associate professor; and full professor, which is the highest. Tenure is not automatic and successful candidates must win the approval of both departmental colleagues and the higher administration of their institution. Assistant professors serve a probationary period that can last up to 7, or sometimes 10, years. During this time, the candidate strives to amass a record of research publications and successful grant applications—and, to a much lesser extent, of teaching and service to department and university—that the institution deems acceptable. Unsuccessful candidates must leave the university and seek employment elsewhere. The years preceding tenure therefore constitute a make-or-break period of great tension, long hours, and hard work.
Appointment to a tenure-track assistant professorship certifies the individual as an independent investigator who has the institution’s backing in the competition for research grants.2 In fields that require laboratories, equipment, and workers to produce research results, universities provide new assistant professors start-up money to establish their laboratories. In return, the new assistant professor is expected to start providing money to support the laboratory within a few years by winning competitive grants, usually from the federal government.
The decision about whether to grant tenure comes after a predetermined number of years, with a symbolic “tenure clock” marking the time to one of the most fateful moments in the assistant professor’s life. Attaining tenure generally coincides with promotion to the rank of associate professor, which brings higher pay and greater status and recognition. Above that, only the rank of full professor remains, although within that rank, many universities award additional recognition in the form of distinguished, University, or named professorships. Reaching that highest rank places a scholar among the senior faculty members of the institution and, for many, indicates attainment of a successful career. This final promotion decision is again made by the candidate’s departmental colleagues and the higher administration, and again, the decision overwhelmingly depends on their estimation of the quantity and quality of the candidate’s research. The requirement to do top-tier research is paramount at doctorate-granting, research-intensive universities.
Attaining a full professorship has no set time limit, and some faculty members never reach that rank and remain associate professors throughout their careers. At retirement, both full and associate professors may receive emeritus status, a largely honorific title that indicates a continuing connection to the department and may, depending on the university’s resources, include such perquisites as use of an office and lab, computer accounts, administrative support, and the like.
Given the stringent requirements for advancement at middle- and upper-tier institutions, competition marks most stages of a topflight academic career—competition to be hired into a tenure-track position, to win funding, to make
2 Many universities also have research faculty positions that might enable independent research but that typically do not provide access to tenure and are considered less prestigious.