As it is very competitive to have tenure, I wonder if there is any case that someone holds a non-tenure position (e.g. associate professor) until the end of his/her career, i.e. until the retirement. If there is, is it a normal practice?

  • You could possibly expand on what you mean the "the end of his/her career". The obvious answer is "Many people fail to get tenure, and end their careers in academia as a result", but I suspect that you wouldn't consider that a real answer to your question. Sep 7, 2015 at 20:41
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    An associate professor is a tenured position at most institutions. Even the ones that have associate without tenure (MIT, Johns Hopkins, Yale), it is a term limited position, you cannot be permanently in it -- you must be promoted to tenure or you will be let go.
    – RoboKaren
    Sep 8, 2015 at 0:58
  • 4
    At some institutions, there is no tenure at all, so yes. Sep 8, 2015 at 2:27

3 Answers 3


In the US system, it is generally not possible for a person to hold a tenure track but non-tenured position, such as being a tenure-track assistant professor, for longer than a few years (I think the typical tenure clock is 6 years plus extensions for life events like new babies). After that, the person will either get tenure or else they will have to leave or switch to a different class of position, such as "research scientist."

Research scientists or non-tenure-track professors, however, can easily have a full and comfortable career with nothing even vaguely like tenure involved, all the way up until they retire, go emeritus, or succumb to old age. This can happen both in traditional academia (see, for example, Dave Clark, or non-tenure professors at medical schools) or in alternate academic settings such as national labs and research companies.

  • 4
    Lecturers in the US also typically have non-tenured positions for their whole career. Sep 7, 2015 at 21:10
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    The question does not ask about the tenure track. Sep 8, 2015 at 2:28
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    I think this statement is far too sweeping - there are a number of "Assistant Professor" type positions that are expressly not on tenure track, but may be effectively permanent positions. They're especially prominent in medical schools.
    – Fomite
    Sep 8, 2015 at 4:00
  • @Fomite Interesting: I didn't know medical schools used that term for non-tenure-track positions; the non-medical departments I've dealt with always seemed to reserve "assistant professor" only for tenure-track positions. I've updated the answer accordingly.
    – jakebeal
    Sep 8, 2015 at 11:15
  • @AnonymousPhysicist I find the "non-tenure" statement in the original question ambiguous as to whether it means only "non-tenure-track" or might also include "pre-tenure" positions, particularly given the use of "associate professor", which is often a pre-tenure title on tenure track. My guess is that the OP may not have understood tenure-track, and answered accordingly.
    – jakebeal
    Sep 8, 2015 at 11:17

Yes, it is certainly possible.

It not not necessarily the most "iconic" track, as most people assume a "Tenure Track" -> "Tenure" progression, but it's certainly far from abnormal. Here are a couple ways this could happen:

  • Medical schools. I've applied for a number of jobs in medical schools, and seen others, where the position is not tenure-track for PhDs. Basically, this is because while they could make MDs make up their salary with clinic duty, the PhDs are utterly dependent on grant money, and in nearly/entirely soft money positions, the department wants to be able to fire them if they stop being able to support themselves.
  • State institutions. There are some institutions where tenure implies an obligation by the state, and when the state isn't going to support a position, the institution may list it as non-tenured position that may still be permanent.
  • Soft-money research institutes. Where I work now, which is somewhere you could absolutely have an entire career, doesn't have the ability to give tenure, and as such, unless you've got a joint appointment with a tenure granting department, tenure simply isn't a thing.
  • It's entirely possible to have built a career out of adjunct positions, lectureships, etc., none of which had the prospect of being tenured.

Another way this can happen is via "professor of practice" positions. Some departments/schools, usually explicitly professional in orientation (e.g. business, information studies, some health fields, social work, sometimes even law), recruit full-time instructors from the ranks of practitioners as well as from Ph.D-holders. These positions are never (that I've ever seen) tenure-track/tenured, but they certainly can be long-term, covering the rest of the instructor's career.

(At most US institutions, since most professional schools issue graduate-level degrees as well as teaching undergraduates, the requirement is that an instructor without a Ph.D hold the "terminal degree" for the field, so, an ML(I)S for an information school, or a JD for a lawyer.)

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