Thriving After Tenure: An Interactional Pathways Model for Mid- to Late-Career Faculty

As secure members of their institution, post-tenure faculty ideally should feel empowered, energized, and well-poised to capitalize on their occupational privilege, accrued experiences, and awareness of their capacities and areas for growth. Instead, studies reveal evidence of misdirection, uncertainty, ambivalence, and even decline in the years after tenure (Baldwin, Lunceford, and Vanderlinden 2005; Jaschik and Lederman 2015). Without strategic attention to their intellectual goals and guidance from mentoring networks, too many mid-career faculty find themselves detached from their scholarly and creative work and overwhelmed with service. The resultant state of exhaustion, disappointment, and stasis is the “mid-career malaise” (Beauboeuf, Erickson, and Thomas 2017; Schmidt 2017).

We enter into this discussion about the mid to late career from our experiences as post-tenure faculty with administrative experience in faculty development. We have observed the marked disappointment among post-tenure faculty described in previous research, but we have also witnessed colleagues who have experienced renewal and ongoing productivity. Research we undertook in 2015–16 built on those two observations to explore how ongoing interactions between person and place affect the long-term engagement of post-tenure faculty. We found that post-tenure faculty were experiencing their careers in very different ways because they were on different “pathways.” Drawing on our data, we conceptualized a model of the mid-career that reflects four possible pathways shaped by two factors: (1) the sense of connection faculty felt to their institution and its values and (2) their degree of career satisfaction. After briefly describing our study, we draw on our findings to identify ways institutions can encourage and support faculty to pursue satisfying post-tenure pathways.


Our research focused on the experiences of mid- to late-career faculty at three small, private, exclusively undergraduate residential liberal arts campuses. Although we were interested in learning whether they felt a sense of “mid-career malaise,” we also wanted to know what keeps faculty growing and engaged in their work. Attending to the possibility of interactional histories between faculty and institution as playing a key role in mid- to late-career satisfaction, we conducted a survey of post-tenure faculty on the three campuses and then conducted interviews to follow up on emergent themes.

The majority of the 239 survey and fifty-five interview respondents were full professors and almost evenly divided between men and women, with slightly more men responding to the survey and slightly more women participating in interviews (see table 1; pseudonyms have been used). The survey response rate of 54 percent was similar across the three institutions, and approximately one-third of the respondents came from each institution. Across the two phases of data collection, participants closely reflected the divisional distribution of post-tenure faculty on their campuses. Additionally, respondents, especially interviewees, were predominantly white, a fact that reflected the faculty demographics across the institutions.

Table 1: Demographic Characteristics of Respondents and All Associate and Full Professors By Institution (click to expand)



A Conceptual Shift: From Personalities to Pathways
Although we were tempted to see individual faculty characteristics driving their mid-career engagement, a more complex picture emerged from our data. This led us to think less in terms of “successful” or “unsuccessful” faculty and to consider whether institutions provided adequate pathways for faculty success. In speaking about their careers, participants focused on two primary themes: their degree of satisfaction with how their careers had unfolded and their sense of connection to their institution and its values. As we read through the data for these two measures of institutional connection and career satisfaction (see figure 1), we came to a model of four post-tenure pathways (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Erickson, and Thomas 2019). As we discuss below, gender and race deeply affect these pathways.

Figure 1: The Four Post-Tenure Faculty Pathways


The Pathways of Synergistic and Weary Citizens
Faculty members on the “synergistic citizen” pathway had high career satisfaction and high institutional connection. They also shared experiential likenesses in terms of curiosity, a sense of control over their careers, and a feeling of campus belonging. They spoke of finding, creating, or being afforded opportunities for the ongoing development and growth of their skills and capacities. The ability to reinvent oneself was important for those on this pathway, and they welcomed taking on new roles and projects.

Faculty on this pathway undertook “leadership service,” including administering centers, revitalizing departments, and shepherding new initiatives on standing committees. Synergistic citizens not only tended to be successful in their labors and receive recognition for them, but they also enjoyed experiences that allowed them to develop a sense of competence and authority on their campuses. Demographically, synergistic citizens were disproportionately, although not exclusively, white men. This is not a surprising finding given that most institutions of higher education have been designed with the comfort, security, and ambitions of white men in mind (Ahmed 2012).

In contrast, faculty on the “weary citizen” pathway were disproportionately women. These faculty members carried much of the “internal service” that maintains an institution’s “mission, operations, and cultural life” (Neumann and Terosky 2007, 283). Rather than thinking they were moving forward through “channels” of institutional opportunities, they were more likely to believe they were stagnating in “trenches” of unrewarded work. In “The Ivory Ceiling of Service Work,” Misra et al. refer to this phenomenon as the “gendered gully of service” (2011, 24).

The service of synergistic citizens was more visible, while much of the service of weary citizens was “invisible” labor that took place in the “private service sphere” (Kaplan Daniels 1987). Faculty on this pathway sustained institutional relationships by organizing social events, meeting with new or prospective students and majors, taking on advising overloads, mentoring students and junior faculty, and advocating for groups historically underrepresented or marginalized in higher education. While faculty on this pathway believed their work was important to the life of the institution, their labors often took them away from their scholarly work and did not advance them in institutions’ traditional reward structures. Thus, rather than experiencing a sense of growth and reward, weary citizens were more likely to describe feeling unappreciated, depleted, and eventually resentful.

The Pathways of Independent Agents and Discouraged Isolates
Two pathways speak to faculty who had become disconnected from their institution and its values: “independent agents” and “discouraged isolates.” Like synergistic citizens, independent agents experienced a high degree of job satisfaction, which they sustained despite their experiences with colleagues and administrators at their institutions.

The independent agents in our study disproportionately included faculty who were minoritized or treated as newcomers to the academy, institution, or discipline. These included racially minoritized faculty members in majority white departments, women in men-dominated programs, and faculty with interdisciplinary interests within much more disciplinarily organized departments and programs. With painful detail, several faculty members from underrepresented racial groups recounted difficult tenure and promotion cases. In discussing such impactful moments during their campus careers, they evidenced a cumulative and costly “battle fatigue” from encountering the common institutional belief that “a single person of color [or a woman] represents ‘diversity’” (Arnold, Crawford, and Khalifa 2016, 891).

As an audience member observed during our first presentation of this material at the Association of American Colleges and Universities annual meeting in 2017, independent agents are “flight risks” because they are aware of their own value and its recognition by other extra-institutional entities. In a more supportive context, they might easily be on the pathway of synergistic citizens. Given the disproportionate presence of minoritized faculty on this pathway, their experiences offer a cautionary tale to those concerned with the retention of professors generally, and particularly for faculty from underrepresented racial groups.

Our last pathway of “discouraged isolates” included faculty with unfulfilled career goals and concerningly high levels of resentment toward their institutions. Such faculty typically had spent many years as independent agents or weary citizens. Early career disappointments, difficult transitions, or other painful experiences that had gone unresolved over the course of a career gradually led to cynicism and withdrawal. For those with years of weary citizenship, feeling unappreciated and unrewarded for service to the institution while being unable to resume a research agenda fueled their bitterness.

Suggestions for Post-Tenure Thriving

Our post-tenure pathways model centers on the interactional histories between individual faculty and their institutions. We believe that in shifting the focus from the perceived attributes of particular faculty—whether “stars” or “deadwood”—administrators can better understand how opportunities and reward structures affect faculty members’ thriving or lack of engagement. Based on our data and our own experiences with faculty development at our institutions, we offer these suggestions for encouraging faculty toward post-tenure engagement, connection, and satisfaction.

In our initial survey, post-tenure faculty called for less service and for a qualitatively different kind of engagement with their institutions. These faculty members wanted to be engaged in meaningful service, something they identified as providing them with a sense of growth, contribution, and accomplishment. They sought service opportunities that would align their values and goals with those of the institution. In the presence of such alignment, faculty experience institutional service as “channels” of opportunities that create momentum and forward movement. In the absence of such alignment between their efforts and recognized rewards, faculty perceive themselves as stuck in institutional “trenches,” a placement that can lead to feelings of career stagnation (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Erickson, and Thomas 2019).

Although leadership service can be a tremendous growth opportunity, it is often offered to those faculty who have already demonstrated such abilities. Open calls for vacancies and new initiatives can inform administrators about actual faculty interest. To help cultivate faculty competence for leadership service, administrators also can use evidence of faculty interest to sponsor on- or off-campus leadership workshops, higher education book discussion groups, or an issues-based speaker series.

Institutions also need broader recognitions of service contributions that are currently invisible within reward structures. Crucial to this endeavor are review criteria that explicitly value disproportionate service loads related to institutional housekeeping, informal and affinity advising and mentoring, and supporting twenty-first-century students through inclusive excellence efforts. Remaining silent regarding the disproportionate burden that faculty of color and some white women face discounts the crucial contributions of these “invisible” labors.

Faculty also benefit from having reflection points in their post-tenure careers. Opportunities to create three-to-five-year career plans can encourage faculty to articulate their aspirations for teaching, scholarly work, and service while generating discussions with peers or administrators regarding their plans and ambitions. One of our institutions recently implemented a post-tenure review at the mid-point of tenure and promotion to full professor (generally, year ten). This review allows the faculty member and the provost to jointly review progress toward promotion, discuss any course corrections, and consider upcoming opportunities and support needs.

To foster a culture of continued growth and risk-taking, faculty development programs can also sponsor a variety of peer-led workshops. Successful workshops on our campuses have included on-site writing groups; luncheons to help faculty prepare for a sabbatical and then reintegrate after a leave; and seminars to develop skills such as writing for wider audiences, rebuilding professional networks, retooling for new modes of inquiry, reinventing the scholarly self between tenure and promotion to full professor, and “how I did it” sessions that normalize risk-taking after tenure. These can be safe spaces for faculty to articulate, refine, and develop their plans so they exert agency in charting their paths rather than having their careers steered by other forces.

Finally, we also recommend that institutions seriously consider the need for “alternative pathways to full professorship” (Monaghan 2017). Doing so requires adopting a dynamic view of faculty and their work, and recognizing that sustained worth and excellence as a faculty member could include expertise in service learning, public scholarship, and newer pedagogies that reflect and support the diverse learning needs of students. Broadening the acceptable criteria for continued scholarly and creative liveliness can allow more faculty to demonstrate important, and currently overlooked, synergies between their labors and their impact on the institution, academy, and beyond. And while we believe formal recognition and reward structures need to be shifted beyond the current privileging of the scholarship of discovery (Boyer 1990), we also know that everyday acts can show faculty that their contributions are not completely invisible at their institutions. Notes of appreciation and congratulation can make faculty feel their work is recognized, valued, and respected on their campuses.

Our pathways model of the post-tenure period begins with the assumption that faculty members do not start their careers disaffected. Our typology highlights the possibility of individual change and the obligations institutions carry to support faculty through their entire careers, not just the pre-tenure period. Thus, the four pathways are a heuristic for diagnosing apparent faculty behavior and determining potential causes and possible remedies. We hope our model helps guide institutional interventions and fosters new areas of scholarly inquiry.



Ahmed, Sara. 2012. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Arnold, Noelle Witherspoon, Emily Crawford, and Muhammad Khalifa. 2016. “Psychological Heuristics and Faculty of Color: Racial Battle Fatigue and Tenure/Promotion.” Journal of Higher Education 87 (6): 890–919.

Baldwin, Roger, Christina Lunceford, and Kim Vanderlinden. 2005. “Faculty in the Middle Years: Illuminating an Overlooked Phase of Academic Life.” Review of Higher Education 29 (1): 97–118.

Beauboeuf, Tamara, Karla Erickson, and Jan Thomas. 2017. “Our Fixation on Midcareer Malaise.” Chronicle of Higher Education. March 15, 2017.

Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Tamara, Karla Erickson, and Jan Thomas. 2019. “Rethinking Post-Tenure Malaise: An Interactional, Pathways Approach to Understanding the Post-Tenure Period.” Journal of Higher Education 90 (4), 644–664.

Boyer, Ernest. 1990. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Jaschik, Scott, and Doug Lederman. 2015. “The 2015 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Faculty Workplace Engagement.” Washington, DC: Gallup and Inside Higher Ed.

Kaplan Daniels, Arlene. 1987. “Invisible Work.” Social Problems 34 (5): 403–415.

Misra, Joya, Jennifer Hickes Lundquist, Elissa Holmes, and Stephanie Agiomavritis. 2011. “The Ivory Ceiling of Service Work.” Academe 97 (1): 22–26.

Monaghan, Peter. 2017. “Coping with Midcareer Malaise.” Chronicle of Higher Education. May 7, 2017.

Neumann, Anna, and Aimee LaPointe Terosky. 2007. “To Give and to Receive: Recently Tenured Professors’ Experiences of Service in Major Research Universities.” Journal of Higher Education 78 (3): 282–310.

Schmidt, Peter. 2017. “Want Happier Professors? Try Being Nice.” Chronicle of Higher Education. April 28, 2017.


Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Professor and Louise R. Noun Chair in Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies; and Karla Erickson, Professor of Sociology and Chair of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies—both of Grinnell College; and Jan Thomas, Senior Advisor for Community Relations and Professor of Sociology, Kenyon College

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