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Beware of the Fast Track

One of my favorite meetings each year (and, not coincidentally, one of the most professionally helpful and productive) is the Association of Schools of Public Health Annual Retreat for Associate Deans. Over the years, one topic has come up frequently at meals or after hours: how those of us who were associate deans and also associate professors were going to reach the rank of full professor. Substantial administrative roles — such as department chair, program director, assistant or associate dean — are often reserved for full professors. Occasionally, however, a more junior faculty member will be called on to serve. Whether this occurs because there’s a shortage of senior faculty, or a more junior faculty member has a particular talent for — or interest in — the role, giving such assignments to a faculty member who is still climbing the academic ladder toward the rank of full professor can be problematic.

Most administrative roles demand large chunks of time. When I was asked to be an associate dean, I was told it would be a 50-percent administrative assignment. (And yes, I can hear those of you with similar experience chortling.) As an associate professor, however, I was acutely aware that I still needed to write articles for peer-reviewed journals, teach courses, mentor students, chair student and college committees, write grant applications, and serve in appropriate national scientific organizations if I wanted to be promoted. The discussions at our annual ASPH meetings underscored how challenged most of us felt about getting all of this done, and I see many junior colleagues still struggling. The time pressure is not their only problem; some senior faculty may view them as less credible in administrative roles, thereby limiting their effectiveness. And if they are serving in an administrative capacity while still untenured, they must navigate the thorny (and anxiety-provoking) challenge of occasionally making administrative decisions that are unpopular with the very faculty who will be voting on their tenure packet in the future. Although the positive experiences have far outweighed the negative for me, I am a bit wary when I hear that a junior faculty member has been nominated (or has volunteered) for a similar role, and I advise my mentees to be cautious when considering the lure of the fast track.

How would you advise faculty who have an opportunity to assume a leadership role in their department or university before becoming a full professor? What should faculty consider when such opportunities arise, and what should university leaders consider before nominating or suggesting faculty for these roles?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Philo Nordlund.]

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