From Postdoc to Professor: the Traditional Path

What is a typical academic career and how flexible is it?

Over the past few weeks, we have been discussing the academic and non-academic opportunities available to you after your PhD.

There is one big aspect that we have not covered yet: the traditional academic career, namely, the path to becoming a professor.

It is time to fill this gap and share this knowledge with you. It is a big subject, so do not be surprised if I decide to devote more than one newsletter to it!

Today, we are going to look at the traditional professorial academic career, focusing on the four steps that candidates usually take: postdoc, assistant professor/tenure track, associate professor and full professor. We will discuss the typical career path, as well as the exceptions to it.

As I’m currently surfing the academic path towards the wave of the associate professor, I will also share with you my opinion on how flexible and open this path is.

Traditional academic path: from postdoc to professor

The journey to a professorship in the academic system encompasses several steps, from postdoc to full professor.
These steps are somewhat consistent across geographical regions, although you will find differences. Within a country, you may also find differences between universities or host institutes. I will use the Dutch system as an example because that’s the one I know best. This also means that I will use the terminology used in the Netherlands.
So, if you are planning on pursuing an academic career, make sure you look for information about your target country! The terminology and regulations may be different.

Step #1 | Postdoc

After a PhD, the most logical step towards a traditional academic career is a postdoctoral fellowship. During a postdoc, we focus on developing our research portfolio, often with a strong emphasis on publishing and gaining more experience in our field and/or adding more skills to our portfolio. Many postdocs choose to go abroad for their fellowship as this allows them to broaden their skills, network and research partners. International experience is strongly encouraged – it’s often not explicitly mentioned, but candidates with experience abroad (during the postdoc or earlier!) tend to be favoured during hiring procedures.
A typical postdoctoral fellowship lasts between 1 and 5 years – ideally about 3 years, which is enough to gain new knowledge while remaining eligible for early career grants. Some people choose to do more than one postdoc (or sometimes they don’t choose but opportunities arise). This can be a positive aspect (more experience! Wider network!) or a limitation (“they don’t know what they want to do”).
moreIf you are planning to pursue an academic career, I would advise you not to stay at the same host institute for your postdoc that you did your PhD at. The reason? When applying for funding, you need to show that you are independent of your PhD supervisors. If you continue to publish only with them, which is likely if you stay in the same research group, it will be more difficult to show that you are independent enough to start your own line of research.

Step #2 | Assistant Professor / Tenure Track position

The next step is to become an assistant professor. An assistant professor is expected to establish independence, develop their research agenda and begin teaching and supervising students. Promotion to this role requires a significant publication record. Successful grant applications and/or evidence of teaching excellence are an advantage.
You see that I have used the words “Assistant Professor” and “Tenure Track position” in the title.
A tenure track is a very popular concept in the USA and is now becoming quite common in Europe and other countries. A tenure track position is a contract you get for a certain number of years (usually 5 years). During these years, you have to show that you are capable of developing your own line of research. Before the end of the contract, a committee evaluates your performance based on research, teaching and service. If you pass, you will be offered a permanent position. If not, you have to leave. Tenure is usually accompanied by promotion to the next level (associate professor or “senior” assistant professor).
Usually, tenure trackers are at the level of assistant professors, which is why they are referred to as both “Tenure Track” and “Assistant Professor”.
Sometimes you can be an assistant professor without going through the tenure track process. This may be a fixed-term position (4 or 5 years), or there may be enough money to secure a permanent position.
Having a headache already at this stage? I know; academia likes to make things complex.
To add to the complexity, some universities – including my own – have introduced the concept of a “career track”. For the sake of your mind, I will not go into detail here.
The transition between step #1 and step #2 is one of the biggest challenges: finding a tenure track or assistant professor position that opens the door to an academic career. There are many more postdoc positions than assistant professor positions, so the competition can be fierce. Getting tenure (i.e., meeting tenure targets) is another big challenge. Once you have secured a tenured position, the future usually becomes a bit easier/clearer as you are more ‘entitled’ to climb the next academic steps. Don’t think this means less work – it’s often the opposite!

Step #3 | Associate Professor

Advancement to associate professor involves a broader leadership role within the academic community, including more substantial research contributions, increased teaching and supervisory responsibilities, and greater involvement in administrative and committee work (e.g., chair of committees, coordinator of degree programs, etc.). Candidates must demonstrate international recognition in their field, successful supervision of PhD students and the ability to attract funding.
In the Netherlands, the criteria for promotion to associate professor are usually faculty-specific. There are general guidelines at university level, but implementation is at faculty level.
For example, in order to be promoted to associate professor, I will need to complete specific courses in personal development (supervision of doctoral students, leadership and management, etc.).
Associate professor positions are permanent; it’s not uncommon for people to stay in this position until they retire.

Step #4 | Full Professor

Finally, the position of full professor represents the pinnacle, involving a leadership role in shaping the academic direction of the department or institution. This includes developing research programmes, supervising assistant professors, leading curriculum development and playing a significant role in university governance. Achieving this level requires an outstanding academic reputation, a strong publication record and proven excellence in teaching and leadership.
Typically, only full professors can be the official promoter/supervisor of PhD students. Assistant and associate professors (and sometimes postdocs) also supervise doctoral students, but as co-supervisors/co-promoters. In some countries (including the Netherlands), associate professors are now also allowed to become doctoral supervisors, provided they have followed a special procedure.

How flexible is this academic route?

What I have just explained reflects the usual path that the majority of candidates will pursue. But there are exceptions!

💡 Sometimes people go straight from a PhD to assistant professor – skipping the postdoctoral fellowship. This can happen, but is rare.

Very strong candidates may go directly from Assistant Professor to Full Professor, provided they have met the criteria and are eligible for Full Professor.

💡 Professorship candidates may also have spent part of their career outside academia, with a few years (or even decades) in industry before returning to academia and becoming a professor.

💡 Some people (like me) don’t put all their eggs in the academic basket and decide to add another string to their bow, for example by setting up a spin-off company, a consultancy, or having their own small business alongside their academic position. There are rules and there are some restrictions, and it also depends on the policies of each university.

💡 Countries may have more academic positions than those I have described. For example, in Switzerland, in addition to the three levels of professor, there are also intermediate (tenured) positions, such as the “Maître d’enseignement et de recherche” (MER), which is under the supervision of a professor and supports both research and teaching. This is just one example among many, so as always – do your research!

Which direction are we heading?

If you are reading this, you may know that I work as an Assistant Professor and that I founded NextMinds in July 2023 alongside my academic work. This is something I obviously had to discuss with my managers. I don’t have many examples of a similar journey around me, so it was very enlightening to go through this process. Those discussions showed me that:

  • Each university has its own policies on what is and is not allowed; and

  • The support of your managers is essential.

I’m very lucky because I can fall under a policy that suits my career plans and I have the support of my managers. I’m exploring a path that is quite new for them, and they are willing to explore it with me. This leads me to believe that we are entering an era where academia may become more ‘open’ and welcome variations on the traditional professorial path.

For example, some universities encourage academic candidates to focus on teaching and education if that is where their talent lies, without penalising them for doing so. My university has a new policy where they want to embrace everyone’s talents and let people explore what they are really good at, without the need to be perfect in all aspects of academic work (research, teaching, communication, etc.).

Again, I speak from my own experience and from what I see around me. It may be totally different in your university. Nevertheless, I’m confident that if you want to tailor an academic career to your needs and desires, you can. But academia is slow, so it may take more time to see a noticeable change!

Hopefully we’re not that far away from everyone having the power to shape their own careers – even in academia.

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