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Faculty careers can progress in many directions

The canonical story of faculty productivity goes like this: A researcher begins a tenure-track position, builds their research group, and publishes as much as possible to make their case for being awarded tenure. After getting tenure, increased service and administrative responsibilities kick in and research productivity slowly declines. But now, a new study shows that, in computer science at least, the majority of faculty members have different—and more idiosyncratic—productivity trajectories. “There are lots of ways people make careers in academia,” says Daniel Larremore, professor of computer science at the University of Colorado in Boulder and one of the study’s lead authors. “There’s some space to revisit our expectations.”

Based on a comprehensive hiring and promotion dataset and a publication database for all 2453 computer science professors in the United States and Canada, Larremore and his co-authors found a huge range of publication trajectories, including the canonical one as well as many variations. That variability was not previously apparent because earlier studies of scholarly productivity typically focused on small datasets and were biased toward high achievers such as Nobel laureates, says Roberta Sinatra, assistant professor at the Central European University in Budapest.

Larremore’s team found that some faculty members remain very productive after tenure, with their publication rate peaking late in their careers and then declining abruptly. Others experience a productivity decline in the first few years on the tenure track, only to see an uptick in their fifth or sixth year. And still others don’t publish much early on but continually increase their output over the course of their careers. “Even though we have a canonical story about what a career in academia looks like, people are all over the map in reality,” Larremore says.

Ultimately, the authors write in the paper, “[t]his diversity in overall productivity, combined with the observation that an individual’s highest impact work is equally likely to be any of his or her publications, implies there are fundamental limits to predicting scientific careers.” For Jevin West, assistant professor in the Information School at the University of Washington in Seattle, that’s a good thing. “I don’t want young scholars to think their trajectory is somehow predestined,” he says. “There’s all sorts of things that lead to big discoveries.” However, cautions Henry Sauermann, associate professor of strategy at the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin, “the paper doesn’t tell us if all these paths are similarly successful in terms of getting tenure.”

It’s important to recognize that tenure committees rely on more than publication counts when evaluating candidates, says Donna Ginther, a professor of economics at the University of Kansas in Lawrence who studies scientific labor markets. These committees also take into account “the impact of the publications, and what the outside letter writers who are experts in the field have to say about the quality, quantity, and impact of the work,” Ginther says, which “may weigh more than the number of publications they’ve produced.” Larremore also emphasizes that publication count doesn’t necessarily reflect the true impact of a scholar’s work. “If you make a software package and it is used by thousands of hospitals, that may be a bigger contribution than five publications,” he says.

In light of the significant variation the new study reveals, funding agencies and hiring, tenure, and promotion committees need to appreciate the diversity of contributions and unpredictability of trajectories, the authors suggest. Evaluators who assume candidates should follow the canonical path may fail to reward people who are following different paths and end up missing out on talented researchers who still have great contributions to make, Sinatra agrees. 

Although the data revealed a wide variety of career trajectories, there were also some notable trends. For one thing, men and women follow the canonical trajectory at equal rates, though men showed slightly higher initial and peak productivities. It’s not clear whether those differences are changing over time, moving toward parity in more recent cohorts, or whether differences at the time of hiring become exacerbated as careers progress. The researchers also found that faculty members at more prestigious institutions are more productive initially and have higher peak productivity, reflecting the higher publishing demands at higher-ranked institutions, Ginther notes. “You really need to know what you are getting into before you show up,” she says. “The postdoc can be used as a time to get a lot of work started so you get your publications rolling before you start on that tenure-track clock.”

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