New programming aims to bolster mid-career tenure-track faculty, research

by | Dec 9, 2019

The programs originate from Associate Provost for Academic Affairs Marie Mora and the Office of Research Administration.
Interim Chancellor and Provost Kristin Sobolik speaks about her career progression at the first meeting of the Associate-to-Full program. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Interim Chancellor and Provost Kristin Sobolik speaks about her career progression at the first meeting of the Associate-to-Full program. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Two new initiatives from the University of Missouri–St. Louis aim to support a previously untargeted faculty segment: associate professors.

Marie Mora, associate provost for academic affairs, is producing one program, Associate-to-Full with the support of Interim Chancellor and Provost Kristin Sobolik. The other, the Mid-Career Research Investment, is a new initiative developed by the Office of Research Administration’s Christopher Spilling, vice provost for graduate studies and research, and Cynthia Jobe, director of research development, in close consultation with Mora.

“Nationwide, there are very few support programs for mid-career faculty members,” Mora said. “Universities often have a lot of support for newly hired faculty and junior faculty members. When I think about faculty who are on the tenure track, they tend to get reviewed extensively and usually on an annual basis to ensure that they’re making adequate progress toward the associate professor rank. But once faculty get tenured, oftentimes they don’t get that type of intensive review.”


Mora’s initiative is a holistic program that will address areas ranging from time management to service load to building connections with officers at granting agencies. The first Associate-to-Full meeting took place on Nov. 1, and the program will run for a year. Participants will attend two full days of sessions, be paired with a mentor and receive a $500 stipend to support travel to an academic conference or exhibition.

Mora also hopes the program will help ensure that women and minority candidates are promoted at an equal pace with their male counterparts. That intention is echoed in another new initiative, the Women’s Faculty Network.

For the participants, there were many reasons to take part.

“Mentorship is definitely part of it; accountability is some of it,” Associate Professor of Biology Bethany Zolman said. “But then I also thought this would be a great way for me to tell my department ‘OK, I’m committed to doing this. You know, I’ve been distracted by this and distracted by this, but I really do want to be promoted. I think that’s the goal of all of us when we come in. I would like to be a professor, and I would like to show that I worked the way through all the ranks.”

One of the unique challenges of moving from assistant to associate professor, Mora explained, is the increased service load. That encompasses duties such as administrative work, serving on additional committees and more.

According to Ann Steffen, professor in the department of psychological sciences and Zolman’s mentor, associate professors at UMSL spend approximately 20 percent of their time on service obligations but those roles take a toll when the actual effort goes far beyond that. Combined with the demands outside work such as family and the immediacy of short-term deadlines, such as teaching and committee work, progression toward long-range goals can fall by the wayside.

This is problematic for individuals but also for departments, which rely on full professors to lighten the service load for mid-career faculty and to fill certain roles such as recommending approval for promotions. That creates a vicious circle in which it becomes increasingly difficult to promote faculty.

Making sure there were enough full professors for the faculty structure to function effectively was part of the reason why Steffen wanted to become a mentor. She also wanted to share her own story.

“Personally, I also had a period of time where I really struggled,” she said. “I chose to go into academia. I came to this campus because I was excited about this joint teaching and research mission. Early on in my career, I assumed that I’d do the things I’d love, then everything would go well. I love research, and I love writing and this is important part of my identity. Then life and campus gets in the way.”

Mid-Career Research Investment

Two years into an ambitious goal of increasing research funding 10 percent annually for 10 years, the Office of Research Administration is on track. To support UMSL investigators in obtaining external funding to advance their research, ORA has launched a number of initiatives designed to support faculty at various stages of their careers, such as the Early Career Research Network and the Early Career Research Symposium.

“The next group we want to address are the people in the middle of their career that might have taken a dip in their productivity or had external pressures that kept them away from research for a while,” Spilling said. “We asked the question, ‘How can we jump-start them and get them back to the kind of research that they wanted to carry out?’”

To support the unique needs of mid-career faculty, ORA recently launched the Mid-Career Research Investment Program which aims to invest in high potential faculty who may have experienced a temporary setback in research productivity due to any number of factors such as increased service demands, need for training, equipment and more. ORA expects to fund approximately five of 13 applications.

In addition to making a one-time financial investment, ORA will work closely with recipients to identify and vet funding opportunities, strengthen grantsmanship skills, and connect investigators to collaborators and other resources.

This is just one of the programs ORA has planned for the near future. Additional initiatives will include an Expert Review Service so UMSL investigators can receive external scientific reviews and a full day Research Proposal workshop in March led by the Grantsmanship Center.

The ultimate goal is to increase external funding to advance research at UMSL by strengthening the research culture and building needed infrastructure to support faculty in a competitive funding landscape.

“There’s definitely the personal side of it, too,” Spilling said. “We want colleagues that are enjoying their time at UMSL and what they do and satisfied with what they’re contributing. You want it to be fun. So, if you think you’re not doing what you should be doing or things aren’t going right, you tend not to have a good time. We want to help them change that.”

Jessica Rogen

Jessica Rogen