Is the Tenure Path the Best Route for You?

September 24, 1999

"It wouldn't bother me at all if the university abolished tenure. Then they would have to pay me what I'm really worth!"

-- A senior microbiology professor at Stanford University

To be sure, tenure has lots of pluses for faculty members. We've all heard the argument that it gives faculty members freedom of expression as well as the security to develop a depth of expertise over time that is not usually possible under other circumstances.

However, there is more to tenure than academic freedom and long-term employment. The common perception that only faculty members support tenure and that if university administrators had their way they would get rid of it in a minute ignores the benefits tenure brings to the institution. And therein lies the possible rub.

What is good for the "employer" may not always be good for the "employee," even when the employer is a university and the employee is a professor.

By having a system that encourages longevity, which tenure clearly does, the institution benefits from the reduced costs associated with not having formal annual reviews (as found in industry) and in having senior people available for administrative, governance, and mentoring responsibilities.

Additional financial advantages of tenure for the institution become clear when you remember that tenure is a benefit just like health care and vacation time. Tenure, or more accurately the promise of it, is part of the total compensation package that you negotiate at the time of employment.

The security and freedom that tenure offers come at a price to faculty members in terms of a reduced salary. If tenure did not exist, the institution would have to pay higher salaries to compensate for the lack of security. Without higher salaries, faculty members, particularly those in the high-demand fields of science and engineering, would be tempted to go elsewhere -- to government, industry, or other academic institutions.

In the humanities and some of the social sciences where employment for Ph.D.'s outside academe is difficult, tenure makes good sense. For most science faculty members, going for and getting tenure also makes sense because of the many non-monetary benefits tenure offers. However, tenure may not be the best option for everyone. As you start your academic career, you need to know if the tenure path is the best route for you.

In addition to a possibly higher salary, what might you gain by not seeking tenure? One way to answer this question is to consider the other things you could do if you were not worrying about getting tenure, such as spending more time teaching, doing research, speaking out on controversial matters, exploring options at other academic institutions, considering possibilities outside academia for you and your spouse, and doing more things with your family and friends.

With the strong emphasis today on research, even at many master's and liberal-arts colleges, being free from such pressures to concentrate on teaching can be a real plus.

At Stanford we have a non-tenured faculty category called "teaching professor." I know of one such professor who teaches a number of classes ranging from small sophomore seminars to large introductory lectures of up to 500 students in his specialty, environmental sciences. With a reappointment every five years, he has been doing so full-time for the last 20 years.

In another case, also at Stanford, a professor teaches two specialized courses in a field called "smart product design" while also being employed half-time locally at one of the best product-design firms in the country. His wife is a full-time tenured professor at Stanford. They would both have liked tenured positions, but finding them at the same institution is difficult for any academic couple. Their willingness not to insist on this path led to an excellent academic and industrial combination for him, and it gave her a full-time career at a prestigious university.

The same situation can also apply to research. An inorganic chemist I know, after a very successful career in government, went to a large West Coast university as a senior research scientist. In such a role he was able to direct research and supervise graduate students without the service and teaching responsibilities associated with tenured faculty members.

It also turns out that tenure can actually limit your freedom of action, particularly if both you and your spouse are academics -- something far more common today than just a few years ago. As an associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago put it recently: "My wife and I both just got tenure in our respective departments. We're glad, but now we are really trapped. Now we can't go anywhere!"

Yes, you can always walk away from a tenured position. Yet, after the investment you and your spouse put into getting it, that will be very difficult to do, and more often than not you will stay where you are. This is particularly true when you realize that even for successfully tenured faculty members, the likelihood that as a couple you can leave one institution and both find tenured positions at another one is quite low.

Then there is the notion that if you have tenure you are more likely not to do things that will make you more attractive to other academic institutions or to industry. After all, if you can't be fired, why put in the effort to stay at the cutting edge in your field? Most tenured faculty members do in fact keep up with their teaching and research, but we all know of many situations where that is not the case.

As Amir Bukkara, executive vice-president and chief technical officer of Cardinal Technologies, Inc., in Sunnyvale, Cal., put it:

"I think the real problem for me was that tenure came too easily, and I began to see it as a trap, as a way to retire on the job, and I just couldn't do that. I was a professor of actuarial mathematics at [a large Canadian university]. We were a very small department, doing the same thing over and over again. I was becoming obsolete. At age 46, an opportunity came up in California to consult on a big computer-science project, and so I took a two-year leave of absence. I didn't go back. It wasn't the weather or anything like that. I liked the university and I liked teaching, but I was getting stale and I had to do something on my own, and I couldn't do it where I was."

Finally, contradictory as it first may seem, not being on the tenure track may actually give you greater freedom to speak out on controversial matters, particularly those having to do with the operation of your particular institution. I've observed numerous cases of young tenure-track faculty members who are so afraid of rocking the boat and jeopardizing their tenure chances that they never say anything controversial. They say they will speak out once they have tenure, but their conforming behavior over the six years leading to tenure is quite habit-forming and hard to change.

Let me emphasize again that tenure may be the best thing for the majority of faculty members, even in the sciences. Yet, as we approach the new millennium, with all the changes taking place in how work and employment are structured, some faculty members, particularly those just starting out on their academic careers, might want to consider the advantages of not going down the tenure path.

Richard M. Reis is director for academic partnerships at the Stanford University Learning Laboratory, and author of Tomorrow's Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering, available from IEEE Press or the booksellers below. He is also the moderator of the biweekly Tomorrow's Professor Listserve, which anyone can subscribe to by sending the message [subscribe tomorrows-professor] to

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