Planning Your Career

Academic Basics
Academic Roles
Tenure & Promotion
Planning Your Career

Planning Your Own Academic Career

Most early career academics describe themselves as happy and productive, and almost all planned to stay in the academy.   Concerns include: a lack of protected time for research, a lack of understanding about the rules and procedures of promotion (only 31 percent said they understood), problems in communication with Deans (often centering on too few meetings about promotion); uncertain funding for research; concerns about  financial security and greater concerns among women about good to excellent chances for promotion.

Full-time positions in social work are increasing with new BSW, MSW and PhD programs.  Many opportunities (or points of entry) center on teaching undergraduates.  Teaching and advising may be heavy in such roles, research less so.  However, success in BSW teaching can be a stepping stone into MSW teaching.  For PhD teaching the limited emphasis on research, publications and grants, however, may be less than optimal.

Many adjunct positions are also available in social work.  These afford and opportunity to do both practice and teaching, to diversify one’s workload.  The down side is that pay for adjunct work is piecework by number of courses taught ($2,000 to $5,000 with experience and institution) and generally lacks benefits.  Adjuncts may also do field advising or rub off-campus satellites of larger programs on a contract basis.  Pay for such work varies widely.

Some things to consider: 

1) Identifying your own interest, goals and personal needs.  Where you teach will provide varied opportunities and pose varied demands on your and your time.  Seek good match of institutional research and teaching expectations with your interests and goals.  There is no best institution for everyone.

2) Look for the type of institution that fits your goals and needs.  There are more BSW teaching positions than all other levels combined.  They are also widely distributed geographically.  MSW teaching positions are fewer and tend to be more concentrated in urban areas – they are also more competitive.  PhD teaching follows success at MSW level. 

The first job is usually the hardest to obtain.  But it is easier to more among institutions when your have been a successful faculty member at one institution and are more widely know within the profession.

3) Look at the available supports within the academic institution.    How is the annual review process done?  Is it viewed as helpful to guide new faculty?

Are there good library resources?  Office space?  Computers?  Other equipment needed for research? Are there resources such as grant finding and grant writing supports available?

Is there support and staff help both in identifying grant opportunities and in writing up grant applications?  Is there help with budgets and cost estimates, specialized tools and equipments, statistical backup, etc.?   What perks come back to you as a faculty member if you obtain a large grant?  (How is overhead handled?)

4) How is mentoring done?  Is there a formal program and system?  Are there options to choose mentors or is one appointed?  Can one have multiple mentors in content areas as well as for the tenure process? Research and experience show that outside mentoring may be invaluable to women and persons of color.

5) Is there other guidance regarding tenure and promotion available in the institution?  Some have training programs for all new faculty members.  These may help you plan for the expectations of your specific location – which is a big help.

Try to complete and have published some papers and some conference publications before/during your doctoral studies.  This is an increasing expectation as it shows your ability to complete article manuscripts and get them accepted through peer review.

6) What are salaries and benefits?  Pay is often based on a 10 month contract thought there may be additional pay for summer teaching under separate contract.  The Chronicle of Higher Education publishes annual summaries of salary ranges for different ranks at the various types of institutions.  Do consider that you may be able to continue a private practice, to begin to do workshops and trainings which can be additional sources of income.

Your Curriculum Vitae (CV) (aka a resume)

As you go through your PhD studies, you should develop and refine your CV.  The goal is to find the best way to make clear–to market–your education, experiences and accomplishments and training–and the best way to describe them. You should catalog your teaching and research experience, publications, presentations, awards, honors, affiliations and other such details.

One good way to start is to review the CVs of other academics (in print or online – many faculty CVs are available online).  Look for a good clear format and organization.  Don’t let key accomplishments and credentials to be lost in lots of minor points. Never fake or embellish – this can come back to haunt you or even get your fired. Present your credentials and qualifications clearly, succinctly and in descending order of importance.  That is, your PhD goes before your MSW and before your BA.  Recent events go before older ones. Tailor your CV to each different job for which you apply.  Highlight those features that fit best – more practice or more research for instance.

You send your CV with a cover letter that describes your interest in the position you’re applying for and that promotes your good fit for the position.  Such a cover letter should also be tailored to each specific position for which you are applying.  Make clear what/how you will contribute to the program–and institution–to which you’re applying.  Views differ on the length of cover letters:  One view is to keep it brief; the other is to take as long as you wish to sell yourself – but no more than 3 sides.  Tailor the cover letter to each position.  Obviously you will have to look carefully and reflectively at key information about a program (catalog, syllabi, etc.) to tailor the cover letter to the specifics of the position.

Some Tips Learned from Experience!

File  all tenure and promotion materials (all teaching evaluations, all letters that acknowledge your good work, all conference brochures showing what you’ve presented, agency ads) in a single file draw or big box.  This will help with recall and preparing materials later.

Know  the tenure and promotion specification in your institutions’ Faculty Code.

Build Relationships  with other faculty members and administrators.  This may mean doing extra work – which is expected.   Professional and community service also falls into this category – it build supports who may later serve as external tenure and promotion reviewers who know your style and academic work.

Attend  Tenure and Promotion workshops.

Attend (and, still better, present) at Conferences.  Network!

Begin to Identify Potential External Reviewers Early  Tenure and promotion includes reviews of your work and accomplishments by well known faculty of higher rank at other institutions.  These people should not be your teachers or best friends – they need to be favorably inclined by balanced reviewers.  Think who might fit with your areas and type of scholarly work.  Who appreciates the setting your will teach in?

Develop Writing Supports that allow you to produce well and get published.

Use Good Manners – thank you notes for interviews are always beneficial.  Manners matter in all other ways too.



Boice, R. (2000).  Advice for new faculty members. New York:  Allyn and Bacon.

McCabe, L.L., & McCabe, E. (2000).  How to succeed in academics.  San Diego, CA: Academic Press.



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text by James Drisko © June 7, 2008 - last updated 8/14/12