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Episode #63

What Does “Mid-Career Academic” Mean?

What is “mid-career” for academics? How long does it last and where can you go from here? The answer to that last one may surprise you.


In North America, we have a 3-tiered promotion system. Your early career starts at Assistant Professor, you move to Associate Professor after you pass tenure review, and the final stage is Full Professor. (The UK system uses different terminology but is similar.) So what’s considered “mid-career” and why does it matter? How can you move forward after tenure and what does it take to make a push for the final step in the system? Let’s dig in.

Early Career: On a Mission

The early career stage for academics lasts about 5-6 years. It’s the period where you’re starting to define your identity, and answering the question: who am I as an academic? It’s also the period when you are pursuing tenure. You may not have a crystal clear criteria for reaching tenure, but you have requirements, a pathway to follow and milestones to meet. 

Mid-Career: What Now?

Once you get tenure (or pass your permanency requirements in other systems), you are considered mid-career. This stage has a less defined time period and can last for as long as 20 years.There are some common experiences among academics as they reach this milestone: 

  • Exhaustion and burnout from the tenure process.
  • Reality is different from expectations. Pre-tenure academics often expect to have greater freedom to speak their minds, concentrate on their own projects and have a freer schedule; the truth of the post-tenure experience is that the difference is really not that stark.
  • Motivation to go for full is deflated by the experience of getting tenure.

So, now what? How do you find the motivation to move on to full professor? And should you?

“Most women don’t make it to full. And so what we want is more women at full.”

Moving Forward: Your Ideal Career

Moving up to full professor does come with some benefits, including prestige and higher salaries. There’s nothing wrong with staying at the mid-career, associate professor level. But what is a problem, is doing the same amount of work you would be doing at full, but getting paid at the associate level. To figure out the next best steps for you, here’s what to do:

  • Take time to reflect. Envision what you want your career to look like moving forward. What do you want your academic legacy to be? What does the next step to move toward that look like? It doesn’t have to be a promotion.
  • Build your skills. What worked for you pre-tenure or at some other time in your career may not work for you now. If you want to make a move for promotion more enjoyable, you need to build up some skills like:
    • Time management. Learn to delegate, outsource and lean on a support team, and get good at saying no.
    • Project management. Have a plan to get projects you do accept done with precision.
    • Writing management. Hone your systems and processes, and make sure your pipeline is running smoothly.
  • Shift your mindset. Remember that you are not the container! What you want to put into the world through your work can be realized in many different contexts and places. Think broadly about what is best for your ideal career.

The big takeaway of the mid-career discussion is this: It can be better. You don’t have to put up with stress and overwhelm. You can create your ideal career through self-reflection and a little skill-building. 

“The world is your oyster in the mid-career.”

If you need some help and support to understand what you want from your career and how to get to that next level, apply for my Elevate program! We focus on one-to-one work complemented by group work and trainings to help you shape your ideal career.

If you’re curious, apply here, even if you’re not sure yet. If you’re a good fit for the program, you’ll get an invite to a live, free training focused on issues that affect mid-career academics. At that point, you can choose whether you’ll join us when we start our 6 month journey in February. I hope you’ll join us…investing in yourself pays off!

Pulled in a thousand directions and can’t seem to carve out time to write? Download my   10 Ways to Make Time to Write cheat sheet for ideas to implement today!


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