Paradise Lost
How the academy converts enthusiastic recruits into early-career doubters
By Cathy A. Trower, Ann E. Austin, and Mary Deane Sorcinelli

From the May 2001 AAHE Bulletin


How do doctoral students and early-career faculty members experience their graduate education, the job search process, and the tenure track? Integrating research on doctoral student expectations and early-career faculty aspirations provides some surprising answers to that question.

We three researchers came together after Gene Rice, director of AAHE’s Forum on Faculty Roles & Rewards, asked us to design a session for that project’s 2001 conference. Mary Dean Sorcinelli and Ann Austin had worked together previously, and Cathy Trower had collaborated with other scholars studying the challenges faced by tenure-track faculty members. This would be the first time we would put our heads together to thoroughly examine where our separate research agendas were leading us.

As we began to collaborate, we found that “Paradise Lost” was the common theme that encompasses the perspectives of doctoral candidates considering academic careers (the focus of Austin’s recent work), graduates on the job market and first- and second-year faculty members (the locus of Trower’s inquiries), and tenure-track faculty members (the focal point of Sorcinelli’s research).

Three Studies, One Overarching Question
“Paradise Lost” captures the sense of dreams deferred as well as the tension between ideals and reality that young scholars face as they move through graduate school and into faculty posts . . . if they move into faculty posts. Many decide against academic life while still in graduate school. Others wait until graduation to decide to opt for careers outside of the academy. Still others begin careers in academe but decide to leave during their probationary years. Setting aside the fact that some attrition is good and that we cannot hope to place all doctoral graduates in academic posts (nor would we want to), we are concerned about those who leave and the reasons why they either don’t consider careers in academe or give up early in their careers.

Each Study in Brief

The Development of Graduate Students as Prospective Teaching Scholars. Funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Spencer Foundation, this study involved principal investigators Ann Austin, Jody Nyquist, Jo Sprague, and Donald Wulff, as well as four graduate research assistants. The longitudinal, qualitative study followed 55 doctoral students at two research universities over a four-year period and 15 master’s students at a comprehensive university over two years to answer two primary research questions: “How do aspiring teaching scholars experience graduate education?” and “How do they develop as prospective faculty members?”

Researchers found that graduate student development does not occur in linear, fully predictable stages. Rather, it is shaped by a number of factors and involves multiple dimensions. Factors that differ by individual and are important in shaping the experience include age, prior education and employment, and family situation. Other critical factors include the disciplinary context (e.g., what questions are important, how work is done, the relationship between teaching and research), and the institutional context (e.g., norms, culture, the expected balance between teaching and research).

Furthermore, as graduate students listen, observe, and interact with faculty members, peers, and others, they are constantly receiving and interpreting explicit and implicit messages conveyed through formal and casual conversations, departmental and institutional policies, and the actions of faculty members around them. Unfortunately, these messages often are contradictory, unclear, and confusing.

Graduate students in the study expressed a deep commitment to meaningful work — they were motivated to pursue disciplinary interests, engage in creative work, contribute to future generations, and interact with interesting people. They were concerned, however, about the faculty lifestyle and perceived lack of balance in academic life, mixed messages about the proper mix of teaching and research, and having space for their own passions. Graduate students also tended to be naive about faculty life and various career options.

Overall, current approaches to preparing prospective faculty members appear to have some problems that deserve attention, including lack of systematic, developmental preparation; insufficient feedback and mentoring; little attention to faculty careers outside of the tenure-track at research universities; and discrepancies between preparation in graduate school and the realities of actual faculty work. Said one doctoral student, “They throw you into a pool and make you thrash about until you learn to swim.”

In response to a request to portray his doctoral experience through a picture, an engineering student drew himself running a marathon. His path is punctuated with some signposts, but he explained that the signposts are not accurate. He gets to various intersections and is uncertain where he is supposed to go. Nobody has given him good directions. Then the geraniums up on a window ledge start falling down on him, a few logs obstruct his path, and a car is about to hit him. He explained, “I’ve been pretty successful despite these things,” but he continued by pointing out that so many unexpected barriers occur in the graduate student experience. Additionally, like others, he explained that he must find his own way, often with minimal guidance from faculty members.

Project on Faculty Appointments. Also funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the study encompassed several research initiatives including the “Faculty Recruitment Study” led by Cathy Trower. After conducting focus groups with 63 first- and second-year faculty members and doctoral students in several disciplines spanning the humanities, the sciences, and the professions, researchers constructed and administered a web-based survey. Almost 700 faculty members and more than 2,000 doctoral candidates completed the questionnaire designed to answer several research questions: What factors most significantly affect where faculty candidates choose to work? Of those factors, what is the relative importance of each? Under what terms and conditions will candidates accept non-tenure-track positions? Are there differences by race, discipline, or gender?

Both student and faculty groups expressed, in qualitative and quantitative terms, their ambivalence about tenure as a condition of employment. On the one hand, tenure is the one symbol the academy has of legitimacy and validation of peers; it is synonymous with security, status, and prestige. Many agreed that tenure is essential to academic freedom and they could not imagine academic life without it. They were socialized to tenure in graduate school and believed that there was a certain stigma attached to non-tenure-track positions.

On the other hand, tenure is no guarantee of a job for life — “It’s just another sacred cow ready for slaughter,” according to one respondent. Some expressed deep reservations about the tenure process and believed that faculty members stagnate after receiving it. Many expressed concerns about taking a tenure-track position that demands that they be all things to all people, requiring excellence in teaching, research, and service. Young scholars struggled to balance their ideas about life in the academy with tenure and the realities of getting a job, doing meaningful work, and trying to lead a balanced life.

Perhaps the most startling finding was that many young scholars were willing to accept non-tenure-track positions over tenure-track ones, if given the proper incentives: the right mix of research and teaching in the right location. This was an especially important finding because, typically, scholars have been offered more money and a longer contract as incentive to forego the tenure-track.

Importantly, this study showed that the location of the institution and the preferred work balance outweighed the other factors studied including salary, length of contract, one’s perceived chances of tenure or contract renewal, departmental quality, and institutional prestige. One first-year faculty member summarized her thoughts this way: “I wanted a research job and I got one. It’s not on the tenure-track but I’m doing work that I love, at a prestigious institution, in a great town. My work will speak for itself and I’ll be renewed, so I’m not worried about job security.”

New Pathways II: Project on the Tenure Process. Led by Gene Rice with Mary Deane Sorcinelli and Jon Wergin as senior scholars, the third project was grounded in structured interviews with more than 350 aspiring and early-career faculty members. The research questions were: What did faculty members hope for in an academic career? How do early-career faculty members experience the tenure process? What practices attract, develop, and retain new faculty members?

Researchers found yet again a troubling gap between the vision and reality of an academic career. Early-career faculty members hoped they would experience a sense of autonomy and academic freedom to pursue their research and teaching agendas. They envisioned an opportunity for continued learning and discovery, and a sense of accomplishment. But while they may find these ideals, they also experienced an incomprehensible tenure system, a lack of community, and an unbalanced life.

The expectations for performance on the tenure-track were described as “ambiguous,” “shifting,” “conflicting,” and “ever-escalating.” Early-career faculty members reported receiving mixed messages about what was important for tenure achievement, and most received little formal feedback or mentoring. They were reluctant to seek assistance because doing so was tantamount to admitting a weakness. And while tenure requirements and processes may, in some cases, be spelled out in policy language, most of those interviewed had no clear understanding of how the actual process worked, exactly who was involved, how to compile their dossiers, or the timeframe for specific steps along the way.

To make matters worse, the tenure timeline has a short-term focus when a scholar’s passions require a long-term view. Many described the tenure process as inflexible and unresponsive to decreased funding, publication backlogs, the learning curve for teaching and preparing courses, and the personal demands made on scholars struggling to balance their lives.

Many were disappointed not to find a long- anticipated, supportive community of senior scholars, a department chair, and students. Scholars in their early years on the job reported experiencing loneliness, isolation, intense competition, and sometimes incivility. One scholar drew a picture of her journey towards tenure (entitled the “Corridor of Collegiality”) with closed doors that said, “Do Not Disturb,” “Keep Out,” “Working at Home,” and “Gone Fishing.” Sadly, she even drew herself behind a closed door. Early-career faculty members were told not to spend too much time with students or on improving their teaching skills for fear that they almost certainly would not receive tenure if they did. They depicted teaching, from annual reviews to the tenure process, as “narrowly defined,” “poorly evaluated,” and “undervalued.”

Finally, nearly all early-career faculty members described themselves as overworked — spending long hours trying to meet multiple responsibilities — to “keep all the balls in the air long enough to get tenure.” Interviewees reported an erosion of personal, family, and leisure time under the press of institutional and self-imposed commitments. One last story epitomized the tenure process: A new faculty member entered the profession with a high level of idealism and optimism. Her orientation and socialization to the job and department were haphazard at best, leading to a steady erosion of satisfaction. Still, she persevered because she loved her work, and she climbed on toward tenure and its promise of security, legitimacy, and status. Tenure year was a “firecracker” — tense, unpredictable, volatile. And when the tenure review was over and tenure conferred, she fizzled away, emotionally and intellectually exhausted.

What Can We Do?
The findings from these three studies point us in at least two directions: improve academic life as we now know it, and create a new vision for the academy. In the short term, within the confines of the current tenure system, we can:

  • Provide consistency, clarity, and communication of reasonable performance expectations (throughout graduate school and the probationary years).

  • Ensure formal orientation, mentoring, and feedback.

  • Offer flexibility and choice, and help scholars understand various career tracks. (Ideally, we need to legitimize those tracks outside of the tenure system.)

  • Afford support for ongoing self-reflection and dialogue with colleagues about the kind of work and life we want to have.

Over the longer term, academe has a wonderful opportunity to reinvent itself. It seems to us that the 21st-century scholar along with the 21st-century environment are calling out for reform within the ivory towers. Reality for newly minted scholars includes a strong outside labor market in many disciplines; mostly dual-career families; many single-parent households; vast downsizing in the corporate world; less emphasis on a job for life; greater mobility; more women and minorities in the workplace, bringing different values and needs; and a generation that wants more from life than a bigger home in the suburbs and two cars.

As we stand here at the beginning of the 21st century, the environment looks quite different than at the turn of the prior century: an information economy, a highly skilled workforce, new technologies, increased globalization, more executive education, older college students, the concept of students as customers, greater opportunities for access, increased interdisciplinarity, a private sector that views higher education as “the next healthcare” in need of reform, a convergence of knowledge production, more strategic alliances and joint ventures, more for-profit subsidiaries and corporate universities . . . the list is virtually endless. Why would we think that policies designed 80 years ago for different people in a different era would still fit “all sizes” today?

And so we pose these questions:

  • What is a meaningful faculty career?
  • What is meaningful faculty work?
  • How would we prepare doctoral students for it?
  • How would we socialize faculty to it?
  • How would we organize and assess it?
  • What type of employment system would we have?

Paradise, the life of the mind, the life of the scholar, need not be lost. We sincerely believe that the next chapter can be titled “Paradise Regained.” The time to act is now. Toward that end we hope to convene a series of conversations across the country to help envision possible futures for the academy that ensure the health and livelihood of its faculty.

This article is based on the authors’ presentation at the 2001 Conference on Faculty Roles & Rewards, held February 1–4 in Tampa, Florida. For a complete list of conference sessions and speakers, see the final conference program at www.aahe.org/ffrr/2001/update.htm. Audio cassettes and CDs are available from Conference Media Contractors, www.cmc-net.com/docs/aahe_2001_index.html; email info@cmc-net.com. 


Cathy A. Trower is a senior researcher in the Project on Faculty Appointments at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. Contact her at cathy_trower@harvard.edu.

Ann E. Austin is associate professor of educational administration at Michigan State University. Contact her at aaustin@msu.edu.

Mary Deane Sorcinelli is associate provost and director of the Center for Teaching at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Contact her at msorcinelli@acad.umass.edu.



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