The Academic Trough

Being a Full Professor has a lot to be said for it. You are a duke or duchess in the medieval institution of the university. You receive a good salary, as big and nice an office as your department has available, first choice of class hours, and a lot of nice other perks. And there is also the wisdom and balanced judgment that comes with age. For example, I remember when I was an assistant professor, it seemed absurdly unfair that Full Professors, in addition to receiving a better salary, also received nicer offices and other perks. But now that I've got that wisdom and balanced judgment that comes with age, it all seems perfectly reasonable.

But something even better happens after you have been a Full Professor for a while. As your hair turns grey and age confers a look of distinction, people begin to treat to you in a certain deferential way. One has finally made it out of what I call the Academic Trough. It is this phenomenon I want to discuss and explain. The Academic Trough is a concept for understanding academic careers. It illuminates many puzzling phenomena that one observes on college and university campuses, and should also prove useful to people planning their careers or trying to understand the careers they have had.

The term ``Academic Trough" derives from the shape an academic career inscribes along two key dimensions. The vertical axis has to do with the importance that your colleagues attach to your potential and actual work beyond the Ph.d. The horizontal axis is time. The successful career typically inscribes a big U: the Academic Trough.

The top left part of the U represents the high esteem that your colleagues inside and outside the university have for you at the time you are hired. The bottom of the U corresponds to the point at which the successful academic receives tenure; of course, if the curve plummets too low, you don't receive tenure. What counts as "too low" depends on where you are. And the high point on the right corresponds to the the golden years I just mentioned, which seems to begin about five years after one becomes a full professor.

Several factors conspire to produce the trough. When you are just out of graduate school, you haven't done much, but your teachers have written inflated letters for you. You are overly-praised pure potential. When your future colleagues hire you, they are excited about what you are going to do (although perhaps if they compare notes they would find they don't all have the same thing in mind). People find very little to complain about in the potential works that you haven't written yet. If you are adept in your interviews, each of your future colleagues believes that in your works his or her own wonderful ideas will be adequately appreciated for the first time.

Of course, once you get a job, you have to start writing and publishing and are judged on the basis of this work. However brilliant you are, the effect of actual work inevitably diminishes the luster you had as an overly-praised graduate student. As tenure time nears, more and more people start to read your stuff, and more and more is at stake. This sort of thing is hard on your reputation. But if one survives this horrible process, the curve starts to rise again. The reason is simple: cognitive dissonance. That is the human tendency to put a happy face on the results of decisions we have made, however catastrophic they may actually be. Once your department votes you tenure, they have a vested interest in finding your work exciting, provocative, or at any rate basically OK. The head of steam built up by the positive tenure decision and cognitive dissonance should get you through to Full Professor, if you manage to complete any more work at all and carry out your teaching duties with a show of diligence.

The trough actually has a slight dip in it, as the process of reading, decision, cognitive dissonance and appreciation repeats itself on a smaller scale for promotion to Full Professor. Then the golden era begins, for the high point on the right of the U represents the period after this. The various committees that agreed to tenure and promotion, probably grudgingly, have ceased to remember the details. People just know you are a Full Professor and have been for a while. By this time, with a little luck, your hair is grey and you look distinguished or at least old. At this point, everyone assumes that you must have done something quite important, although they can't quite remember what. Once you realize that you will never again have your work crawled over by various committees charged with evaluating your basic worth as a human being, it becomes more fun. Bliss.

The trick, then, is to get a job based on work you haven't done, and stick around until the details of what you did are forgotten. That's when the true rewards of academia set in.