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Should a full professor apply for an associate professor position if it's the only way s/he might be able to continue his or her career?

The situation in question involves a person recently promoted to full professor (after 5 years as associate prof. and 5 years as assistant before that, all at the same institution). At the time of application for the assistant/associate level position, the person will have held the rank of full professor for 1 year. The person's current position entails living 2500 miles apart from spouse and elderly parents for 8-9 months each year.

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My feeling is that if the person is better off in the new position, who cares if it's assistant/associate/full professor or even a professor at all? The precise definition of "better off" is then entirely situation dependent, which makes this question difficult to answer in a general way. –  badroit Apr 17 at 15:08
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Two similar examples popped up at my US university. (1) An "associate professor with tenure" from Argentina applied and got hired as an "assistant professor on tenure track" at my univ. His personal reason was a "preference in geographic location". (2) A full professor applied to a "teaching track lecturer position". His application was declined. His personal reason was he wanted to be closer to family. I am sure there were other factors involved in the decision process but these are the personal factors I am privy to. –  drN Apr 17 at 21:06

5 Answers 5

Contact the department/institution. If a department is hiring an "Assistant Professor", they have been granted a tenure-track slot (by the Dean or Provost depending on institution). In some cases they may be willing to hire at a higher rank than advertised if the applicant already has tenure elsewhere. Some advertisements are explicit in this offer, but the possibility may be there even if it is not explicitly mentioned.

Otherwise, the person needs to do what makes them happier. If moving closer to family is more important, then the person should apply. If the option to be hired at higher rank is not possible, then the person should probably indicate that he or she is willing to be hired at a lower rank/salary for personal reasons (however, it is unethical for the potential employer to ask what these might be).

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Of course the answer to whether you should do this depends on what "should" means, and only you can judge whether it makes sense in your own circumstances. I see two potential difficulties with getting hired into a lower rank:

  1. The department may not believe you'll be OK with the demotion. For example, you might try to negotiate for a full professorship after they make a lower offer, which could slow things down and cause them to lose other candidates, or you might accept the associate professorship but feel bitter about it and keep fussing until they promote you. So you've got a tricky balancing act: you need to make it clear that a demotion is acceptable to you, without seeming desperate or inferior.

  2. Nobody wants to feel like they're exploiting someone by giving them less than they deserve. In practice, the way people rationalize exploitation is by convincing themselves that it's actually justified (for example, that all people in low-paid adjunct positions are inferior scholars who don't deserve tenure-track jobs), and this rationalization doesn't necessarily have anything to do with actual facts. If you are hired from a full professorship into an associate professorship, some of your new colleagues will probably tell themselves that your promotion at your previous school was premature or based on low standards, and that now you're at the rank you should have had all along. It can be painful to go down in rank and be told it's what you deserve rather than a sacrifice you are making for personal reasons. You may decide you're OK with this reaction, but you should be prepared for it.

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In Europe I have seen this multiple times. For instance, I know one assistant professor at my old university who was already a full professor at a different (granted, much lower ranked) university. I can only speculate over the reasons for this career move, but it certainly happens at least on occasion.

As for one "should" apply to a lower-ranked position - likely not for career reasons alone. However, oftentimes private reasons are at least as important as career development, and most people understand that. So if a person thinks that moving "down" one or two ranks for private reasons is the right move, he should do it.

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Since the title of the question is general, I will mention some other cases in which people apply to academic positions below their current rank:

  1. In some countries, universities hire individuals with only a Masters degree as lecturers (they may even be called professors). Those individuals may later apply to be doctoral students at a research university (often in another country with a stronger scientific background).

  2. At some universities, assistant professors (who hold a Ph.D.) are given essentially no time to research, due to heavy teaching loads. It is not unusual for them to apply for postdoctoral positions at research universities, in order to have the opportunity to do more research.

In the second case, I think there is usually some prejudice against the candidate (if you're a good researcher, why didn't you get a research position already?) But I have hired one extremely good postdoc this way. In the first case, there is sometimes some prejudice, especially if it has been a long time since you got your MS degree. But I've seen many excellent students who went this route.

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I think, this just does not work in Europe, while I am not sure if they have unwritten rules or maybe even written rules. I know several people who tried to stay in science as post docs because they time-limited position of the "senior researcher" has expired, and I know post docs that were desperate enough to apply for a PhD second time - would be kind of a "dream PhD student", but such applications seem never accepted, same as applications for laboratory technicians where no degree is required.

The European scientific system is one way only. Student, PhD student, post doc, researcher, professor (head of laboratory/department). Each level is progressively more difficult to achieve with many people dropping out to industry rather than making the second step up. It may be exceptions, but I have never seen anybody making a successful step down.

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