Late one night, Richard J. Radke was at his desk, putting together applications for faculty jobs. Nearing the completion of his Ph.D., he was hoping to embark on an academic career. A senior professor he knew well took Radke aside and said, ”I hate to tell you this, but it’s going to be brutal,” he recalls. Radke, now an assistant professor in electrical, computer, and systems engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y., admits that his professor was right. Even once he’d landed a job, for the first few years he was constantly busy and stressed out as he learned the ropes and started worrying about tenure.
Roughly 28 percent of all electrical and computer engineering Ph.D.s follow the academic career path, according to a 2003 survey of doctoral recipients by the U.S. National Science Foundation. After five or six years as graduate students—a grueling stretch of time spent in proving that they can develop their own ideas and become well versed in research methods and goals—freshly minted Ph.D.s find themselves at the bottom rung of the academic ladder. Now their objectives must be to prove themselves in their fields, contribute to the learning in those fields, and in countries where it is offered, get tenure.
It is the start of serious multitasking—simultaneously writing research grant proposals, publishing journal and conference papers, advising graduate students, teaching multiple courses, and serving on school committees and engineering organizations. As Radke points out, the process can be very intimidating and stressful.
Typically, young academics in the United States start out as assistant professors, become associate professors if they get tenure, and may then be promoted to full professors.
Tenure at most schools requires some combination of research, teaching, and service on administrative committees. Schools usually do not weigh the service aspect as heavily as the others, and the emphasis on teaching and research varies, based on the school.
At research institutions, the focus is, naturally enough, on research. ”If you’re an excellent researcher and a so-so teacher, you’re okay,” says Russ Joseph, an assistant professor in electrical engineering and computer science at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill. ”If you’re a so-so researcher and an excellent teacher, that’s not going to fly.”
Conversely, liberal arts institutions generally emphasize teaching ability, although they do encourage research. At Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania, there are no graduate students, but faculty members run research labs with the help of talented undergraduate researchers and funding from the college, says Associate Professor Bruce Maxwell. Swarthmore also gives faculty members a research sabbatical every four years, a leave Maxwell is taking advantage of this year by working at a small start-up company.
Institutions that focus predominantly on undergraduate studies, such as Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, in Terre Haute, Ind., usually make good teaching the top qualification for tenure. At Rose-Hulman, there is no pressure to write research proposals or to get funding, says Mario Simoni, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, who chose the school because he wanted to teach. ”I enjoy interaction with students, and I didn’t want to spend my time worrying about where my next million dollars were going to come from,” he says.
Just as a school’s emphasis can shape its tenure requirements, its size can also affect who gets tenure. The opinions of individuals on a tenure committee in a smaller school can carry more weight than those in larger schools and could lead to more subjective decisions, Simoni says. On the other hand, there is a greater chance that people on the tenure committee in smaller schools are familiar with your research and could judge you better, Maxwell says.
The exact issues that young academics face depend on the school, but the pressure of the ”tenure clock” is always on their minds. The term refers to the time period, six years or so, that young academics have to secure tenure. After that, chances are they’ll find it impossible to get tenure at all.
That time frame can have a negative effect. The emphasis on research, for instance, can create undue pressure to publish. ”In some sense, I feel a little guilty about being so driven about getting papers out,” Radke says. ”In the ideal sense of a scholar, you shouldn’t be thinking about getting a paper out all the time.”