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I'm planning to apply for PhD programs in Engineering in the US this fall. If I get in then, following the PhD program, I will most likely end up going back into Industry (hopefully landing a higher-level, more research-oriented position). However, I am keeping an open mind to staying in academia, although reading articles like this one is somewhat off-putting.

So, to my question: what is this 'tenure track' thing all about, really?

I mean, why should there be this distinction (which is apparently being set right at the start of someone's academic career) that some people will be eligible for 'promotion' and others won't, regardless of how good they are and the level of the work they do? Why can't everyone who is doing academic research/teaching post-PhD be eligible for a tenure position, if they work hard and publish enough high-quality papers?

This question probably seems a bit naive coming from someone that hasn't done a PhD and has more experience in Industry, but the situation seems somewhat unjust. Is it basically equivalent to the situation in Industry between those that are full-time employees and those that are contractors/gig workers? (although, of course, contractors working in Industry tend to earn higher salaries than permanent staff, to offset their reduced benefits and lower job security)

Are there any examples of universities that are moving away from this model of tenure-track vs. non-tenure-track (particularly in the US)?

  • Most universities in the US have non-TT positions such as research assistant professors and teaching assistant professors. – Erik M Oct 8 at 21:13
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    At this point, at least in mathematics in the U.S., the "adjunct" (as opposed to tenured or tenure-track) people are paid much-much-much less in general than tenured or tenure-track people. Some exceptions, perhaps in "financial math" or "big-data math", but I do not have numbers. Certainly the vast majority of "adjunct faculty" (quite analogous to "consultants") are paid at the level of grad students, etc. Yes, there are a few "contract faculty" who have longer-term contracts, and are paid decently, but they are still second-class citizens... – paul garrett Oct 8 at 21:43
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    One way to look at it, from the perspective of industry, regular faculty positions are part instructor, part researcher, part administrator, part middle manager, and (in a sense) part board of directors member. We simply don't need/want that many people in such an "insider" role in our departments. Despite how massive our online MS program has gotten or whatever. Every tenured faculty member has a ton of responsibilities and rights in running the dept and school. – A Simple Algorithm Oct 8 at 21:45
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    @ASimpleAlgorithm I think that could be its own answer, or if you want to go ahead and edit it into mine that's fine too. – Bryan Krause Oct 8 at 21:59
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    @ASimpleAlgorithm So why wasn't this a problem during the period before universities started hiring contract workers to do the majority of the teaching? – Elizabeth Henning Oct 8 at 22:21
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Why can't everyone who is doing academic research/teaching post-PhD be eligible for a tenure position, if they work hard and publish enough high-quality papers?

Supply and demand: tenured positions are pretty much lifetime positions. Not in the sense that the positions are fully guaranteed without having to work towards them once obtained, but in the sense that, absent misconduct or complete failure to meet expectations, there is a job there.

There are way too many PhD graduates in most fields for them to all have a permanent position in academia. I suppose you could start every researcher on the tenure-track and then make many more people fail to get tenure, but I don't see that as an appreciably better outcome than limiting tenure-track positions: there has to be a gate someplace. "Tenure-track" is really just a probationary period in which candidates demonstrate they are suitable for tenure.

Like hiring for any position with many applicants, there will be imperfections in the hiring process. There are too many "qualified" people, too many difficulties in determining objectively which of those qualified people are "best," and too few positions to put them in.

edit to address clarification in a comment:

I don't understand why it would be less desirable to have more people failing to get tenure, as opposed to the 2-tier system that seems to exist. Why not put that 'gate' at the point where a tenured position needs to be filled, and then decide? Where is the incentive for the institution to not want to keep their options open as long as they can? Surely that would also be better for the majority of postdoc academics, who are currently on non-tenure-track and (apparently) locked out?

I wouldn't see them as "locked out" necessarily, there are lots of possible situations: a post doc (in some fields labeled a non-tenure track assistant professor; the distinctions are small though I believe more likely to include teaching for the latter) is someone who hasn't gotten a tenure-track job yet: their "clock" hasn't started yet.

Or, they are someone like me, with a semi-permanent soft money academic job, who likes research but didn't want all the extra stresses of finding money and earning tenure that a tenure-track position requires, and who is willing to take the difference in pay and independence.

Or, they work in a field like medicine where their primary responsibility is as a clinician, but they also teach, and they don't do enough research to fit their institution's standards for the tenure track.

In experimental fields, hiring a new tenure-track assistant professor is a big financial investment due to needed lab space, equipment, etc. Non-tenure track positions like post-docs let people build their research career in someone else's lab space and develop their independence more gradually.

The other side of the coin are the primarily-teaching adjunct-type positions; these positions are a tough topic that's been addressed elsewhere on this stack, but in summary they exist because people are willing to take them when they can't get another job (either to keep the possibility of an academic career alive, or just as a paid job), and they are a massive cost savings for universities. Whether that is ethical or not is unclear, but eliminating them would likely reduce the number of academics employed even if it increased the average salary/benefits.

  • +1 for the Supply and Demand comment. In fact, I believe that tenure didn't become the norm at US universities until after WWII, when the huge demand for faculty (due to the large number of GI's attending college) incentivized offering 'perks' like tenure. – Ben Linowitz Oct 8 at 23:15
  • Thanks for your answer; however, I don't understand why it would be less desirable to have more people failing to get tenure, as opposed to the 2-tier system that seems to exist. Why not put that 'gate' at the point where a tenured position needs to be filled, and then decide? Where is the incentive for the institution to not want to keep their options open as long as they can? Surely that would also be better for the majority of postdoc academics, who are currently on non-tenure-track and (apparently) locked out? – Time4Tea Oct 9 at 0:14
  • @Time4Tea Hopefully the additions to my answer clarify a bit, although now the answer is turning into a bit of a novel. – Bryan Krause Oct 9 at 0:26
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    @Time4Tea At the great majority of institutions, if you get hired as TT, the expectation is that with reasonable productivity and collegiality you should get tenure. ("Full" is another matter.) It sounds like you're suggesting that we should have a much bigger pool of TT candidates, most of whom will not get tenure. The problem with this is that it's hard to make that kind of commitment to an institution if the likelihood of getting tenure is the same as the current likelihood of getting onto the TT. At least with the current (horrible) two-tier system you know where you stand at the outset. – Elizabeth Henning Oct 9 at 0:27
  • @BryanKrause thanks for your expanded answer - it provides some very interesting insight into the different types of academic positions and the pros and cons of each. I found Buffy's comment helpful too, about tenure track being like a 'probationary period'. – Time4Tea Oct 9 at 12:51

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