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What is the advantage of becoming a full professor if you are already an associate professor with tenure? Why not just stay an associate professor for life? What is the key difference between an associate professor and a full professor?

Why continue to write papers if you already have tenure? Can't a tenured associate professor stop writing papers and still have a job?

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It is well known that as one advances the ranks of professorship, he is not much happier than before - citation needed! – TCSGrad Feb 22 '13 at 18:25
It is not clear what you are after here. You ask for the key differences but when they are provided in the answers you counter with hypothetical conditions about people who don't care about money or recognition. Do you want to know about differences based on principle motivating factors outside of the main professional motivators across all fields (i.e., money and recognition)? Or are you just asking if deadwood exists in academia? If that is it, then the answer is yes, I even know some of them personally. – KennyPeanuts Feb 22 '13 at 19:45
For the second part of your question, see also: – gerrit Feb 23 '13 at 10:21
If you are seeking a tenured professorship just to have an easy life, you're doing it the hard way. – Lev Reyzin Feb 23 '13 at 19:42
One advantage of being a full professor is that you don't have people asking you why you haven't yet been promoted to full professor. – Andreas Blass Feb 7 '15 at 2:41

10 Answers 10

Why continue to write papers if you already have tenure? Can't a tenured associate professor not write papers and still have a job?

The general answer is simple: most of the people who would quit doing research after tenure in fact quit before tenure. The ones who make it to tenure generally care about research and intend to continue at it for a long time.

In more detail:

Reaching an associate professor position in a research university is a long journey. At this stage you could stop writing papers and lead a comfortable life, if you were willing to live with the disapproval of your department chair (which is not an easy thing: there are many ways they can make your life unpleasant even if they can't fire you). However, if that's all you wanted, you could have had it with much less effort along the way. By the time you reach tenure, you have let many opportunities to change your career go by, and you have repeatedly passed through filters intended to measure your talent and ambition. This selection process means tenured professors at research universities generally really want to do research. Now, sometimes people change their minds or burn out, and a few might never have intended to maintain their research programs. However, on the whole this is a group that has been selected for research enthusiasm and ambition, so it's no surprise that on average they maintain the desire to do research.

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One key difference is that full professors are paid more.

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But if one doesn't really care about the money (i.e. want to have an easy life and don't want to work hard to become a full professor) then he can stay an associate professor for life? – guesjnree Feb 22 '13 at 17:59
I don't mean to imply that this is the only difference, only that it's an important one. At any rate if your question is "Are there people who never get promoted to full professor" the answer is yes. – Noah Snyder Feb 22 '13 at 18:08

One could say that a full professor has a more prominent position in its department, but that is somehow more trouble (e.g. you can have to be chair) than entertainment.

I would say that the real point is that becoming a full professor is a recognition of your qualities.

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Kloeckner: But that is a form of external validation. Isn't what you think about yourself more important than what other people think about you? – guesjnree Feb 22 '13 at 18:12
More, but not exclusively so. If you're a researcher, you're caring about what other people think of you ALL the time (writing papers, writing grants, etc etc) – Suresh Feb 22 '13 at 20:14
@guesjnree You don't care about possessions, you don't care about salary, you don't care about recognition from peers; it sounds like what you want to be is not a professor but a monk – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Feb 22 '13 at 21:00
Isn't what you think about yourself more important than what other people think about you? — Ha ha ha ha! Never forget: Professors are human beings. Like other human beings, we need external validation. – JeffE Feb 23 '13 at 0:48

"Why continue to write papers if you already have tenure?"

Because it is fun?

While some academics forge a rewarding career from teaching and administration, for most academics research is what provides a substantial part of their job satisfaction. If research is not something you actively want to do, academia might not be a good career path, especially not being a senior academic.

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It is fun for may be 10% of full professors. For others, it is fulfilling obligations of all sorts: to co-authors, to funding agencies, etc. – StasK Feb 24 '13 at 0:14
If you don't find writing papers (or doing research more generally) fun after tenure, you've lost your way. – Suresh Feb 24 '13 at 4:56

In the Netherlands, you need to be a full professor before you can be the main supervisor (promotor) of a PhD student. Otherwise you can only be a co-supervisor (co-promotor), and thereby miss out on all the credit.

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And by credit -- of course -- he means money. – drxzcl Feb 23 '13 at 19:42
In Austria, an associated prof. can be the advisor of a PhD student. Anyway, we (all) do not work for money because we work to come to fame. ;-) – mnemonic Apr 6 '13 at 16:41

Yet another reason to seek promotion to full professor is political influence. Especially in larger/older departments and universities, administrative positions (department chair, dean, etc.) and membership in influential committees may be restricted to full professors. (For example, in my department, only full professors may serve on the promotions and tenure committee; similar restrictions apply to college- and campus-level committees.)

This is the flip side of the service expectation that Ben Norris mentions.

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The difference is often also that full professors have their own group or department. Associate professors often have just a few PhDs and postdocs. So, getting full professorship is a means of really creating your own group of people, and direct them towards research that you think needs to be done. In that sense it is comparable to rising in the ranks of any ordinary company, you start as a business unit manager, and then go on to be CEO.

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This is not true in the US: even lowly assistant professors can have a "group". – Suresh Feb 22 '13 at 20:13

I am a tenured associate professor in 'hard science' at a major research institution (part of that cluster famous for the Ivy on the walls). I've been an associate professor for ~5 years.

Fairly recently, my chair asked about timetable for promotion. Said Chair fell to the floor (almost) when I replied "I could care squat about promotion to full professor". Seriously - who cares? There are two motivations I can think of for wanting promotion. (1) money, and/or (2) ego. I get paid more than enough in my current position, thank you very much, and anyone who thinks a different academic title means anything to anyone (other than their own inner ego) is delusional.

I'm an associate professor. I write 3-4 good solid papers a year (have about 60-70 so far, 2 books, and a bunch of book chapters), do my share of teaching, edit for a couple of journals, get grants when I feel like it, and supervise students if they're good and I feel like it. I shift research gears with some frequency, pursuing what interests me. I go to meetings if I feel like it, not as a career move. That, of course, is the point of tenure. I do what I want, more or less.

The university system is predicated on people striving for promotion, for 2 reasons. One, the bean counters and political types in the university administration understand that outside of academics, like government agencies, alumni groups, and other folks who might have $$$ to give to the school, title carries gravitas. A lot of universities make a big deal out of the number of 'full professors'. Second, and more to the point, they want the lure of promotion to keep you active - not at anything as trivial as 'intellectual work', but...getting grants. Pure and simple. Without overhead off major grants, universities would crash and burn - so, how do you keep everyone motivated to keep playing the grant game? Hold out the lure of the 'perks' of being a full professor.

Problem is, the system doesn't account for people who could care less about money, or title. People who publish just fine without a lot of $$$ rolling in. People like me. I'm doing what I want to do now. I loathe administrative assignments, and if doing them is a necessary step on the road to 'full' title, I'll pass.

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Agreeing with the answer provided by Noah Snyder, and following from the OP's comments to it:

In addition to an increase in pay, full professors often have a different expectation for service - to the department, institution, professional, whatever. Usually, these sorts of activities are undertaken to gain promotion and/or tenure. As a full professor, there are few options for advancement, and so fewer expectations that you do things to earn yourself a promotion.

Of course, slacking off after becoming a full professor will cheat you out of that better-paying named professorship or named chair.

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As a full professor, there are...fewer expectations — Um, no. This is simply false. – JeffE Feb 23 '13 at 0:49
Not in every department at my institution. – Ben Norris Feb 23 '13 at 12:43

I noticed one of the responses mentioned the increase in pay. Sure, that would be nice. As one in the process of going up for tenure in business, I can tell you that research is required even after tenure is granted. It is a common misconception that you cannot be fired after you receive tenure. It does become more difficult. As long as the university needs your skills AND you are doing what you are supposed to be doing (teaching, service, AND research), then it is virtually impossible to get fired. But, to satisfy the research component, you must stay what is referred to as academically qualified. This means that you continue to do research even after tenure. In fact, you must continue to do so, even after you have become a full professor. Failure to do so results in negative evaluations by department heads which leads to lower if not stagnant pay. It leads to the implementation of plans for corrective action and if those plans are not followed can lead to dismissal from the university, EVEN IF YOU HAVE TENURE.

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Do you know examples of people whose pay was lowered? I've always heard of this as a theoretical possibility, but not known it to actually be enacted. (I'm not even sure if I know cases where pay is truly stagnant, though I've heard of people not getting merit-based raises.) – Kimball Jun 8 '15 at 2:00
Even ignoring inflation, every single one of us at my state school had our pay lowered, de facto, after the 2008 crash, when our health care costs rose and our salary was frozen for years. Does that count? – Corvus Jun 8 '15 at 2:55
@Corvus It seems pretty common that cost of living goes up faster than salary increases, particularly when budgets are tight. My health insurance has been going up faster than my raises too. But to lower a tenured faculty's gross salary from their current contract presumably requires exceptional circumstances. (Cases where I can imagine this: merging universities or reorganizing some departments.) – Kimball Jun 8 '15 at 3:32

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