The Care and Feeding of Mid-Career Faculty: Professional Development across the Career Life Cycle
This article first appeared in The Best of the 2021 Leadership in Higher Education Conference (Magna Publications, 2022).
To build and sustain faculty vitality, engagement, and professional currency, academic leaders must find ways to acknowledge, encourage, and support faculty at all stages of the career life cycle. There typically are many formal and informal development opportunities as well as significant resources for junior faculty. But there are often fewer opportunities and resources allocated to support mid-career faculty, who may have reached a point in their careers where they are disillusioned, exhausted, or unclear about how to remain focused, engaged, and challenged.
Academic leaders need to be intentional in efforts to recognize and share appreciation for the contributions of colleagues at all points across the career life cycle and in efforts to develop and facilitate a variety of institutional, departmental, and individual professional development activities and programs specifically designed for mid-career faculty.
Faculty at mid-career
The distinctive challenges of life at mid-career are well-documented across the higher education literature. This lengthy career phase is often a time for reflection and reassessment of commitments and pathways as faculty balance a complex web of professional and personal responsibilities. There are few remaining professional mileposts once a faculty member reaches the middle of their career, and many institutions do not have processes in place to encourage continued professional development or to assess performance in teaching, scholarship, and service.
Mid-career faculty are frequently tasked with the bulk of university- and department-level service and administrative work as academic leaders seek to shield junior faculty from heavy service responsibilities so they may focus on teaching and scholarship. Experienced faculty may reach a point where they’ve “been there, done that”—taught the same courses countless times, endlessly graded student work, dealt with all the departmental and institutional politics, served on many committees, and had the same conversations innumerable times.
It is unsurprising that there is a growing body of research about the high levels of dissatisfaction among mid-career faculty. In a 2012 survey by the Harvard University Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, mid-career faculty reported low levels of satisfaction in several areas, including appreciation and recognition, institutional support for research and scholarly work, and information and support for promotion (Wilson, 2012). Undoubtedly, levels of satisfaction have plunged still further in recent times, due to the significant pressures resulting from the pandemic, Black Lives Matter, and anti-Asian and anti–Pacific Islander violence.
Acknowledgement, encouragement, and support
It is critical for academic leaders at all levels of the institution to acknowledge and express appreciation for the important contributions of faculty colleagues. We simply cannot afford to take any of them for granted, particularly the essential group of seasoned and experienced mid-career colleagues. We need to be mindful to identify meaningful mechanisms to regularly recognize faculty for the myriad of ways they contribute to the life and mission of the institution.
We must also encourage and support faculty efforts to stay relevant, current, and engaged as they move through their careers. While continuing education is mandated for professionals such as accountants, K–12 educators, lawyers, social workers, and health care providers, higher education typically does not require faculty participation in ongoing professional development, and this raises questions about the implications of a lack of sustained investment in our experienced colleagues (Baker, 2019).
Beyond support to stay current in academic disciplines, we need to plan, facilitate, and support opportunities to encourage continued professional development about current trends and best practices in teaching and learning, assessment, educational technology, and more. This necessitates the availability of a variety of opportunities for ongoing professional development that are specifically designed for the needs of mid-career colleagues and the challenges they face. As Kerry Rockquemore stated so well, “Three brown bag lunches and a mentor match doesn’t cut it” (as cited in Monaghan, 2017).
Goal-setting and relationships
As academic leaders seek to support ongoing professional development, we might frame academic careers as an evolution that includes different phases, opportunities, and interests that build on one another over time (Dever & Justice, 2021). Faculty interests and influences change; the contexts in which faculty live and work shift; and varying professional and personal opportunities arise to shape faculty career paths.
Goal-setting is an essential element to keep the career progress and evolution moving forward. For associate professors, the most significant barrier to career advancement is the lack of a clear statement of professional goals and the steps necessary to attain those goals (Strage & Merdinger, 2014). As such, goal-setting needs to be supported at the institutional, departmental, and individual levels.
The literature also provides strong evidence that supportive relationships are significant for professional development, engagement, and productivity, particularly for female faculty and faculty from under-represented groups (Strage & Merdinger, 2014). The relationships may take many different shapes and forms. They key factor is that faculty have supportive professional relationships as they progress through the career life cycle and encounter opportunities and challenges.
To begin to address the needs of mid-career faculty, academic leaders can consider a range of institutional, departmental, and individual practices that can be adapted to different institutional cultures, structures, and resources. Here are some ideas to get you started.
Institutional practices can lead to faculty feeling disengaged, expendable, or invisible (Erickson et al., 2017), so academic leaders need to implement ongoing practices, activities, and programming at the institutional level to support and encourage mid-career faculty.
- Mid-career workshops. Academic leaders might consider the development of a series of retreats or workshops that address the specific needs and issues of mid-career faculty.
- Post-tenure orientation. After following an established pathway to achieve tenure, faculty are often thrown off-balance and find themselves asking, “What now?” Formal programming can be developed to assist faculty as they reflect and envision next steps and set new professional goals for the next phase of their academic career.
- Professional growth and renewal retreats. Invite faculty to participate in programs to reflect, imagine, prototype, and get input from colleagues about career possibilities (e.g., programs based on Stanford’s Life Design course). When well-designed, these programs can provide the opportunity to gain insight and seek ideas about possible next steps in teaching, research, and service.
- Individual, cohort, and reverse mentoring. Widely used in higher education for junior faculty, mentoring programs can be tailored to the needs of mid-career faculty.
- Individual mentoring. Mid-career faculty might benefit from a mentor relationship with a senior colleague who can provide feedback and guidance about career paths, opportunities, and challenges.
- Cohort mentoring. Institutions might establish a cohort of faculty to participate in a series of workshops and conversations to develop concrete goals and plans (for example, a plan to attain full professorship).
- Reverse mentoring. Mid-career faculty might instead be paired with junior faculty, who can share their fresh perspective and approaches to areas such as teaching technology, newer research approaches, and student assessment.
- Leadership development. Institutions can provide structured, ongoing workshops and training for faculty in leadership roles as well as for those who express interest or have potential to step into leadership positions. Some faculty thrive in leadership roles and are energized by the opportunity to shape policies and practices. But faculty are often cast into leadership roles without adequate preparation, guidance, and feedback. Institutions might, for example, provide robust programming with information and guidance for chairs and directors about approaches to motivate faculty, manage conflict and personnel issues, and offer support to set and attain goals.
- Biannual or annual conversations. Chairs and directors might establish a regular interval to meet with colleagues for engaged conversations about teaching, scholarship, professional activities, and service. The chair or director can share appreciation, discuss progress toward goals, identify challenges or obstacles, offer encouragement, propose new or refined goals, and suggest resources to support the faculty member’s efforts.
- Recognition, encouragement, and advocacy. It is critical that we develop formal and informal means to recognize faculty accomplishments, offer sincere appreciation for their efforts, and encourage their work and interests. We also need to advocate for the support and resources faculty need to reach their goals.
Faculty, of course, have the ultimate responsibility for their own professional development and can take steps to establish practices to support continued growth.
- Seek mentors and collaborators. A trusted colleague or mentor can listen carefully and question thoughtfully to offer perspective and feedback that will help to guide faculty.
- Reflections and goal-setting. Faculty should regularly make time for thoughtful reflection on their work and professional goals. The reflection can be followed by a conversation with a trusted colleague or academic leader who can offer feedback and guidance to refine goals, identify opportunities and obstacles, and offer possible resources.
We need to invest in our colleagues and ourselves over the length and the breadth of academic careers. Rather than heavily front-loading our support and resources to support junior faculty, we need to ensure that we continue to acknowledge, encourage, and support faculty across the career life cycle.
 For additional examples of promising practices, consult, for example, Baldwin et al. (2008), Strage and Merdinger (2014), Magna Publications (2017), and Welch et al. (2019).
Baker, V. L. (2019, January 30). Midcareer faculty members need more training and development. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2019/01/30/midcareer-faculty-members-need-more-training-and-development-opinion
Baldwin, R., DeZure, D., Shaw, A., & Moretto, K. (2008). Mapping the terrain of mid-career faculty at a research university. Change, 40(5), 46–55. https://doi.org/10.3200/CHNG.40.5.46-55
Beauboeuf, T., Thomas, J. E., & Erickson, K. A. (2017, April 7). Our fixation on midcareer malaise. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/our-fixation-on-midcareer-malaise
Dever, C., & Justice, G. (2021, February 3). How to avoid the associate professor trap. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-to-avoid-the-associate-professor-trap
Magna Publications. (2017). Mid-career faculty: How to stay engaged, fulfilled, and productive. Magna Publications.
Monaghan, P. (2017, May 7). Helping professors overcome midcareer malaise. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/helping-professors-overcome-midcareer-malaise
Strage, A., & Merdinger, J. (2014). Professional growth and renewal for mid-career faculty. Journal of Faculty Development, 28(3), 41–50.
Welch, A. G., Bolin, J., & Reardon, D. (Eds.). (2019). Mid-career faculty: Trends, barriers, and possibilities. Brill Sense.
Wilson, R. (2012, June 3). Why are associate professors so unhappy? The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/why-are-associate-professors-so-unhappy
Lynne A. Texter, PhD, is associate provost at La Salle University. An award-winning educator with experience in the US and internationally, Lynne also consults with organizations on communication topics. Her previous roles include interim provost and vice president of academic affairs, interim dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and department chair.
Jenepher Lennox Terrion, PhD, is vice dean of student affairs in the Faculty of Arts and full professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Ottawa. She is the coauthor, with Dr. Sherry Ferguson, of Communication in Everyday Life: Personal and Professional Contexts and has published widely in scholarly journals.