From Issues in Graduate Education: CGS Forum on Making the Transition to a Professional Career in the December 2008 issue of Perspectives on History

From Teaching Assistant to Tenure-Track Faculty

Cheryl A. Wells, December 2008

The daunting transition from teaching assistant to tenured faculty member has kept many a graduate student and assistant professor stirring at all hours of the night with dreadful visions of potential pitfalls and complete professional obliteration dancing in their heads. Such thoughts, while natural, rarely come to such fruition. The transition will be difficult at times, no doubt, and sanity will occasionally become a trait reserved for other people. Yet, simply put, hard work reaps rewards.

The process actually begins with the transition from student to teaching assistant. Students hopefully only take each class once. They attend class, take notes, write their papers and exams, and go merrily on their way to their next class. Teaching assistants, however, are more than just students; they are professors in the making. Being a teaching assistant opens worlds of opportunity. Most teaching assistants witness multiple faculty teach the same course; a luxury not afforded professors! Teaching Assistants are able very early on to observe how the direction and nature of the course varies by instructor, what teaching styles are effective, and what are not, and what books and assignments enhance the class or damage it. Take the opportunities offered as a teaching assistant. Give lectures, start working on syllabi and lectures for future classes, take the best from the experience, and reject the worst. Once gleaned let such invaluable knowledge inform your career.

Your first job tests the knowledge learned as a teaching assistant and begins the transition from teaching assistant to tenure. With few exceptions, new assistant professors are already viewed by their colleagues as professionals. Prove them correct. Each department possesses its own vibe, culture, history, institutional memory, and interpretation of that memory which inevitably varies from member to member. It is critical to understand the history and to identify the players and their quirks. It might be wise to watch and listen initially and learn the landscape of the department. Simultaneously, it is also important to be collegial, court new coworkers, go to lunch, have discussions, and solicit advice. Also, be available. The job does not seem to be labor-intensive or time-consuming. It may thus tempt you to work from home. Resist it. Be visible. Treat the job as a 9-to-5 job in the office.

As with office jobs, academic jobs also come with unwritten guidelines some of which center on graduate students, job descriptions, and especially tenure. Interactions with graduate students are critical to professionalization. In most cases, new assistant professors are closer in age to graduate students than to their new colleagues. Resist the urge to befriend graduate students. Keep things professional with a strict demarcation between graduate students and faculty.

It is also critically important to understand and be intimately familiar with the job description. What percentage is dedicated to teaching? Research? Service? Tenure is almost never denied for insufficient service; yet it is often denied for too much service, not enough research, and crummy teaching evaluations. Some universities require annual tenure packets in hopes of preventing a negative tenure decision. This may seem annoying, but it offers a wonderful chance to gauge professional progress in the eyes of the department and college. Take the time to prepare accurately the tenure packet. Investigate how other, more senior members of the department phrase things and what they choose to include in their packets. These yearly reviews can, if used properly, be helpful in identifying weaknesses and strengths in teaching, service, and research.

In terms of teaching, organization and flexibility go a long way towards success. If the teaching evaluations come back unsatisfactory, talk with the department head or go to the teaching center on campus. Be willing to address and resolve problems. In terms of research, know not only what the requirements say but also how the department interprets them. The department should have a document stating the research requirements for tenure. In most cases, a book fulfills the primary research requirement. The process of transforming a dissertation into a book does not have to be a difficult. Write the dissertation as a book from the start. Consider the topic and length. No publisher is going to publish 800 pages on French fox hunting in the 10th century but a publisher might considered a 200-page book on the same topic. Start talking with publishers as soon as possible. Submit the manuscript for review earlier rather than later. It does not have to be perfect to the author’s eye. Changes are inevitable, as external reviewers will suggest unexpected and surprising revisions. Conversely, waiting until the author’s eye attains perfection could very well take years longer thus placing tenure in a precarious position.

Each department construes its tenure guidelines differently and indeed the tenure seeking professor and the department may clash over interpretation. The guidelines may state that a book is required for tenure but to the department that benchmark may have a specific binding timeframe attached to it. Some universities see tenure as a prison sentence. Serve seven years, appear with a book contract, and tenure is earned. Other, more reasonable, universities acknowledge the arbitrary nature of a fixed time clock and permit early tenure as long as the minimum tenure requirements have been surpassed. Understand, as frustrating as it is, that no university is monolithic in its approach for tenure as department colleagues, deans, provosts and so on up the line often clash over the means and requirements of tenure. That said, prepare a solid tenure packet, and think especially hard and seriously about external reviewers for the tenure packet. Once the external reviews are positively returned, make sure the department supports a positive a tenure vote.

There will always be negative petty voices on tenure decisions. Focus on the positive. Tenure is not a pass into laziness and sloth. It’s a privilege granted based on past work and the promise of future endeavors. After successfully transitioning from teaching assistant to the tenure-track and then getting tenure, new associate professors will make the startling discovery that not much changes. Annual tenure review is replaced by post-tenure review, classes still need to be competently taught, and research agendas met. Some associate professors will remain such for the duration of their careers. Others will begin the quest for full professorship. The same rules apply. Be a good and thoughtful colleague, an effective teacher, an active researcher, and understand the requirements of your department, college, and university.

—Cheryl A. Wells is an associate professor of history at the University of Wyoming.