New study indicates faculty treatment matters more than compensation

September 25, 2006

Survey of 4,500 tenure-track faculty reveals surprising findings

A new study by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE), a research project based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has revealed that climate, culture, and collegiality are more important to the satisfaction of early career faculty than compensation, tenure clarity, workload, and policy effectiveness.

The survey of 4,500 tenure-track faculty at 51 colleges and universities discovered that there are key climate variables for junior faculty, such as: interest senior faculty take in their work, fairness with which they are evaluated, opportunities to collaborate with senior faculty, how well they seem to fit in their departments, sufficient professional and personal interaction colleagues, and a sense of community in the department.  The survey revealed that collegiality matters much to the success and satisfaction of new scholars, in stark relief to studies of an earlier generation that showed autonomy was one of the most important attractions to academic life.

“We’re not saying that autonomy doesn’t matter to pre-tenure faculty, but we are saying that this generation of scholars has different feelings about the importance of relationships at work than prior generations.  The flipside of autonomy is isolation,” said Cathy Trower, COACHE director. “Our findings suggest that campuses can greatly increase the odds of attracting and retaining top junior faculty by paying attention to climate in departments.  How are junior faculty treated?  Does everyone have access to important collaborations with senior colleagues?  Are young faculty well-mentored?”

The COACHE survey also examined overall satisfaction, tenure clarity, the nature of work and workload, work-family issues, and policy importance and effectiveness.  Importantly, most junior faculty members are quite satisfied.  If they had it to do all over again, knowing what they now know, 78 percent would accept their current position.  Nearly half rate their workplace as “good,” while only 8 percent say their institution is a “bad” or awful” place to work.  Women and faculty of color rate their institutions lower than men and white faculty on overall satisfaction. 

“That race difference is primarily Asian faculty saying that they would not necessarily work at their current university if they had the chance to do it again,” said Trower.  “We did not find large dissatisfaction among Black or Hispanic faculty; in fact, in many cases, dissatisfaction was greater for white faculty.”

Various aspects of the tenure system still plague junior faculty, especially tenure standards clarity.  On a five-point clarity scale (5 = very clear and 1 = very unclear), standards were rated a 3.2; the body of evidence required for tenure was rated a 3.46; tenure criteria a 3.53; and the tenure process a 3.63.  Women reported significantly less clarity than men on all tenure dimensions.  Faculty at private institutions report less clarity on tenure process, criteria, and standards than those at public institutions, and faculty at universities report less clarity than those at colleges about the tenure expectations for teaching, advising, and colleagueship.

“Navigating the pathway to tenure has always been vexing for junior faculty, and we don’t expect that problem will ever go away entirely, but it is troublesome that gender differences in perceptions of clarity still exist,” Trower said. “It would be helpful if institutions ensure that women and men alike are mentored and understand the ‘rules of the game’ – written and unwritten.”

Within the “nature of work” category, the survey looked at faculty satisfaction with how they spend their time, a composite of teaching variables (including teaching load, quality of students, discretion over course content) and a composite of research variables (including amount of time for research, expectations for scholarly production and outside grants), and satisfaction with various support services.  Junior faculty express the most satisfaction with teaching (mean = 4.02), followed by how they spend their time (3.77); the support services and research composite scores are 3.52 and 3.5 respectively.

“We found fairly high satisfaction with the various aspects of teaching, but less so with research,” Trower said. “Institutions may wish to closely examine the research expectations and requirements, especially since junior faculty have an overloaded plate.”

A section in the COACHE survey examined compatibility of the tenure-track and having and raising children, satisfaction with the balance one is able to strike between work and home demands, and with compensation.  Junior faculty rated their ability to strike a balance between work and home very low (2.81 on a 5-point scale). The work-family composite score was also low (3.09), while satisfaction with compensation was rated only slightly higher (3.21).

“Tenure-track women and men have difficulty balancing the demands of work and home life, and they are not naïve about the complexities of this juggling act.  While part of the attraction of an academic career is its flexibility (of scheduling classes and summers without teaching), we should not forget most junior faculty work 60-65 hour weeks and conduct research during the summers.  Faculty moms add another 35-40 hours per week onto that,” said Trower.

Junior faculty, for whom a given policy was “very” or “somewhat” important, rated the following policies as least effective on their campuses:  childcare, financial assistance with housing, spousal/partner hiring programs, professional assistance in obtaining outside funding, and formal mentoring.  No single policy scored higher than 3.66 in effectiveness on a 5-point scale, suggesting that there is much work to be done in this arena. 


Based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and supported by the Ford Foundation, COACHE is committed to gathering the peer diagnostic and comparative data academic administrators need to recruit, retain, and develop the cohort most critical to the long-term future of their institutions. 

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