People inevitably ask me if my job at Yale is "tenure-track." The academic world with the exception of Yale, Harvard, and John Hopkins operate on the tenure-track (TT) and non-tenure-track system (non-TT). This blog entry briefly discusses TT/non-TT systems at other institutions, and the bizarre senior/junior faculty system used by Yale, Harvard, and John Hopkins.
Tenure track: If you are "tenure-track" at a regular college (i.e., not Harvard-Yale-John Hopkins), this means that you've been hired as an assistant professor and after six or seven years, you will come up for tenure review. If you pass the tenure review, you will be promoted to the title of associate professor. Barring scandals or gross ineptness, you now have a job for life. Congratulations. The title "Associate Professor" next to the name of a professor at any institution except Yale-Harvard-JHU almost always means that they are tenured.
Non-tenure-track: At colleges that have tenure-tracks, being non-TT means that you are being hired with a limited term contract, which is usually 1-, 2-, or 3-years renewable. You have no job security and can be fired for any reason at any time. Of course, this is not an ideal situation although many lower-tier colleges are moving their entire faculty body to non-TT lines since it allows for easier restructuring.
The Yale/Harvard/JHU system: Put simply, Yale, Harvard, and John Hopkins do not have tenure tracks. The YHJ system is that there are two ranks of faculty: the untenured junior and the tenured senior faculty. The two exist in separate worlds in terms of the promotion and hiring system and it is entirely unlike how other colleges operate:
Junior faculty in the YHJ system are hired as untenured assistant professors. Usually the contract is 3-years, renewable for another 3-years. After six years, you are evaluated for "term associate professor." If you are promoted to term associate professor, your contract is extended for another 4-years. Unlike other institutions, term associate professors at Yale do not have tenure. What we do have is "ten years" at Yale as a junior faculty, and then we are kicked out onto the street.
Senior faculty at Yale and Harvard do not emerge from the junior faculty. If a department or the administration decides that it wants to create a new senior line, it runs a national search for that line -- and that search usually does not coincide with when a junior faculty member is completing their term associate status. Thus, it is very very very difficult for a junior faculty member at Yale or Harvard to become tenured.
Thoughts: The Yale system is ideal from the perspective of the institution because it continuously channels new blood into departments. Senior faculty are recruited on the basis of national presence and not by a fortuitous hiring of an untested junior faculty member seven years ago. From the perspective of the junior faculty, the system has both positive and negatives. First, if you know that you are going to bail after 7-8 years, then the cachet of working at Yale-Harvard-JHU is undeniable in terms of applying for other positions elsewhere. But the downside is that every junior faculty member manages to delude themselves that they are one of the 1-2% that will make tenure. It's irresistible. If I start talking that way in a couple of years, can someone please do the favor of giving me a sharp kick under the table? Thanks.
For more thoughts, check the Yale Herald's article titled: "Revolving door syndrome plagues Yale tenure." The Yale Alumni magazine also has a well-written article on the pros and cons of the tenure system.