Early-Career Psychology

Lack of clarity about tenure standards, research pressures and poor work/life balance: These are just some of the aspects of academic life that make tenure-track faculty unhappy, according to surveys by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE).

Based in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, COACHE gathers data that academic administrators can use to help recruit, retain and improve the quality of life for junior faculty.

At the project's heart is the Tenure-Track Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey, which asks junior faculty about their promotion and tenure experiences, the nature of their work, policies and practices, the general climate on their campuses and their overall satisfaction. The goal? To help institutions craft better policies, says COACHE Director Cathy Trower, PhD.

"This is research turned into action," Trower says.

Institutions can review strengths and weaknesses revealed in their own data, she explains, and see how they rank against other colleges and universities.

Data from 6,773 junior faculty members at 77 colleges and universities who took the survey between 2005 and 2007 reveal:

  • Confusion about tenure. While junior faculty overall said they understand the tenure process, they were less clear about what it takes to win a permanent position at their academic institutions. Faculty at private institutions reported less clarity about the tenure process and standards than their peers at public institutions.

  • Dissatisfaction with research pressures. Junior faculty said they were most satisfied with the teaching part of their jobs and least satisfied with the research part. Many newer faculty reported that their schools' expectations about scholarship were unreasonable. While that finding may reflect the normal anxiety of early-career researchers, says Trower, it also points to a lack of time and support for scholarship.

  • Frustration with policies and practices. Junior faculty reported that the policies most critical to their success include an upper limit on teaching obligations, funding for travel to present papers or conduct research, informal mentoring and an upper limit on committee assignments. But, they said, the existing policies aren't always effective. In fact, on average, the survey respondents did not rate any single policy or practice assessed as even "fairly effective." Informal mentoring received the highest ranking for effectiveness, says Trower, but its score still left much room for improvement.

  • A lack of balance. The survey also asked junior faculty about balancing their professional and personal lives and found that as a whole they were unsatisfied with their work-life balance. Female faculty in particular reported that they had trouble juggling the demands of their professional and personal lives, and said that institutions did little to support them in their roles as parents.

  • Concerns over culture. This part of the survey revealed important differences among junior faculty overall. Female faculty members, for instance, felt less satisfied than their male counterparts on such measures as the fairness with which their supervisors evaluate their work, the interest senior faculty take in their development, the availability of opportunities to collaborate with senior faculty and their sense of "fit." Faculty of color were less satisfied than their white colleagues on such measures as the amount of personal interaction with senior colleagues, the intellectual vitality of senior faculty and their own sense of fit.

Despite these concerns, junior faculty overall rated their institutions as good places for junior faculty to work and said they would take their current positions again if they had to do things over.

Faculty of color, faculty at public institutions and faculty at universities rather than colleges were less likely to agree.

Further Reading

To see the full report, visit www.coache.org.

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.