Full professor is the highest faculty rank to which faculty can aspire at colleges and universities in the United States. However, unlike the tenure decision and promotion from assistant professor to associate professor, there is no firmly established or implemented timeline for promotion to this highest rank, nor are there clearly defined performance expectations. What are the challenges faced by these associate professors (a rank which should represent the mid-point of their academic careers), and how can department chairs/program directors mentor these individuals?

Basic Challenges of the Associate Professor

Although promotion and tenure decisions are normally made for all assistant professors (“up or out”), one cannot assume that an associate faculty member will be promoted to full.

Unfortunately, there is often a lack of clarity/specificity about performance expectations for promotion to full. Written policies—containing qualifying descriptors such as “outstanding research” or “high-quality teaching” and “significant contributions to service to the department, the university and the discipline”—are often provided to the candidate, but what do these really mean? Which is most important?

Associate professors faced with such uncertainties often have lower job satisfaction than do either assistant professors or full professors. Preliminary results of a national survey conducted by Harvard University found that, on most measures of satisfaction (e.g., recognition for teaching, advising, scholarship, and service; institutional support for research; and overall satisfaction), associate professors ranked last (Jaschik, 2012). This view can affect research productivity and overall performance. In addition, associate professors who have been in this rank for many years are often less respected than other faculty members—leading to monikers such as “a terminal associate” or “a tenure mistake.”

Department chairs/program directors and other senior faculty members need to provide meaningful advice and guidance to associate professors. This concern is recognized by many universities; for example, the Office of Academic Affairs and The Women’s Place at Ohio State have created some basic principles for “best practices” university leaders can follow to support and prepare associate professors for promotion (see: Providing Leadership for Faculty Promotion [PDF]).

Establishing Clear Professional Goals

Associate professors must have well-defined performance goals for research, teaching, and service that will most likely lead to promotion in their academic institutions. Department leaders and faculty mentors can help define these goals.

Mentoring Research Productivity

Excellence in research is a common expectation for promotion in Research 1 Universities. In many, if not all, research institutions, this requires the firm establishment of a national reputation (research or clinically oriented) that may be expanded to an international one. Even at institutions that are not primarily research oriented, publications in local (statewide) venues are usually important, especially if they promote a national reputation. Guidance for research productivity should include the following:

  • Review the associate professor’s program of research on a regular basis; where necessary, redefine the research agenda.
  • Establish a reasonable (and manageable) publication timetable. New and improved “research habits” must be established if an associate professor has not been research productive for several years.
  • Define specific publication goals that reflect outstanding/high-quality research in the best and most appropriate journals and/or by book publishers in the given research area.
  • Help to identify potential funding sources (see Federal and Private Funding Sources for Researchers) and provide timely and constructive feedback on drafts of grant proposals. Even in the current, restricted, funding atmosphere, some departments may expect that promotion to full professor requires successful extramural funding.
  • Provide assistance to the associate professor in developing an effective research network within the department and across the university—this is especially important when the research is inter- or multidisciplinary in nature.

Mentoring Teaching Performance

Excellence in research is often the route to successful promotion in Research 1 institutions. In some universities (even at Research 1 institutions), truly outstanding teaching can be a primary path to promotion, but, in most cases, excellence in teaching is not a sufficient criterion for promotion. However, in colleges that award master’s degrees (rather than doctoral degrees), teaching performance is often a very strong factor in promotion to full professor. Some universities (including Ohio State) have acknowledged that there are multiple tracks to promotion to full professor, including national recognition in teaching (see Jaschik, 2010); however, this route is one not often traveled at research institutions. How might one best mentor associate professors in order to improve the quality of their teaching? Consider the following:

  • Schedule regular peer reviews of teaching—peer reviews are more useful than student evaluations at all phases of the promotion process. Set specific teaching goals and encourage the faculty member to refine and expand his/her teaching strategies, taking advantage of new technologies.
  • Encourage the faculty member to use centers for teaching services available at his/her college/university (e.g., Ohio State’s University Center for the Advancement of Teaching).

Mentoring Service Performance

Appropriate performance in the area of service also is essential for promotion to full professor. In general, most colleges and universities keep service expectations for assistant professors relatively low, especially in the first 3–4 years. While associate professors are expected to increase their contributions, full professors are expected to demonstrate the depth and breadth of service that is representative of full professor stature. This service would include service to the department, service to the university, and service to the discipline (and sometimes service to the local community). Consider the following:

  • Talk about specific service expectations for promotion to full professor.
  • Recognize that service contributions are of much greater importance for promotion to full professor than for tenure and promotion to associate professor.
  • Encourage service to the discipline, as many institutions expect service on national committees (e.g., for ASHA, AAA, ASA, CSDCAS) and/or editorial boards (e.g., serving as an associate editor for JSLHR, AJSLP, AJA, JASA). Such contributions provide evidence that the faculty member has attained national recognition in the discipline.

Leadership in Providing Mid-Career Guidance

The chair/program director needs to take responsibility for creating the appropriate atmosphere for encouraging and supporting those associate professors who have the potential to perform at expected levels at their institutions. Consider the following:

  • Identify a mentor or mentors within the department (or outside the department, as appropriate) based on the mentor’s experience, knowledge, skills, and background relative to that of the candidate, as well as the interpersonal compatibility between the mentor and the candidate.
  • Provide samples of dossiers of successful candidates who were approved for promotion to full.
  • Advise the associate professor to attend meetings and workshops sponsored by the candidate’s college or the Provost’s office related to promotion. These forums provide insight into the criteria used by college-level committees and deans in making promotion decisions. Success at the department level does not guarantee success at the college level.
  • If requested, consider providing faculty professional leave (a sabbatical) and/or a special research assignment. Require a clearly articulated faculty development plan that is approved both at the department and college levels. It will be incumbent upon the faculty member to provide evidence (to the chair and promotion and tenure committee) that the FPL/SRA has resulted in increased productivity.
  • Consider a short-term course reduction/reassignment (especially to reduce new course preparations) to associate professors seeking to increase their research productivity.
  • Meet with the faculty member on a regular basis to discuss progress toward promotion—this should occur in addition to any required annual review.


The mentoring of mid-career faculty would seem to be an important duty of the chair/program director and senior faculty. While many departments expend much effort in mentoring assistant professors, much less effort and time goes into the mentoring of associate professors. Departments should develop a formal mentoring program for both of these groups of faculty members. Successful promotions will not only benefit the individual, but the department and the university as well.


Jaschik, S. (2010). Different paths to full professor. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/03/05/osu.

Jaschik, S. (2012). Unhappy associate professors. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/06/04/associate-professors-less-satisfied-those-other-ranks-survey-finds.


Blanchard, K. D. (2012). I’ve got tenure. How depressing. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Ive-Got-Tenure-How/130490.

Buch, K, Huet, Y., Rorrer, A., & Roberson, L. (2011). Removing the barriers to full professor: A Mentoring program for associate professors. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 43, 38–45.  

Wilson, R. (2013). Why are associate professors so unhappy? The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Are-Associate-Professors/132071.