Assistant Professors in science are younger university faculty who work on research, teaching, and assorted BS. They often also are busy with marriage, buying a house, and starting a family. After obtaining their first research grant award as an independent investigator, they begin supervising graduate students in their area of science expertise. The twin career targets of Assistant Professors are to get their research grant(s) renewed, and to obtain tenure.
This article is only for Assistant Professors! It uses a question and answer format to give my advice about handling certain tasks and problematic situations commonly faced by junior faculty in any area of science. This advice is based upon my own personal experiences and observations as a science faculty member in several universities. I hope these discussions will prove interesting and useful to you!
Why is my salary so low as an Assistant Professor?
Assistant Professors are at the bottom of the academic ladder! Some prestigious universities limit the salaries of their junior faculty to inappropriately low levels. Upon being promoted to tenured rank, the former Assistant Professors then get a major increase in salary. The usual explanation is that universities want junior faculty to prove their institutional commitment, and they need to keep all their senior long-term employees happy. I feel that this policy actually is just another part of universities always trying to maximize their financial profits; the same self-centered business mentality also explains why some of these same institutions only infrequently award tenure to their junior faculty!
Upon being hired, I was given only a very small lab. I now have a good first grant with one postdoc and 3 new grad students, and so need more lab space. How can I get this without upsetting other faculty here?
The first part of your question is easy: get a second research grant award and you will receive assignment of more lab space. If additional space is not offered, then you should realize that your institution probably is not very serious about scientific research. Tell your departmental chair that you see no choice but to move, since your grant-supported research is being hindered; that might cause a revision of your research space assignment. Otherwise, take appropriate action to find a better employer and give yourself a greater chance to be satisfied with your career as a scientist.
The second part of your question is totally difficult, because lab space always is tight, and all science faculty are competing with each other for space assignments. If any faculty member is given additional space for their research activities, then someone else’s assignment must be reduced; even if it is completely obvious that you fully deserve more lab space, human nature says that the person losing space will always have a grudge against you. Try to find some senior professor who has your respect, and ask for advice about this very sticky situation.
Are research collaborations important for Assistant Professors?
The short answer is, “yes indeed!”. External collaborations will help your research publications become more solid, and these coworkers usually will be your supporters for promotions and grant reviews. Internal collaborations within your department and your university often are the start of developing a small research group, and are particularly valuable when you are being considered for promotion to tenure. Collaborations are good both for science and for business!
I just got re-appointed as an Assistant Professor. What should I do in order to become tenured?
The traditional answer to your question is that achieving excellence in research and in teaching will qualify you to become tenured. Those activities will help, but they certainly do not explain either why some junior faculty are tenured despite their weak accomplishments, or why some accomplished candidates are denied a promotion to tenure. My best answer to your question is to pass on the advice that one of my more senior colleagues at a different university gave me when I asked him the same question: “What you really have to do is to fit in with the rest of the faculty in your department. Make them see that you are valuable to them.” I believe he is 100% correct. Both grants and effective teaching have importance, but your ability to be part of the group is what will really make your Chair and other faculty support your promotion to tenured rank.
Is it necessary to become tenured?
In principle, academic tenure is a promise that you will never be fired from your job without just cause, thereby guaranteeing your freedom of thought and speech. Of course, the very best long-term job security is not tenure, but is to have such good professional success that other quality institutions would be delighted to hire you. I know one unusual scientist who decided to forgo tenure because it was such a bother to go through the evaluation process; he was independently wealthy and requested to continue working at his university without being tenured. His employer said no way! Eventually there was a crisis situation with his packing up all his stuff in preparation for moving (i.e., several other institutions wanted to hire him!). His employer finally gave him a very expedited review and promptly announced that he now was tenured. Thus, the actual answer to your question is “yes”; however, do not forget that the soft-money faculty at universities are not tenured.
I am fortunate to have acquired several research grant awards. Instead of being considered for tenure, can I just switch into a soft-money position? That move will get me a higher salary than my hard-money position!
Making such a switch would be quite unusual and will be questioned for the rest of your career. I can only suggest that you should make a written list of all the positive and negative features for making that change, and then debate with yourself what you should do. It is worth noting that many scientists working on soft-money positions in both universities and industries are not tenured, but still have a good and productive career. Their employment actually has quite a lot of security without any tenure so long as they always perform well and fulfill the needs of their job situation.
After 6 years working as an Assistant Professor, my application for promotion to tenure was unexpectedly turned down! What the hell am I supposed to do now?
Think clearly about how you will answer the following key questions: (1) If that decision would be reversed, would you now want to stay on as a faculty employee? (2) Previous to this negative decision, did any other institutions ever voice an interest in hiring you? (3) If you could magically be hired in any position at any location you wish, what would you work on and where would the new employer be located? Your answers will indicate: (1) if you want to stay at your present job site, (2) what are your best opportunities for a new job in academia, and, (3) how much you still want to do research work at some university, versus switching into a research position in industry or a science-related job outside of universities (see: “Other Jobs for Scientists, Part II” , and, “Part III” ).
Having to move saves some scientists from lengthy dissatisfaction and endless emotional turmoil! Do try to calm down and clear your mind so you can better decide what you really want to do with the rest of your life and career. I wish you good luck!
I was just turned down for tenure, but I far outperformed another Assistant Professor who received tenure! Should I file a lawsuit about my unjust decision?
Mistakes about tenure are made rather frequently, so welcome to the club! My advice is to try to picture yourself some years into the future … if you win a lawsuit and then are given tenure, will you really be satisfied and at ease 10 years from now? I doubt it, and suggest that you will still be upset. Recognize that lawsuits in academia take nearly forever to be adjudicated (e.g., several to many years), and always are very expensive for the initiator (i.e., you might have to sue an entire state or city if your university is part of some government).
Assistant professors undergo many trials and tribulations in addition to working on their research and teaching activities. It is not an exaggeration to say that they are always under observation, evaluation, and pressuring by someone (e.g., their Chair, the Deans, administrators, graduate students, postdocs, classroom students, fellow teachers, fellow committee members, manuscript referees and editors, reviewers of grant applications, officials at granting agencies, safety office, etc., etc.). Those who continue to be active and productive researchers while dealing with all this crap certainly deserve lots of credit!
Tenure is not everything, does not always protect freedom of opinion and speech, and, is not much used by faculty for its main purpose. It often is misused and abused, both by universities and by faculty. I personally know an Assistant Professor who became tenured, and from the very next day on he never again stepped into his lab; how utterly disgusting!
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