29

I wonder what the upsides are of hiring assistant professors instead of more experienced professors.

I am mostly interested in US universities and computer science departments.

56

For example:

  1. Their salaries are far lower. (The discrepancy varies by department, high in the physical sciences, low in economics and business.)
  2. In fields that receive startup packages, their startup packages are far lower.
  3. Many schools cannot hire a proven superstar, but they can take a gamble on a bright young scholar and help her develop into a superstar
  4. This doesn't apply in my department, but you could imagine that a disfunctional environment the senior faculty might like having junior faculty around to take advantage of: make them teach the big intro classes, do the unpleasant service work, etc.
  5. Junior faculty often bring new bleeding-edge skills that are hard to find in senior faculty.
  6. A range of career stages within a department creates long-term continuity.

I'm sure others can come up with a number of additional reasons.

  • 13
    Also, senior faculty die or retire eventually, someone has to hire younger blood at SOME point. – LinearZoetrope Apr 3 '16 at 8:43
  • Many junior faculty are willing to work very hard on anything and everything with aim of promotion/tenure. – weezilla Apr 5 '16 at 1:08
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    #6. Yes! Continuity is something many organizations completely neglect. Then those organizations collapse. – Inquisitive Aug 8 '16 at 23:52
  • This answer is disproportionately negative. The number one reason is that full profs are rarely looking for a job. For most universities hiring early career researchers is the only possibility. Not every institution can afford to poach full profs from other ones. – Cape Code Aug 9 '16 at 7:15
  • Full professors may rarely apply for jobs, but that's not how that market works. You probably know this, but to hire top people at the senior level, you reach out to them. In my experience, full professors are very often willing to consider an offer at a top school. Other than the hypothetical in (4), I don't see what is so negative about the answer above. – Corvus Aug 10 '16 at 15:45
36

Assistant professors are not inferior versions of full professors. Aside from years of experience, there will usually be many differences between two candidates. Young does not mean not as good (it will when I celebrate my 60-th birthday later this year, though). The assistant professor may hold an advantage in a specific field or in general.

A department may be intentionally focusing on a very specialized subject field that the assistant professor brings. That is to say, an assistant professor may be more proficient than a full professor in some departmental subject matter.

For a more general illustration, I believe I was better at one aspect of teaching when I was a young assistant professor than I am now. I was better at helping students break through brick walls (such as clearly understanding the concept and point of calculus) when I personally could "remember not knowing". It is easier to explain how to go from not knowing to knowing when your own breakthrough was just a few years earlier instead of many decades earlier.

20

In a system like the US, a "more experienced professor" typically has tenure already. Someone who has tenure won't want to give it up. Therefore, if you want to recruit them, you have to offer them tenure as well, either from the moment they walk in the door or very shortly thereafter. Otherwise they are not going to take the job you are offering.

This creates a significant risk for your institution. The decision about whether to hire this person and grant them tenure has to be made based on limited information: their CV and publications, some letters of recommendation, and a one- or two-day in-person interview (during which the candidate is of course on their best behavior). These materials may not be representative of how the candidate will actually perform in the job. Maybe their teaching turns out to be mediocre, or not a good fit for your student population. Maybe they shirk all administrative duties. Maybe some aspect of your institution makes them less productive than previously. Maybe they have catastrophic personality conflicts with their new colleagues. Too bad for you! You gave them tenure, and now you're stuck with them until they retire or leave voluntarily.

On the other hand, if you hire an assistant professor, you have five or six years to observe their actual job performance close up, before deciding whether to tenure them. You don't have to extrapolate from what they have done at other institutions - you know exactly how they work here. You know how effectively they teach your students. You know how well they get along with people in your department. If any of this turns out to be unacceptable, or even if it's okay but you think you could find someone better, you can fire them (or deny them tenure). So your risk of getting stuck with an ineffective or toxic faculty member is quite a bit lower.

(Note: "You" in this answer could refer to a dean, department chair, or to the faculty of a department or institution collectively. Basically, whoever has the responsibility of making hiring, retention, and tenure decisions.)

13

In addition to the other answers already given, there are simply not enough experienced professors on the market to fill the demand for professors.

Let us consider the system of academia from a global perspective.

  • Every year, a significant percentage of current professors retire, shrinking the pool of experienced professors (probably 2-3%, depending on length of career and population distribution).
  • Therefore, unless academia is rapidly shrinking (which it is not), there must be a constant large influx of people who were not previously professors becoming professors.
  • Putting some numbers on it: in the US, there are around 1.3 million postsecondary teachers, of whom I estimate around half are at an "assistant professor" or higher rank, based on salary, and academia is growing significantly. That means a reasonable estimate is that maintaining US academia requires about 20,000 new professors per year.
  • All told, the US awards around 50,000 doctorates per year. To maintain academia, 40% of those people need to eventually become professors in the US.
  • There are two general pools from which professors can be hired:

    1. Graduate students and postdocs, who do not have sufficient experience to be hired at anything more than the assistant professor level.
    2. People who have gained a significant postgraduate academia-equivalent experience in a non-professor position, such as industry, government, or soft-money academic positions.
  • Thus, the only way to increase the net number of professors enough without hiring a lot of assistant professors is if there are a large number of people with associate-professor-level qualifications, despite not having ever been assistant professors.

Given that many people who get doctorates have no desire to become professors, it seems quite implausible to me that there would be such a large pool of people that can move outside of academia gain massive amounts of experience, and them move back in as higher-ranked professors. Moreover, such people would likely be higher age (since their primary job would generally not be gaining professor-type experience and qualifications), which would further increase the fraction retiring each year, thereby further intensifying the population pressure.

Thus, from the point of view of pure population analysis, there is an extremely high pressure for academia to hire at the assistant professor level. Individual institutions may buck this trend, but overall it is likely to hold quite strongly.

Note that the numbers in this analysis are US-only, but if we extend to international the impulse to hire assistant professors will likely be even higher, as academia is expanding much more rapidly in the developing world.

In short: perhaps the biggest benefit of hiring assistant professors is that they are available to be hired, whereas the pigeonhole principle implies that for most institutions it will simply be impossible to fulfill their faculty needs without hiring many assistant professors.

  • 5
    I agree it's not mathematically possible for all departments to only hire "senior" faculty on a long-term basis, but my reading of the question is why would a given (say top) department hire younger inexperienced faculty. I know some top departments which effectively have not had tenure-track positions---either you got a temporary job there or were somewhat more senior and got hired with tenure. – Kimball Apr 2 '16 at 13:57
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    I didn't mean to say I thought it was about top schools, but about what are the benefits to a department of hiring younger faculty, rather than why this is necessary for the system. Maybe @FranckDernoncourt can clarify? – Kimball Apr 2 '16 at 14:55
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    @Kimball My point is that perhaps the biggest benefit of hiring assistant professors is that you can fill your faculty slots at all, which will be simply impossible for most institutions unless they hire strongly at that level. I have added clarification to that effect. – jakebeal Apr 2 '16 at 15:01
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    @PeteL.Clark Very interesting difference there: in my own home field of computer science, it is only fairly recently the case that people are expected to do any postdoc at all, rather than moving directly from PhD to assistant professor. If extended-postdoc starts replacing the early-professor career stage, then it could indeed shrink or eliminate pre-tenure faculty positions. A long multi-postdoc period does, however, imply quite a serious restructuring of funding and much more disruption to people's lives, so I would not want to see such a world personally. – jakebeal Apr 2 '16 at 21:26
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    ....The level of competition (in my field, at least) is now such that a place like UGA can hire new faculty who have already proved themselves as research stars. In my department we hired four assistant professors this year. In most cases these people will get tenured about eight years past their PhD (as I was), whereas in the traditional no-postdoc system it would be seven years. However, in most cases we are waiting even that long because of historical inertia and the existing T&P guidelines. If it was decided that we needed to T&P at PhD+5: no problem at all in many cases. – Pete L. Clark Apr 2 '16 at 21:43
7

In addition to Corvus's answer, part of a researcher's motivation to publish his/her research is to gain departmental promotions (associate professor, professor). By starting at a lower ranked position, the faculty member will more likely publish more papers under the university's affiliation during his academic career (on the premise that most faculty will have reached the professor rank by the time they retire). More publications under the university's affiliation will directly affect the university's ranking and external grants and funding.

This of course depends on the department's promotion policy but most will weigh publications as the highest criteria.

  • 3
    This answer seems premised on a belief that professors get lazier when they are promoted. While this happens in some cases, it is not generally true. – Kimball Apr 2 '16 at 13:51
  • @Kimball: Of course. In most cases it is not true, however, as implied above, promotion is merely one of the motivating factors in publishing (not the only one). Furthermore, different researchers weigh the importance of publishing differently. There may well be extremely hardworking researchers who don't see publishing their work as the highest priority. – Abbas Javan Jafari Apr 2 '16 at 14:15
  • 1
    I can argue the opposite. Suppose I am a dean and it is important to me that faculty in department X publish two papers a year. [BTW, "More publications under the university's affiliation will directly affect the university's ranking and external grants and funding." is an oversimplification, but let's go with it.] The department brings to me two candidates: a 2013 PhD who has published 6 papers in the last three years and a 1996 PhD who has published 40 papers in the last 20 years. In which of these candidates are you more confident that your desired publication rate will be maintained? – Pete L. Clark Apr 2 '16 at 16:00
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    Also: "By starting at a lower ranked position, the faculty member will more likely publish more papers under the university's affiliation during his academic career (on the premise that most faculty will have reached the professor rank by the time they retire." Administrators are not trying to optimize papers per faculty member altogether. They are trying to optimize papers per faculty member per unit time, because that's how salary works. When the economy is good, 30 years of annual raises makes a long term hire more expensive so can again be an argument against. – Pete L. Clark Apr 2 '16 at 16:03
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    While my answer stems from my personal observation (in limited institutions of course) and it's hard to deny something I have seen with my own eyes, Pete's argument (as usual) is completely logical and valid. I guess the answer to this question relies partly on departmental policy and even the geographical culture of academia in different countries. – Abbas Javan Jafari Apr 2 '16 at 16:39
2

I think there are a number of excellent answers here and some interesting discussion.

Let me add an additional point for the "middle tier" schools or department. If we hire an established professor, we have demonstrated that this person:

  • Is willing to switch departments
  • Has a specific "activation barrier" (i.e., start-up package, salary, etc.)

In short, when a mid-tier school hires at the senior level, word gets out and other schools may try to hire instead. This might happen at the same time we try to move them, or at some point later. After all, if someone is willing to move once, they are likely to move again for the right offer.

If you're at the top of the reputation ladder, you can easily find mid-career or senior talent at other schools and lure them to join your department. There's incentive to join your department because it's "better" for some definition of the word. You also likely have fairly deep pockets for start-up budgets and salary.

Consider instead the case of a good-but-not top department. If we find a promising mid-career or senior candidate, we have to compete not only with other mid-tier programs but also with the possibility that a rising star may be poached by a top department.

In short, when you hire assistant professors, in addition to the answers elsewhere, they start with some loyalty to the department and the school. (You gave them a chance!) If you try to hire an established professor, you've already proven that they're willing to leave a school for a better offer.

  • When a top-tier department advertises a position as open at either the Assistant professor (tenure track) level or the Associate Professor level (with tenure), is it just because they know they /can/ lure away excellent mid-career researchers, or does it suggest that they have already head-hunted someone and are advertising to satisfy an administrative requirement? [Asking because I have just seen such a position advertised and am wondering whether to bother] – Significance Aug 9 '16 at 2:54
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    At least in my field, some top departments always post open searches to keep options open. I'd show interest - perhaps you know someone and can send an email. Even if they have a potential target, I suspect most departments would still look at the applications. Even when we post junior searches , we have sometimes received senior interest and discussed it. – Geoff Hutchison Aug 9 '16 at 3:43

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