Basic Overview: The US Academic System

nathan-dumlao-572049-unsplashMany trainees interested in pursuing an academic career path don’t have a clear idea about the hiring landscape in the United States.  This quick overview will discuss a few topics: the kinds of institutions, the types of jobs available, and last but not least definitions for funding.

What kinds of educational institutions are there in the US?

There is an official listing which is referred to as the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.  Here you can look up institutions by a variety of different classifications, including: undergraduate programs, graduate programs, enrollment profile, size and setting, as well as community engagement.  These listings have been updated every few years since 1970 and the most recent version is expected to be released later this year (2018).

The most basic classifications are based on the type of degree conferred; categories include: doctoral universities, master’s college and universities, baccalaureate colleges, baccalaureate/associate’s colleges, associate’s colleges, special focus institutions (including medical schools), and tribal colleges.

Each of these classifications is further subdivided. One example you might be familiar with is how doctoral universities are categorized:

R1: Highest Research Activity
R2: Higher Research Activity
R3: Limited Research Activity

What types of jobs are available within these institutions?

Generally, academic jobs progress in level from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor to Full Professor. All faculty positions include three main components: 1. Research 2. Teaching 3. Service. However, the amount of time the faculty member is expected to devote to each of these components varies widely by the type of institution.  At R1 doctoral or medical institutions, for example, the research component will be the primary function of the role and the teaching component could be as little as a handful of lectures a year.

Fewer and fewer professors are receiving tenure now. Historically, tenure has meant a lifetime placement at an institution and a job/salary until retirement.  The trends in the academic labor force show that tenure and tenure-track positions are decreasing while part-time faculty and full-time/non-tenure track positions have been increasing.

What about funding?

You have probably heard the terms hard money and soft money, but what do these mean? Hard money denotes an institutionally guaranteed salary. Often times the salaries are for teaching and cover the nine-month academic year (even though they can be paid out over a period of 12 months). Soft money, on the other hand, is money the academic finds on his/her own to supplement a partial salary provided by the institution and covers research costs. This money often comes from grants, which can be one-time funding sources or time-limited, meaning the academic will have to reapply for funding throughout their career.

While the academic career path has been changing dramatically, many scientists and trainees still pursue this option successfully. If you are interested in learning more, the OITE offers a number of in-depth workshops every year about academic jobs and many of these are available for you online. Please check out our videocast on “Academic Job Search – Applying and Interviewing” as well as “Understanding the US Academic System” which is the second presentation in the document.


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