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Essay on how to earn tenure in higher education

How to Earn Tenure

February 24, 2014

It’s hard to give generic advice on what strategies junior faculty should pursue to increase their chances of a successful tenure review.  This is because there are two essential variables in the process. Institutions differ in how they carry it out, and disciplines or subfields vary in what they expect from scholars in their ranks.

With that said, here is some generic advice for things an assistant professors should do to help make sure that, when the time comes, their tenure dossiers looks really strong. By “tenure dossier,” I mean the complete package – your own work, the letters that senior scholars in your field write on your behalf, and the reports that your colleagues will write putting a spin on the evidence and (ideally) making the argument that they are lucky to have you and should do whatever they can to keep you around.

The most important piece of advice, to start things off, is to solicit more advice. This is a generic discussion; thus it won’t delve into issues such as which journals or presses to send manuscripts to, which conferences to attend, which senior scholar’s toes to avoid stepping on, and so forth.

Stage I: Welcome to the Faculty!

You’ve just started work as an assistant professor. Maybe this means you just finished your Ph.D., maybe it means you’ve completed a postdoc or two, or a stint in a non-tenure-track faculty position.

Regardless, the mere fact that you’ve landed a tenure-track job is a sign that people believe in your potential. Depending on your field, you may have a few publications on your C.V. already. You know the drill. You’ve got to expand on that track record or, as the saying goes, perish.

You would not be in the position you’re in if you had not done great work already – written a strong dissertation, perhaps published some groundbreaking articles. The concern in the minds of your senior colleagues is a simple one. The great work you’ve done so far has been in a mentored environment. Although everybody believes you can accomplish great things once beyond the realm of your advisers, most of your senior colleagues will have seen cases where that just didn’t work out.

Your goal, once the tenure clock starts, is to demonstrate to your colleagues that you can get things done on your own – that you can assume a leadership position in your program of intellectual inquiry.

What exactly does that mean? In some fields in the lab sciences, it means transitioning from being a first author to a last author, generating your own stream of funding, and mentoring your own students and postdocs. In other fields, it means taking the promising manuscript that composed your dissertation and expanding it in a new direction (at American universities, the general expectation is that you’ll do more work on a book-like dissertation before trying to land a publication contract). In virtually every field, it means you’ll show some meaningful evolution in your scholarly trajectory. You’ll start up at least one major new project that clearly departs from your mentor’s (or mentors’) own research agenda(s).

That’s an easy thing to say but not always an easy thing to do. When first starting out, you can give yourself an idea of how far you need to go. If you’re in a department that has successfully tenured people in your subfield recently, take a look at their C.V.s with an eye toward understanding how they turned the corner, so to speak. Of course, you can ask them directly too.

Your senior colleagues have almost certainly written tenure letters for scholars at other universities recently. So that gives them some notion of what it takes to get tenure in your field these days. The only trouble is that your colleagues aren’t supposed to reveal to you whom they’ve written letters for, as the letters are confidential. Just phrase the question the right way. Instead of asking, “tell me who you’ve written positive letters for recently,” ask “tell me about some of the people who are rising stars in this field.”

If you haven’t published your dissertation – or all the chapters of your dissertation – by the time you arrive, put real effort into getting that done. In most fields, a published dissertation (or collection of journal articles springing from the dissertation) isn’t going to be quite sufficient to get you tenure. But many of the people who write letters for you will be familiar with what the dissertation looked like at the time you defended it, and will be able to convey a notion about how you improved it once you were on your own.

New projects – ones you commence after joining the faculty – are the way you demonstrate progress toward independence. There will always be a soft spot in your heart for your dissertation – it was your first project, and you probably spent more time on it than you will on anything else for quite some time. But the odds are that your new projects will be considered better work. You mature as a scholar; you read more, interact more with others at the forefront of the field, and acquire better instincts for what constitutes an important project to work on.

Ideas will pop into your head from time to time. You’ll always have a decision to make: work on that idea or wait for the next one? Assessing the quality of an idea is a very hard thing to do. Here are potential criteria to use in judging whether you’re onto something big. You should favor:

  • Projects that you can undertake independently from your former mentors or senior colleagues in your department. It’s O.K. to carry on collaborations with those people, but if those collaborations are all you’ve got at tenure time, people might worry that you haven’t assumed a leadership position in your program of intellectual inquiry.
  • Projects that have the potential to upend received wisdom in your field. You’ll be in a great position if you manage to convince people in your field that they’ve been thinking about a problem the wrong way.
  • Projects that can be conceptualized as seeking an answer to a question. I’ve known quite a few budding researchers who pick a topic or subject that is interesting to them, but not necessarily to anybody else. If you can summarize your project in the form of a question, it will probably be easier to convince others that it is an important thing to be working on.
  • Projects that won’t take forever. Whether it’s digging through a dusty archive or developing a “knockout” mouse, there are certain projects that will require years of upfront investment. If you have a choice between projects that will capitalize on investments that you’ve already made and ones that will require retooling, save the retooling for after you get tenure.
  • Above all else, projects that you have an intense desire to work on. As a faculty researcher, you are basically self-employed. You don’t punch a clock and there is no boss looking over your shoulder. The only thing driving you to get work done is your own desire to do the work. If you wake up one morning with an idea, and once you think of it everything else seems boring, then it may be worthwhile to throw all else aside and go to work on it. There are some very prominent scholars out there who never published their dissertation – the common link among them is that they found something better to work on.

One last thing to note: an assistant professorship is still a “mentored environment.” You can ask colleagues for advice and collaborate with them. But ultimately you’ll want to be able to demonstrate that you aren’t completely dependent on that mentoring. By the time the clock runs out, you should have a track record of work that is independent both of your mentors and your senior colleagues.

Stage II: Staying the Course

Most likely, you’ll have numerous opportunities to receive feedback from your senior colleagues while the tenure clock is running. Sometimes the feedback will be along the lines of “just keep doing what you’re doing,” which is about as positive as you can expect. Sometimes you’ll receive more mixed messages, such as “you’re going to need to publish more,” or “some of us think that this new project you’re working on is a dead end.”

The honest truth is that this feedback can be misleading. Your colleagues’ opinions about the merits of your new projects or rate of productivity could be at odds with conventional wisdom elsewhere – this risk is highest when you work in a different subfield from the senior faculty in your department. Your colleagues may think either too highly of you or not highly enough. It is always smart to get a second opinion.

The first place to go for a second opinion: your former mentors. They’ve likely been writing letters for other junior scholars in the field recently and can give you advice about productivity expectations more carefully tailored to your subfield. Regarding topical areas, they may have a bias toward your style of work because it resembles their own, but they can still ask you the right questions to assess it because they are used to receiving those questions themselves.

The next place to go would be the conference and seminar circuit. These venues give you an opportunity to receive feedback from prominent colleagues in your field. Moreover, at the time of tenure review your track record of conference and seminar presentations may be examined to assess your “visibility” in the field.

A brief digression is in order.  For many junior faculty, particularly those raising young children, the travel associated with the conference and seminar circuit poses a significant burden. In the “old days” when faculty (most of them men) had spouses (most of them women) to shoulder this burden, the absence of conference and seminar participation was taken as a bad sign. Today, to be quite frank, it can still be seen as an issue; if you’re worried about it, it’s a good topic to discuss in conversation with your chair. Someday that chair will write a letter for your dossier; that letter can make note of the fact that you aren’t in an “old school” family situation. Also, should you turn down an invitation because you can’t spare the travel time, make a note of it.

Seminar invitations are to a large extent beyond your control – although senior colleagues can sometimes put in a good word for you, “you should have my junior colleague X out to give a talk – she’s very good.” But conference submissions are important in virtually every field – in computer science, acceptance to refereed conferences is now more important than traditional journal articles. In some disciplines, your chances of being accepted on a conference program are higher when you organize a session. Organizing a session can be a great way to introduce yourself to an arm's-length senior person in your field – a potential letter writer.

It isn’t always necessary to know your potential letter writers. I’ve read quite a few letters that begin by saying “I’ve never heard of this person before” and go on to say quite glowing things. But it can certainly help. Sometimes senior scholars in your field will decline to write a letter on your behalf if they haven’t heard of you, and that can be taken as a negative sign. If nothing else, having an opportunity to discuss your work in the presence of a senior scholar who did not mentor you – for example, in a conference session you organized – gives you a chance to hear feedback that contributes to the change in scholarly trajectory that your colleagues will be looking for.

On occasion, a senior scholar from another institution will give you a direct piece of feedback: “haven’t they given you tenure yet?” or “you seem to be having a lot of success in publishing things,” etc. These are great things to hear. Of course they reflect one person’s opinion, so don’t let your head swell too much. But file them away. A person who says something like this is likely to be a strong letter writer for you.

To this point, this discussion has focused on research to the exclusion of teaching and service. Be a conscientious teacher and mentor. Excellent teaching is not going to make up for a complete lack of research productivity, at least at research-oriented institutions, but it can help your colleagues overcome doubts if you have a borderline track record when the clock runs out. It is very hard to give generic advice about teaching. If you’ve got enthusiasm for the subject matter and can commit yourself to return students’ work promptly with generous amounts of feedback, you’re off to a great start. However good or bad you are the first time around, strive to improve.

When asked to provide service to your discipline – reviewing manuscripts, discussing papers at conferences – do what you can to pitch in, it is a way to help build your visibility in the field. When asked to provide service on campus, it’s good to say “yes” a couple of times per year. Again, take a look at the C.V.s of recently tenured people, which will often contain information on committee work and other service. If you feel like you’re being asked to do too much, don’t be afraid to have a conversation about it with your department chair. Rather than whine about it, though, introduce the subject by asking for advice – you know you need to strike a balance, and honestly want to know whether your service commitments are infringing on your research too much.

This is the first of a two-part essay. The second part will appear soon.

Bio

Jacob L. Vigdor is professor of public policy and economics at Duke University.

 

 

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