Thoughts on the title “Research Professor”

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Cornell University’s ILR School has been debating the merits of expanding academic titles to include “Professor of Practice” (on the teaching side) and “Research Professor” (on the research side).

Following up on a department meeting, in which this was discussed, I posted the following text to my colleagues (with some edits):

Here some thoughts from a person who has given the topic of “Research Professor” more than a passing thought (namely me).

  • Random response: I personally perceive this as a single hierarchy above Senior Research Associate, not as a full additional or parallel hierarchy.
  • Caveat: this is really a very personal discussion, not because I take it personally, but because if you think of “Research Professor” as only something that affects those eligible in the current ILR family, then there are exactly three of us (Senior Research Associates) who are even eligible to be considered for such a title. Thus, there aren’t many of us, and there have traditionally not been many of us. I don’t think we’ll be opening any flood gates
  • titles are somewhat in the eye of the beholder. I have often been addressed as “Professor” in writing or in person, by people who I interact with professionally. Including peers at other institutions (Michigan, PSU, MIT), where sometimes such titles exist. I presume this is because they perceive that what I do is what professors do, and that thus logically I must be a professor. Cute. While that does not happen THAT often, I always note that I am NOT a professor at my institution, which *always* leads to incredulity.
  • I would like to see some of the applied research conducted at ILR, evoked today with respect to the hiring process, applied to this same problem, in two ways:
    1. recruiting. What if we wanted to hire another person into a position similar to what I currently do? And that person is offered a similar position, based on job description, at an institution where that title (Research Prof) exists? I point out that at least two of the SRA in ILR are North American economists, and the particular culture amongst economists in North America (but not elsewhere!) is that titles do not seem to matter that much. That is different in other domains, and for people from other countries. It may thus matter if we wanted to hire non-economist researchers with our experience, and it may even matter for some economists. Thus, what does HR research say about the importance of titles in hiring?
    2. professional advancement. What does the theory and the empirical analysis say about careers in organizations that have such a flat hierarchy that there are only two levels? In the case at hand, for some SRA, a tenure-track job might be the next step, but for me, that is a different job, albeit closely related. For me, a tenure-track job is a career change, not a career progression. I have been a Senior Research Associate for 14 years with no “promotion” possible. What does HR research say about the effects of flat hierarchies?
  • There seemed to be some concern that not providing or having tenure (1) is exploitation (2) inhibits academic freedom. I personally refute both of those in my particular case.
    1. I am in my position by choice, not by lack of choice. I do not see the absence of tenure as exploitation – it is part of the job description. The job is to conduct (externally funded) research, and if I do not do that job well, well, then maybe I shouldn’t do the job.
    2. In my case, the absence of tenure has actually increased my academic freedom. I am delightedly multi-disciplinary in my research, and have acquired and transmitted knowledge in domains that are not in my (original) core. Had I done so in a tenure-track position, it would have spelled doom for any hope of tenure. It works, because I choose where to seek my funding, and whom to work with, and as long as I am good at what I propose, I can do it.
  • There was also concern in the faculty discussion about a potential disconnect from the integration of research and teaching (both for Research Prof and Prof of Practice). I believe that can easily be handled by making some small element of the other component (for a Research Prof, teaching) be part of the job description. I have never forgotten in my years as a Senior Research Associate that I am at a university, not at a consulting company. When I interact with students, be it one of the more than a dozen graduate students that I have worked with over the years (and whom I have funded through the research grants), be it one of the 50 or so undergraduates that I have hired into my undergraduate lab over the past 5 years, I never ever forgotten that their reason for being at Cornell is to study, not to work for me. That in addition to having them work for my projects, I am also teaching them. I do not hire students if I think that the work they do on my research projects does not, in some way, also benefit their development as researchers. In the classes I have occasionally co-taught, we have gone off the beaten path in methods and topics, because I am not *required* to teach, and can thus choose what I teach (conditional on demand). I have not, however, interacted or taught as many students as some of my tenure-track faculty have, and that is also OK. After all, my job is research. But again: that job is embedded in a teaching environment, and cannot reasonably be dissociated from it. If I had no interest in the teaching component, in the fact that my research position is at Cornell *University*, I would have long ago left the position for a similar position with far better pay in consulting.

What should the job description be for a “Research Professor”? I believe that it should be distinguished from a Senior Research Associate, having more responsibilities, but if I said that it should include some teaching or training, a significant portion of time spent on research, while taking the lead in writing grant proposals on a regular basis – well, that’s what I do. It is, however, not what I did when I started 14 years ago, so there surely is a progression in activity, if not in name.

I close by stating that I enjoy very much what I do, and where I do it. I have, in 14 years, surely occasionally been tempted to consider other options, and my choice – of staying with ILR! – was never influenced by what title I had.