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Transitions and the Track

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No matter how well they've prepared, academics are not immune to changes in their personal and professional lives. And with promotion and tenure on the line, change can be especially tough to manage.

There are plenty of scenarios that might motivate academics to move to or from their institution's tenure track. Likewise, there are many reasons academics might elect to leave an institution altogether and try their hand at navigating the process elsewhere. But as policies and procedures for promotion and tenure vary extensively within and among universities, the University of South Carolina's Senior Vice Provost Christine Curtis says it's possible that "people who are very, very successful in one situation may or may not be in the second."

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When considering a major professional move, it's important to remember that no two people's circumstances are the same, and that nearly every move incurs a certain degree of risk. "I've known people who have done it and did fine and people who have done it and wished they hadn't," Curtis says. "But that's a personal decision."

Individual circumstances and motivations aside, in-the-know academic administrators here offer their tips to ease the transition and to stay on track.

Same place, new position

Feeling as though they're unlikely to obtain tenure is one of the more common reasons why academics choose to leave their institution's tenure track. Heather Brod, who is in charge of faculty affairs at Ohio State University Medical Center, says that at her institution, "we frequently have faculty who are clinicians, and they may leave the tenure track because they end up spending too much time practicing clinically" to meet tenure requirements.

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In addition, South Carolina's Curtis says that a dip in academic productivity, for whatever reason, could drive an academic to make the tough choice of transferring to a non-tenure track. "Sometimes there are external events — family events — [that cause] a lack of research productivity for whatever reason," Curtis says. "Sometimes it's because of the teaching load. Sometimes it's because the journals just take so, so long responding."

But there are other reasons to relocate. "Occasionally, someone finds that their forte is research and they don't want to be involved with the rest of it — they may want to go into the research track," Curtis says. This has been the case for some researchers who have no interest in teaching or service commitments, she says, adding that "others may not want to do much research and want to just be teaching ... and they may go into the clinical track."

While faculty leaving the tenure track is fairly rare, far fewer non-tenure-track academics attempt to enter it. "It happens, but it doesn't happen that often," Curtis says.

Indeed, Brod estimates that her institution processes one or two such requests every year. That's likely because at Ohio State, like many universities, all tenure-track positions are supposed to be appointed through national searches. "In the circumstance where somebody has requested to go from research track to tenure track, the department would have to open a tenure-track position for competitive application, or provide sufficient rationale to ask for an exemption from the search requirement — and that has to be approved by the provost," Brod says.

At South Carolina, the process of moving from a research or clinical position to the tenure track is a bit different. Some colleges within the university require national searches for all tenure-track positions, while others call for a faculty vote and a recommendation from the chair and the dean before seeking a decision from the provost. For faculty who wish to move from one academic unit to another — as a result of, say, a change in research interests — their tenure-track status is transferable, contingent upon votes from faculty in the receiving unit and similar recommendations from the chair and dean, approval by the provost, and a vote by the board of trustees.

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Overall, moves to the tenure track mirror the faculty -recruitment process. However, "just because someone is tenured at the University of Georgia and [they] come to us through a national search does not mean that we will transfer in their tenure," Curtis says. The same holds true if a tenured South Carolina professor were to be recruited by Georgia. "It goes both ways," she adds.

New place, new position

Most academic institutions hire new faculty at all levels, with or without tenure. But every university, and nearly every unit within it, has its own criteria for promotion and tenure. At South Carolina, "if the individual meets the criteria, they can be hired with tenure, but again, [this requires] a vote of the faculty, recommendation of the chair, recommendation by the dean, approval by the provost, approval by the president, and approval by the board," Curtis says.

Faculty who "have the correct portfolio to meet our criteria could be hired as an associate professor with tenure, even if [they] were previously on the clinical track" at another institution, provided they clear Ohio State's tenure and promotion process, Brod adds. "When we recruit somebody who's already a tenured professor or tenured associate professor at their institution, we will typically bring them in at the same rank — provided that they meet our criteria," she says. "On rare occasions, if they were a tenured professor we might bring them in as a tenured associate professor because they don't quite meet our standards for professor."

Faculty who obtained tenure elsewhere and are then hired by South Carolina as associate professors have a six-year probationary period rather than the standard seven. However, as soon as they meet the unit's tenure criteria — whether six months or six years down the line — they're eligible to go up for it, Curtis says.

For promotion to associate professor with tenure at Ohio State, Brod says faculty must demonstrate a national level of recognition and impact in their field. For professors with tenure, the expectation is that they have achieved such recognition and impact on an international scale. But every institution has "different standards, different criteria," she says. "Some institutions ... might be fixated more on hard numbers — perhaps that you have 50 first-author publications or something."

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To that end, she stresses the importance of "ensuring that you understand the philosophy of the place" as much as possible before moving.

Curtis says that the new institution "needs to be a welcoming environment. It needs to be a place where their scholarship and their area of expertise are regarded with value," she says. "If you're going to move, you need to make sure the position you're moving into is an environment where you can excel."

To do this, Brod recommends having what she calls a "frank discussion with the department chair [and] the dean for academic or faculty affairs." Beyond meeting with the faculty, Curtis also suggests speaking with the students. "Graduate students, in my experience, are much more straightforward and will tell it like it is, whereas faculty are much more guarded," Curtis says. "They want somebody to help with the teaching, to help with the service. ... There are all sorts of reasons why faculty want more faculty" to join their department, she adds. "The students are different — they're going to tell you ... how rich a scholarly environment is."

Further, Curtis says faculty who are considering a move ought to investigate the opportunities for collaboration the new institution offers. Overall, she suggests trying "as much as you can figure those things out." In the end, though, "some you'll never figure out," Curtis adds. "You just have to go on faith and your instincts."

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