Inside Higher Ed: "Unhappy Associate Professors"

June 4, 2012

by Scott Jashik

Preliminary results of national survey find their job satisfaction in many areas lags those at assistant and full ranks.

This article was originally published in Inside Higher Ed


If one had to guess at a sector of the tenure-track and tenured professoriate likely to have the lowest job satisfaction, assistant professors might seem logical. They face uncertainty on whether they will earn tenure, the pressure to excel in teaching and research, the need to master departmental politics -- and they must do all of that with less power and less institutional knowledge than those at the associate and full professor ranks.

But the preliminary results of a national survey of professors by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, at Harvard University, has found that in most measures, associate professors have lower job satisfaction levels than both assistant and full professors do.

On item after item, where preliminary results found a statistically significant gap in satisfaction, associate professors were the least happy. Satisfaction with support for interdisciplinary work, for mentoring, for getting course release time to do research, and for obtaining support to present papers at conferences; and satisfaction with the share of their time spent on research. On all of these factors and many more, associate professors ranked last in satisfaction.

On global questions about satisfaction, associate professors were the least likely to say that they would choose to work again at the same institution, to say that they were satisfied with their department as a place to work, and to say that they were satisfied with their institution as a place to work. In most of the categories where no rank could be declared -- in a statistically significant way -- to be the least satisfied, associate professors were tied or close to tied for least satisfied. While assistant professors were most satisfied in some areas, and full professors in others, associate professors were not most satisfied in any category.

The data are based on a survey by COACHE (as the collaborative is known) of 13,510 faculty members at 69 four-year institutions (public and private) during the 2011-12 academic year. A key caveat is that COACHE did not survey adjunct professors, many of whom would no doubt trade their lot for that of an associate professor without much hesitation. Another key caveat is that COACHE is planning more analysis of these results, to look for demographic and other factors that may influence the relative satisfaction of associate professors.

Kiernan Mathews, director of COACHE, said that both administrators and faculty members have sought more attention for associate professors. "Although we had focused our research on pre-tenure faculty for much of the past decade, the provosts we counsel kept asking us to help them to understand better their associate professors," he said. "We had heard these mid-career faculty described variously as 'the pig in the python,' 'terminal associates,' even, callously, 'tenure's mistakes,' but these characterizations failed to recognize institutions' responsibility for building that brick wall that so many faculty hit upon earning tenure."

Based on the preliminary results, Mathews added, "we know that COACHE provosts' concerns about associate professors were well-founded." For all the effort of faculty members to win tenure, the results suggest great frustrations after tenure. "These data and other researchers' work are revealing how all of the mentorship, the protections of time, the clear policies and formal milestones that faculty had as assistant professors are lifted when they become associates," Mathews said. "Suddenly, they're teaching more, they're serving on more committees, they're even serving as department chairs -- yet the criteria for promotion to full professor have nothing to do with these activities. Many of them are like the newly tenured professor whom I recently witnessed, while setting up his laptop for a presentation, that his e-mail client showed over 3,000 unread e-mails. He is highly regarded in his field, employed at an Ivy League institution, well-liked by students -- yet completely overwhelmed and alone."

Some of the work that has been done by others on associate professors points to gender as a key issue. A 2009 report, "Standing Still," by the Modern Language Association, found that English and foreign language departments promote male associate professors to full professors on average at least a year -- and in some cases, depending on type of institutions, several years -- more speedily than they promote women. Over all, the average time for women as associate professor prior to promotion is 8.2 years, compared to 6.6 years for men.

Questions about the process for promotion to full professor have been raised by others. In 2010, E. Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University, called for the creation of new paths to full professor status. He argued that the existing route in academe, at least at research universities, values research over all other factors. Gee suggested that where some academics might earn promotions based largely on research (and have their subsequent careers reshaped with that focus), others might earn promotions based largely on teaching (and similarly have career expectations adjusted). Both could earn the title of full professor.

Gee said at the time that associate professors should be able to find "their real callings" and to focus on them, not fearing that following those passions will doom their chances of promotion.

Several colleges at Ohio State have responded to this issue. The College of Veterinary Medicine, for example, revised criteria for promotion to full professor to specify that "a diversity of paths to the rank of professor benefits both the individual faculty member and the college as a whole, and care must be taken to apply criteria for promotion to professor with sufficient flexibility"  Specifically, "evaluation for promotion is carried out in the context of the faculty member’s specific assigned responsibilities, with exceptional performance in these responsibilities required" and "the requirements for promotion to professor will vary depending on the candidate’s position description and distribution of effort."

The New Data

The areas in which associate professors are less satisfied than those at other ranks in the preliminary COACHE data are quite broad.

The following table shows categories in which associate professors were -- at statistically significant margins -- less satisfied than full or assistant professors were. The figures are on a 1-5 scale of either satisfaction or of agreement.