Home > academic enterprise, careers > Grad School vs. Tenure Track

Grad School vs. Tenure Track

I was recently promoted to the rank of Associate Professor with tenure. At this point, I have been a faculty exactly as long as I had been a graduate student. Therefore, I am in a good position to compare these two phases of my research career.

Both graduate school and tenure track have profoundly transformed me as a researcher and a person. Jokingly, I used to call being on the tenure track as “Grad School 2.0,” but as I explain below, these two experiences are drastically different. Specifically, I next compare several aspects of being a graduate student vs. a tenure-track Assistant Professor.

Aspect Graduate School Assistant Professorship
Time Take as much time as you need as long as your advisor is on board. You are given exactly five years to make your tenure case (a tenure clock can be stopped in some rare cases).
Focus Focus only on your dissertation research. Spread your focus on multiple research directions, grant writing, teaching, service, etc.
Work Volume Keep producing research results until your advisor and committee agree that you have earned your degree. You never know if you have done enough to earn tenure.
Research Productivity Your personal research output defines your research productivity. Your graduate students’ talents and work ethics determine your research productivity.
You are responsible only for yourself. You are responsible for yourself, your graduate students, your undergraduate students, your committees, etc.
Your Role You are an active researcher with improving technical skills. You are a manager with deteriorating technical skills.
Support You have an advisor to guide and support you. You are pretty much on your own.
Aspirations If you produce great results, you can write your own ticket. You are working toward getting tenure in your institution.

Overall, I have found the experiences of being a tenure track Assistant Professor much more stressful than being a graduate student. In terms of sheer effort, it was probably an order of magnitude harder to earn tenure than to obtain a Ph.D. At the same time, my tenure track was probably a more intensive learning and growing experience than grad school.

A grad school colleague used to say that “an Assistant Professor is a graduate student with a diploma.” Later, I extended this witticisms into “an Associate Professor is an Assistant Professor with tenure; a Full Professor is an Associate Professor with broad external recognition; so by induction a Full Professor is a graduate student, with a diploma, with tenure, with broad external recognition.”

Now I am convinced that although cute, this definition is patently false. An Assistant Professor is certainly not a graduate student with a diploma, and as I am starting the next phase of my academic career, I certainly hope that an Associate Professor is not just an Assistant Professor with tenure.

  1. Anon
    June 18, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    Hearty congratulations on tenure!

    I am an (anonymous), as-yet-untenured assistant professor, and I found this post to be reflective of my experience as well 🙂

    May I offer another point of comparison between a grad student and assitant professor? As a grad student, your future is pretty much in your own hands: how hard you work, and how well you do research governs what will become of you when you graduate. As an assistant professor, I find that your future depends on many other factors besides your own hard work. In particular, your future depends quite heavily on the work that your students do. As a faculty member, you don’t have much time to actually conduct the research, only to advise your students and an occasional foray into low-level work. So how well and how quickly your students deliver is super-important to your future. To me, this is the most challenging aspect of a tenure-track job, and one that isn’t often mentioned to graduating Ph.D. students seeking tenure-track positions.

  2. June 18, 2012 at 10:39 pm

    Hi Anon,

    You are making an excellent point! In fact, based on your feedback, I will be adding another point of comparison to my table.

    I do not think it is quite true that “as a grad student, your future is in your own hands.” A tremendous amount depends on your advisor. A bad advisor can be lethal for a graduate student’s progress and future. You can be the most productive graduate student, but if your advisor takes months to review your paper drafts or has unorthodox ideas about the respective value of conference vs. journal publications, your research career will be toast before it has even a chance to start!

    Actually, having an Assistant Professor as your advisor is the best way to ensure that your own research productivity won’t encounter any artificial impediments. I was quite fortunate in that regard.

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