The mid-career stage is considered by many as one of the hardest stages – and our research on how COVID-19 affected academic parents also found that associate professors are hit hardest. While I haven’t found literature on why this mid-career stage is so particularly hard, my best guess is that the difficulty arises from the many expectations and not having clearly defined roles.
Consider this: we quite know what an assistant professor does. They build up their research line and their research group and work towards tenure. We also know quite well what a full professor does in the last decades of their career: travel the world and give lectures, and manage a research group at a higher level.
But associate professor? Well, they do a bit of everything – they have their research group and lab established, but now need to make sure the funding keeps coming in to keep the lab running. And keeping the lab running is often not enough, as it is often also expected that the lab grows. At the same time, associate professors are warming up for the responsibilities of full professors, and will travel more to give keynote lectures and will take on larger service and admin loads, and most likely they will also be mentoring junior faculty.
So what can associate professors do to avoid drowning in the swamp of work? Here are my seven best practices:
1. Think about what will take you to full
The challenge for associate professors is that they become just a busier and more overloaded version of themselves than they were as assistant professor (and this may be surprising to read for assistant professors, as they think that things will quiet down after getting tenure). But being a busier version of an assistant professor won’t take you to ful. So review the requirements for making it to full, and start thinking strategically about what you need to focus on to fulfill the promotion requirements.
2. Learn to delegate
Your responsibilities and your research group have grown, so that means you now have more capable people to help you out where necessary. As you get more loaded, think about how you can ask your PhD candidates and postdocs to help you out. Find ways that are win-win, where you can give them responsibilities that help them build their resume, such as teaching a guest lecture, reviewing articles, or taking your place in a technical committee.
3. Know when to say no
You can’t keep adding things to your plate, so at some point you will need to start saying no to opportunities you would have taken during the tenure track to build your resume. For example, taking on another role as editor of a journal may be too much to handle at the moment, even though you feel flattered and honored to join the editorial board.
4. Outline your priorities – for yourself and your lab
Referring back to the first point here, you will need to prioritize what will ultimately take you to full. At the same time, now that you have a larger research group working for you, you will need to think in terms of priorities for your research group: which equipment has priority to purchase so you can grow your lab? Which projects align well with the expertise? How will you broaden and deepen the expertise in your group? Which funding should you shoot for?
5. Evaluate how you spend your time
If you haven’t been tracking your time before, now is a good time. If you’ve tracked your time in the past, it may be good to track it again for a week to see how the way you spend your time has changed. You cannot keep planning to do as much research as before yourself if now you spend half of your week in meetings with students and in administrative meetings. You will need to have a good idea of how your time and your weeks look like at this stage of your career to be able to commit to tasks you assign yourself.
6. Develop new skills
If you’ve identified what you need to make it to full, you may also see that you need to invest time in some of your skills. Perhaps you need to learn skills to strengthen your leadership, and you can identify that a course on managing a team would be suitable, or perhaps a course on negotiations to help you prepare to advocate for your research group within the administration. Identify which skills you need to strengthen, and develop a plan on how to move forward. You could also consider an individual coaching trajectory.
7. Think about what balance looks like for you
When you are midcareer, you still have a long way to go. In my case, I still have three decades of work ahead of me (or more, if retirement age changes). You got tenure, so now you are in it for the long run. And it’s up to you to define how you are going to last in the long run: what does balance look like for you? What do you need to stay healthy? What does a good week look like for you? There will always be times when you are busy and you need to put in a lot of hours, but on average you need a schedule that is sustainable for you.
These are my best tips for associate professors. If you are an associate professor, share with us what has worked for you. If you made it to full, let us know what worked best during the years of being an associate professor.