Navigating the pathway to successful tenure and promotion can be an intimidating process for the beginning tenure-track assistant professor. This pathway can look exceedingly difficult to a new junior faculty member, but it does not need to be so. Having a thorough understanding of the underlying foundations of the academic process, while paying close attention to the specific expectations of the university and home department, will help young faculty climb the academic ladder and achieve lasting success in an academic career.

The Academic Ladder and the Academic Trilogy

The academic ladder has three primary rungs, beginning at the level of assistant professor for the newly minted PhD. The essential key to climbing successfully to the next rung of the ladder, associate professor, and later, full professor, is to have a fundamental understanding of the expectations of the university with respect to the institution’s mission and the Academic Trilogy: Research, Teaching, and Service. One may additionally consult the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, the organizational system recognized by most American colleges and universities. This classification system reflects whether the university’s focus is primarily on teaching, which often results in a heavier course load and greater service requirements, coupled with less emphasis on research. Conversely, a “Very High Research” institution has a stronger emphasis on research, publication, and obtaining external support and, subsequently, less on teaching and service. These distinctions play an important role in determining the expectations for junior faculty. The keys to success are understanding and meeting the expectations at your specific institution.

How to Get Started

It is extremely important to review the guidelines for promotion and tenure in the faculty handbook of the employing university, and, if the department has expectations in addition to those outlined by the university, the young academic should use both departmental and university expectations to construct the content and organizational structure of the dossier. It also is important to become familiar with the tenure and promotion evaluative structure at the university. If the junior faculty member’s department is housed within a large college, the levels of administration responsible for evaluating the candidate’s dossier may be different from what they are if the department is in a smaller division. Once young academics understand the expectations for teaching, research, and service, they should begin documenting activity toward tenure and promotion. Most faculty are reviewed annually, so it is important to determine annual goals and document progress toward achieving them on a consistent basis. Annual faculty activity reports are one way to maintain an organizational structure that can be a very useful tool to document progress toward goals.

Of course, keeping the curriculum vitae current is essential. Some universities require a mid-term review halfway through the time period between the initial hire and being considered for tenure and promotion to associate professor. This review tends to come very quickly, so organizing and maintaining materials from the beginning will assist in this process. Even if the mid-term review is optional, we strongly encourage participation to obtain a fact-based assessment of progress so that, if changes need to be made, there will be time to implement them. We also believe that it is critical to have a strong working relationship with the department chair, as well as other faculty members, to help navigate this process. Many universities routinely assign a mentor to new assistant professors within the context of a formal mentoring program. In other departments, this process is treated on a more informal basis. In either case, the junior faculty member is not restricted to an assigned mentor only. If there are recently promoted associate professors or other junior faculty who also are working toward promotion, they can provide both practical and emotional support in addition to mentoring. Attending university-wide workshops on the tenure and promotion process also can be very beneficial. In addition, ASHA offers some helpful programs, such as MARC (Mentoring Academic-Research Careers) and ASHA’s Research Mentoring (ARM) Network: Pathways Program.

Building a Successful Portfolio


Promotion to associate professor generally occurs within 5 to 7 years. The Tenure and Promotion Committee is primarily looking for evidence of the potential of the individual to be successful in an academic track. At “Very High Research” institutions, the publication record is critically important; data-based research articles published in prominent refereed journals are essential evidence that the work being done is recognized as important. Another key component of scholarship is pursuing funding sources. It is helpful to have grant submissions and awards—both internally and externally. Many of the internal grants available at one’s home institution are geared towards new investigators. These small grants can provide seed money to support the collection of necessary pilot data to use as the basis for a larger externally funded grant. Several private foundations and agencies also offer grants specifically for new investigators; see the table listing for some of these opportunities in our discipline. Many universities provide workshops and support to help junior faculty prepare grant applications, as does ASHA’s Lessons for Success program. Interdisciplinary and collaborative research projects are encouraged both within and outside the university.


Teaching is a fundamental component of any academic career, even at a research-oriented institution. The academic must be a successful and effective teacher. Frequently, assistant professors have a reduced teaching load, especially in the first year. This is helpful, because course preparation usually is a time-consuming process, especially when the course is taught for the first time. Young teachers will learn quickly that simply knowing course content is not the same as teaching it. Early on, teaching evaluations may not be strong, but over time, the young academic should show evidence of improvement in the area of teaching. Some universities will offer support for new faculty in developing their teaching effectiveness by offering programs that provide assistance for course development and for improving teaching effectiveness in a non-threatening manner. Many institutions offer support through a campus Center for Teaching Excellence.


While research and teaching are the main areas of academic life, service also is essential. Service contributions are evidenced by participation in departmental and university-wide committees, service on program committees for national conventions, and other service to the profession, such as performing editorial reviews. For young faculty, selection/commitment to service positions should be weighed carefully in terms of the time commitment, visibility, and perceived value by the department and college. The level of collegiality exhibited by the faculty member is often taken into consideration as well.

Concluding Thoughts

It is important that the assistant professor show a consistent level of productivity throughout the probationary period in all three components of the academic trilogy. The department chair, as well as senior mentors, can give important advice about how each component is weighted in that particular department at that particular university. Being aware of the department’s expectations from the very outset and monitoring progress on a regular basis are critical elements in successfully climbing the academic ladder to associate professor. Exploring and taking advantage of department, college, campus, and ASHA resources such as those outlined in this article can contribute to the junior faculty member’s ultimate success.