What is tenure?
Or: What is the difference between Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and (full) Professor?
When I first heard the term “Assistant Professor” as a job title, I assumed it to be as a position of “assisting a professor.” It turns out I was completely wrong. In short, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Professor are the titles of the same job but at increasing levels of track record in an academic faculty position.
A career in Academia requires you to constantly learn and evolve on the job. As illustrated below, each chapter of an academic has a milestone that is required to be completed before progressing to the next stage.
Initially, most people get their first exposure to academic research during their undergraduate education. Although some high schoolers (or younger students) are now fortunate enough to gain access to advanced research labs, most people only get an opportunity to work with a university faculty member during their undergraduate study whether that is part of a research credit course, summer experience, or internship. Although an undergraduate education seems grueling in the moment, it is only the beginning of an academic career. In my case, I studied Nanotechnology Engineering and due to the co-op program at my university, I had an opportunity to get 16 months of research experience in a faculty member’s lab. After obtaining your Bachelor's degree, if you still haven’t obtained any recent experience, a Master's degree is a good opportunity to test the waters. For those people who know that they love research (despite the numerous failures that will often be involved), pursuing a PhD is suitable—as was for me.
During a PhD, the focus of your training quickly shifts away from coursework to performing independent research. While during undergrad, your research advisor might have defined your experiments and outlined your approach; during graduate school, you (should) start to design and execute your own experiments. The goal of a PhD is to become an expert in a specific topic that potentially only a handful of people in the world would know more about it. You should know the content of a research topic even better than your faculty supervisor. The PhD culminates in a defense because you are defending your contributions to the scholarly world. You are demonstrating that you have completed original and novel work and that you are able to think independently. Once you convince your advisor and committee members that you have achieved these goals, you become a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). I obtained my PhD in Nanotechnology Engineering at the University of Waterloo in about three years.
The postdoctoral position has only become common in the past few decades due to an increase in the supply of PhD graduates and limited demand from faculty positions (usually a ratio of about 100 to 1). Obtaining a postdoctoral experience is now a norm in most academic fields. It is an opportunity to diversify your skillset and to build your network. A postdoctoral experience involves research in a lab that's different from your graduate school lab for about two to seven years (depending on your field). Mine was at Harvard University in Professor George Whitesides’ lab for two years.
Assistant Professor (tenure-track)
The next hurdle is obtaining a tenure-track position. It is the most difficult one in an academic career, in my opinion. It is also the one that I have most recently crossed (just over three years ago as I described in my earlier post on how I got my first tenure-track position). Once you successfully obtain and start a tenure-track position, your job title is “Assistant Professor.” At this point, you are a completely independent researcher responsible for building your own lab/research group. Mine is Verma Lab. You are the primary investigator or PI of your lab and it is your responsibility to populate it with appropriate resources including lab members (postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduate students), lab space, equipment, and funding to run the lab. Initially, you will receive a start-up package in the order of a million dollars to start setting up the lab and you are expected to raise at least as much in the first five years of your position from external sources (e.g., federal funding agencies, foundations, and industrial sponsors). Thus, a lot of my time and effort is spent on writing grants as I detailed earlier. The tenure-track—the first five years or so as an assistant professor—is an opportunity to determine whether the institution is a good fit for you. Also, you need to demonstrate that you can build a sustainable research program by raising funds, hiring and graduating PhD students, and publishing papers (peer-reviewed journal articles). The exact numbers on each metric vary from case to case and institution to institution. I will provide an update on mine in a later post when I get tenure. Right now, I am working on graduating students and publishing papers.
Associate Professor (tenured)
Once you demonstrate that you can build and maintain a research program and have the potential for international recognition in your field, you will be successful at obtaining tenure and being promoted to the rank of “Associate Professor.” At this point, I am going to start speculating instead of speaking from personal experience because I have not yet reached this stage. As an Associate Professor, you no longer have the pressure of obtaining tenure, yet for most people, if they maintain their trajectory, they will continue to be successful. You continue to grow your lab and have the freedom to explore research directions that might be riskier but also provide bigger rewards. The key metric at this stage is to establish yourself as a leader in your field and to be recognized internationally. You also become more responsible for service activities such as admissions, recruitment, and curriculum development of undergraduate and graduate students. You are still expected to bring in funding, graduate more students, and publish papers. The focus is also often on the impact of your research and how the research is influencing/benefiting society at large.
Another five years or so, if you continue to perform well, you are promoted to the rank of Professor; sometimes referred to as full Professor although “full” is not used in the actual title. As a full Professor, you would have defined your expertise and focus whether it is in research, teaching, or service. You have the opportunity to continue pursuing these directions by growing your lab, advancing the teaching mission, or taking up administrative positions. Depending on the interest, people can customize their job responsibilities. You also become a mentor to more junior faculty at the Assistant Professor and Associate Professor levels. Depending on your success as a Professor, you can earn titles such as Distinguished Professor or Endowed Chair and each of them has a special meaning in each institution. Even though the precise details and efforts towards each of the components continue to change, the three key components of the job remain the same in an academic career: research, teaching, and service.