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A certain mathematics department of a Canadian university has assistant professors, associate professors, but no (full) professors. I find this odd.

The university was founded in 1980 as a "university college" and it only became a university about 15 years ago. I am guessing that this history and its teaching-oriented nature may have something to do with the lack of full professors.

How can this happen? More importantly, what should I watch out for when I am applying to for a tenure-track job in such a department?

Addendum: As some have correctly guessed, it's a rather small department: it has ~15 assistant & associate professors combined.

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    How big is the department? At my university some of the humanities departments have fewer than 10 faculty members. I encountered at least one such department that had no full professors at one point. While unusual, it did not strike me as particularly strange or problematic given the department’s small size.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 20:57
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    FYI, for the first position (1993-1996) I had after my Ph.D., the mathematics department (perhaps 20-25 faculty members) had no full professors. The university began in 1931 (wasn't a "university" until 1969) and the mathematics department also had a masters program (mathematics, not mathematics education) for a couple of decades (I think) during roughly the 1970s and 1980s. Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 20:57
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    You should look at the CVs of the associate professors and see whether they have served long enough to be full professors, and if they have, why (as much as you can tell from the CV) they haven't been promoted. Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 21:25
  • @AlexanderWoo How should I use the result of such an investigation?
    – Confused
    Commented Dec 22, 2023 at 7:53
  • Depends very much on the organisation of the university. In my university a lot of strategic information is only shared with full professors, making a group without vulnerable to miss out on opportunities or be last in budget decisions. Commented Dec 24, 2023 at 9:31

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I don't think it's a big deal provided there's not too many "lifetime associate profs". To explain: I expect people to take 8-15 years to go from Assistant to Full. 8 would be someone with prior experience as assistant elsewhere, 15 is someone who is struggling a bit or has had leaves of some kind (mat/pat/health). Anyone past 15 is likely never to get to full. Most research active faculty will take 10-12 years.

So when you look up people there, check the proportion of "older" associates. It might just be that the complement is renewing and nobody has made full yet but this will happen soon.

At the same time, from what you say, this is a small department that has, like the rest of the institution, changed purpose relatively recently. So I would expect the mean time to full to be slightly longer than usual, because there are changes of mentality that take some time.

In any event, there is no harm in bringing up the topic, if you do get an interview. You can also "shop around": identify one or two people who seem to be quite active in research and ask to speak to them while on site, that's completely okay.

In my view, it is in that department's best interest that the person they hire comes in with a good understanding of the situation, whatever that situation is. Otherwise, they risk losing the person quickly and in particular for a smaller department, that has consequences: running another search one or two years down the line is not necessarily always feasible.

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    Another possibility to watch out for is that the department may have had a history of overloading its full profs with so many tedious "leadership" responsibilities that no-one wanted to apply for promotion. Commented Dec 24, 2023 at 20:27
  • I would doubt that. If just that, the difference in salary is usually well worth the extra bother. Commented Dec 27, 2023 at 20:58
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There are a number of ways this can happen. It can occur in small departments/schools and it can also arise sometimes as a result of staff losses of full professors. It is not ideal to have a department with no full professors, but the negatives can be ameliorated if there are full professors in related departments that can still mentor the associate professors, etc. The associate professors in the department must be supervised by someone so somewhere above them is a full professor (outside the department) who they report to.

As to what to watch out for, the main thing is to be aware that the absence of full professors means less academic experience in the department and this will make it harder to get mentoring and direction by really experienced people in your field. This can be a double-negative because: (a) you miss out on direct mentoring/advice from a full professor in your field; and (b) if you are supervised by an associate professor in your field then that person might also miss out on soome mentoring/advice from full professors in their field, which may negatively impact their mentoring/advice to you.

This is something that it would be reasonable to raise in the question period in the event that you are given an interview for a position. Ask them how they manage without any full professors in the department and whether they see this as a negative --- and do they plan to hire any in the future?

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    "The associate professors in the department must be supervised by someone so somewhere above them is a full professor (outside the department) who they report to." Yeah, no. That's not how academics work in North America.
    – Buzz
    Commented Dec 22, 2023 at 2:17
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    @Ben: Probably such a Dean would be a Full Professor (there might be exceptions for especially small 4-year institutions, but I suspect any exceptions would be very rare), and this was true for the case I described in my other earlier comment, but a Dean (or other such direct supervisor to the department Chair) would be 2 levels up from the non-Chair Associate Professors in the department, and thus these Associate Professors would not have a Full Professor as their direct report (as one would say in non-academic settings). Commented Dec 22, 2023 at 14:05
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    @Ben Historically, deans have been promoted from within, i.e. deans are professors who have moved up into administration. However, there is a growing trend of people with degrees in "educational leadership" who fill these roles. While these folk with EL degrees are typically found at higher levels than deans (provosts, presidents, etc), it is no longer uncommon for a dean to not be a professor. Commented Dec 22, 2023 at 15:44
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    @Ben, In Canada assistant->associate->full prof is progress through the ranks, not a hierarchical relationship. Assoc and full profs report to their dept chair/Dean, but (as assistant profs) are independent as academics. The Q "do you plan to hire full profs" is also unusual. Full prof is usually a promotion from associate. Senior hires come in as assoc or full based on qualifications at time of hire. Finally, chairs tend to be more senior and so more likely full profs. However, there are assoc prof chairs. They tend to have less time for research, and so end up being slower promoted.
    – Houska
    Commented Dec 23, 2023 at 22:54
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    All that sounds right to me, but again, all these academics have a supervisor and if you are already Assoc Prof then I would think that your supervisor is going to be someone senior (e.g., a Head of School, Dept Head, Dean, etc.). I would think that these supervisors are almost always going to be Full Profs, so I don't think I'm wrong to point out that it is typically the case that somewhere there is a Full Prof who supervises the Assoc Prof (though Xander does give another possible arrangement).
    – Ben
    Commented Dec 24, 2023 at 1:14

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