Every year we invite you to ask us anything. Here’s our next question, from Falko Bruschke, and our answers:
I’m pretty sure Brian, Meghan, and I had an email conversation about this once, but I can’t find it now. One thing we talked about was how becoming “mid-career” kind of sneaks up on you, at least as an academic researcher (I have less sense of how, say, a government researcher would answer this question). The apprenticeship period for academic science is so long that you get very used to thinking of yourself as a “junior” researcher.
I think different people have different things that cause them to realize “oh hey, I’m not really ‘junior’ any more.” Getting tenure was one such moment for me, as I’m sure it is for many others employed at tenure-granting institutions. For me, another was turning 41 and realizing that I was no longer eligible for the ESA’s Mercer Award (winning the Mercer had long been a secret, farfetched goal of mine).
Re: realizing that you’re now a “known quantity” in the eyes of your professional colleagues, no, there wasn’t any specific moment for me. There’s probably a long post that could be written about what exactly a professional reputation is, how they get established and (rarely) changed, and why they matter.
I definitely agree with Jeremy that it sneaks up on you. I still think of myself as mid-career although I increasingly hear myself referred to by others as senior. And I thought of myself as “just starting” when I heard others refer to me as mid-career. Honestly the milestones of getting tenure/Associate Professor and then full Professor (or the equivalent to those US markers) are probably as good as anything. They are based on all the factors you mention including papers, students, reputation and teaching. Note that Associate Professor is pretty clock like – 6 years after you get a tenure track job (at which point you have probably been going for close to 15 years including a PhD and postdocs). Getting full Professor says at least 4 years beyond tenure, but it is common to not get Professor until a bit later than that and is very much based on publication record, international reputation, etc.
Academia is very ladder-like in its view of people’s careers (not much ability to jump to the head of the line). So external things are probably pretty good markers. If you’re being asked to be an Associate Editor of a journal or an assistant department chair you’re probably starting to tip from early to mid-career. If you are being asked to be an Editor in Chief, a department chair (or certainly a dean), to serve on society committees and/or be nominated for society awards, etc, you’re probably tipping into senior.
p.s. from Jeremy: Like Brian, I still think of myself as “mid-career”, but honestly I probably should start thinking of myself as a senior researcher. I keep getting mildly surprised at colleagues who are close to my age and experience level taking on senior leadership roles like journal EiC, head of department, etc.