August 3, 2004 Feature

Climbing the Academic Ladder

The dwindling numbers of doctoral-level professionals in audiology and speech-language pathology, along with an even greater shortage of individuals entering academia who have earned the doctorate, indicate a growing problem.

Careers in academia are both exciting and rewarding, but communicating those facts often fails. The message sent to future academics tends to focus on day-to-day obstacles and challenges rather than the long-term benefits of that career path. Instead, we need to inform current graduate students and professionals about the advantages of choosing a career in academia.

Once that choice is made, appropriate preparation is critical in order for the individual to effectively progress through the ranks to tenure, to achieve promotion to associate professor, and finally, full professor. A thorough understanding of the underlying foundations of the academic process will help young faculty climb the academic ladder and achieve lasting career success.

The Academic Trilogy

The academic ladder has three primary rungs: assistant professor, followed by promotion to associate professor, which usually occurs at the same time the individual is awarded tenure, and then promotion to professor. An additional rung can be added for those who are interested in academic administration.

The essential key for success in climbing the academic ladder is to understand the expectations of the university or college with respect to the academic trilogy: research, teaching, and service. Consult the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, the organizational system recognized by most American colleges and universities. Its structure is based on the highest degree awarded by an individual university or college and the number of degrees conferred per year. The classification of the college or university reflects whether it has primarily a teaching or research emphasis and provides the young academic with information regarding its expectations.

If the university is primarily a teaching institution, the job description will emphasize teaching, which often results in a heavier course load and greater service requirements, coupled with less emphasis on research. Conversely, a research institution will emphasize research and publication, with less focus on teaching and service. These distinctions should play an important role in determining the best fit between a given university and a potential new faculty member in the job selection process.

Assistant Professor

Ideally, the assistant professor takes his or her first position after completing the PhD. It is not advisable to begin a career in academia before the degree has been completed, that is, as ABD (all but dissertation). The demands placed on the assistant professor are great, especially during the first year. It is very difficult for new faculty members to complete the dissertation and at the same time begin a new job that requires teaching and setting up a research laboratory. It would be ideal if the candidate had an initial record of presentations and publications as well as some teaching experience before seeking employment as an assistant professor. If at all possible, it is beneficial to obtain post-doctoral training as well.

Once employment has started, the young academic should document activity toward tenure and promotion. It is important to maintain an organizational structure that helps individuals keep track of their work throughout their careers. Most faculty are reviewed annually, so it is important to determine annual goals and document progress toward achieving them on a consistent basis.

Annual faculty activity reports are one way to maintain such organization, and can be a very useful tool to document progress toward goals. It is also a good idea for young academics to review the guidelines for promotion and tenure in the faculty handbook of the employing university and department early on to become familiar with the content and organizational structure of the dossier. Keeping the curriculum vitae up to date is essential. Some universities require a mid-term review halfway between the initial hire and consideration for tenure and promotion to associate professor. This review tends to arrive quickly, so organizing materials from the beginning will assist in this process.

Effective teaching is a fundamental component of any academic career even at a research-oriented institution. Early on, teaching evaluations may not be strong, but over time, the young academic should show evidence of improvement in this area. Lastly, assistant professors should show their contributions to service by participation in departmental committees and possibly university-wide committees. Service to the profession is noteworthy as well.

Promotion to Associate Professor

Promotion to associate professor generally occurs within five to seven years after appointment as an assistant professor. The tenure and promotion committee is primarily looking for evidence that the individual has succeeded in an academic track. The publication record is critically important, and data-based research articles in prominent referenced journals are essential as evidence that the work is recognized as important. In addition, both internal and external grant submissions and awards are helpful. Many internal grants can provide seed money to support the assistant professor in collecting the necessary pilot data to use as the basis for a larger, externally funded grant. In a university with a strong emphasis on teaching, there may be less focus on publication and grant-related activities. However, even in teaching institutions, some evidence of scholarship and publication is expected for promotion to associate professor.

Promotion to Professor

Promotion to full professor usually takes a minimum of five to seven years after achieving associate professor status. At this level, the academic must demonstrate evidence of accomplishment with an impressive and extensive publication record containing data-based research articles in referenced journals. The academic should be well-recognized in a specific area of research and maintain both national and international prominence. At this level, many may have published chapters in textbooks or written their own textbooks. In addition, there should be evidence of a track record of external funding; evidence of grant submissions without funding is inadequate at this level. At most universities, years of service are not justification for promotion to professor.

Effective teaching while serving as an associate professor is important, even at research institutions. At this level, teaching should also include presentations at other institutions and state and national conferences. Associate professors are expected to have either developed new courses or revised existing courses to meet new areas in the curriculum. They are also expected to guide master's theses and doctoral dissertations and serve on master's and doctoral committees.

Service to the university, the profession, and the international community is typically expected as well. University service for promotion to professor usually must include some university-wide committee work and some evidence of leadership by serving as committee chair.

Tips for Success on the Academic Ladder


Establishing an extensive publication record is essential for success toward tenure and promotion. Ideally, publications begin at the doctoral student level. During the first year in a tenure track position, the young academic should set several goals in order to achieve success in publication. A primary goal should be to publish the dissertation and any other ongoing research as soon as possible. The young academic should have several ongoing projects at different stages, so as data are being collected for one, manuscripts are being written for others.

The publication process can be challenging and rewarding, but is also time consuming. Therefore, junior faculty members should maximize the aspects of the process that are under their control by submitting and revising manuscripts in a timely manner. Selection of an appropriate journal is also a very important step in the process. If the individual is seeking tenure and promotion at a research institution, refereed journals are paramount. One should also match the content of the research to the goals of the journal to be sure they are appropriate. Again, data-based research carries the most weight.

The other major component to scholarship is seeking funding sources. In the beginning, the young academic is encouraged to pursue small university grants (internal funding) that are often geared toward the new investigator. These can be in the form of faculty research grants, professional development awards, or even travel awards. New investigator grants are also available from professional associations such as the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation. These grants often are not large, but they serve to provide the new investigator with seed money for collecting pilot data that can be used as the basis for an external grant submission. It is also recommended that individuals work very closely with the university's office of sponsored research to identify grant opportunities.

Scholarship productivity can be enhanced through collaboration with colleagues. Young academics are encouraged to identify individuals who are conducting research in their area(s). In some cases, these individuals may be other professionals in our field (at the same or different universities), and in other cases, they may be from other disciplines that might enhance the interdisciplinary aspects of their work. In this age of technology, there are many advantages of electronic communication that can assist the individual in such collaboration (e.g., e-mail, on-line courses, etc.).


Ideally, young academics have a reduced teaching load in their first year, but new course preparation is still very time consuming. The good news is that it is unnecessary to "reinvent the wheel." Young academics are encouraged to seek syllabi from faculty at their own or other universities who have taught such a course previously or use syllabi from their own education.

It is hoped that the new faculty member obtained some teaching experience as a doctoral student. Since that is not always the case, young academics should seek out campus resources to develop and improve teaching skills and assist in course development. Some universities offer workshops or summer grants to assist in teaching skills, while others may offer services to videotape and critique lectures. Even after the faculty member has taught the course a few times, it is important to update syllabi annually since material is constantly evolving.

Knowing the course content and teaching it are very different. Young academics are encouraged to use as many resources as necessary to assist them in teaching the material. These can be in the form of visual aids (e.g., slides, overheads, videos) to demonstrate important concepts or clinical techniques. Using Web-based technology can also enhance one's teaching as well as student learning. The young academic should also consider different ways to present information at the undergraduate versus the graduate level.

Some form of teaching evaluation is used at most universities to allow students to provide feedback to faculty members. Initial evaluations can be discouraging. It usually takes several times teaching certain course material before it is presented appropriately and effectively. Young academics should also keep in mind that student responses may not always be based on fact. Students may give negative reviews because of challenges in the course (i.e., high standards). One should also consider when the evaluation is conducted during the course. The last couple of course meetings can influence the results. New faculty may find it useful to seek a mentor or evaluator early on so that there is time to make improvements before the final evaluation.


Although research, scholarship, and teaching are the most important aspects of academic life, the service component also is significant. The young academic should select committees carefully: Which ones have minimal time commitment and the most visibility? Which do the faculty value more in consideration for renewal and tenure? Service can occur at the level of the department or the university, and academics should balance their time between them. Service to the profession also should be considered-first at the state or local level and later at the national or international level. One excellent way to deal with scholarship and service at the same time is to become a reviewer for a journal.


A career in academia typically involves two types of mentoring. As a faculty member working with students, academics are very good mentors. Faculty are encouraged to build upon a student's potential. Reaching out is critical because it may be the catalyst that pushes a student along. Suggesting research opportunities can encourage master's theses and the pursuit of a doctoral degree. The mentoring process can vary depending upon the level of student (i.e., undergraduate, master's, doctoral). But in any case, it is helpful to view students as future colleagues.

Faculty themselves need to be mentored-especially junior faculty. Many universities assign a senior faculty member as a mentor for junior faculty, and it is hoped that relationship will be strong. Junior faculty members should feel comfortable with their mentors to ask any type of question from, "How do I grade exams or fill out a travel authorization?" to "How do I determine an appropriate journal in which to publish my dissertation?" Mentors can serve as excellent academic resources, and do not have to be in the same department or even in the same university as their protégés.

In short, a career in academia can be satisfying and rewarding. Junior faculty should be mentored so that they are fully aware of the expectations from their university for successfully climbing the academic ladder. Organization of materials demonstrating potential and accomplishment in research, teaching, and service will assist the junior faculty member toward navigating the academic ladder. 

Lisa Lucks Mendel, is associate professor of Audiology in the School of Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology at The University of Memphis, and interim director of the Audiology Clinic. Contact her at

Maurice I. Mendel, is dean and professor in the School of Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology at The University of Memphis. He is active in the Council of Academic Programs in Communication Sciences and Disorders having served as its president. He currently serves as its Webmaster. Contact him at

Dolores E. Battle, ASHA's president-elect, is professor of speech-language pathology and senior advisor to the president for Equity and Campus Diversity at Buffalo State College. Among her responsibilities is assisting faculty in developing strategies to recruit, retain, and promote faculty from underrepresented groups. Contact her at 

cite as: Mendel, L. L. , Mendel, M. I.  & Battle, D. E. (2004, August 03). Climbing the Academic Ladder. The ASHA Leader.


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