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Applying to study under an Assistant Prof vs. Tenured


ToomuchLes

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This question is more towards graduates, of whom are familiar with their department politics and the relationship between student and professor. Is there a rule of thumb that dictates the type of professor you're striving to work with - associate, assistant, or tenured? I've often heard whispers that when you apply, you should apply to work with a tenured professor versus an associate or assistant, but then I heard counterpoint arguments that it does not matter. On a personal note, I would like to study under a certain professor; however after reviewing her bio on the university's website, I noticed that she only recently published her first book, and in addition, shes only an assistant professor. Does that mean, theres a possibility she might find a better, possibly tenured-tracked position in another university (Im not sure if shes on a tenured tracked presently), and if so, what would happen if she left while I was her graduate student? 

 

Personal anecdotes, online articles or any kind of guidance to better understand this, would be appreciated =)

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If she is listed as an Assistant Professor and not a lecture, she should be on the tenure track. In my program Assistant Profs are not allowed to have PhD students (but can sponsor MA students). If you apply to this program I would mention her and a more established faculty member as people you would like to work with, just in case she can't take students.

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Assistant professors (as opposed to visiting assistant professors) are on the tenure track so aren't at greater risk of leaving for another job than associate or full professor. The main risk is that they may be denied tenure and asked to leave, in which case their students will be in some kind of trouble. Another down side to working with an assistant professor is that they are new and inexperienced, which can sometimes lead to more difficulties with advising. On the positive side, assistant profs are more driven to work and publish than their tenured colleagues, so working with them could help your own productivity. However, if choosing an assistant prof on the tenure track, I think it's highly advisable to make sure that there is another, tenured professor in the department who could serve as a secondary advisor and who could take over in case your advisor leaves (because they got denied tenure or because they moved to another job). It sounds like the professor you are describing is only now starting on the TT, so is less experienced but may therefore be around for the duration of your studies, because her tenure case won't be up before you graduate.

 

Normally (in the US), tenure and promotion go hand in hand, so associate professors are tenured. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Most professors will have a CV on their website, which will list their appointments and whether they are tenured. I'd look that up to make sure. If this information is not readily available, I think it's fair to write the prof and ask about this (politely and gently, and keep in mind that as someone who hasn't even applied yet she may not tell you if she is going to be looking for a new job next year--but that's true of anyone in this situation, not just assistant profs). Full professors are always tenured. They are by the nature of things older and more experienced, and therefore will have more connections, but may also be slowing down their research programs and heading towards retirement or alternatively taking on administrative positions with less direct contact with students. It's important to make sure that a full professor who is nearing retirement age will still be around 4-6 years from now, when you will be graduating, or else you may need to switch advisors mid-way through your studies. 

 

The moral of the story is to find departments with more than one possible advisor whose interests are a ok-to-good fit with yours, because it's possible, for all kinds of reasons, that you may not be able to complete your studies with the same person who you had initially thought would be your main advisor, so it's important to give yourself options when you start. 

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Departments have different policies about studying under assistant professors. In some departments, you can't have an assistant professor as your major adviser, although they will usually allow the assistant prof to serve on a dissertation or exam committee. If you contact your persons of interest before you apply, they will probably tell you if they can accept applicants or not (not just for reasons of being an assistant professor either). The big advantage of applying to work with a full professor is that they have more clout within the department, so that might increase your odds of admission. 

Edited by spellbanisher
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Excellent replies! Thank you so much everyone. 

 

Unfortunately, her CV is not available. Likewise, while perusing the profiles of graduate students, I noticed that she was not advising for anyone; however at the very bottom of the website, it says this page was last edited in 2013. Maybe its outdated? I guess, come first week of October when the semester starts, I will send her a self-introduction email about myself, research interests, and whether she is accepting graduate student(s) to work under her. 

 

Regarding finding a full tenured professor as an adviser, for this particular institution, this assistant professor's area of interest is dead-on to my own. There are three other professors (one assistant, and two tenured) that are close but not in the same ballpark. For example, one tenured professor's area of interest is the Atlantic Colonial World, and the African Diaspora, while my interests focus more on late 18th, early 19th century African Diaspora. I read two of his articles and they focus on similar aspects to my own research, but again, different time period, different ball park =P. The other two professors are similar. Any opinions on the matter?

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A lot of universities have a directory of faculty levels.  You might contact the grad school and ask if this one does.  At my university faculty listed as M3 can chair (and serve on) a PhD committee, those listed as M2 can serve on a PhD committee or chair a Master's committee, and those listed as M1 or lecturer cannot serve on committees at all.  

 

It depends on the department but mine doesn't care who I have as my primary advisor as long as that individual is M3 - a status which is reached by serving on 5 or more doctoral committees of individuals who have graduated.  This gives faculty the experience necessary to effectively guide students.

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