The Tenure Track Explained: Academic Freedom!

The tenure track explained: how to become a full professor

After completing your Ph.D., it’s not uncommon to think about becoming a professor. 

What else can be more rewarding than to continue growing intellectually while being privileged enough to share your knowledge with young minds?

But did you know there’s an entire hierarchy or process to it?

It’s not like you will become a full professor the moment you teach in a university.

There are steps, and there’s a goal.

And that’s the tenure track.

What is the tenure track?

Did you know that some professors can’t be fired at all?

That’s right; professors who got tenured can’t lose their job because of their unpopular positions.

When it comes to the world of academia, a tenured or full professor is one that, in a way, embodies the educational institution. 

They are as one with the university, and thus the university cannot remove them. 

You can think of the tenure position as structural parts of a university, a building — which is extremely difficult, impossible even, to remove without any reason. 

A tenured professor has absolute academic freedom. 

He/she can teach or research whatever he/she desires. 

So chasing tenure isn’t just about securing a permanent job, but it is about being capable of studying, researching, and teaching what you believe is worthwhile. 

How hard is it to become a tenured professor?

If you thought getting a Ph.D. is extremely difficult, then becoming tenure is near impossible. 

Apart from requiring a Ph.D., tenure also requires you to have impeccable contributions to academia.

Your research ideas must be proven useful, well investigated, and you must provide papers that are not only worth reading but sharing!

In a nutshell, one criterion that makes you a viable candidate for tenure is being capable of indirectly marketing your university through your published works.

Apart from that, you will also need to climb the brutal academic hierarchy. 

You will need to start as a lecturer, then to an assistant professor, then an associate, then a full professor.

To climb from one position to the next, you will be competing with other bright intellects who have also completed their Ph.D. 

In a nutshell, getting into the tenure track is one of the most competitive things you can do in your lifetime. 

Can you lose tenure?

Unfortunately, yes.

Although a lot of institutions state that tenure equals permanency, it is still possible to lose it. 

As mentioned earlier, we said: “absolute academic freedom,” not absolute freedom.

Tenures still have to follow university rules. 

Most of the rules are non-academic grounds, which means:

  • Committing murder, rape, sexual assault, multiple DUIs, and other felonies
  • Not performing one’s duty —  academic incompetence, neglect of duty, and intentional violation of policy
  • Shutting down of one’s program/department
  • Health problems
  • Educational institution’s bankruptcy
  • Committing fraud or using department/grant money for personal reasons

As long as you are religious with your work in academia, there’s almost nothing that is going to make you lose your position as tenure. 

Advantages of tenure and why it matters

The most significant advantage of tenure is the ability to express education in its purest form — to research without any prejudice. 

Education should always come from unbiased curiosity.

Today, many of the ongoing research programs are set to help big pharma, politics, and other technologies that are most often used to generate money.

By providing tenure to professors, they will have complete freedom to research what contributes to science for the sake of sheer science. 

Complete freedom in teaching, research, and learning is the very objective of any educational institution. 

Tenure serves as a protection to professors to pursue their work to contribute and answer questions. 

Having tenure is a guarantee that you will complete your research regardless of what it is and what it will contribute.

Tenure also provides financial security to professors. Tenures are paid higher compared to those who are not, allowing them to become more stable and focused on their work.

Tenure track: 3 steps to get tenured

Here, I will be explaining the typical road to becoming a full professor. Although this route is not the only way to become one, it is the most common one that many universities follow.

1. Become an assistant professor

Now, an assistant professor is not an assistant to anyone. It is the title given to a first-tier professor on the tenure track. 

You can also become other teaching staff with an equivalent footing, such as an adjunct or clinical professor, but it is not going to lead to tenure.

An assistant professor will usually have a six-year contract (could be shorter or longer depending on the university), and in the penultimate year, he/she can apply for associate professor. 

2. Become an associate professor

If your application was successful, you could become an associate professor. 

An associate professor is a mid-level faculty member and will sometimes, rarely, already gain tenure. However, it depends on the university and its budget.

Associate professors already have enormous contributions and published works. These will be one of the criteria for them to reach the final stage — full professor.

3. Become a full professor

To become a full professor, you must be an associate professor with several published works. A committee will review your research, teaching, and publications.

For large universities, they will likely favor your research over your teaching skills. The more attractive your publications are for investors, the higher the chance of landing the full professor position.

For small universities, on the other hand, it will be your teaching performance rather than your publications. 

Should you get into the tenure track?

As mentioned above, acquiring tenure is an extremely challenging goal. 

However, the merits it provides you are beyond words. 

If you believe in the spirit of academia and the love for learning, then tenure is perhaps the best thing you can acquire in your life as a scholar. 

However, if money weighs more to you, then it’s best to pursue a career in the private sector where pay is significantly higher.