Critical Career Transitions: So I Got Tenure, Now What?

Leticia Vega
Leticia Vega
Leticia Vega

Leticia Vega

Three pillars of faculty development at most institutions are teaching, scholarship, and service. Though much attention has been given to recruiting and retaining a diverse pool of scientists (including cell biologists) from graduate school though the postdoc years to junior faculty and finally tenure, one area that has received less attention is the important milestone of achieving the status of full professor. Additionally, many mid-career scientists must juggle their time between their professional responsibilities and caring for children, for aging parents, or both. Thus, work–life balance continues to be a challenge even after tenure. Sadly, women and underrepresented minorities often exit the academic pipeline prior to achieving the status of full professor despite some gains at other critical career transitions.

As with other career transitions, moving from associate professor to full professor requires careful planning, mentoring, and support to enable continued progress along the career continuum. However, unlike for other critical career transitions, more often than not mentoring, institutional support, and even financial support are not as readily available. A 2013 report by Canale, Herdklotz, and Wild evaluating mid-career faculty support found that while 39 institutions surveyed had some form of institutional support for faculty development, few offered support targeted to post-tenure, mid-career faculty.1 Furthermore, teaching institutions with high teaching loads typically have fewer resources and fewer opportunities for continued faculty development. This, in turn, leads to dissatisfaction2 and perceived reduced productivity in the area of scholarship even for faculty being recognized for excellence in the areas of teaching and mentoring.

IDPs: Not Just for Students

One way to ensure that you are making progress toward your long-term goal is to write a detailed three-year or five-year development plan with a timeline for achieving the outcomes. Individual development plans (IDPs) are often use for mentoring students, but they are also valuable at other career stages. The development of post-tenure IDPs can help establish goals that can ensure a seamless transition from a mid-career associate professor to an active and engaged full professor who will positively impact your institution and your community. A critical part of the successful IDP is to actively seek out a supportive peer mentor (or mentors) who can help you to critically assess whether you are making progress toward your professional goals; and if you are not, they can provide constructive feedback to help you redirect your efforts so that you reach your goals. Finally, after achieving your goal remember to pay it forward; help to mentor others by establishing a support network in your institution to help address issues with the career transitions.3

Seek Out Opportunities That Enhance Your Professional Development

Though limited, there are indeed professional development opportunities for mid-career faculty.4 Look for opportunities to enhance your leadership experience by attending programs that specifically promote leadership such as the Linton-Poodry SACNAS Leadership Institute or the Project Kaleidoscope STEM Leadership Institute. Some professional development opportunities are specifically designed to provide support for faculty members at minority-serving institutions to advance their research and teaching effectiveness through visiting scholar sabbatical programs. Another option is to attend conferences outside of your immediate field that may lead to new research directions or collaborations. The new ASCB Public Engagement Grants provide funding, mentoring, and project assessment to ASCB members in community engagement and in gaining experience in public outreach.5 Indeed, societies like ASCB should continue to develop and promote specific programming to help mid- and late-career faculty to continue their development as professionals, educators, and community leaders.
Finally, one benefit of tenure is that it allows faculty to “rock the boat” at their home institutions and to push for change. Try to lead efforts to push for institutional support of innovative ideas that promote and support the mission of your institution but that may not be supported by traditional grant funding mechanisms. Some of these initiatives may even provide preliminary evidence that may lead to novel funding opportunities.

Professional Service through ASCB

The ASCB is a vibrant and premier organization for cell biology with many standing committees that help to support the Society’s overall mission to “advance scientific discovery, advocate sound research policies, improve education, promote professional development, and increase diversity in the scientific workforce.” However, robust member participation is key to the continued success of any society. Consider volunteering to serve on one of the ASCB standing committees.6 Through your work on an ASCB committee, you will engage collaboratively with other professionals and you will enhance your professional service and leadership. Moreover, you will establish lasting relationships with other professionals who work within the Society or who support the efforts of ASCB in achieving its aims by working with funding agencies, advocacy groups, and other societies and organizations that are committed to the goals of promoting and supporting science and increasing diversity in science. The ASCB needs your leadership and service to make it a richer and more vibrant society, and you will benefit through your active participation as you continue through your career. I know that I am glad that I did.

Footnotes and References
1Canale AM, Herdklotz C, Wild L (October 23, 2013). Mid-career faculty support: The middle years of the academic profession. Retrieved February 12, 2018, from

2Wilson R (June 3, 2012). Why are associate professors so unhappy? Chronicle of Higher Education.

3White SK, Thompson-Peer KL (2017). Peer mentoring—colleagues as a resource for your career development. ASCB Newsletter 40(7), 24–26.

About the Author:

Leticia Vega is an associate professor at Barry University. She is an ex officio member of the ASCB Minorities Affairs Committee.