Academic Basics

Academic Basics
Academic Roles
Tenure & Promotion
Planning Your Career

The first thing to know is that there are several very different types of academic institutions of higher learning with very different purposes.  These are classified by the Carnegie Foundation's rating system.  There are also different types of academic appointments and "ranks" among tenure track faculty.  Your career goals may point you to one type of institution or another.  Knowing this terminology is basic to understanding the structure of academe.

The Types of Higher Educational Institutions

The Carnegie Foundation’s rating system is widely used in the U.S. to describe higher educational institutions.  These are divided by highest degree awarded, numbers of degrees conferred each year and by amount of funded research done.

Doctorate-granting Universities. In the latest Carnegie Foundation rating system, doctorate-granting institutions are differentiated based on measures of research activity. The ratings now use a multi-measure index, not just a measure of federal funding used previously.

Doctorate-granting universities include those institutions that award at least 20 doctoral degrees per year (excluding doctoral-level degrees that qualify recipients for entry into professional practice, such as the JD, MD, PharmD, DPT, etc.). There are three categories of doctorate-granting institutions:

1) RU/VH: Research Universities (very high research activity)
2) RU/H: Research Universities (high research activity)
3) DRU: Doctoral/Research Universities (lesser research activity)

Because of these changes, the new categories are not fully comparable to those previously used (which were Research I & II and Doctoral I & II; and Doctoral/Research—Extensive and Intensive).

Note that these institutions put a very heavy emphasis on research, and especially on externally-funded research.  Faculty seek large grants from the Federal government, states and private sources.  Faculty members who obtain large grants may "buy out" of their teaching responsibilities and serve mainly as researchers.

Master’s Colleges and Universities. Include
Master’s colleges and universities include institutions that award at least 50 master's degrees and fewer than 20 doctoral degrees per year.  Master’s institutions are assigned to one of three categories based on the overall number of master’s degrees conferred:

1) Master’s/L: Master’s Colleges and Universities (larger programs)
2) Master’s/M: Master’s Colleges and Universities (medium programs)
3) Master’s/S: Master’s Colleges and Universities (smaller programs)

Master's institutions generally put greater emphasis on teaching and less on funded research and scholarly productivity (publications of books and article and presentations at conferences).  Research and scholarship is still required, but the core emphasis is different.  Faculty are much more likely to be classroom teachers and to have heavier teaching loads (numbers of course taught per semester or per year).

Baccalaureate Colleges.  Include institutions where baccalaureate degrees represent at least 10 percent of all undergraduate degrees and that award fewer than 50 master's degrees or 20 doctoral degrees per year.

1) Bac/A&S: Baccalaureate Colleges—Arts & Sciences
2) Bac/Diverse: Baccalaureate Colleges—Diverse Fields
3) Bac/Assoc: Baccalaureate/Associate’s Colleges

Baccalaureate institutions in general put a very heavy emphasis on classroom teaching, though research and scholarship are still required.  It is important to bear in mind that the amount of research and scholarship can vary greatly among these institutions.  Still, teaching loads tend to be heavy as this is the core purpose of these institutions.

Associate’s Colleges. The Carnegie classification now includes two-year colleges.

These institutions have very heavy teaching loads and generally very low emphasis on research and scholarship.

Types of Academic Hire 

Tenure is the status of holding one's academic position on a permanent basis without periodic contract renewals (though in some cases there are some reviews after tenure).  It is a status conferred to allow academic freedom, or the ability to voice one's views freely even if they may be unpopular.  It is a protection against dismissal without cause.  It does not mean a teacher is free not to teach or do other assigned roles.  One early example of interest to social workers is that of Richard Ely, a professor at the University of Wisconsin whose advocacy in the 1890s for labor law reform through strikes brought pressure from donors to have him removed.  The faculty and University supported his academic freedom and he kept his job and continued his advocacy.  Today there is great pressure in many institutions to insure tenured faculty continue to be productive and innovative after tenure.

a) Tenure-track - usually beginning with a three-year contract, the tenure-track leads to formal review for promotion and tenure after (usually) the sixth year as a faculty member.  Once a faculty member is tenured, research productivity and teaching is not reviewed on a regular basis at most institutions.  Tenure track faculty have different ranks based on experience and productivity (Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor).  Moving to higher academic ranks does, however, require a formal review.

b) Clinical faculty - in many professional schools, including many schools of social work, clinical faculty work on one-year to multiyear contracts with the main focus on teaching and generally a much lesser focus on research and publication.  However, overall clinical faculty productivity and quality of teaching is reviewed on an annual basis.  Contracts are typically reviewed and renewed or terminated each year.  Clinical track faculty often have a range of ranks (Assistant, Associate, etc) based on experience and productivity.

c) Adjunct faculty - in most institutions adjunct faculty serve for a defined, contract period.  This may be to teach a specific course, to teach for a semester or year.  In no case is one's contract automatically renewed; adjunct teaching may be used to fill in for tenure-track faculty sabbaticals, etc.  Contract teaching by adjunct faculty may be a useful complement for those mainly in clinical practice.  Adjunct appointments may or may not be ranked; many are solely ranked at instructor level.


Academic Ranks

Through demonstrated evidence of ability and expertise in teaching, in scholarship and research, and in service, faculty members may gain in rank, recognizing their contributions to knowledge, to realizing their institution's mission and in teaching their students effectively.

a) Instructor/Lecturer:  Is the lowest level of faculty appointment.  Instructors may serve as temporary adjunct faculty, or may reflect that the faculty member lacks a doctoral degree.  All adjunct faculty members at some institutions are given the rank of lecturer or instructor – despite holding higher ranks at other institutions where they are full-time faculty members.  A Ph.D. may not be required.

b) Assistant Professor:  The most common rank for an initial full time, tenure-track, faculty appointment is to the Assistant Professor rank.  Assistant professors typically hold the Ph.D. degree.

c) Associate Professor:  After review of performance on a faculty, most frequently after six years, tenure track faculty apply for promotion to the Associate Professor rank.  Promotion to Associate Professor often, but not always, occurs jointly with tenure.

d) Professor:  After continued high quality performance on a faculty, an associate professor may request him promotion to “full” professor rank.  A full professor has demonstrated high quality research and teaching. Typically the “full” is implicit – one is not entitled to use the label “professor” until reaching full professor rank.

Named or Endowed Professorships maybe granted to faculty who have demonstrated high quality research in an area.  Their appointment is to a specific "chair" which is typically named after the donors who funded the position.  These are typically full professor ranks only.

Clinical professors hires may also hold various faculty ranks based on their demonstrated teaching effectiveness, scholarship and service.

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text by James Drisko © June 7, 2008 - last updated 8/28/12