Manya Whitaker

Associate Professor of Education at Colorado College

How Do I Map a Path to ‘Full’ Professor?

Full vitae careers taking risks

Image: iStock

It’s been only a year since I earned tenure and became an associate professor, but I am already turning my attention to my next professional goal: full professor.

That may seem rushed. Indeed, a few people have suggested that I "slow down" and "enjoy this achievement." Not only is that not my personality, it is also not advisable in today’s cutthroat academic world if you hope to eventually rise to the top faculty rank.

In 2020, the two biggest hurdles facing a new Ph.D. are finding a tenure-track job (insurmountable for all too many candidates) and then earning tenure. But becoming a full professor is no easy feat, either. Plenty of associate professors — for all sorts of reasons — are never promoted, and I don’t want to be in that group. But I also have an added motivation: As a black female faculty member, I know that it is essential that the professional train not stop at "associate" for Ph.D.s who are women and/or members of marginalized groups.

Toward that end, I recently sat down to create a plan that puts me on track to apply for full professorship within seven years. I share it here in the hopes that (a) readers will offer suggestions, and (b) it will prove useful for other newcomers to the associate rank and for assistant professors who are thinking ahead.

Step No. 1: Review the promotion requirements. This seems like a necessary step for several reasons. The policies may have changed since you were first hired, so it is dangerous to assume you know the standards for the next promotion level. And it’s also not uncommon for the types of scholarship and service expected of tenured faculty to differ from those expected of pre-tenure faculty.

Like tenure requirements, criteria for becoming a full professor vary by institution and discipline. Some places require you to simply maintain your achievements since tenure. Others want you to do more (i.e., produce a higher number of publications, in more prestigious venues). Still other institutions — like mine: a small, liberal-arts college — shift the primary evaluative criterion from scholarship to service.

My strategy: Start the planning process by listing the requirements at my institution so that I can backward design from there.

Step No. 2: Review my teaching portfolio. At research universities, becoming a tenured associate professor often means you should start teaching more advanced courses and doing more graduate-student and dissertation advising. Because I work at a teaching-focused college, I’ve historically built my professional plans around my teaching. At this point I’ve developed more than 20 undergraduate and graduate courses and taught hundreds of students. Based on course evaluations from students and comments from colleagues during my tenure review, I’m confident that my portfolio of courses and my teaching are solid.

I am already turning my attention to my next professional goal: full professor.

That may seem rushed. Indeed, a few people have suggested that I "slow down" and "enjoy this achievement." Not only is that not my personality, it is also not advisable in today’s cutthroat academic world if you hope to eventually rise to the top faculty rank.

My strategy: Instead of creating more new courses (always a time-consuming and stressful endeavor), I’ve decided to devote that time to my new administrative duties as department chair. That doesn’t mean that I won’t refine my courses and continue to work on being a better educator. It just means that teaching will not always "win" when choosing among the three pillars of academic promotion.

Step No. 3: Revise my research agenda. Scholarship expectations for promotion to the top faculty rank will likely vary, once again, by institution and discipline. One place to start: Look to professors you admire in your field and on your campus, and see what they have accomplished at this stage.

My field is education. Associate professors in education tend to refocus their research agenda on big, substantive projects and spend less time at this career stage on small, empirical articles. In other words, senior scholars in my field tend to publish books, secure grants for long-term empirical projects, and do more theoretical work.

My strategy: I am writing my fourth book, revising a grant application that was previously rejected (but viewed favorably), and making an outline for a theoretical review paper I’ve been wanting to write. Importantly, those three projects have very different timelines such that — if all goes well — I will have steady publications and a long-term data source for intermittent peer-reviewed articles. By the time I apply for full professorship, my publications will demonstrate the narrowing of my research (which may not be desirable in other disciplines) and my deepening expertise since receiving tenure.

Step No. 4: Be strategic about disciplinary engagement. As a graduate student or an early-career faculty member, you are told to attend the big conference in your discipline, present as often as possible, and make yourself known to senior scholars. But what about after tenure? The advice I’m hearing is to be strategic about which conferences you attend, when you go, and why.

My major conference attracts more than 17,000 attendees each year. It is crowded, fast-paced, and largely ineffective at promoting meaningful intellectual discourse. I won’t waste my time at a meeting that holds little professional value at this point in my career.

My strategy: Go to a much smaller conference where I can attend five or six sessions a day, actually hear the presenters, and engage in productive conversations about my exact research interests. I’ve already found that a small, specialized conference yields more meaningful professional relationships and more opportunities for collaborative research than a large meeting. People actually remember me and my research, and that aligns well with the "notoriety within the discipline" criterion for full professor at my college.

Step No. 5: Assume leadership positions. Full professorship, for many academics, results from being a known leader — someone who has sought to improve academe. That could mean with respect to scholarship, teaching, or service, so, again, review the specific requirements of your campus. At my college, associate professors up for promotion need to have demonstrated leadership via service to the discipline, the institution, and the community. In short, we must be prepared to attend a lot of time-consuming meetings.

Many midcareer scholars serve as divisional chairs in their disciplinary organization or host preconference workshops. Others serve on the editorial review board for scholarly journals. On campus, they serve a term or two as department chair, lead standing committees, or participate on special task forces.

My strategy: I am already serving as department chair as well as interim director of our multicultural center. I am additionally chairing a search committee and involved in an effort to organize a summer program for local youth. I am active in several local boards and still mulling leadership options in my disciplinary organizations.

Step No. 6: Create or expand my "brand." More and more academics are using social media, webinars, and websites for scholarly engagement. And you can’t be sought after for speaking engagements and consultant work if people don’t know who you are. Having a public profile also makes it easy to "meet" other scholars in your field and to "advertise" your new work. It’s a great way for people to get to know you as a person, rather than just as a scholar, which may help when it comes to letters of support in a promotion application.

My strategy: I am taking the time to review my professional brand. Last year I hired a web designer who helped create websites for my scholarly work as well as my consulting business. I am now working with her on utilizing my dormant social-media accounts for professional purposes, particularly when it comes to sharing my professional accomplishments.

Step No. 7: Support others. Full professors should be role models who pave the way for younger scholars. That includes mentoring, of course, but could also mean advocating for reforms in tenure and promotion processes or proposing changes in how graduate students are compensated. Some may focus on expanding the scholarly conventions of their discipline so that the canon is more inclusive, or so that alternative methodologies are recognized as valid.

My strategy: I confess that I haven’t quite had the cognitive space to figure this one out yet (and am open to ideas!). I am deeply invested in supporting early-career scholars through mentoring, but I know that doesn’t lead to systemic change. I am in conversation with new associate professors at other institutions about how we can collectively work toward long-term changes in academe.

This plan is a work in progress, as I am still settling into being a tenured associate professor and department chair. But I do feel good knowing that I have a plan — one that, I hope, will position me well for a successful promotion to full professor.

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