Information on a career in higher education

Question: I am am entering the PhD program and would like to continue in academia after graduation what do I need to do?

Answer: There are 4 routes you can take in academia when graduating with a PhD. These in descending order of prestige are 1) a tenure track assistant professor, 2) research assistant professor (non tenure track), 3) teaching assistant professor (non tenured) and 4) post doc (which is mainly used as a stepping stone to the first 2.  Of most importance is the tenure track route.  there are currently very few teaching professorships.

Question: How do I become a tenure track assistant professor?

Answer: Basically you need to be very intelligent, hard working, resourceful and complete your PhD on time.

Most successful professors say that working at a university is not an easy job and requires some of the hardest work you will ever undertake, especially to survive as a young assistant professor.  There are long hours and lower pay than in industry and because of this it needs to be a passion rather than a job. It is also a very ruthless environment: A tenure track appointment at the starting assistant professor level allows only a 5 year performance window before a terminal assessment, and if unsuccessful placement on a terminal appointment. I cannot stress enough that to gain promotion and tenure requires a substantial record in grant procurement, research and publication (specifically refereed journals) and a good teaching record is only seen as an additional necessary requirement rather than a primary one.  As example the most outstanding teacher on our campus with the most teaching awards (virtually one every year since he has been here) was denied promotion to full professor because it was deemed that his research and publication record was not up to standard.  Because of these requirements, universities examining potential assistant professor candidates are looking for evidence of potential including finishing your PhD in a timely manner (normally 3 to 4 years) and evidence of the ability to secure research funding, do quality research and publish quality papers especially with regards to refereed journal publications.

Because of the very short window to perform for an assistant professor, universities that hire are looking for candidates that completed their PhD in a timely manner and have already built a track record of publication.  A person that has taken 6 or more years to complete with very few publications would be looked on as a potential liability.  The reasoning is if they have a track record of not being able to perform in 6 years, how are they going to perform to significantly higher standards and expectations in 5?

Question:  My ultimate goal is to be a professor in the S&T explosives program, how do I get there?

Answer: I suspect that the majority of our on site graduate students would like to one day teach within our program as faculty or permanent staff, above being a graduate teaching assistant (GTA).  The fact is, to do this you must have extra-ordinary talent or many years of experience. In our level of university, it is extremely unlikely that  someone who gets all 3 degrees from one institution will be hired on at that same institution upon completion of their PhD, unless they are exceptional in every respect.  Being hired on straight after graduation at the same institution is looked upon as incestuous in upper tier universities. In addition you need to get in line behind everyone else with more experience and qualifications.

I would like to give to you the example of Braden Lusk who graduated with a BS here at UMR.  He went into industry and was very successful for 2.5 years and then came back and started his PhD, which he completed in less than 3 years.  In which time he published multiple papers and secured (completely by himself) a graduate fellowship from a National lab.  Despite being exceptional Braden was not offered a position at S&T which he knew was unlikely and sought employment elsewhere. He was hired on by the University of Kentucky in a tenure track assistant professor position and has been very successful, gaining tenure and promotion.  He has expressed the wish of eventually working here as a full professor at S&T in our explosives program.  However, he understood from the start that he would have to go elsewhere and make a name for himself before that would be realistically possible.  The whole intent of our explosives PhD is to provide graduates to go out to other universities and educate engineers to the same standard as at S&T. Thus increasing the talent base for and prestige of the explosives industry.

Question: With your experience in academia over the last 30 years, how do you think it has changed and where do think it will go in the future.

Answer: Over the years the demands on new assistant professors have increased significantly. Education institutions are moving to more rigorous standards.  In addition, the funding equation has changed significantly.  Government at the State level is moving out of funding higher education, expecting universities to be run more like business units.  This has resulted in a significant change in the mix of revenue, resulting in the necessity to increase tuition, rely more on other revenue streams and to find new sources of income.  Universities are starting to change from institutions into businesses.  For example the president's position of the University of Missouri has changed from traditionally an academic to business leader.  In fact the last two presidents have come from the corporate world and have not possessed PhDs.  The governance of universities is also changing with the role of the faculty being slowly eroded.  Due to the need to sustain revenues, increasing enrollment has been a huge push, which has resulted in a substantial increase in class size and workload for professors.  Also there has been an increased push to secure outside funding from alumni and industry. In the last 20 years there has been a huge change in the structure of our university administration with a significant increase in staff.  However the size of the faculty has not anywhere near matched the growth of the administration. Regarding benefits, starting around 10 years ago there was an increase in benefits, however benefits such as health care and retirement are now seen as a liability and are undergoing significant changes.  Retirement has changed for new employees from defined benefits to individual 401K and a retirement tax has been placed on existing faculty.  If this trend continues universities will become medium to major corporations and the faculty mere employees.  Eventually, tenure may become a thing of the past.  I fully expect the current trends to continue to their logical conclusion.