Career Planning for Associate Professors Interview series: Prof. Diana Bilimoria


I promised that I will publish a series of interviews/advice columns for tenured Associate Professors.

My first interview for this series was with Prof. Diana Bilimoria, KeyBank Professor and Chair of the Department of Organizational Behavior, Case Western Reserve University, my alma mater. Diana is internationally recognized for her work on gender in governance, leadership, and transformation. She is the recipient of a number of research, teaching, leadership and service awards. Speaking from personal experience, she is also a rock star as a mentor. She walks the talk about investing in people in general, and in junior faculty/doctoral students specifically. Although my interview was very specific about advice to Associate Professors who have been recently tenured, these gems are quite transferable to many careers.

If you don’t have the time read the full-length interview at the end of this post (which you really should), here is Diana’s advice in a nutshell.

  • You are not alone. Lots of newly tenured Associate professors do not understand how their role has changed. In the academic career, you do the same work from doctoral student to full professorship. There may be change in volume, variety and balance but you do the same work. Along with promotion comes expectations and responsibilities.
  • Develop a macro perspective of the university and industry. Look beyond your immediate department/school, job/function. Ask yourself these three questions:
    • What is my new role?
    • How can I best serve?
    • What are the next steps for my own development?
  • Develop a macro perspective of your field. Map your discipline/world. Who is publishing what? What are the citations? Where are the gaps? What are the understudied areas with great potential? How does that dovetail with what you want to do? Find ways to make unique contribution. Find areas that are understudied and no else is doing.
  • Academic careers are linear. Your next focus is to make full professorship.
  • Don’t become service fodder. Prioritize non-value adding work that you need to do as part of your job. Pick the ones that have the most contribution value. For academics, trade service for service. Do not trade service for research. You are not hired to do service. You are hired to do research and teach.You can’t keep adding to the plate and not taking anything away. So negotiate internally. Deans and Administrators, this is for you too.
  • Don’t let your research momentum go. If your tenure process has been exhausting and full of negative emotions, draw on your vision for the future and reframe positively so you can be energized for the next few years. Otherwise, your time to apply for promotion to full will increase.
  • Your career is not over. Don’t say that you are content to be an Associate Professor. That is a recipe for being stuck and stagnant. Ask what you can contribute and how you can impact the field.
  • Enhance quality of work and breadth of impact. The biggest challenge in the academic career is that everyone at all levels does the same type of work. Post tenure, you become a role model for others like junior faculty and doctoral students.
  • Good use of a sabbatical is to clean the plate for the next stage and explore how you want to broaden and deepen your research. Think about what you would do if you were asked to write a series of books in the next five to ten years. Use the sabbatical to meet people and develop networks for doing that work.
  • Find your tribe. Structure opportunities to get to know leaders in your field that will result in professional outcomes such as  symposiums, presentations, and publications.
  • Accept positions of leadership, both internal and external. Gaining visibility outside helps inside. But as an Associate, do not accept highly political internal roles that involve evaluation of other faculty and resource allocation, Wait after you make full.
  • Talk to people whose careers you admire. Hearing stories of people who have broader impact will help.

PS: Before radical structuralists who want to jump in, yes, this is functionalist advice to survive and grow in the field as it is! Diana has also talked about changing the field through tempered radicalism and has advice for schools that want to put in mentoring programs for mid career and women scholars.

Advice for Administrators

  1. Institute orientation programs for Associate Professors
  2. Develop mentoring programs for tenured people
  3. Develop intimacy and deeper knowledge of your faculty work so you can be good mentors.
  4. Develop career planning mechanisms for tenured faculty.

Full-length Interview Transcript

Diana, thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me.

Can you talk about how post tenure scholars can prepare to be successful in their next stage of career?

Usually, when an Associate Professor is promoted and tenured, they don’t know what to expect, and they don’t know what has changed. In our career, you are doing the same work from doctoral student to full professorship. The volume of work will change and the variety will increase, but essentially we all do the same things – research, teaching, service and external engagement. But you have to understand that the quality and impact of your work has changed. You also will now take up greater service and leadership roles, both internal and external. Post tenure, you become a role model for others. The biggest difference on an everyday basis is that somehow you become different in the eyes of others including faculty, staff, students, alumni and community.

To enable this transition, my institution Case Western Reserve University has instituted a newly promoted/tenured faculty orientation. It is helpful because it helps the person recognize that they have now become a fully participating member of the university.  That along with promotion comes expectations about how they are going to perform. In this orientation, we provide a map of all the organizational elements and charts, both academic and non-academic units. Many of the professors in the seven years leading up to tenure have never thought about anything beyond their own department and school. So this is a very helpful process to their transition.

Part of the orientation is to answer questions such as: “What is my new role? How can I best serve in my new role? What is the development needed in my new role on a personal and professional level? How can I advance to the next development of career?”

Some advice for new Associate Professors: Look beyond your immediate department/school. Engage more with leadership of professional associations, but not so much as it is going to impinge on research time. Find service roles that will complement and build your network for the next stage of your academic career.

Did tenure change your everyday work life? How?

Yes, although I didn’t know it at the moment. It gave me a sense of ownership but also responsibility. If I am not happy with something, I can no longer say “they” have done that! It is the transition from being a visitor to an owner. There is no “they” anymore. That transition is not on every day basis, but on an existential sense and it is very important. You gain a bit more sense of credibility. I felt the change more in the eyes of others than through my own eyes. Others saw me in a different way.

What do you think are the main challenges for newly tenured associate professors?

My main advice for associates is to keep up their research momentum. Do not let up on the work that is in the pipeline. Continue and strengthen the professional connections you’ve started to make.  If you let the momentum go, regaining it will take while. Especially when women become Associate professors, they tend to become service fodder. We hear this consistently in many mid-career faculty workshops and focus groups that we have run for both men and women. Now that they have become permanent members of the institution, they are expected to contribute even more.

While you need to do more service comparable to your new role, it cannot jeopardize your research momentum. You can’t keep adding to the plate and not taking away anything. That’s a recipe for exhaustion and burnout. Some choices around service need to be made. It is not like you can replace service for teaching or research. You have to replace service for service. So you need to negotiate internally and ask, “Where can I really contribute?” Instead of attending several meetings, it is important to ask which contributions to service you can best provide. Pick and focus on those. Even if you do only one or two things, do them at such a high level that you offer value. There is so much pressure on newly promoted/tenured faculty that sometimes they lose sight of what they are there to do: research and teaching. You are not employed primarily for service. You are employed primarily for research and teaching. By contributing through service, you enable the research and teaching functions to happen better.

I have seen that for some people the journey to tenure has been so debilitating that they are exhausted and emotionally burnt out. Also, there may have been great sacrifice on the part of their families who are waiting for their turn. Now that tenure has been achieved, family members may be hoping—now comes my turn, which increases the pressures and burdens on the faculty member. In those cases where the tenure journey has been debilitating, achieving tenure becomes the goal (rather than good research and teaching as the goal). When the negative emotions in the pre-tenure process such as anger or cynicism are high, the faculty person becomes exhausted.

Yet I have also seen examples of positive emotions in the pre-tenure process, the feeling of, “I have contributed to advancing knowledge in my research field” or “I have had a positive impact on my students”. So, it is not only negative emotions. But for people whose journey was difficult and who are exhausted and quite fed up with things the way they have been, all they want is a break. The break they take is not on the teaching or service side but at the cost of research. That is the most counterproductive strategy. Because the momentum is then broken.

Once the momentum is broken, it is possible to regain it but it takes much longer and it becomes a continuous struggle rather than building on what you already have. If the journey has been exhausting, try to reframe your emotional state by looking at your vision of the future in terms of your scholarly contributions. When people don’t have an inspiring vision, they begin to feel stuck and that they are simply being used by the system, and withdraw from research and become increasingly more stuck. Nobody likes that feeling.

Particularly those people who are exhausted, they really have to work hard at finding the vision – for the next 5 years, 7 years, 10 years in terms of “What contributions can I make to the field?” “Where can I have the greatest impact on advancing knowledge?” Instead, if they withdraw from their research programs they become increasingly stuck. This can be a big challenge for newly tenured Associate Profs. Often having a mentor or a professional cohort to discuss these issues with can make a big difference. Becoming withdrawn or isolated from research is particularly problematic for faculty at the newly tenured career stage, even when not wanting to talk about research is the most comfortable thing to do.

Did you take a sabbatical right after tenure? What did you do during your sabbatical? How did that help you in building a platform for your next stage of career building?

Yes, I took a sabbatical right away. During this period I was appointed to be the editor of the Journal of Management Education (JME). It was not a small job—it involved managing hundreds of submissions, reviewers, authors, associate editors and board through a complex process (at that time it was not online). During my sabbatical, I learned how to be an editor. If I had tried to do that during my regular job, it would have been hard. While it turned out to be lucky coincidence, I’m not sure that it was the best use of a sabbatical. During my three-year editorship, I wrote editorials for the issues produced, but a lot of my own research took a back seat. This increased the time for me to get to full professorship. Because of the journal commitment, the momentum I had in the early years on my own research trajectory did slow down. Even though it was a fantastic opportunity and one that I am very happy that I got the do, it also came at a price.

I think that a sabbatical’s opportunity is the time to consolidate the papers that are in the pipeline and begin building the trajectory for the next stage. You may not know exactly what you want to do and contribute in the next several years. Having the sabbatical helps you explore these questions, so you can broaden and widen your scholarly contributions. During the sabbatical and beyond, you need to think about the overarching theory to which you are contributing. Ask yourself: If I were asked to write a series of books about my work, what would they be about? Think about a minimum of five to seven years. Setting the agenda for the next five to seven years should be the sabbatical task. So take time during the sabbatical to meet with people who will help you shape and launch that agenda. Colleagues, doctoral students, researchers from other disciplines, industry colleagues, and so on will be most helpful.

What do you think are the key career decisions that you made post tenure? It may be administration, research areas, or teaching, community contact etc. Can you discuss them? In your case, I know that you were starting to do more Gender and Diversity in Organizations (GDO) related work.

Moving to GDO topics was a deliberate decision that I began to realize post-tenure. The real trigger for the decision was a conversation with my then Dean. My earlier work had been on CEO compensation and turnover, and I was working on a paper on how board of directors make decisions about these. I had a wonderful undergraduate student assistant Sandy Piderit at the time who said to me, “There is one variable you haven’t looked at from your dissertation data. It is the sex of the directors”. So I said, “let’s look at that”. We went back to collect more data and then wrote a paper which got published in the Academy of Management Journal, a top journal in our field. The results of this paper were so interesting that they were profiled in the Sunday business edition of the New York Times. At that point, there were many scholars studying CEO compensation and turnover but practically no one was deeply studying gender on boards. In a pre-tenure meeting with my Dean, he said, “this paper is compelling. If I were you, I would focus all my future work on gender dynamics. Because nobody else is doing it.” He was right—an understudied and undertheorized area can provide the scope for broad and deep contributions. Both are essential in an academic career. So subsequently I began to focus on gender in corporate governance topics, and totally enjoyed it. My early work on women on corporate boards helped to shape the emerging field.

Of course, your research interests develop as you mature. Over the years I broadened beyond boards and corporate governance to include studies on women in top leadership teams, in STEM disciplines in academia and in the workforce, in family businesses, and many other aspects of women’s careers. I’ve also expanded in recent years to study the experiences of diverse men and women, in universities and on non-profit boards. As part of an NSF ADVANCE grant received by my university, I started to do work on faculty developmental, programs on mentoring and networking, academic coaching programs, leadership development and others. I was fortunate in these experiences because individual faculty (non-administrators) rarely get the chance of intervening at the level of the full university. As I began to see the impact, I knew that I wanted to continue my contributions through academic administration and am now serve as a department chair.

Did you seek mentors or did your school have a mentoring program? What is your advice on building mentoring networks post tenure?

A whole new network of people from the GDO Division of the Academy of Management became my mentors, professional colleagues and co-authors. As I had entered a whole new field I became part of a whole new network. I also had a strong network through time as editor of the Journal of Management Education. My advice is to get close to the leaders in a field and get to know them better. Construct opportunities to enable you to get to know them better. Also target the production of important professional outcomes like presentations, symposiums, and publications. Start to view the field from a macro lens. What is missing the field? What is the map? Who is publishing? Where are citations coming from? Find interesting topics – particularly aspects that are underdeveloped – and take those on, becoming an expert in those areas. This will also help you keep your research momentum going forward.

What are your career aspirations?

I have to decide if I would like to go further in academic administration or stay as research professor. In terms of research itself, I would like to publish my gender and diversity work, which to date has largely been in niche journals, in mainstream top-level journals. Both are highly appealing options to me, and I am not sure that they can be done concurrently.

Who else should I talk to?

Talk to people who you admire. Find strong research scholars and others who have had broader impact on their research fields, students and institutions – just hearing their stories always informs and inspires. Interview past presidents of the professional associations with which you primarily identify to learn about their journeys and contributions.

What is your closing advice?

As a newly tenured Associate Professor, I encourage you to (1) Continue your research momentum and create a picture of your vision of your contributions (in research, teaching and service) for the next several years on the path to full professorship, (2) Continue excelling and developing as a faculty member in all areas (research, teaching, service and external engagement) by strengthening your networks and gaining professional mentorship and advice, (3) Give back to others in your new role – serve as a role model and mentor to others coming up, (4) Take on new positions of leadership in your institution but be wary of highly political roles, (5) Give back to your profession (and gain external visibility) by serving as the President or on the board of your primary professional association, and (6) Most importantly, enjoy your new role – you have an even more magnified opportunity to have positive impact and make a difference to many others! Thank you for the chance to share some of my thoughts and best wishes!

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One Response to Career Planning for Associate Professors Interview series: Prof. Diana Bilimoria

  1. Pingback: Career Planning for Associate Professors Interview series: Prof. Diana Bilimoria | Next Step to Nirvana

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