I have been on the faculty of a liberal arts college for over 20 years and have the rank of full professor. I have started to look for other academic jobs because of my college's financial problems, which are well known locally. I'm fortunate to be in a field closely related to computer science, so the academic (and industry) job market is good in my metropolitan area, which is where I'm limiting my search to.

The only positions I've seen advertised in my field are at the assistant professor level. I would be willing to work at that rank, if the conditions (pay, course load, environment, etc.) are otherwise attractive. (I've been underpaid and over-stressed in my current job.) Of course, I would rather be hired at a higher rank and closer to tenure evaluation.

Should I mention my hope of being hired at a higher level in my cover letter or wait until I am asked about it or given an offer? I have also reached out to faculty at local institutions. While some of encouraged me to apply for advertised positions, none has offered to create a position for me.


My question is not:

  • Am I likely to succeed at being hired at a higher rank?
  • What other positions should I apply for?
  • What should I do besides applying directly for positions?

I am asking, given my goals, what should I say, if anything, in my cover letter about being willing to consider an assistant professor position 6 years from tenure, as advertised, but preferring to be hired at a higher rank?

  • 8
    Advertised positions come in many flavors, some being strictly at the assistant level and some more flexible. Some may become more flexible is the right candidate applies. Keep talking, apply, see what happens.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Sep 10, 2021 at 20:04
  • @JonCuster Thanks! Do you recommend saying anything in the cover letter? Commented Sep 10, 2021 at 20:11
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    I do think this is an important issue "in these times". So, for sure, let's not "close" this question! :) Commented Sep 10, 2021 at 22:30
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    academia.stackexchange.com/questions/171352/… may provide some additional info.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Sep 10, 2021 at 23:37
  • Would you considered only US? Because there is hiring at all levels in EU, do you need link?
    – looktook
    Commented Sep 12, 2021 at 13:46

3 Answers 3


Based on my experience going through many, many rounds of recruiting and hiring Computer Science faculty at liberal arts colleges, I do have some thoughts to share.

  • As I'm sure you are aware, there are some job postings that are listing a desire for candidates at "all levels", but if it doesn't list that, it doesn't mean that there is no possibility of them being interested in your application. We occasionally had such language in job postings, but since experienced applicants are generally few and most people on the (CS) faculty market are relatively junior, it was easier to get the standard wording approved for posting.
  • When applying, be sure to explain why you are thinking of leaving a tenured position at a possible peer institution. I have unfortunately seen people downgrade an application because they thought that the candidate wasn't serious about the application -- probably was assuming that they were looking for an outside offer to push for a raise in their current institution.
  • Every hire requires negotiation with the administration, especially around salary and tenure clock. In your case, it might be a bigger ask for salary and include a title change. But what is flexible or not is different at each institution and during each hiring cycle. You can't really know what the limits are in advance.

Now in terms of your specific question "Should I mention my hope of being hired at a higher level in my cover letter or wait until I am asked about it or given an offer?" Based on your comments, I would say that you should not. I think that you should do so only if you are unwilling to accept any position other than what you specify. I.e., they should not consider you unless they get approval to hire at the level/salary you are requesting. Otherwise, that will be something that can be discussed during the phone interview, etc. and likely would be one of the first questions asked.

I have seen many different models where senior candidates start at a new institution. Some come in with tenure, some with a couple years before going up for tenure, etc. I have even seen one senior hire where they came in at full Professor level and were immediately put up for tenure.

I'm more optimistic about your prospects than the answer from Buffy, but I do agree with many of their suggestions in their answer in terms of being open to alternate opportunities.

Best of luck to you in your search.

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    Regarding the first bullet point: couldn't it be a big administrative hassle to hire someone for a job description that differs from the one from the formal advertisment? In my corner of the world it might, but maybe it's different in other places Commented Sep 11, 2021 at 20:50
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    I assume OP is in the US (since they’re at a SLAC). The US doesn’t typically have rules requiring positions to be posted (or hiring to be “fair” more generally, other than certain specific kinds of discrimination being banned). The exception to this is that there are more requirements if you need to get a work visa for the hire. But if you’re a citizen or permanent resident there’s no administrative hassle. (You do have to convince the Dean, but that’s a separate issue.) Commented Sep 12, 2021 at 15:25
  • @NoahSnyder Yes, I tagged the question [united-states] but didn't state it in the post. Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 1:26

I think your plan as written is (nearly) infeasible. I doubt that you will find such an accommodation. And you won't find a suitable salary even if someone wanted to take you on. The market is insane at the moment.

Instead, I would try to seek a position, with a short tenure clock (2 years, say). I'd suggest that you "offer" to drop in rank to Associate, but no further, and only if necessary.

I would, instead of applying through the normal system initially, write directly to department heads, explaining the fact that your current place is likely to fail. Write as a colleague, one professor to another. Ask what might be possible. They will have to make some exceptions to hire you in any case.

But to make even this possible, you would need to look fairly broadly and be willing and able to move. Don't limit it to just liberal arts colleges, though research universities might be out of reach unless you have an exceptional research record.

If you have kept up your connections through, say, conferences, collaborations, and such, try to exploit those connections to find some allies who can work on your behalf. If your own department head is an ally, ask them for help in introducing you to other heads.

Don't sell yourself short. Sell yourself as a potentially valuable member of the faculty.

If your current institution is primarily a teaching college, note that some very top institution (Duke, Stanford, ...) have a special faculty category, sometimes called Professor of the Practice" that focuses on undergraduate teaching. They do a lot of that and want to free up the research faculty. The positions I know of aren't tenured but, rather, long term contracts that can be very stable. They expect a very high standard as you would expect.

Edited to add.

The main problem I see is that a regular application for assistant professor is so "odd" or "off the wall" that nothing you could say in the cover letter is likely to overcome the strangeness of it. Offers for junior faculty are usually governed by rules that would make this idea preposterous. They are looking for "fresh" faces just out of grad school, not experienced people - either teachers or scholars. A few adverts are more open that the rank is negotiable, but if it specifies Assistant Professor level, they almost certainly want someone at the beginning of their career.

You on the other hand, can fill in a different sort of need for some as a mid-career experienced person, likely focused more on teaching than research.

In any case, I hope you find success, however you arrange it.

Thinking again, overnight:

You may have considered this also, of course, but you are at the perfect time in your career to move in to administration at some level. Many large universities, even (or especially) R1 universities might have a position like "Associate Chair for Undergraduate Instruction". Math and CS departments tend to be rather large and have lots of courses taught by TAs, for example. Someone with 20 years experience at a Liberal Arts college knows a lot about the curriculum requirements and, I suspect, quality teaching. There might even be some opportunities at the level of Assistant Dean for an experienced academic. A couple of the "Professor of Practice" people that I know have actually wound up with oversight of the undergraduate program.

Some people at the "chair" level even get to (or are required to) teach a course or two, if that is especially appealing to you.

Furthermore, accepting such a position would probably leave your academic rank unchanged, though tenure rules for administrators might be different. Often, though, administrators retain tenure "as faculty", even if not "as administrators".

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    Please don't assume I don't know about teaching professorships, networking, etc. I do and am pursuing those. My question was about what to say about rank in cover letters for one of the types of positions I am applying for. Commented Sep 10, 2021 at 21:02
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    Sorry. All I have to go on is what you say. Please don't assume I'm not trying to be helpful.
    – Buffy
    Commented Sep 10, 2021 at 22:01
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    “Professor of Practice” are, in essence, adjunct professors (with a, claimed or real, twist), at least at my alma mater (which is on your very short list). So it’s industry leaders, or at least people experienced in industry. That wouldn’t be a good fit in this case based on the information provided. Commented Sep 10, 2021 at 23:10
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    @gnometorule, I know several of them personally and have collaborated with some. They hold full time positions (not adjunct) and none of them come from industry. They are academic "all the way down". Most, not all, have doctorates from good schools. It is the nature of what they do that is the distinguishing thing. Add CMU to the list, also. A couple of state universities might also do this, but I'm not certain of the actual arrangements.
    – Buffy
    Commented Sep 10, 2021 at 23:15
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    @Buffy It is clear you are always trying to be helpful. I was just clarifying what would be helpful in this case. Commented Sep 11, 2021 at 21:01

Your plan seems to me to be related to the general debate around hiring employees who are overqualified. There is a strong belief among employers that being overqualified for a position is an undesirable trait in a job candidate, and that hiring such employees is generally not a good idea.

The good news for you is that from a legal point of view, there appears to be no justification for rejecting a job candidate on the grounds of their being overqualified. Thus, in an ideal world, a law-abiding institution will want to treat your assistant professor application just like any other and evaluate you based on merit.

The bad news is that in academia very few people know or care about this legal issue. The general stigma against overqualified employees translates in the academic context to a strong resistance to “hiring down”, and to many rationalizations that people bring up to support why they think hiring an already tenured professor for an untenured position is a terrible idea. And, in all honesty, I think that while some of the arguments supporting this are invalid, there is some legitimate room to argue that a less experienced candidate for an assistant professor position may be more qualified than one with a higher level of experience to satisfy the department’s long term needs. The point is that academic faculty jobs are filled for a much longer time than other sorts of jobs; thus the definition of who counts as “overqualified” is much more tricky to pin down, and the legal situation I mentioned may not be obviously applicable.

The bottom line is, I think your plan is very unlikely to work. You will almost certainly not be offered an assistant professor position. In the unlikely event that you are offered one, it will be for a much lower salary than your current one (which given what you said about wanting the pay to be attractive, sounds like a non-starter). And you will not be offered a position for a rank that is different than what the department advertised, since nowadays that is considered in most places to be a legally fraught practice, and since departments generally mean what they say when they advertise that they are looking to fill a specific type of position.

Sorry for this somewhat pessimistic answer. Good luck in any case.

  • 1
    In my experience, this "resistance" isn't about not wanting to hire "overqualified" people, but just a common assumption that, without a compelling reason, a person in a better position is unlike to accept a worse position.
    – Kimball
    Commented Sep 11, 2021 at 15:13

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