Last December I received the news that I’d “passed” the first and by far most important stage of the tenure process. Having assumed the best outcome for the rest of the process, I created a road map a few days later. The road map was geared towards promotion to full professor as soon as possible.

Covid-19, alas, has already messed up this map. Online teaching necessitated an inordinate amount of time for adjustment and redesign. In the meanwhile, spring conferences and summer research trips were cancelled. 


Furthermore, early promotion to full professorship is exceedingly difficult even under normal circumstances. I knew about the difficulty back in December, when I consulted the faculty handbook of Seaver College, the undergraduate college of Pepperdine. The section “Accelerated Promotion” states that the earliest that an associate professor could apply for promotion would be the fourth year in that rank. (All emphases are mine.)

To receive an accelerated promotion after the fourth year (effectively a two-year advance), a faculty member must display a consistent pattern of support for generally accepted Christian values and the mission of Pepperdine University as described in the Mission Statement, and must be in the top 10 percent of Seaver faculty in each of the areas of teaching, scholarly activity, and service.

The next possibility for accelerated promotion is the fifth year as associate,

which is effectively a one-year advance… The faculty must be in the top 10 percent of Seaver faculty in one of the three areas of teaching, scholarly activity, or service, and in the top 25 percent in each of the other two areas.

The language may be different at different institutions, but the idea of exceptional merit is standard for early promotion. A source from UCLA, for example, states the following:

The possibility of an acceleration… usually occurs after the candidate has produced some extraordinary achievement, won some major award, received some outstanding recognition in her/his field, or been extraordinarily productive. Such an action should not be proposed to correct a perceived inequity in rank or step, such as when a faculty member is considered to be achieving above rank or has been inappropriately held back in the past, but has not had a recent exceptional achievement. 

Of course, one could simply wait until the sixth year or later to file an application. Yet there is no warranty whatsoever for a successful outcome. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that the majority of first-time applications to full professor are denied. There are many reasons, and it seems to be most true at research institutions, both R1 and R2. It is probably similar at liberal arts colleges and universities, if to a lesser extent. 

The good news is that unlike tenure, one could apply again in two years or longer. The bad news, I suppose, is that denial may deal enough of a blow, psychologically and otherwise, that one might not want to touch the application again for a long time. And imagine a second denial. No, I don’t want to think about it!

I’ve spent most of the last 24 hours reading about promotion and early promotion. I also solicited advice from academic friends and acquaintances on Facebook. From online and at any given university campus, there is an overwhelming amount of advice and recommendations about tenure. In comparison, there has been little discussion and mentorship about promotion to full professor (and virtually none on early promotion).

Indeed, institutionally stated criteria for promotion and early promotion could be vague enough that, as a CHE article from 2016 has argued, they “may signal to some faculty members that a promotion to the top is out of their reach.” There are lasting consequences when “the path that scholars must follow to join their ranks is hardly clear-cut,” for this situation “can make it more difficult for some people—particularly women and minorities—to get there.”

Fortunately, the situation has begun to receive attention from some institutions. As noted in a recent piece by Keisha Blain, Michigan State has hosted a symposium to assist mid-career faculty while Purdue holds an annual conference for associate faculty, especially women. There are national online program for tenured and mid-career faculty such as Post-Tenure Pathfinders for tenured professors “seeking support from a small cohort of 36 tenured faculty supplemented with regular 1-on-1 accountability to support their next steps.”

These developments strike me as a nice corrective to the long-standing phenomenon of many tenured faculty being “stuck” at the associate level. Yet, as a wag once put it in the forums of the Chronicle of Higher Education, one should apply to full professorship because “associate professor emeritus is the saddest title in academia.” Funny if not true in the era of widespread adjunctification and, correspondingly, diminishment of tenure. Besides, it is more difficult to be full at research universities than smaller liberal arts colleges. Nonetheless, the opportunity is there for tenured faculty. Shouldn’t one at least try and, if necessary, try again?

As recommended by academic friends on FB, one should find out more about policies and requirements of promotion from one’s department chair, dean, members of the tenure and promotion committee, and recently promoted full professors. Be it accelerated or regular promotion, one should also keep track of everything for the application. Confirming the emphasis from the links above, they also stress the role of mentorship to students and even junior faculty. More than one told me to watch out for taking on too much service from the institution, as universities tend to ask tenured and associate professors to serve on all sorts of committees and responsibilities.

Uniquely, a friend pointed out the role of “racial labor and pastoral care.” They are,” wrote she, “usually a huge part of the invisible workload for faculty of color at a historically/predominantly/designed-for-whites and/or liberal arts/SLAC institution. You must find a way to make this labor visible and “countable”. Is there a supportive fellow faculty member of color who can advise/support you on this?” I have read about emotional labor among working-class minorities: e.g., workers at Vietnamese American nail salons and white customers. But her points really made me think for the first time about academia. 

What else? From the same essay by Keisha Blain, I found the following nugget of an advice regarding scholarship. Specifically, it is about doing a monograph after tenure. 

Historian Katherine Rye Jewell, a tenured professor at Fitchburg State University, shared a tip she found especially valuable from one of her mentors: “look for projects with small archival collections requiring only a day trip or an overnight and digitized materials … [plan with] materials in mind.” With the mounting pressures of service, teaching and mentoring, tenured associate professors are often stretched too thin to make substantial progress on their research and writing. Adopting a practical approach to research, as Jewell emphasized, may hasten your path to completing a second book — especially while juggling so many new responsibilities as a tenured member of the faculty. Completing the second book will make the goal of becoming a full professor all the more attainable.

I also found Manya Whitaker’s essay in the CHE to be very helpful because it is specific and even offers a road map in the form of several strategies. I really enjoyed reading a collection of tips from University of Maine, including an advice to “be proactive.” 

In our study of those who pursued promotion to full professor at UMaine, many of the faculty members were told – after the fact – that they waited too long and could have pursued promotion much earlier. Don’t wait to be tapped on the shoulder and told, “It’s time.” Constantly evaluate your contributions and accomplishments against recently promoted full professors.

Another handy list of tips comes from the public R2 institution Oakland University in Michigan. It includes the following five-year plan for post-tenure faculty, plus a recommendation to “get an accountability partner or coach.”

midcareer-tips-sheet-2017-final 2

I worked for two years as a visiting faculty before entering the tenure track, when I was offered the options of a four-year, five-year, and six-year tracks. I chose the five-year one. Similarly, I am now confronted with the possibilities of a four-year, five-year, or six-year track towards an application for full professor. This time, I need not choose an option right now and can afford to wait until it gets closer. Or, I can even choose a self-created seventh-year or longer of a track. Promotion to full professor is definitely tough, possibly tougher than tenure. But there is certain freedom to one’s going about it. 

Still, it helps me enormously to have a road map and I am going to redo the map from last winter. At this time, I am inclined to take after my tenure track and draw up a five-year track of one-year early promotion. The challenge is enormous, but it’s worth a shot as long as I evaluate the feasibility at the end of each year. After all, the map may be modified to accommodate a sixth year at any given time.

Above all, though, I want to be happy because much of my tenure track overlapped with one of the happiest periods of my life. I wish for the same as I think about the next few years. Aim for early promotion, sure, but keep it real and let it go if it interferes into health and well-being.

Among the online stuff that I read in the last 24 hours is a half-humorous, half-serious essay called “Premature Promotion.” As suggested by the title, the author, who writes under pseudonym, points out and mocks the problems on the part of over-enthusiastic “early birds” seeking to earn early promotion. 

So early birds, who do you think you are coming up for full professor within a few years of getting tenure at your institution? By sheer dint of will and ego, and determination, and the weak will of promotion committees composed of equally confused faculty, you may very well succeed, but will you really be a full professor?

That honor, in a more intrinsic and meaningful sense, is reserved for those who take a different path, a more patient, methodical and dedicated path, driven by a deep desire to be something really special as a scholar and as a member of his or her university community. You’ll have the title for some years before they do, but theirs will actually mean something.

It’s really quite simple. You don’t rush good cheese and you don’t rush good wine. Don’t rush full professor.

I was older than most when starting the tenure track, and I don’t have as much time as others did or will. I’d like to be an early bird for this reason, but not the kind of an early bird as described above! The destination matters, but the traveler matters more and the journey matters most.