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What I Wish I'd Known About Tenure

March 27, 2009

What is tenure and what should you know about the tenure process when starting an academic career?

A dictionary definition of tenure is “permanence of position”; however, that simplistic defintion neglects many facets of tenure and the tenure process. Tenure is an individual accomplishment that can be all consuming and absorbing twenty-four-seven for the first decade or two of an academic career. Tenure is also like gambling in a casino or joining a fraternity, and a tenure case is like a hunk of Swiss cheese, as I’ll explain below. Here are nine facets of tenure and the tenure process, including potential pitfalls and suggestions for success that I wish I’d known when I started as a mechanical engineering assistant professor.

1. Striving for tenure at a university is like gambling in a casino; the house sets the rules and controls the odds. From a university’s point of view, the granting of tenure is an enormous commitment. If one assumes that a newly tenured professor will work at the university for 30 years with an average salary and benefits of $100,000, granting tenure is a $3 million commitment, a substantial obligation for any institution to assume. Therefore, to protect the institution, university tenure guidelines include phrases stating that the granting of tenure shall occur when it is in the best interest of the university. Tenure is based on the university’s needs, not the achievements of those seeking tenure, and the university sets the rules and controls the odds. Changing budgets and administrations vary the standards for those receiving tenure over time, making comparisons with earlier cases potentially dangerous to current tenure candidates.

2. Becoming tenured is like joining a fraternity. When one embarks on an academic career, he or she is trying to become an accepted and permanent member of an academic department. This process is analogous to joining a social fraternity or society leading some to say that the tenure process is a form of academic hazing. When integrating into a group, the more you have in common with existing members, the easier the integration process. Likewise, when you differ from current members, establishing relationships can be more difficult, creating potential challenges for new faculty members from underrepresented groups. Another key factor in joining a fraternity is that having an advocate or champion can be instrumental to the outcome. Among the many roles a champion for a new faculty member can play are helping them build a research program, introducing them to important professional and funding agency contacts, guiding them on course selection and teaching methods, providing insight into departmental dynamics, and representing the new faculty member favorably to other departmental members. New faculty members need to proactively build professional relationships with the established members of the department and seek advocates and champions among them. Your chances of success may also improve if you do not get mired in departmental politics or have major conflicts with powerful departmental members.

3. A tenure case is like a hunk of Swiss cheese. A new faculty member is expected to excel at research, teaching and service. These three broad categories encompass a multitude of activities including procuring grants; performing leading edge research; advising graduate students; publishing in preeminent journals; presenting at national and international conferences; teaching graduate and undergraduate courses; advising undergraduate students; serving on departmental, college, and university committees; serving on professional society and conference organizing committees; reviewing; etc. Due to the myriad of activities that faculty members perform, the final tenure case is like a hunk of Swiss cheese with areas of strength (cheese) and of weakness (holes). A new faculty member’s responsibility is to ensure that the hunk of cheese has as much cheese as possible; however, eliminating all the holes is practically impossible. Thus, it is important to present a tenure case so that others see the cheese and not the holes. In addition to working hard, new faculty members need to self promote in a positive way and inform the members of their department of their successes and major accomplishments. Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It, a book by Peggy Klaus, offers suggestions for effective self promotion. Additionally, maintaining an updated Web site is a good way to inform others of your achievements, especially when external letters are being sought. Having champions provides additional avenues to publicize your accomplishments. By adroitly packaging and promoting your achievements, the focus will be on the cheese of your tenure case.

4. The majority of those embarking on an academic career will end up with tenure cases in the gray zone. A small percentage of those pursuing tenure will not be able to address a fatal flaw -- for example, no funding or publishing, abysmal teaching, etc. -- and will not be able to succeed. On the other extreme are those who are exceptional across the board -- tremendous research and funding, large number of articles published, teaching award recognition, national awards, etc. -- and their tenure cases will be almost impossible to derail. However, the majority of those beginning tenure-track positions will end up in the gray or middle zone, and the outcome will depend on local departmental and university conditions. To determine the likelihood of success for your tenure case, actively and persistently seek honest and constructive feedback from department leaders. If the decision of a tenure case comes as a surprise, there are faults on the department’s as well as the candidate’s part.

5. Just as there are risk factors for contracting a disease, risk factors exist for not obtaining tenure. Among the risk factors for heart disease are hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity, and family history. The more risk factors an individual has, the more likely that he or she will develop heart disease. Likewise, risk factors for having an unsuccessful tenure case include those that 1) slow your being successful in your career and 2) inhibit your integration into the department. Examples of the former include: starting the position immediately after graduate school instead of after a postdoctoral position, not receiving key resources such as laboratory space in a timely fashion, being assigned high teaching loads early in your career, being in a field with limited funding opportunities during the beginning of your tenure clock, needing to build significant experimental infrastructure prior to obtaining research results, and having significant family commitments. Characteristics that differentiate you from the majority of the department may complicate your integration and include gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and political beliefs. Another risk factor of this type is being in a multidisciplinary field or one with which the majority of the department is unfamiliar. While having risk factors does not automatically lead to lack of success for tenure, the more risk factors confronting an individual, the higher the barrier to jump. It is important to evaluate your own situation and mitigate your risk factors to the extent possible.

6. True tenure is always being able to obtain another position. While being granted tenure at an institution does make it very difficult, but not impossible, to be fired and is a form of career security, job satisfaction and happiness are not guaranteed. A change in administration, funding priorities, or departmental reorganization may result in a position that one formerly enjoyed becoming unbearable, leading one to desire a new position. Thus, true tenure or “permanence of position” throughout a career is one’s ability to secure another position when desired. It is therefore important to keep options open and available even when your career is progressing well at your current institution. The best way to ensure career options is building and maintaining internal and external networks of professional colleagues on whom you can call when embarking upon a job search. Having a strong network serves two purposes for those at the beginning of an academic career: 1) recognition by potential letter writers for a tenure dossier and 2) contacts for a job search if desired. There are many ways to create a strong network, including joining and participating in professional societies, attending conferences, seeking opportunities to present seminars at other institutions, inviting and hosting colleagues in your field for visits at your institution, maintaining contact with classmates from undergraduate and graduate studies, etc.

7. The best type of tenure is that which matches your ideals and values. You will need to make decisions regarding your priorities and how to allocate your time among the various duties of a professor. Conflicts can arise between the course of action you would prefer and the action you believe is most likely to lead to success. At a research institution, an example of such a conflict may be between spending significant amounts of time working with a student struggling in your course or minimizing time with the student to write a research proposal. If you make the choices that are true to yourself and your values and are granted tenure, you have a great outcome and a good match between yourself and your institution. If, on the other hand, you have to sell your soul and are granted tenure, the expectations of your institution will not change after you receive tenure. You will continue to experience conflict between how you would like to be as a professor and what you need to do to be recognized and successful at your institution. A better course of action may be to search for an institution that better matches you and your priorities. Another option is to receive tenure and try to reform your department, but this can be very tough, endlessly frustrating, or even impossible depending on the institution and circumstances. When interviewing and deciding upon an academic position, look for a match between your values and the institutional rewards, as that will lead to the most success and career happiness.

8. Fight or flight decisions are part of the tenure process. During the tenure process, decisions regarding the future are made by both the institution and individual. The department, college and university are deciding whether an assistant professor is an asset to their institution. A candidate for tenure is deciding whether or not the institution is the right place for his or her career. The optimal situation is when the institution and environment are the right fit for the individual and he or she is perceived as being a strong contributor. There can be cases in which a tenure process is proceeding well, but the fit is not optimal, leading the professor to look elsewhere. Alternatively, if an assistant professor is perceived as not doing well or at risk in the gray zone, the professor faces the choices of fight or flight. How much time and energy will he or she dedicate to working in a non-ideal department, possibly appealing an institutional tenure decision, as opposed to looking for a new position? This decision is very difficult and individualized, and no right answer exists. Contesting a tenure decision is usually a long, strenuous and expensive process with a series of internal procedures that may then be followed by outside litigation. Tenure Denied: Cases of Sex Discrimination in Academia describes tenure cases that were contested with the support of the AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund and illuminates challenges and difficulties in fighting tenure decisions. While perhaps necessary, the flight option is also not easy, as it can be difficult to search for a position in the midst of a tenure dispute. If frank and honest feedback has been provided, an individual can choose to search for a new position in the third or fourth year, avoiding the assumption that the tenure process is not going well when one looks in the fifth or sixth year. An advantage to writing letters of appeal as well as looking for a new position is that it requires specifying your strengths which are the items to be stressed when seeking a new position. Be prepared for potentially difficult decisions during the tenure process and weigh your options carefully.

9. While important, tenure is only one facet in life. The beginning of an academic career is very difficult for everyone and involves a lot of hard work. Academic reward structures are such that devoting more and more time to work is recognized. There is always one more proposal to submit, paper to write, more time to spend on class preparation, another meeting, student to advise, etc. But it is also necessary to achieve a degree of balance between work and personal life so that your efforts in both are sustainable. There are professors who have received tenure and a divorce in the same year. Take time during the beginning of an academic career to build and maintain a personal support structure. Remember that family and friends love and care for you regardless of the outcome in your tenure case.

The beginning of an academic career is an exciting time that brings the major challenge of charting a course through the tenure process. Every tenure candidate brings individual strengths and weaknesses to his or her position and makes many decisions and choices as an assistant professor. You need to play the hand you are dealt to the best of your ability at your university, and no single path for success will work for all. I believe that one can pursue tenure in such a way that he or she emerges from the process in a better place regardless of the tenure decision at a particular institution. Congratulations to tenure candidates on the path to success at their current institutions, and for those in less optimal circumstances, consider the options available to you and continue your journey toward a position matching your passions.

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Acknowledgements: I gratefully express appreciation to those who have supported me in my career and writing this essay including Mary Alice, Hart, Ruth, Elisa, Ed, Debbie, Jamie, Jennifer, Dan, Nancy, Kristin, and Nesreen.

Bio

Leslie M. Phinney was an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 1997 until 2003. She received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award from 2000-2004 and a 2000 NASA/ASEE Faculty Fellowship at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories. She is now a principal member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories, in Albuquerque, N.M.

 

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