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Debunking myths about tenure-track positions

This week, the School of Medicine hosted a two-day Future Faculty Fellows workshop under the leadership of Drs. Chet Moritz and Rosana Risques. The panels and workshops addressed all elements of a successful academic faculty application package, including how to negotiate your first position. For the 90+ postdocs present, one of the more confusing sessions was the “money panel” where we discussed all the different ways you can get paid to be a faculty member (regardless of title).

Dr. Kelly Edwards joined Drs. Moritz and Risques to describe the variety of arrangements they had each been through, from Acting Instructor, Acting Assistant Professor or Research Assistant Professor to Associate Professor with a 50% component with tenure, and full Professor “without tenure for reasons of funding.”

As you can tell, faculty positions come in a number of varieties, each with different characteristics and expectations. As shown below, the time spent at each early stage is limited. Acting appointments are optional, and are there to give you time and support needed to build publication and funding track records that will help you compete successfully for a permanent faculty position.

What’s tenure mean, anyway? It means the University is making a permanent commitment to you for your faculty position. However, it does not mean that there is guaranteed and permanent funding with that position. Each of our UW departments has different components to the salary — often referred to as “A plus B”. Part of the salary (anywhere from just 10% up to 50-60-75%) is covered by “hard” money from the department or University; for the additional “soft” money component, the faculty member is expected to cover it via grant dollars, additional teaching commitments, or clinical service.

In addition to tenure, each entry-level faculty appointment has different rights, responsibilities, and expectations. This is dependent upon your school and department, and by the Faculty Code. For example, some tenure-track Assistant Professors must provide their summer salary, usually from external grants. Similarly, some Research Assistant Professors are not awarded independent research space without external research funding. When you’re investigating a potential position, be sure to clarify the opportunities, expectations, policies and procedures for the given University and department.

Other myths we discussed included whether having a K-award or career award covering 75% of your salary was really the only way to start out as a funded junior faculty member. There are many other models, including being an active co-investigator with a diverse number of research projects and groups, even outside of your primary department. To be competitive for Assistant Professor positions, often “without tenure for reasons of funding” or even with tenure with expectations of a “B” or “soft money” component, the main thing is to show you are fundable and can compete with a variety of funding agencies. Having a diverse funding portfolio and a robust set of research collaborators can set you up for success, even in challenging economic times.

Confused? Come talk with us at the OPA and we’ll be happy to answer questions and sort through the questions to ask as you are evaluating different positions.  Even as you are inquiring about job positions, it is important to explore what “tenure-track” means for that department or University. As you get into second visits and interviews, it can help to ask harder questions: what kind of start-up or initial period of support is available? What kind of support is there within the department or school for grants administration? What teaching opportunities or obligations are there with the type of position you have? What kinds of bridge funding are available, if needed? Remember, during the negotiation, the Chair is looking to recruit and support you at their institution. Ask for what you legitimately need, and work with the Chair to make the most complete package as you start your independent career.