From the May 2001 AAHE Bulletin
How do doctoral students and early-career faculty members
experience their graduate education, the job search process, and the tenure
track? Integrating research on doctoral student expectations and early-career
faculty aspirations provides some surprising answers to that question.
We three researchers came together after Gene Rice,
director of AAHE’s Forum on Faculty Roles & Rewards, asked us to design a
session for that project’s 2001 conference. Mary Dean Sorcinelli and Ann
Austin had worked together previously, and Cathy Trower had collaborated with
other scholars studying the challenges faced by tenure-track faculty members.
This would be the first time we would put our heads together to thoroughly
examine where our separate research agendas were leading us.
As we began to collaborate, we found that “Paradise
Lost” was the common theme that encompasses the perspectives of doctoral
candidates considering academic careers (the focus of Austin’s recent work),
graduates on the job market and first- and second-year faculty members (the
locus of Trower’s inquiries), and tenure-track faculty members (the focal
point of Sorcinelli’s research).
Three Studies, One
Each Study in Brief
The Development of Graduate Students as Prospective
Teaching Scholars. Funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Spencer
Foundation, this study involved principal investigators Ann Austin, Jody Nyquist,
Jo Sprague, and Donald Wulff, as well as four graduate research assistants. The
longitudinal, qualitative study followed 55 doctoral students at two research
universities over a four-year period and 15 master’s students at a
comprehensive university over two years to answer two primary research
questions: “How do aspiring teaching scholars experience graduate
education?” and “How do they develop as prospective faculty members?”
Researchers found that graduate student development does
not occur in linear, fully predictable stages. Rather, it is shaped by a number
of factors and involves multiple dimensions. Factors that differ by individual
and are important in shaping the experience include age, prior education and
employment, and family situation. Other critical factors include the
disciplinary context (e.g., what questions are important, how work is done, the
relationship between teaching and research), and the institutional context
(e.g., norms, culture, the expected balance between teaching and research).
Furthermore, as graduate students listen, observe, and
interact with faculty members, peers, and others, they are constantly receiving
and interpreting explicit and implicit messages conveyed through formal and
casual conversations, departmental and institutional policies, and the actions
of faculty members around them. Unfortunately, these messages often are
contradictory, unclear, and confusing.
Graduate students in the study expressed a deep
commitment to meaningful work — they were motivated to pursue disciplinary
interests, engage in creative work, contribute to future generations, and
interact with interesting people. They were concerned, however, about the
faculty lifestyle and perceived lack of balance in academic life, mixed messages
about the proper mix of teaching and research, and having space for their own
passions. Graduate students also tended to be naive about faculty life and
various career options.
Overall, current approaches to preparing prospective
faculty members appear to have some problems that deserve attention, including
lack of systematic, developmental preparation; insufficient feedback and
mentoring; little attention to faculty careers outside of the tenure-track at
research universities; and discrepancies between preparation in graduate school
and the realities of actual faculty work. Said one doctoral student, “They
throw you into a pool and make you thrash about until you learn to swim.”
In response to a request to portray his doctoral
experience through a picture, an engineering student drew himself running a
marathon. His path is punctuated with some signposts, but he explained that the
signposts are not accurate. He gets to various intersections and is uncertain
where he is supposed to go. Nobody has given him good directions. Then the
geraniums up on a window ledge start falling down on him, a few logs obstruct
his path, and a car is about to hit him. He explained, “I’ve been pretty
successful despite these things,” but he continued by pointing out that so
many unexpected barriers occur in the graduate student experience. Additionally,
like others, he explained that he must find his own way, often with minimal
guidance from faculty members.
Project on Faculty Appointments. Also funded by the Pew
Charitable Trusts, the study encompassed several research initiatives including
the “Faculty Recruitment Study” led by Cathy Trower. After conducting focus
groups with 63 first- and second-year faculty members and doctoral students in
several disciplines spanning the humanities, the sciences, and the professions,
researchers constructed and administered a web-based survey. Almost 700 faculty
members and more than 2,000 doctoral candidates completed the questionnaire
designed to answer several research questions: What factors most significantly
affect where faculty candidates choose to work? Of those factors, what is the
relative importance of each? Under what terms and conditions will candidates
accept non-tenure-track positions? Are there differences by race, discipline, or
Both student and faculty groups expressed, in qualitative
and quantitative terms, their ambivalence about tenure as a condition of
employment. On the one hand, tenure is the one symbol the academy has of
legitimacy and validation of peers; it is synonymous with security, status, and
prestige. Many agreed that tenure is essential to academic freedom and they
could not imagine academic life without it. They were socialized to tenure in
graduate school and believed that there was a certain stigma attached to
On the other hand, tenure is no guarantee of a job for
life — “It’s just another sacred cow ready for slaughter,” according to
one respondent. Some expressed deep reservations about the tenure process and
believed that faculty members stagnate after receiving it. Many expressed
concerns about taking a tenure-track position that demands that they be all
things to all people, requiring excellence in teaching, research, and service.
Young scholars struggled to balance their ideas about life in the academy with
tenure and the realities of getting a job, doing meaningful work, and trying to
lead a balanced life.
Perhaps the most startling finding was that many young
scholars were willing to accept non-tenure-track positions over tenure-track
ones, if given the proper incentives: the right mix of research and teaching in
the right location. This was an especially important finding because, typically,
scholars have been offered more money and a longer contract as incentive to
forego the tenure-track.
Importantly, this study showed that the location of the
institution and the preferred work balance outweighed the other factors studied
including salary, length of contract, one’s perceived chances of tenure or
contract renewal, departmental quality, and institutional prestige. One
first-year faculty member summarized her thoughts this way: “I wanted a
research job and I got one. It’s not on the tenure-track but I’m doing work
that I love, at a prestigious institution, in a great town. My work will speak
for itself and I’ll be renewed, so I’m not worried about job security.”
New Pathways II: Project on the Tenure Process.
Led by Gene Rice with Mary Deane Sorcinelli and Jon Wergin as senior scholars,
the third project was grounded in structured interviews with more than 350
aspiring and early-career faculty members. The research questions were: What did
faculty members hope for in an academic career? How do early-career faculty
members experience the tenure process? What practices attract, develop, and
retain new faculty members?
Researchers found yet again a troubling gap between the
vision and reality of an academic career. Early-career faculty members hoped
they would experience a sense of autonomy and academic freedom to pursue their
research and teaching agendas. They envisioned an opportunity for continued
learning and discovery, and a sense of accomplishment. But while they may find
these ideals, they also experienced an incomprehensible tenure system, a lack of
community, and an unbalanced life.
The expectations for performance on the tenure-track were
described as “ambiguous,” “shifting,” “conflicting,” and
“ever-escalating.” Early-career faculty members reported receiving mixed
messages about what was important for tenure achievement, and most received
little formal feedback or mentoring. They were reluctant to seek assistance
because doing so was tantamount to admitting a weakness. And while tenure
requirements and processes may, in some cases, be spelled out in policy
language, most of those interviewed had no clear understanding of how the actual
process worked, exactly who was involved, how to compile their dossiers, or the
timeframe for specific steps along the way.
To make matters worse, the tenure timeline has a
short-term focus when a scholar’s passions require a long-term view. Many
described the tenure process as inflexible and unresponsive to decreased
funding, publication backlogs, the learning curve for teaching and preparing
courses, and the personal demands made on scholars struggling to balance their
Many were disappointed not to find a long- anticipated,
supportive community of senior scholars, a department chair, and students.
Scholars in their early years on the job reported experiencing loneliness,
isolation, intense competition, and sometimes incivility. One scholar drew a
picture of her journey towards tenure (entitled the “Corridor of
Collegiality”) with closed doors that said, “Do Not Disturb,” “Keep
Out,” “Working at Home,” and “Gone Fishing.” Sadly, she even drew
herself behind a closed door. Early-career faculty members were told not to
spend too much time with students or on improving their teaching skills for fear
that they almost certainly would not receive tenure if they did. They depicted
teaching, from annual reviews to the tenure process, as “narrowly defined,”
“poorly evaluated,” and “undervalued.”
Finally, nearly all early-career faculty members
described themselves as overworked — spending long hours trying to meet
multiple responsibilities — to “keep all the balls in the air long enough to
get tenure.” Interviewees reported an erosion of personal, family, and leisure
time under the press of institutional and self-imposed commitments. One last
story epitomized the tenure process: A new faculty member entered the profession
with a high level of idealism and optimism. Her orientation and socialization to
the job and department were haphazard at best, leading to a steady erosion of
satisfaction. Still, she persevered because she loved her work, and she climbed
on toward tenure and its promise of security, legitimacy, and status. Tenure
year was a “firecracker” — tense, unpredictable, volatile. And when the
tenure review was over and tenure conferred, she fizzled away, emotionally and
What Can We Do?
Over the longer term, academe has a wonderful opportunity
to reinvent itself. It seems to us that the 21st-century scholar along with the
21st-century environment are calling out for reform within the ivory towers.
Reality for newly minted scholars includes a strong outside labor market in many
disciplines; mostly dual-career families; many single-parent households; vast
downsizing in the corporate world; less emphasis on a job for life; greater
mobility; more women and minorities in the workplace, bringing different values
and needs; and a generation that wants more from life than a bigger home in the
suburbs and two cars.
As we stand here at the beginning of the 21st century,
the environment looks quite different than at the turn of the prior century: an
information economy, a highly skilled workforce, new technologies, increased
globalization, more executive education, older college students, the concept of
students as customers, greater opportunities for access, increased
interdisciplinarity, a private sector that views higher education as “the next
healthcare” in need of reform, a convergence of knowledge production, more
strategic alliances and joint ventures, more for-profit subsidiaries and
corporate universities . . . the list is virtually endless. Why would we think
that policies designed 80 years ago for different people in a different era
would still fit “all sizes” today?
And so we pose these questions:
Paradise, the life of the mind, the life of the scholar,
need not be lost. We sincerely believe that the next chapter can be titled
“Paradise Regained.” The time to act is now. Toward that end we hope to
convene a series of conversations across the country to help envision possible
futures for the academy that ensure the health and livelihood of its faculty.
This article is based on the authors’ presentation at
the 2001 Conference on Faculty Roles & Rewards, held February 1–4 in
Tampa, Florida. For a complete list of conference sessions and speakers, see the
final conference program at www.aahe.org/ffrr/2001/update.htm.
Audio cassettes and CDs are available from Conference Media Contractors, www.cmc-net.com/docs/aahe_2001_index.html;
Cathy A. Trower is a senior researcher in the Project on
Faculty Appointments at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.
Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ann E. Austin is associate professor of educational
administration at Michigan State University. Contact her at email@example.com.
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