Mid-Career Faculty Issues Often Overlooked

Faculty careers are often divided into three phases: beginning, middle, and end. New faculty have been studied in some detail—probably because of the great influx of them. So have senior faculty, although less than new faculty. But what about that expanse in the middle? Researchers Baldwin, Lunceford, and Vanderlinden (reference below) quote sources describing mid-career faculty as “perhaps the least studied and most ill-defined period in life.”

It may be that mid-career faculty issues have been ignored because it’s a time when faculty have acquired tenure and may now carry on quietly teaching and doing scholarship. Perhaps the mid-career does not present issues that merit study.

The researchers who undertook this preliminary analysis of the middle years would disagree. They believe mid-career faculty should be studied for several reasons. It is the longest time segment of the career. It contains the largest cohort of faculty. And then there is the extensive research on midlife in general, which suggests this is a dynamic and complex period of life. Lastly, mid-career academics “are living through a period of unprecedented change in higher education.” (p. 99) These changes include increasing diversity of student populations, the infusion of new educational technologies, a much more competitive higher-education marketplace, and the growing presence of faculty cohorts working part-time or on fixed-term contracts.

It was these justifications that motivated this research team to look at mid-career faculty and compare them with junior and senior faculty across three categories: work effort, productivity, and satisfaction. They used data collected in the 1999 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, narrowing the data so that they looked only at full-time faculty at four-year institutions—still a sizeable cohort of 10,315 faculty.

In terms of faculty workload, “at each successive stage, faculty spent fewer hours on their work.” (p.112) Early-life faculty reported spending 48.02 hours per week on paid activities at their institutions. By late life the average reported was 44.93 hours.

Teaching was the most time-consuming activity for faculty at all career stages, with mid-career faculty reported spending 50.6 percent of their time on teaching and late-life faculty reported 53.5 percent. As for productivity, faculty produced more articles in the middle stages of their careers. They produced more books and book chapters in the last stages of their careers.

Researchers looked at levels of dissatisfaction for such factors as time available to advise students, time available to keep current in the field, workload, and overall job satisfaction. More than 50 percent of faculty at the early midlife and late midlife stages were dissatisfied with the amount of time available to keep current in the field. Between 36 percent and 40 percent registered dissatisfaction with their workload, and almost 27 percent were not satisfied with the time available to advise students.

This preliminary analysis of mid-career faculty did differentiate this career stage from others and hints at some intriguing factors, but further analysis is needed to identify those specifics that contribute to the instructional health and well-being of faculty during that long mid-career period.

Reference: Baldwin, R. G., Lunceford, C. J., & Vanderlinden, K. E. (2005). Faculty in the middle years: Illuminating an overlooked phase of academic life. The Review of Higher Education, 29(1), 97–118.

Excerpted from Teaching and Everything Else in Those Mid-Career Years, The Teaching Professor, November 2005.