A lot of recent commentary has focused on the process and finesse of garnering tenure and promotion to associate professor, but somewhat less attention has been paid to the next step–promotion to Full Professor.
The process of promotion to full professor is more of a black box than for simply getting tenure, and the box is more obscured at the top and the bottom of the scholarly hierarchy—though I think most obscured at the bottom.
In an ideal world, most people would neither accomplish nor expect to accomplish promotion to full professor. In the real world, most faculty at US institutions think that promotion is a right of passage, and that duration in state should justify their increase in salary and rank. I don’t give a shit about the salary, but, no, rank matters. The decline of standards in promotion to Full Professor is the first step in the decline of the power and authority of the faculty in the university. It really is the case that the big heads across departments can and should dictate academic policy, and when we stop listening to the real professors everything goes to shit. When people who don’t deserve promotion are promoted, they immediately seek power and try to redefine success and progress.
Ah, but what you want to know is how to join the club….To even ask is to invite questions as to whether you belong….This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around. You laid the groundwork for whether or not you deserve to be a full professor long before you made tenure (we’ll just start there…). Do you have an agenda? And, can you accomplish the agenda and keep it up. It’s all about keeping it up. Ask anyone.
There are perturbations, however. Full professor is not granted to everyone, and many very strong scholars are never promoted. I would argue that about as many deserving scholars are not promoted as are promoted to full without merit. Many scholars solve this problem by moving to another university to gain promotion. It is much harder move up through the ranks at one institution than it is to move into a full professor slot after being an associate at another university.
At the top tier, promotion to full requires nothing short of internationally recognized excellence. Nobody who genuinely comes up from the ranks at a top 40 university is anything short of stellar in research productivity and visibility in her field, and even in the top 100 people who get Full are productive and recognizable scholars. Publishing an article a year after tenure in specialty journals is not enough to merit promotion to full at any top 40 university, and just because you landed another book after 6 years does not mean that you are a lock or even remotely qualified. Tenure at top tier institutions was only granted to you because you are expected to continue a pattern or regular, high-tier publication. Full Professor requires a great deal more. Your work must be considered important to the field, and your agenda must be vast yet focused.
It’s all about the agenda. Are you going to do anything else? It’s not about what you’ve done. We all know what you’ve done. It may be meritorious, in some sense, but does your past research suggest that you’re going to be productive and important until the day you die? That is really what people are looking for in promotion committees for Full Professor. Is this person really living and breathing their life work in the field? It’s perfectly fine if you are simply good, and managed to make some contributions deserving of tenure, and then you are EXPECTED to continue to contribute to the field. But, that doesn’t make you Full, it makes you a permanent associate professor.
At the top of the top, decisions about promotion to Full can be more varied. Everyone is productive and influential depending on one’s metric. Personal relationships can mean more, and at many private schools (and maybe some publics, I don’t know) full professors wield veto power over promotion—one wrong move and someone could block your promotion to Full forever. That is unfortunate, and I’ve seen that hinder a colleague’s career who I think deserved promotion and it prevented me from getting a counteroffer when a colleague blocked a bid to make me full at Vanderbilt (though I would have rejected it given my family circumstance….). Unfortunately, I have to say that getting Full at the top tier does require more ass kissing and is much more subjective to the whims of the full professors in a given department.
At the next level, regular research universities, the process is a bit more rational. I’ve been on and chaired our College Promotion and Tenure Committee, and our standards for promotion are pretty uniform and somewhat low. If, in five to seven years after promotion you can come up with another minor book and a few minor articles, or 10 decent articles you’re a lock. But if those contributions take 12 years, forget about it. You also need to develop some professional relationships with people at peer or better institutions. External letters matter a great deal, and if you don’t know anyone you won’t get good letters. You don’t have to be a superstar (nor do your letter writers), but you do have to have enough of a reputation that someone knows you. At places below the top 40, you are a fool if you aren’t regularly attending regional and specialty meetings in your field. Go to business meetings, volunteer for committees. Get elected to something. I’ve seen people shot down several times who had the minimum required publications, but no “service to the field.”
Liberal arts colleges are perhaps the most fickle. Many seem to grant full professor based on pedigree rather than accomplishment. My old mentor Jean Blocker used to say she was too short to make full at Tulsa. Yet, Eldon (“Eldrone” as we called him) Eisenach was full in Political science despite his lack of scholarly merit and mediocre teaching. Teaching matters, obviously, but evaluation teaching is impossible and directed by the powers that be. You can’t publish your way in, either, since many senior faculty consider publication to be antithetical to the teaching mission.
At non-research schools there seems to be no rhyme or reason to promotion to full, except in heavily unionized schools where duration in state without a criminal conviction seems to be enough.