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Conceptual framework to study academic career systems
Marc Kaulisch and Carlo Salerno © April 2009

In Germany recent research shows a great interest in the study of academic careers in comparative perspective (Janson, Schomburg, & Teichler, 2007; Kreckel, 2008). In this paper we present our conceptual framework to study academic career systems. In a follow-up paper we will empirically examine the sequence, timing and likelihood of major career events in a comparative perspective.
This text is part of a paper presented at the International Forum of the 30th annual ASHE conference, Philadelphia, USA, November 16th, 2005. The full paper is available from Marc Kaulisch. The authors are grateful for the suggestions made by Jürgen Enders, Liudvika Leisyte and Guy Neave for the revision of an earlier version of this paper.

Institutional context of academic careers
Careers are influenced by multiple contexts (Hall, 2002; Steyrer, Mayrhofer, & Meyer, 2005). Where researchers believe academic career paths deviate from those of other professions, they emphasize that contexts of academic careers are linked differently. Whereas career research traditionally emphasizes personal contexts at the expense of global or societal ones, research on academic careers tends to stress structural factors and conditions as influential factors.

Researchers identify three particularly important and overlapping contexts that shape academic careers: 1) scientific, 2) societal, and 3) higher educational (Enders, 1996; Gläser, 2001; Kaulisch & Enders, 2005). In many ways, each possesses a “logic” that not only creates overlap but in some cases conflicting behaviors or expectations as well. Together, these overlapping contexts create specific conditions that invariably shape academics’ working conditions, work roles, career stages and expectations. Indeed, Gläser suggests that, “career problem's complexity is caused by the fact that scientists act simultaneously in several social contexts” (Gläser, 2001, p. 700).

The science context is dominated by knowledge production and its measurement as a performance yardstick. The gradual differentiation of knowledge into disciplines and sub-disciplines over the past 200 years has laid the framework for the source of today’s knowledge acquisition structure. It is in this domain that scientists formulate research problems, ply their discipline’s paradigms and test hypotheses. Not surprisingly, the academic’s devotion to accumulating knowledge in a narrow area of expertise over a long period of time, the acquisition of prestige through peer review and the relatively flat organizational structure of the contemporary higher education institution have all worked to bind academics more to their area of study than their institution (Alpert, 1985). Importantly, the main rewards academics receive are usually bestowed through the science system and guided by borderless evaluation from one’s peers.

The societal context captures, “the institutionalized patterns of life course…included in a system of social stratification” (Gläser, 2001, p. 704). Systems of education, certification, employment and social security fall under this heading and shape academic work roles and careers in specific ways. National labor markets set specific conditions on earnings, employment regulations and positions available outside academe. This context also defines the extent to which organizations are responsible for both funding and the arrangements behind teaching and research activities.1

The higher education context includes those institutions governing academic careers through the rules on tasks and qualification requirements, work roles, working conditions, staff structures and career ladders. Colleges and universities’ formal frameworks also define intra- and inter-organizational mobility, mediate resource flows and shape academics’ expectations about their contributions and performance. In essence the institution as employer provides a parameterized environment for scattered professionals to coordinate for the institution’s greater benefit. On a more pragmatic level, this context is defined by specific grades of freedom it allots to different individuals, the establishment of working conditions, and the design of internal staff structures and promotion ladders.

Clearly these three contexts overlap in myriad ways. The formal and informal rules in the science context influence and are influenced by the contextual nature of the specific types of institution one works in. Higher education institutions’ regulations are shaped by societal rules. Resource allocations are dictated in part by the confluence of all three. What is not so clear though is that the overlap between the contexts sometimes can also produce conflicting expectations and conflicts. Faculty members, for example, are expected to teach and do research and their performance is judged, at least in part, on how they do at both. At the same time while efforts towards teaching are beneficial in the higher education context, the time spent is detrimental in the science context.

Five sets of rules influencing sequence, timing and likelihood of major career events
Academics’ career paths are guided by the formal and informal rules that emerge from these three institutional contexts. By themselves each of the three is overly broad and this makes it difficult to precisely characterize the sequence, timing and likelihood of major career events: a critical aspect for comparing and contrasting different countries’ “academic career systems.” Sequence and timing capture the inter-temporal nature of careers as an “evolving sequence of a person's work experiences over time” (Arthur, Hall, & Lawrence, 1989, p. 8) while incorporating the likelihood of major career events provides useful markers for describing academics' motivations, career aspirations and opportunities to reach particular goals.2

If career systems are treated as “collections of policies, priorities and actions the organization uses to manage the flow of their members into, through and out of the organization over time” (Sonnenfeld & Peiperl, 1988, p. 588), then careers can be examined according to the organizational practices that deal with employees' entry, development and exit. Focusing on national career systems is also important because academic careers and labor markets are heavily influenced by national regulations and traditions rooted in the history and organization of higher education systems. In national systems inter-organizational relationships play an important role in determining the likelihood of major career events. 3 Selecting, hiring and promoting academic staff depends not only on the criteria established by one’s discipline but is also shaped by the timing of academic careers. When an individual completes a degree and where they do it (credentialing) does much to shape future career opportunities (Burris, 2004; Caplow & McGee, [1958] 2001; Miller, Glick, & Cardinal, 2005).

The discussion to this point captures numerous factors shaping academics’ careers and career options. In an effort to systematize this wealth of information and use it for constructing an analysis, we focus on the common denominator shared by all: formal and informal rules.

More specifically, we collapse these rules into five basic sets that arguably capture the different contextual patterns and overlapping dynamics identified above: 1) academics' employment, 2) credentials, 3) intra-organizational practices, 4) inter-organizational relationships and 5) academic disciplines. These are each addressed in turn below.

Academics’ employment
Employment rules address the basic timing and sequence of academics’ career events. They include and involve rules related to staff structures and career ladders as well as positional rewards and organizational hierarchies, four concepts that are strongly interrelated. Staff structures heavily influence staffing procedures and lay the foundation for power hierarchies between different levels within universities; one can think, for example, of the different administration, faculty and department relationships in top-down or bottom-up organizations. In essence, they define two important aspects that are relevant to the analysis here: career ladders and the authority shared between academic and administrative staff.

Neave and Rhoades (1987) distinguish between two academic staff structures: the chair- and department-model. Chair-models are mainly found in Continental Europe and departmental-models are more representative of places like the United Kingdom and United States. The former is characterized by a high concentration of power and authority in the hands of individual professors who manage the administrative and scientific work of their institute, allocate resources and often negotiate directly with state ministries. Chairs have the power to decide who will be employed in their institute as well as their subordinates' degrees of scientific freedom. In contrast the department-model focuses more on inter-rank collegiality. Although the British higher education system maintains chair positions, its power is notably diluted in comparison to places like France or Germany. And while in the departmental model non-professorial staff are far from equal to full professors they are less dependent than their Continental European counterparts and more actively involved in departmental decision-making.

These staff structure types influence career ladders to the extent that they create different degrees of “steepness” at various points in academic careers. The promotion from a non-professorial to a professorial position is a much greater step in the chair- rather than departmental-system. In this sense the American and British higher education systems have more recognizable career ladders, in sense of career progressions within an organization, than the chair-models in Germany and France, where career progression is based more on credentials, state control or chairholders' goodwill. Higher education systems with a departmental-model of staff structure tend to stress organizational careers and, thereby, the obtainment of permanent positions (which tend to occur relatively early in an academic career) based on organizational decisions.

The second set of rules relate to credentialing. Similar to other professions specific qualifications and certificates are required to obtain an academic position or advance at a later stage. Academic career systems vary in their use and design of credentials. In general their primary purpose is for evaluating job candidates’ suitability and possible future performance (Sørensen, 1992).

Entry into academe as a researcher usually requires some form of post-graduate training but typically demands that individuals complete a doctoral degree. Even in countries where researchers without a doctoral degree can receive permanent positions (such as the Netherlands and United Kingdom) chances for promotion are severely curtailed without it. In some countries and certain academic fields post-doctoral credentials may also be needed. The tenure-track period can be thought of as a post-doctoral period as can the German habilitation.

Intra-organizational practices
The third set of rules reflects organizations' hiring and promotion practices. The freedom or flexibility to hire and fire staff is an important facet in an effectively functioning internal labor market. The extent to which different institutions and systems possess such flexibility differs by country. In places like the UK and the US, universities have considerable autonomy over such matters while in other countries, like Germany, the decision is remanded to the state. 4 If the universities have some control over the hiring and selection process then internal governance plays a much greater role by balancing administrators’ and academics’ power to select and promote staff.

Besides focusing on power within an organization, intra-organizational rules related to selection criteria arise in several other forms. Universities may develop clear criteria for how promotions must be judged or may employ selection committees that disagree on what measures should be used or the values assigned to each. This not only makes the selection procedure a relatively unique process in each university and department but one that can take a relatively long time to complete.

Inter-organizational relationships
The fourth set of rules deals with inter-organizational relationships. In particular we focus on two main points: the prestige hierarchies between universities and the openness of systems to inter-organizational job mobility.

The first point considers the extent to which prestige hierarchies influence academics’ career decisions. In some countries there are very steep institutional hierarchies and where one completes their PhD strongly influences their future opportunities.5 In other countries such a steep hierarchy does not exist; in principle all are considered equal. Here prestige is attached more to the individual than the university. According to Neave and Rhoades (1987) this equality among universities is due to states' involvement because the state promotes universalistic criteria on assessments of universities, quality of study courses and funding.

Countries also differ in the number of formal and informal job changes faculty members make between universities. For the sake of scientific development academics' job mobility is mostly appreciated because it forms a type of cognitive career (Gläser, 2001) by which academics exchange their knowledge with colleagues at different places leading to new scientific ideas. In some countries regulations prohibit internal promotion to a professorial position whereas in others such a method may be the only route to a permanent position. Thus, job mobility is influenced by the mixture of permanent and temporary employment in the system. Where there is a large proportion of permanent positions inter-organizational job mobility is relatively low; the converse of course is that greater job mobility is associated with greater use of non-tenured employment.

Both approaches have positive and negative effects. Temporary employment allows universities to more frequently select suitable candidates and more easily respond to changing funding conditions. On the other hand universities may lose both prestige and capacity by academics leaving for another university or to other employment sectors. Furthermore, continuous employment insecurity may act as a disincentive and increase academics’ efforts to search for more secure positions instead of concentrating on their current ones (House of Commons. Science and Technology Committee, 2002).

Academic disciplines
The last set of rules relate to those facets unique to the various academic disciplines. From biology to history to economics to engineering, each employs different implicit and explicit criteria for organizing, judging and rewarding academic work. Communication in some fields is driven by conference presentations while in others refereed journals are the norm. In history, where books are considered the typical research output, per-year productivity expectations are much lower than in journal-oriented fields like economics or education. Even the organization of knowledge production differs. Much of the research done in the physical and biological sciences tends to be conducted in large, multi-institution teams, which stands in stark contrast to the stereotypical lonely historian. Clearly such structures influence the organization of academic units, faculty members’ relationships with their colleagues and a host of other factors.

The table below offers a summary of the various rules we have addressed above.

Table 1: Rules included in the five sets of rules

 Sets of rules

 Set of rules regarding
 academics' employment
  • Rules on organizational hierarchies in terms of university governance, staff structure, financial rewards
  • Rules on power distribution within the hierarchy
  • Rules on career ladder
  • Rules on selecting candidates for positions
  • Rules on employment conditions
  • Rules on retirement
 Set of rules regarding
  • Rules on entry qualifications
  • Rules on importance of doctoral degree and design of doctoral studies
  • Rules on the design of the post-doctoral phase
 Set of rules regarding
  • Rules on external governance
  • Rules on internal governance
  • Rules on selecting criteria
 Set of rules regarding
  • Rules on inter-organizational prestige
  • Rules on job mobility
 Set of rules regarding
 academic disciplines
  • Rules on doctoral phase
  • Rules on post-doctoral phase
  • Rules on performance criteria


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1Universities’ autonomy in generating and spending funds depends on the governance pattern between state and universities. In similar respects, state-regulations enable and restrict universities in their autonomy to design study courses as well as to decide on the extent of academics’ tasks in research and teaching.
2Sørensen (1992), for example, argues that these are important because of their influence on academics' productivity and relationship to the science system.
3The influence of inter-organizational prestige hierarchies is described later. One is more likely to get a position at a good university if they have a degree from a prestigious university.
4This is not always the case. In chair-systems professors often select candidates for non-professorial positions without a formal procedure and even in formal procedures professors' protégés have a high chance of obtaining the job. State supervision can be either the direct influence on whom a university appoints, the ranking of candidates or the funding of the position.
5As Caplow and McGee ([1958] 2001) have shown the prestige of a supervisor and the prestige of journals in which candidates have published heavily influence the decision-process about candidates.