likely have to revise it on the basis of reviewers' comments anyway. Let it go. Time is of the essence, and passes shockingly fast, even if you don't have small children. There are few places in life where the perfect is more of an enemy of the good/publishable.

The Job: Service

After your first year, you will probably be asked to serve on one or more faculty committees. These committees are responsible for governing and supervising a wide range of activities at the institution. Here again you need to practice moderation. Many committees tackle important issues that will have a substantial impact on an aspect of the institution that interests you deeply, but will also be very time consuming.

Other forms of service include organizing a conference or lecture series, serving as advisor to a student organization, taking on a part-time administrative position (e.g., assistant director of Asian Studies).

Beware, it is important to interact with colleagues from other departments , (some of whom will sit on the committee that will review your tenure file) on a professional basis and many service activities are both interesting and important. On the other hand, it is a rare institution where great service can overcome mediocre research and teaching. You need to find a balance; you need to be careful.

Getting to Know Your Department

Your department is where you live, your family.  Like many today, it may be an extremely dysfunctional one, but it's yours.  The first hurdle you must overcome on the road to tenure is to obtain the strong endorsement of your department.  So, you may not like some of them, but you need to gain their respect.

Your first challenge is to learn the lay of the land.  The first few departmental meetings will be very disorienting as names and phrases fly across the table as a series of allusions, metaphors, and short hand evoking laughter or derision while you sit there dumbfounded.  It will take some time to learn the informal patterns and organizational culture that characterize your new home, but it is important to make the effort.  Many of the opinions and positions held by individuals and factions and the bases of their unwillingness to “try that again” (no matter how compelling your logic), will remain inexplicable absent an understanding of the departmental and institutional history.

It is unlikely that you have ever been exposed to politics as pervasive and at times as vicious as you will find in most institutions of higher learning.  People live together for many years, and insults real and imagined can fester for a long time.  Your job is not to be consumed by it, but to learn enough not to be caught in the middle.

Most of what you need to know will not be expressed at formal meetings.  If your department has informal get togethers, attend them.  Ask innocuous-sounding questions about names you’ve heard or issues you don’t understand, and allow them to tell stories.  If the members of your department aren’t collectively very social, suggest some ways of getting together as a group or individually.  Even if you’re not terribly athletic, going to the gym or playing racquetball ball is an excellent way of relieving stress and getting to know your colleagues in a less guarded setting.

Being a Professional

As a professor you need to engender the respect of your fellow faculty members and create an appropriate social distance between yourself and your students. A senior colleague once described his first semester at the college where he had dressed very informally and treated the students as peers only to have one express dismay and disappointment at the low grade he had received from his buddy the professor.

Women and those whose hair has not yet begun to gray may have a more difficult time engendering the respect they deserve.  It may seem odd at first, but let students call you "Dr." or "professor" (even if you're still ABD), even if you'd rather go by your first name.  If your colleagues neglect to use your title (especially in front of students, parents, colleagues, or administrators) and refer to you as "Mr." or "Ms.," gently but firmly correct them in private.  They probably don't mean anything by it, but you have enough to worry about without the added confusion about your professional status.

You need not carry the burden of appearing omnipotent and all knowing.  It is perfectly acceptable to respond to a question with "I don't know.  It's an interesting question.  I'll look it up before next class."  One of the greatest benefits of a Berkeley PhD is that for the rest of your life, you can say "I don't know," and not feel stupid because you have a piece of paper from one of the world's leading universities attesting to that fact.

At the same time, don't overestimate your relative ignorance in areas outside of your specific research specialty.  An undergrad is not going to challenge your interpretation of the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls by citing the new article in American Scholar that you haven't yet gotten around to reading.  Relax, if you say it, they'll believe it.

At least for a while, in your heart of hearts you'll be confident only that the university will soon enough discover its error in awarding you the PhD, and at some point will brand you (in public no doubt) the fraud you know you are.  This too will pass as you come to realize that students are extremely gullible and many of your colleagues are even greater frauds than you.  That is to say, you know more than you think you do, and students and the people you work with will appreciate the range and depth of your knowledge and abilities if you let them.

If you feel students and colleagues are not according you the respect you deserve, talk to more senior colleagues or other junior faculty who have likely shared the same experience. Its much easier to ease up once you have established yourself as a professional, than the reverse.

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This page last updated 2/27/2006 (ag)