Thursday, March 05, 2009

Terminal Associate

Some professors get tenure but are never promoted beyond the associate rank and therefore always have an adjective in front of their title. Being a terminal associate is not so bad in the sense that the person has tenure and therefore pretty good job security unless they do something egregious.

In some cases a terminal associate compensates for their low research activity by doing additional teaching and service. Even in those cases, though, terminal associates are not typically held in high esteem by their colleagues.

Most of the terminal associates I know are women.

Common reasons for terminal associate status include:

1. The tenure process was a close call owing to a marginal publication and/or funding record, but enough people were optimistic that the candidate was on an upward trajectory and was finally on a research roll after a slow start owing to various justifiable reasons. Enough people were wrong.

2. The tenure process was not controversial and the candidate was doing well until promotion, but burned out or slowed down upon acquiring tenure and never again performed at a high enough level to be further promoted.

3. The standards for promotion increased with time and the faculty member's productivity did not increase with them. He or she would have been promoted if the standards had remained as they had been when the most senior faculty in the department had been promoted. This situation most commonly afflicts faculty hired in the 1980's and later.

4. Discrimination. Some faculty are held to a higher standard than others for reasons unrelated to academic merit. When this is a factor in tenure, there may be a lawsuit. The promotion from associate professor to professor, however, is a less well-defined process.

At some universities, the promotion from associate to full professor status indicates that the faculty member maintained a high level of research activity, and at others it means that research activity increased with time and is still on an upward trajectory.

At my university, promotion from associate professor to professor requires demonstration of an International Reputation. That is easier to do for faculty in some fields than in others, but it can be accomplished via publication in international journals, attending international conferences, and going on sabbatical in an international location. The most difficult part is finding international colleagues who have impressive titles and who are willing to effuse to a sufficient extent to impress American faculty and administrators.

In some cases when I see that a certain professor has been an associate professor for a long time, I am not surprised. In other cases, I am mystified. I encountered one of these recently when I was looking for something on another department's webpage and clicked on a link to someone I'd known in grad school. Despite being more active in terms of publication, grants, teaching, and advising graduate students than one other colleague I know in her department, she was still an associate professor and he (although hired later) was a professor. I know nothing about the situation in that department, but my opinion of that department plunged, despite my realization that I have incomplete information.

Once when I was visiting a small liberal arts college to give a talk, a female associate professor asked me how she would know when she was ready to be promoted. I was confused because (1) I thought she must already be a full professor considering how productive she'd been and how long she'd been an associate professor, and (2) I didn't know why she had to make the decision about being ready for promotion. Why hadn't her department chair or some other senior faculty raised the issue? She explained that it was up to each individual faculty to ask to be considered for promotion, and she just wasn't sure if she was ready. I assured her that she was ready. In a system like that, it would be very important to have a mentor. I hope that self-serve promotion request systems are rare, but perhaps I should add a scenario to my list above: 5. An associate professor never asked to be considered for promotion owing to lack of confidence.

In my department, there is a pretty good system for evaluating faculty when it seems like a reasonable time to consider them for promotion. When I'd been an associate professor for a few years, my department chair showed my CV to some people and asked them if they thought I was ready for promotion, they said yes, and he started the process. It was a bit early, but it worked out fine. If it had been up to me to decide on my own when I wanted to be considered, I probably would have waited one more year, but I don't think I would have waited more than that.

No matter how long someone has been an associate professor, it is worth revisiting the possibility of their promotion. I know one nearly terminal associate who, after about 15 years as an associate professor, found a new research topic, published, got grants, and revived her research career. She was promoted.

I know another professor who was promoted just a year or two before retirement as part of a deal to get him to retire. It was important to him to retire as a full professor, and that was the only way he was going to be promoted (and the only way he was willing to retire).

These cases may be the exceptions, but they indicate that perhaps it is best not to designate someone as a terminal associate until they have retired, never having been promoted.


Anonymous said...

". . . . perhaps it is best not to designate someone as a terminal associate until they have retired, never having been promoted."

I hope you are correct. I've been a (female) associate professor 10 years. When I was awarded tenure I started using time to take on consulting and pay off my doctoral program debts. That might seem shortsighted to others reading this blog. But salary compression as discussed in your recent post has been an issue almost as long as I've worked here. Should I take on debt in summer, or take on consulting contracts instead?

I don't have YET the professional life I want. I can't afford YET to present annually at conferences. I DO have an idea -- I could use a stimulus package!!!

Anonymous said...

I have encountered a few terminal associates, but they have all been men.

Interestingly, at my undergraduate institution a terminal associate became the department chair. In retrospect, I suppose the place probably had a "weak chair" administrative model.

Kim said...

Do you think that women associate professors have a responsibility (as role models) to push as hard for promotion as they need to for tenure? At my school, there are no guaranteed pay raises associated with promotion. (The administration is trying to change that, but we have years when nobody gets a raise, and the budget for faculty salaries is always tight.) So I haven't been inclined to worry about promotion. (It would be a possibility at my next review, in two years.) I've got tenure, and I've got job security. I'm at a teaching-intensive institution. My inclination is to use the freedom that I've got to do things that I think are important (teaching, service), and not try to get a few more mediocre papers published so that I can be promoted one more time.

Undergrads aren't aware of titles, so I don't think promotion would affect my students. But do I still have a responsibility to other women, to keep from being a data point that says that women just aren't as good at science as men?

Anonymous said...

At least where I work, you actually have to ask for the promotion. If that's generally the case, then a very simple explanation could be that some people don't ask to be promoted whereas others (less capable maybe) ask.

Anonymous said...

Most of the terminal associates I know are women.

Interesting observation! In the Swedish universities where I have been (I'm currently in the UK, but haven't been here long enough to have formed an impression on the matter) nearly all of those I would call "terminal associates", or the closest equivalent thereof, have been men, and almost always over 50. They have little or no research output, but take a heavy teaching load (and are often, but far from always, good and well-liked teachers), often also taking care of the administrative work around the teaching.

Securely permanent (as opposed to the usual "permanent") positions are very, very few, and today it is almost impossible to stay in academia with teaching as your main activity. It leaves little or no room for those whose skills lie in teaching and science communication. Anyone under the age of 50 today must concentrate on research.

Women, while unfortunately few, tend to be either older and on high positions (full professors) or young and rising fast.

Anonymous said...

The best laboratory teacher I ever had was a terminal associate. He had stopped getting grants and now worked on building instruments while another professor got the grants and ran the center. He was great at working in the lab and building things and teaching other people to do these things, but his main pleasure was building the device rather than using it to analyze something and answer a scientific question. I worked in his lab for 2 years and had a blast. He also taught senior lab, which was my favorite class (and that's saying something coming from a theorist!), but he was awful in lecture.

So, basically, he had found an important scientific niche that just didn't bring much glory. He was valuable but not glorious.

Anonymous said...

Mine is another university where it is really up to the would-be candidate, and some people just never decide to promote themselves.

Also, pay raise aside (which may not be a motivation for everyone) it's not obvious to me that there is any intrinsic value in getting rid of the adjective altogether. It seems like it just means even more commmittee work and other administrative service and if you're not into that, why invite it?

I could easily see myself as a terminal associate . . . I did not enjoy putting together my documents and dossier for promotion to associate, and strongly felt I could have used the energy consumed by the preparation for something vastly more interesting, and I don't see that I would have a great desire to repeat that process unless I had to.

Anonymous said...

Everyone seems to think that promotion is a good idea. It certainly has its advantages, but it is not without its downsides. I'm thinking of costs of the application process, and costs of the consequences of being promoted.

At one job (equivalent to a tenure-track), the tenure-equivalent procedure was so poorly-managed and stressful, that I didn't ever want to go through anything like that again, and guess which committee and similar procedure also dealt with promotions? Yup, you got it.

Even at best, you've still got some kind of application procedure to follow, which will take some precious time away from dealing with the academic work avalanche. For those of us who hate writing such self-promotional things, that ain't a speedy task.

At another job, I did apply for promotion, and get it, only to find that the extra responsibilities that came along with the promotion were too much, not compensated for enough by a reduced workload in other areas. So I applied for (and got) demotion. A little unorthodox, but still.

Ms.PhD said...

I found this post depressing. It just highlights to me how many more opportunities I will have to be screwed over by sexism if I stay in academia.

It reminded me of one FSP I know in particular, who spent 15 years as an associate despite continuing to produce consistently good publications, graduate students and postdocs. She finally left for a full professor position at another university, but had to make some major personal sacrifices to do it (her kids are still here, and she has to commute back on the weekends to see them). To me, it seems like a nightmare.

And yet, with the job market the way it is, most of us don't have the luxury of trying to find a good department to join- we'll have to take any department that makes us an offer, and then hope for the best. But I'm too cynical to believe I'd be lucky enough to find somewhere that would not be sexist.

John Vidale said...

Another timely and accurate post, synthesizing a complex situation.

Not sure of the details, I checked my present and past departments. There was one terminal Associate in each (out of 20-30 tenure-track people), and one of the two was marginal, a hybrid position. Terminal Associates in the research staff have less clear meaning.

The battle of standards vs collegiality, while ensuring fairness, is tough. I try (unsuccessfully) to avoid promotion discussions.

Anonymous said...

I think you are missing option #5, which is that the professor planned to relax after tenure from day one. I met two cases like this, one at a major research university. The faculty decided to take a hobbie to a semi-professional level, and reduced his academic activity to the minimum required (teaching, service, and very little research). People in his department were extremely upset because it was obvious that it was something planned.
At my current university, we have an associate professor who says that his first priority is to be able to practice an outdoor sport that requires him to leave the university for several days at particular times of the year. He hasn't had a graduate student in years, but manages to co-author a paper now and then by participating of research discussions of other professors in the department.

Anonymous said...

How long does it usually take for someone to make the jump from associate to full? From assistant to tenure, I understand that it is about 6 yrs. Is it another 6 before the next promotion? Are the criteria for this promotion made clear by the dept? In my EE dept, I've seen profs making the jump at 3 yrs, and more than a few at 10+ yrs. These were all men. The few women around are, as one commenter noted, older and full profs or younger and up and coming.

undine said...

There's one component you missed: service. In some departments (not mine, but I've seen this), female associate professors end up running programs or taking on other time-intensive administrative commitments, none of which counts for much when promotions are looming. They're valuable to the department in that they do a ton of work that makes the place run but not "valuable" in that elusive full professor way.

Anonymous said...

For John, from the previous post (which I assume no-one's reading anymore):

UC only has slightly more external reviews than other places. There is a mid-career review before tenure, and full professors can go up for Super Duper Professor (I forget what it's really called, "Step 6" or something memorable like that). But most of our regular merit reviews (which happen every other year!) don't involve external letters.

On the other hand, there are an awful lot of us! You can't swing a cat without hitting a UC professor who's up for review.

On topic, we have two terminal associates in my department. One just retired this year, very very early. Neat guy, energetic, fabulous department citizen. I don't know what was behind his low productivity. The other is still attempting to be active, but I strongly suspect he suffers from depression. Both male.

Anonymous said...

Our terminal associates are all Old Men. A couple of them teach a fair bit, and one of them is not bad at it.

The other teaches one 3 credit class per year (not per semester, per year) by printing and reading notes (no lab). The rest is "service" which seems to consist primarily in surfing the internet and making coffee.

I wonder how it will go for me...

Anonymous said...

Ms.PhD:It just highlights to me how many more opportunities I will have to be screwed over by sexism if I stay in academia.

Care to elaborate on just what the potential sexism is?

I am interested because although I am male, sometimes I hear arguments that a system should be reformed this way or that way, because the current way it is set up is sexist.

I often agree with many of the proposed reforms...but purely out of self-interest! Say I think a certain policy change would make a university faculty a into a better place for my young, male, in-search-of-faculty-position self. And then I hear that the most common argument for said policy change is that the current policy is sexist.

I'll admit it: I hesitate to embrace "change it because it's sexist" types of arguments. I worry: will it make me seem like some kind of crusader more committed to women's causes than my own research? I'd love to add my voice to a chorus of people saying "change it because its just bad", but sometimes people don't seem to be saying that.

John Vidale said...

For Margaret L

Promotion in the UC is a fair bit of work.

From Innovative Higher Education, Vol. 24, No. 1, Fall 1999:

Each year about 1/3 of the faculty are reviewed. The review is initiated in the fall and should be complete by late spring when the professor is notified of the outcome. There is a tremendous workload of files to be assembled. Large departments may have several colleagues eligible for merit or promotion the same year. This creates a huge workload for department staff and for department faculty colleagues as well as for the deans and faculty Committees on Academic Personnel. In addition, departments may be hiring new faculty who must also be reviewed."

My recollection is that letters are required for hiring, tenure, promotion to full, full step V to VI, and advancing off-scale. And not just 2 or 3 letters. Much less effort is involved at my current institution than I saw at UCLA in my decade there.

John Vidale said...

Sorry, misspoke. I should have said Above Scale rather than off-scale for the final step at which letters are required in the UC system.

I just verified these 5 stages requiring letters:

Letters of reference normally are required for all appointments and promotions and advancement to Professor, Step VI and to Professor, Above Scale.

Anonymous said...

I work in a Science department at a Large US Research University. Our department does indeed have a number of people who look like they will be terminal associates, but all of them are men.

There are several women in our department (not as many as there could be, mind you), and they are, without exception, extremely active. There is no sign that the few associate profs among them will stay associate very long.

In fact, almost all the women I know in my field are active. I can think of lots of people I would characterize as dead wood, in many different departments, but only a couple of them are women. Outside of my department I am not sure how many of these active women are getting passed up for promotion to full professor, but the couple of web pages I checked before writing this post were all of people who were either full professors, or simply too recently tenured to be full professors.

My completely unscientific hypothesis is that this is due to selective pressure: my field has few women and most of those that make it into to tenure position have already mastered the balance of their work and family lives. They don't slow down significantly the way I see many of their male colleagues do.

Another significant possibility is that the people I *know* are exactly the active ones. Those not-so-active terminal associates... well, I never meet them at conferences.

But I definitely have not seen evidence for the "active yet associate forever" phenomenon that FSP mentions in her post.

Anonymous said...

Hope: You reminded me that at MIT, I often saw profs routinely being promoted to full prof 4 years after tenure. (MIT promotes to associate prof first, then grants tenure in the normalish 6-year timeframe).

All of the terminal associates I can think of (not at MIT) are men, but I don't know that many female faculty to start with.

Anonymous said...

Is it better to ask to be considered for promotion but then fail the evaluation, or to not ask and remain an associate for 10+ or more years?

In other words, if you ask to be promoted but subsequently fail the evaluation will you get kicked out of the department and be out of a job? Is that why some people never push to be promoted and just stay associates for many years because they're afraid of what could happen if they were to fail the 'test'?

Anonymous said...

'terminal associate' - sounds like some kind of disease. At the very least it has a negative ring to it.

EliRabett said...

People who are getting ready to retire now were hired in the late sixties and seventies. At that time there were few women in STEM departments, and those who were there, as was the case for Ginger Rodgers, had to do the same as the guys, but dancing backwards and in high heels. In other words they had to be super to survive. Those who were not did not get hired, and if hired did not get tenure. In some cases being super was not enough.

Residual sexism certainly made it much harder for women to get tenure until recently. We can argue about the date, however the point is that there were few terminal associate women hired at times when they would now be old enough to be called terminal associates. As departments become more balanced this will change.

Anonymous said...

I knew a case where the terminal associate published very successful and lucrative undergrad textbooks and his colleagues resented it. No research productivity was the excuse. A great teacher, too. He retired rich and happy.

Big 10 prof

Anonymous said...

In my department, I guess there is some added prestige to the Full Professor title but it is not considered a negative to remain an Associate Professor. The Associates are generally productive, scholarly people - at least as productive if not more productive than some Full Professors. In some cases, the Full rank just comes with lots of extra work/responsibility for not much extra reward (e.g., money) so it's undesirable for some folks uninterested in fancy titles.

Kevin said...

University of California puts Associates up for Full professor reviews almost automatically, but it is rare for anyone to get the "Above Scale" step (though that varies from campus to campus, as the state support for the campuses is far from uniform---UCB and UCLA get far more money per student than UCSC or UCR).

All the "terminal associates" at UC have either turned down the opportunity to advance to full or been denied the promotion. There are rather few of them, and most of the ones I've met were men hired in the 60s and 70s who were not interested in doing research.

Anonymous said...

Gosh - I am only recently realizing people worry that much about making Full. So much struggle beforehand to have even a foothold ... people who have making Full as a thing to worry about must live in the land of milk and honey indeed!

My father & other relatives were UC profs and these things were a lot less stressful there because there was a system in place, written rules that were actually followed, and so on.

JC said...

I am a tenured associate professor in 'hard science' at a major research institution (part of that cluster famous for the Ivy on the walls). I've been an associate professor for ~5 years.

Recently, my chair asked about timetable for promotion. S/he fell to the floor (almost) when I replied "I could care squat about promotion to full professor". Seriously - who cares? There are two motivations I can think of for wanting promotion. (1) money, and/or (2) ego. I get paid more than enough in my current position, and anyone who thinks a different academic title means anything is delusional.

I'm an associate professor. I write 3-4 good solid papers a year (have about 60-70 so far, 2 books, and a bunch of book chapters), do my share of teaching, edit for a couple of journals, get grants when I feel like it, and supervise students if they're good and I feel like it. I shift research gears with some frequency, pursuing what interests me. I go to meetings if I feel like it, not as a career move. That, of course, is the point of tenure. I do what I want, more or less.

The university system is predicated on people striving for promotion, for 2 reasons. One, the bean counters and political types in the university administration understand that outside of academics, like government agencies, alumni groups, and other folks who might have $$$ to give to the school, title carries gravitas. A lot of universities make a big deal out of the number of 'full professors'. Second, and more to the point, they want the lure of promotion to keep you active - not at anything as trivial as 'intellectual work', but...getting grants. Pure and simple. Without overhead off major grants, universities would crash and burn - so, how do you keep everyone motivated to keep playing the grant game? Hold out the lure of the 'perks' of being a full professor.

Problem is, the system doesn't account for people who could care less about money, or title. People who publish just fine without a lot of $$$ rolling in. People like me. I'm doing what I want to do now. I loathe administrative assignments, and if doing them is a necessary step on the road to 'full' title, I'll pass.

Anonymous said...


Value what you do, not what you are called... value others based upon what they do, not upon what they are called.