The main criteria for academic promotion to associate/full professor includes, research projects, publications, grants, administrative services, and such things. These are achievements that one can obtain regardless of timeframe. Logically, one with required achievements must be able to be promoted. However, most of universities need a certain period of time before promotion application (usually 5 years).

Why one must wait for promotion, when he is already qualified?

One who is associate professor for two years but qualified for full professorship must wait another 3 years to send application for promotion. Strangely, if that person apply for a full professor position in other university, he will be appointed as a full professor (if qualified) without waiting for another 3 years.

NOTE: the only criterion which seems to need time is teaching, but I think a strong/outstanding teaching records for different courses over 2 years is comparable with teaching the exact same courses over 5 years.

  • 2
    Why one must wait for promotion, when he is already qualified? — Because one is probably not already qualified. Faculty deserving of early promotion certainly exist, but they are exceedingly rare.
    – JeffE
    Sep 20, 2013 at 12:53
  • @All I like your system-contesting approach :). Take a look at gist.github.com/stared/4540942 or an un-university post in johncarlosbaez.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/what-to-do-part-2. Or even better - mail me, if you want to go beyond the discussion. Sep 20, 2013 at 17:29

3 Answers 3


From my experience and what I have observed, the time frame is time for the academic to "earn their stripes", so to speak.

Some more factors that I have noticed that are considered, that do take some time to notice, namely:

  • The person's character - how well do they work with colleagues and/or students.

  • How the person performs under pressure and during 'down' times.

  • How much initiative the academic shows can only be observed over a period of time.

note: the above is not usually formally documented, but are important in any profession for someone going for promotion.

Also, as the university will be making a considerable investment in the academic, it would seem that they would like to see that the academic is willing to make a considerable investment (time, expertise etc) in return.

  • I've never heard discussions of people's character, grace under pressure, or initiative in promotion meetings. The discussion has always focused on the candidate's scholarship, the significance and impact of their research, the quality of their teaching, and their potential to be an internationally recognized intellectual leader in their field.
    – JeffE
    Sep 20, 2013 at 23:23
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    @JeffE I have, hence why I posted this answer, but I put in a clarification
    – user7130
    Sep 20, 2013 at 23:28

Exceptions are generally possibly, and there are many examples of people who have been promoted faster than the usual timeframes at their universities. Often the easiest way to achieve this is via a counteroffer to an offer from another university, but that's not always necessary.

On the other hand, standardizing the process with an expected timeframe makes some sense. Implicit in your question is the assumption that the required achievements for promotion can be judged objectively, but that's not always the case. For example, it's not easy to quantify the difference in scholarly perspective and experience between an associate professor and a full professor, and there's no way to measure this objectively without distorting it. One approximation is to say "for most people, the difference amounts to seven years of experience." This is far from perfect, but it's not clearly worse than the alternatives. Ultimately, any workable policy is going to be a patchwork of several approximations, and a sensible department will allow exceptions in cases where the approximations are clearly inappropriate.


First of all, in all places I worked so far you could apply for "early promotion" if you felt like you were strong enough to qualify for higher rank before the official consideration time and some people were even encouraged to do so.

Second, it takes two things to be a good scientist: brilliance and persistence. If someone is in my field, I can usually estimate the former pretty accurately after looking at just one paper of his. However, to estimate the latter, I would need at least a 5 year record, which is pretty close to the standard "probation period" before promotion.

Third, the university administration, like any other management, wants to keep us on our toes for a while before loosening the reins. Whether that is beneficial or detrimental varies from case to case but one can hardly deny that it is more or less universally accepted management policy used almost everywhere from WalMart to NASA, so you'll need to put together quite a convincing argument to explain "why not in academia".

Fourth, even if one is a good scientist (according to the above definition), one still has to prove that he is a "good department citizen". In 5 years, you will actually face all "reasonable" situations and take most "normal" roles in the department except some extreme cases when one cannot predict anything about anybody anyway and establish stable (whether good, or bad) relationships with most other department members, so you'll become a "known evil" rather than "a cat in the sack" at the very least.

The only remaining question is "Why a cleverer person who is just hired has much lower salary than a less clever person who's been there 20 years?". In the European system, it is, indeed, almost always so but I should say that the US contract negotiating system is quite flexible here and I've been in the situation when the chairman recommended to several full professors on the hiring committee not to tell the (unusually high) salary that would be offered to a coming assistant professor not only to other department members but even to their colleagues on the committee itself with lower salaries to avoid unnecessary frictions, so the life is not so bad here as well.

These are the arguments "in favor" of the waiting period. I realize that there are ones against it too and can bring up a few myself but since the question was "Why is it there?" rather then "List all pros and contras", I'll hold the other half of my 2 cents in the pocket for now :).

  • In regard to salary, in the Netherlands salary is coupled mainly to your experience. That being said, the more experience one has, the more room there is for negotiations. Also, having a good scientific reputation helps greatly, especially when multiple institutes are vying for your attention. Sep 23, 2013 at 10:14

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