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.