Ask us anything: when did you realize you’re a “mid-career” researcher?

Every year we invite you to ask us anything. Here’s our next question, from Falko Bruschke, and our answers:

Do you think there are any general milestones to signal that someone has moved from early-career to mid-career as an ecological researcher? Would it be based on time post-PhD, age, number of papers, number of students supervised, the number of years in a job, a combination of all of these? Is it even something generalisable across individual careers?

In this context, were there specific moments in your own careers where you felt that your standing as ecology researchers was based less on your future potential, and more on your past track-records?


Jeremy’s answer:

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.

Brian’s answer:

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.

13 thoughts on “Ask us anything: when did you realize you’re a “mid-career” researcher?

      • Haha…is difficulty keeping track of your previous work another sign of being a senior researcher?

        On a serious note, thanks Jeremy and Brian for answering my question. Thanks Marco for the link to the old post – it was very helpful.

      • “Haha…is difficulty keeping track of your previous work another sign of being a senior researcher? ”

        It’s definitely a sign of being a senior blogger! 🙂

  1. Suspiciously close to my 40th birthday I was asked to comment on a list of nominees for a mid-career acknowledgement of sorts, and the list had people at my own career stage. So that was my moment. Although based on your experience and mine, it seems the “mid-career” stage only lasts 6-7 years, and so is quite short compared to the junior and senior phases (although not sure exactly when “junior” begins – grad school?).

    • I wondered too why mid-career seems so short. It seems like maybe better phrases would be “established” and “not established” and there is a relatively brief flickering between the two states that we call “mid-career”. But perhaps worrying about whether somebody is established or not sounds too prejudicial and unscientific so we call it by career stage? Either way we academics talk about this kind of status much more than business. In business it feels like there is “new” (first 5 years), “about to retire” (last 5) and just “normal” where you are mostly judged by your output and position (rank).

  2. Perhaps relevant is this quote from the mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota, from his “Ten Lessons I Wish I had Been Taught”:

    “My late friend Stan Ulam used to remark that his life was sharply divided into two halves. In the first half, he was always the youngest person in the group; in the second half, he was always the oldest. There was no transitional period.”

    And, because it is full of insightful comments, here is the link to the whole piece, with Rota’s advice on such things as publishing, mistakes, blackboards, and being prepared for old age.

    • Thanks for sharing link to Rota’s advice. I had never seen it before. There’s some great advice in there! I especially like: “An audience is like a herd of cows, moving slowly in the direction they are being driven towards. If we make one point, we have a good chance that the audience will take the right direction; if we make several points, then the cows will scatter all over the field. The audience will lose interest and everyone will go back to the thoughts they interrupted in order to come to our lecture.”

      I have found point #4 “You are more likely to be remembered by your expository work” to be very true as well.

  3. What percentage of people granted tenure never become a full professor? I won’t name names, but when I was applying to grad schools, I was shocked to learn that one of the potential advisors I was considering was not a full professor, after they achieved many of the senior milestones mentioned in this blog [including a sole-authored, prominent and well-regarded textbook in their field]. It wasn’t a factor in my decision, after talking to my undergrad advisors, but it did initially make me wonder, why haven’t they been promoted yet? Is this some sort of red flag? Maybe it’s more common than I imagine for tenured folks to never reach full professor status.

    I would have also said something like job titles are a good signal of ECR, MCR, and LCR but maybe not so much after that interaction I had.

    • At most institutions, you have to apply to be promoted to full professor; consideration for promotion isn’t automatic. There are people who choose never to apply, of their own free will. I recall a recent case of a woman Canadian professor who won a major research award (and I hope I’m not garbling any details here; someone please correct me if I am…). Many people were surprised (and some were upset) that she had been an associate professor for many years without being promoted. But she wasn’t promoted because she never applied, and made clear in interviews that that was her own preference. She didn’t want the increased administrative duties that would accompany promotion to full professor!

      But that’s just one case. How common such cases are, I don’t know. Not that common, I don’t think? But I think it varies by institutions. At some institutions (including mine) there’s an informal expectation that associate profs will apply for, and usually receive, promotion to full professor after spending just a few years as associate profs. At other institutions, full professor is viewed as a special honor that most associate profs won’t achieve.

  4. Pingback: Friday links: another retraction for Jonathan Pruitt, journal cover art, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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