Study Challenges Perception of ‘Gen X’ Faculty as Career Climbers

March 4, 2010

Interviews reveal desire for “roots, not rungs.”

A new study commissioned by COACHE—the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education—challenges the common misperception of “Generation X” college faculty as self-centered careerists. Interviews with 16 faculty and administrators at three representative campuses suggest that Gen X faculty prefer, in fact, to establish long-term relationships with colleagues and others in their professional and personal communities.

Released today, “New Challenges, New Priorities: The Experience of Generation X Faculty,” by Robin Helms, builds on COACHE’s faculty survey data to study how Generation X faculty (born between 1964 and 1980) approach their jobs, long-term careers, and work-life balance while examining generational “clashes” with faculty of earlier generations. The respondents are from three institutions in the mid-Atlantic: one small private liberal arts college, one private master’s institution, and one large public research university.

While faculty interviewed perceive some differences between themselves and older faculty on issues such as interactions with students, most did not characterize such differences as a “generational clash.” And when it comes to long-term career plans, 13 of the 16 interviewees indicated that they are not interested in picking up their lives and families to pursue academic glory elsewhere.

“The voices of faculty in this study ought to make college leaders reconsider what they think they know, anecdotally, about Gen X faculty,” said Kiernan Mathews, COACHE Director. “Faculty want ‘roots,’ not just ‘rungs,’ and we’re beginning to see enlightened academic leaders respond to this trend in their faculty recruitment, retention and development policies.”

The study revealed other characteristics of the Gen X’er interviewees, such as a general satisfaction with clear tenure processes, the importance of interdisciplinary work, the prioritizing of quality over quantity, and a desire for mentoring. But the most revealing results of the study concerned faculty desire for establishing roots and building communities on their campuses.

“Although this study was small in scope, it verifies and amplifies the themes that have emerged from our surveys of tenure-track faculty job satisfaction,” explained Cathy Trower, COACHE Research Director. “Our qualitative and quantitative data each demonstrate the powerful influence that campus climate, culture, and community have on faculty’s overall satisfaction with their careers.”

Supported by over 150 member colleges and universities, COACHE gathers the peer, diagnostic data chief academic officers need to recruit, develop, and retain the faculty cohort most critical to the long-term success of their institutions. For more information about this study or about joining COACHE, visit

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coache_genx-newchallengesnewpriorities_2010.pdf2.62 MB