Skip to content Skip to navigation

Maintaining Senior Faculty Productivity

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

Message Number: 

Another point concerns the decision on how a faculty member chooses the work that defines himself or herself from a professional perspective and how that may vary depending on career stage. Each faculty member must make this decision regardless of whether the expectations for tenure and further advancement are based on teaching or research parameters.


The posting below looks at some factors impacting senior faculty productivity. It is from Chapter 15, Guiding Faculty Careers in , Chairing Academic Departments, Traditional and Emerging Expectations by N. Douglas Lees, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Copyright ? 2006 by Anker Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. ISBN 1-933371-03-X Anker Publishing Company, Inc. 563 Main Street P.O. Box 249 Bolton, MA 01740-0249 USA [].


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Open Learning Initiatives at Carnegie Mellon University

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

----------------------------------------- 1,208 -------------------------------------------

Maintaining Senior Faculty Productivity

The term senior refers to someone well past the tenure decision who has typically been promoted to associate professor. Although the timing varies across institutions, tenure usually begins at seven years of service. Assuming a traditional educational path, faculty may gain the first academic appointment at any time between their late 20s to mid 30s, depending on the discipline and whether post-doctoral appointments are required for hiring. Pushing beyond the tenure process, senior faculty are defined as those from 40-45 years of age and beyond. Examining a typical department of 20 or more faculty, several species of senior faculty can be identified. First, there are those who continued to move forward rapidly and were promoted to full rank less than 10 years post-tenure. Second, there are those who have yet to gain full rank but are working toward that goal and can be identified as having strong potential for achieving promotion. Finally, there are those at the associate professor rank who seem destined to remain at this level. These categories represent different challenges for the chair to ensure that productivity trajectories remain positive in some cases and are transformed from languishing to increasing in others.

The important of maintaining senior faculty productivity has been thoroughly explored by Bland and Bergquist (1997) as well as by Lucas (1994). In the former, a series of internal and external factors were identified relative to senior faculty vitality. Lucas uses the results of surveys of senior faculty to define the factors that they feel are most critical to keeping them working productively. These are both excellent sources for information on what factors keep senior faculty members engaged and productive. However, one need only to look at the successful senior faculty in any department to identify some of these factors. Productive senior faculty members have an absolute and permanent commitment to their work. This strong intrinsic desire seems impervious to setbacks and rejections. When my institution was moving to research focus, a colleague with such traits said we needed to have thick skin. This was at a time when most grant proposals were not funded and we had to continue to be productive in spite of resource restrictions. Even after having won those initial battles and achieving success, such individuals continuously seek to move to the next level.

Beyond internal motivation, there are other characteristics that define successful senior faculty members. Because of their strong disciplinary commitment, they are personally comfortable and confident with their status on their area of expertise. This is confirmed by the position they hold relative to other experts in the field. They know they are at the cutting edge. They also know the other players in the area and often collaborate with some of them. This networking further supports their professional status and provides opportunities to work with other leaders in the field to make even more valuable contributions. They now have an expanded scope of professional activities, usually multiple collaborations and more than one project. These general characteristics are seen in faculty whose major focal points are teaching or research. For research-based faculty members in science and technology disciplines, this also means that two or three separate projects are active on site or in collaboration and that the research group has now expanded from perhaps five or six to twelve. If the projects are in bench research, each has its own external funding.

These are clearly very busy people. The notion that achieving tenure frees faculty members to focus on other aspects of faculty work would not be true in such cases. When tenure is granted for substantial scholarship in teaching or research, it is with the hope that the faculty member will continue to achieve in even greater ways. While changing focus is certainly permitted and is a benefit of tenure, many faculty members continue to build dossiers in the area for which tenure was granted. Regardless of the area of focus or whether it was the original area or resulted from a change of interest, time becomes and important factor for such individuals to continue to achieve in this more complex set of activities. Those faculty members who organize and compartmentalize their time with a strong primary focus are usually the ones to reach their goals early.

Another point concerns the decision on how a faculty member chooses the work that defines himself or herself from a professional perspective and how that may vary depending on career stage. Each faculty member must make this decision regardless of whether the expectations for tenure and further advancement are based on teaching or research parameters. For the probationary faculty member, the objective is to accumulate the accomplishments required to be in place five to six years from the date of appointment. The faculty member knows from conversations with the chair and feedback from faculty committees that certain things are expected. If the area of primary consideration is teaching, the faculty member must accumulate a set of accomplishments that may include, for example, some mix of good student satisfaction surveys, positive additions to student knowledge resulting from outcomes assessment measures, new course contributions that have attracted strong enrollments, professional presentations on teaching innovations, and positive peer reviews of teaching. If research is the primary consideration, then peer-reviewed publishing in quality journals, published book, external funding, and speaking invitations are part of the accomplishments that must be in place. In either case the timeframe is set, but the work to be submitted (courses to develop, learning strategies to incorporate, aspects of research to focus on, journals to submit to, etc.) needs to be decided. The decision must consider risk, as the following example illustrates.

A faculty member defines an aspect of research that has a valuable outcome in terms of adding to the field and that is approachable with known techniques or variations thereof. The work would be attractive to funding agencies and should yield regular publishable results along the way. However, a second projects is identified whose results will transform the entire field and be controversial because they will challenge the existing dogma and, therefore, the experts in the field. Obtaining funding and publishing the results will be difficult because grant proposals and manuscripts will be evaluated by these same experts. The former project seems ideal for the probationary faculty member because it promises the requisite productivity for tenure. The second, however, is very high risk. If the conventional scholarship in the area is not rapidly changed, the faculty member could wind up with nothing. The decision here is an interesting one and should involve the chair and department committees from the outset. Ask yourself how you would advise a faculty member facing this choice.

The previous scenario plays out much differently if the faculty member is senior. Here the tolerance for risk is much higher, and the faculty member already has status in the field that may permit a more open consideration of innovation by other experts in the field. The chair advice for this faculty member may be quite different. Successful senior faculty members value their autonomy and how it allow them to choose their work. Risk taking is a valued enterprise at many institutions and is a characteristic identified with active and successful senior faculty members.


Bland, C.J., & Bergquist, W.H. (1997). The vitality of senior faculty members: Snow on the roof-Fire in the furnace (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, 25[7]). Washington, DC: George Washington University, Graduate School of Education and Human Development.

Lucas, A.F. (1994). Strengthening department leadership: A team-building guide for chairs in colleges and universities. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.