14 September 2015

The role of caprice in academic careers

Most faculty members get just two promotions in their entire life: from assistant to associate professor, and associate to full professor. Our promotion guidelines (which are pretty standard) say you have to have six years of experience to move up a level. So, you need twelve years to become a full professor.

As I’ve mentioned recently, I had a slow start at my current position. This resulted in me spending a year longer at the assistant professor level than normal. Things picked up for me substantially as an associate professor. I was confident that I had exceeded what was needed to qualify for promotion to full professor.

When I hit my twelve years in my job (two years ago), I asked if I could apply for promotion.

I was told not to try. The way our promotion guidelines were worded, you needed six years experience at each level, not a cumulative number (twelve total). Following the letter of the guidelines, I would have been going up for promotion a year early.

Administrators at the time had told faculty repeatedly that they did not like to people to go up for promotions early. You needed an exceptional reason to get early promotion, though that was never specified what that was. Maybe a Nobel prize or something.

I was okay with that. I generally agree with the idea that early promotion should be exceptional and not routine. I waited until last fall, put in my folder, was reviewed, and had no problem getting promoted.

Then I found out that one of my colleagues applied for early promotion, also from associate to full professor, and got it.

I’m very happy for my colleague, who went for the brass ring and got it. It seems, though, that the main reason this person got an early promotion after I was told not even to try was due to the administrative changes that occurred leading up to the formation of UTRGV. A lot of administrators changed jobs, and we were left with a bunch of interim administrators.

That happenstance difference in administration set my promotion, and the associated $10,000 raise* back a year. I could have done something with that money.

The loss of money isn’t the thing that bugs me, though. It’s the blind, stinking, clueless luck part of the process that bugs me. One year, one adminstrator says, “No.” The next, someone else says, “Sure.”

Universities have a (deserved) reputation for being inflexible, rule bound bureaucracies. But there is still a lot of room for your career to be affected by unpredictable decisions made by a small number of people.

* My salary is public record, so no point in being coy about it.

Photo by Pascal on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

1 comment:

Bjoern Brembs said...

Hey, at least you can get promoted. In the German system, promotions don't exist. Our tenure system doesn't come with a position: first you need something like a postdoc position to collect all the teaching, research and service tasks for tenure (called 'habilitation' here). Once you have that, you're eligible to apply for tenured jobs (there is no tenure track). There are many more people with 'habilitation' than there are tenured jobs. But you can apply for 'associate' and 'full' professor positions, once you have the habilitation. The distinction between 'associate' and 'full' doesn't even exist: they're all just 'professor'. There is just a difference in pay and staff that comes with the position. So in principle you could go from postdoc/group leader to full professor in one step. However, if you're 'associate' professor here, the only way to get a 'full' professor is by applying to one such position at a different university.

Oh, and 'full' professors here have so much admin and other BS jobs and tasks, that essentially prevent them from doing any research on their own. So at least at this point, I won't be applying for such a position any time soon.