I notice that past a certain age (sometimes as early as 50), some professors tend to be significantly less productive, to the point that they essentially do not publish or have graduate students and only teach classes (as that is really the only 'required' activity of a professor).

I've also noticed in some rarer cases of professor 'dropping off the grid' right after they get tenure. And this is reflected in them being an associate professor indefinitely.

Are there any consequences to this? Is their pay reduced if they are clearly not doing any research? Or are these professors effectively retired but still receiving all the monetary and social benefits of their job without having to conduct any of the required work?


This depends on a lot of things, including how you define productive. I think you mean "produces publications", but there are other definitions. In particular, some professor who hasn't done a lot of recent research, but is otherwise well known, might, on the basis of letters of recommendation, send a lot of undergraduates to great doctoral programs. That would be highly valued in some institutions, especially small ones. In some other places, grants received, measured in dollars/euros/krona/yen/..., is the main measure of productivity.

While there are many (many) exceptions to the following, in general, assuming this is the US, an Assistant Professor who isn't productive won't get tenure and will likely not advance in an academic career. A tenured Associate Professor won't be advanced to Full Professor and will receive only minimal raises over the remaining career. S/he might be a bit ostracized by colleagues, but that depends on other aspects of "productivity". A Full Professor will probably only get minimal raises, but might be able to use such things as textbook revenues or consulting to supplement a relatively poor salary.

My experience was mostly in Professional, not R1, universities. Where I worked we had a sensible system in which a Professor (even a Full Professor) was evaluated each year. The professor was allowed to set the terms of the evaluation, within limits. The stated "things of value" were Research, Teaching, and Service. Different universities will value these differently at different times and an individual can also value them differently as their career progresses.

But the process might work like this: The professor writes an annual dossier in which s/he comments on contributions to the main criteria, and others if desired. This dossier is a few pages and lists papers and conference talks, grants, professional contributions (conference chair...). It discusses contributions to teaching, such as courses developed or improved. It also discusses, as appropriate, service to the university, its students, and the general community. The dossier can also include a suggested plan for the coming year mentioning each category.

Then, after the dossier is submitted, someone, such as the Dean, reviews the dossier and comments on it. Some of the comments are laudatory and others point out places where the "contributions" are less valuable as seen by the university at that moment. The reviewer will also suggest a plan for improvement, if necessary, that becomes an expectation for the following year. For a tenured professor, the job itself isn't in jeopardy, but the level of compensation normally is. But the university also sets ranges of possible changes in compensation and the bottom is normally greater than zero. Actual reductions in salary would be rare, and possibly illegal. But inflation catches up pretty quickly if your salary is stagnant.

I consider this to be a reasonable evaluation plan. In an R1 university using such a plan, research would be the category most valued and most weighted by the reviewer who looks at the dossier. In a teaching university or college, Research would be expected, but at a lower level and teaching and service to students (especially) would be more highly valued.

But the beauty of the system is that an individual initiates the evaluation and can establish their own "most valued" contribution and, while it can't ignore the value system of the university, need not adhere to it absolutely. For a university, even an R1 university, it isn't necessary that everyone treat research as the most important thing at every point of the career. There are other things of value and other sorts of valued contributions. Carl Sagan, for example, may not have done a lot of research in later years, but was highly valued by Cornell and others. It is enough, for the university, that all of its goals are met and that overall, there is a good balance (as defined by the university) between the valued elements.

In fact, it is possible that a Dean in trying to optimize something like research contribution at a micro level, actually sub-optimizes it at a macro level, creating an unhappy and unproductive environment.

Of course, some people get lazy as they grow older. But if you have a valued position at any kind of university it is probably true that your personal goals align pretty well with those of the university. You do what you love to do and it is just about what the university wants to see done. So there is a lot of personal drive, even inertia, to keep doing that. If you've been doing research since forever it is likely that you love it and want to continue doing it. For many people, it is harder to get them to stop than it is to get them to do more.

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  • +1, particularly for pointing out that a professor or dean optimizing their own research output may not be the best for the research output of the group/department. I know professors who spend pretty much their whole time making sure their group can work smoothly (particularly finding money, fighting burocracy/doing adminstrative chores etc.) - and it's highly appreciated. If in addition, such a professor takes authorship rules seriously and doesn't get automatic authorship for being group leader research output for the person may seem low. The same if a professor starts research projects... – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jul 9 '19 at 12:49
  • ... and then more or less withdraws to not be in the way of the more junior group members who do the legwork of the project. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jul 9 '19 at 12:50

It is a common misconception that professors with tenure "can't be fired". They cannot just be "let go" but the American Association of University Professors recognizes three reasons why a professor, even with tenure, can be fired:

  1. Moral turpitude ("messing around" with an undergraduate student certainly. A grad student less certainly. Bringing the college into disrepute certainly).

  2. Financial exigency: the college can no longer afford to pay the professor. Here, the college must show that they have already taken all possible steps to reduce costs or increase income, such as firing un-tenured faculty before firing any tenured faculty. In particular, the college cannot fire tenured faculty, replacing them with untenured faculty with lower salaries.

  3. Incompetence. This can include failure to do research if the faculty members contract specified research as part of the job.

The difference between "tenured" and "untenured" is that an untenured faculty member can be just dismissed or "let go" for any reason or without giving a reason. Dismissing a tenured faculty member must be done "for cause" and almost certainly the college will have to defend that "cause" in a law suit!

(I was once "dismissed" because I (at the time chair of the college chapter of AAUP) had strongly protested a new policy the college president was implementing. I had the AAUP intervene (a single letter to the board of trustees) and the result was that the college president resigned and I became chair of the Math department! I was also at a college (not the same one) where no student had majored in physics in the last 10 years.(!!Yes, really!) The entire physics department was abolished with the few tenured physics professors moved to the Math department.)

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    I believe it's sometimes called a "service department" or something like that, when a department's only role is to teach introductory courses for other majors, like physics/math/chemistry for engineering and other technical majors. Doesn't necessarily mean they are a bunch of slacks, just getting no strategic importance from the administration. I've also seen them as combined math and physics departments. – A Simple Algorithm Jul 8 '19 at 2:46

I’d say that these cases are rather uncommon. There can be several explanations to what you observe 1. Senior faculty tend to take on more managerial roles (department heads, vice deans, research directors etc) 2. They may also be teaching more, or taking the large annoying classes no one wants. 3. They serve as journal editors or conference chairs.

From what I can tell, in the rare cases where professors do very little, department heads usually have a way to convince them to be more active. Even if you can’t be fired, your department head/school dean can still make your life miserable if you’re being uncooperative. For example, increasing your teaching load, messing with office/research facilities.

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  • I am wondering, if you are in a situation where there is no teaching (like IAS or some research institutes in Europe), what can they do if you decide to sit on your butt for the rest of your life after getting tenure? I am interested in pure math so not much in terms of research facilities but maybe there are some universal ways to make life miserable. – mrd Jul 7 '19 at 15:35
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    @qotaqzheme: The IAS is an extreme case; but my impression (from a couple of years as a short-term fellow there, interacting with several permanent members) is that yes, members are free to just sit on their butt indefinitely if they so choose. The IAS is essentially taking a gamble: that freed from pressure and responsibilities, members will on average be more productive in the long term. On the whole, this gamble seems to pay off well for them. – PLL Jul 8 '19 at 0:38
  • "department heads usually have a way to convince them to be more active" this happens literally nowhere in the world. – gented Jul 8 '19 at 17:28
  • @qotaqzheme in the case of the CNRS (in the french system), you can actually get fired for not doing research, even after getting tenure. less drastic sanctions include a mandatory teaching load – glougloubarbaki Jul 9 '19 at 11:22
  • @glougloubarbaki I am curious about exact criteria. Say, someone like Laurent Lafforgue (who, I think, was affiliated with CNRS at some point) had very few publications (but the few he had were very good). Serre also stated that he took a few year break from publishing after finishing some particularly involved paper. If you do not publish for e.g. 3 full years, is that OK? – mrd Jul 9 '19 at 13:47

A lot will depend on the culture of the department and the university. I would say that even at most R1 departments, if a professor whose research is trailing off makes major contributions in other ways, such as being an excellent and hard-working teacher or doing a lot of quality service for the department or university, then people tend to look the other way and there won't be any consequences.

On the other hand, if a professor generally slacks off, there might be consequences. Sometimes there are post-tenure reviews but even these can be shrugged off I suppose. Reducing raises to zero or near zero has an effect over time. Teaching schedules can be made highly annoying and the most undesirable classes can be assigned. But I think the biggest consequence would simply be that the people around him/her would lose their respect. It's not pleasant to show up somewhere several times a week for years and have the people you interact with think you shouldn't be there.

Believe it or not, there are some R1 departments that don't care about research productivity. I was at one once, and I remember hearing one of the senior professors (who was actually one of the more productive ones) counseling us junior people on how nice being at the department was. You just had to get a grant, then you'd get tenure, then you could take it easy forever. Many people in the department took that philosophy and there were quite a few people who hadn't published anything in years. I have to say they didn't seem to be enjoying themselves.. for the type of person who has the drive to get tenure at an R1 to begin with it's not natural or healthy to stagnate afterwards.

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In the department I did grad school in, there was not a single professor that matched the description you mentioned (out of 30+). All were still taking grad students and publishing. Of course, I'm not saying inactivity never occurrs but I wonder if it is rare. At least at R1 private schools.

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I'm not as productive, sure, but I'm still more productive than most academic, even in my field. We're measuring a decrease in a span of 4-5 months or so. Some academics go on for longer before they produce anything else. Some even take a sabbatical year.

It should also be noted that my decline is due to having to do most of it in my head & it's getting harder & harder to do so.

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The consequences depend very much on the country and the institutions.

In the US, professors are usually not paid by the University for the summer term (unless they teach summer courses). Unless they have a grant that can provide some income, they take a de facto pay cut for not being active - or at least not having a grant. (The salaries can be spread over 12months to keep benefits).

In Mexico part of the income is directly tied to research so those doing teaching-only duties are on much reduced income compared to those who are research active.

In Canada it doesn’t make a direct difference although course assignments, teaching relief, salary increments are often tied to research productivity.

Most systems find a way to recognized directly or indirectly research activity.

It is possible to have a comfortable but boring lifestyle in the US or Canadian system if you are not research active, although many who are tired of chasing grants often prefer to contribute in non-research ways: through curriculum development, teaching, administrative and committee duties. The more burdensome of such contributions are often recognized by granting a leave of absence or some such arrangement to the person transitioning from administrative back to teaching or research.

It is possible to completely game the system and really do the minimum once you get tenured, but this would be unlikely to produce collegial relations with others. Of course some (few) feel entitled to do just that: hopefully they have an interesting hobby else their life must be lonely.

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    Actually, in the US, I was paid an annual salary with no drop in income over the summer, though I had no duties then. Teaching a summer course resulted in an additional stipend. The magic of accounting. This never changed in a forty year career over several institutions. It is just accounting. – Buffy Jul 7 '19 at 23:39
  • @Buffy edited to clarify my answer. – ZeroTheHero Jul 7 '19 at 23:43

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