Support on the Tenure Track

GMP offers advice on how to get the backing -- personal and material -- that you need.


July 7, 2010

In an ideal world, you would start your new academic job as a tenure-track faculty member in a harmonious department, where professors are all good friends, where everyone is well-funded and adequately supported with facilities and resources, and all students are both brilliant and highly motivated. In reality, people often don’t get along, there are nowhere nearly enough resources or staff support, and working with students is much more demanding than you envisioned. In this real world, adequate support from your department’s faculty and staff, as well as the university, is critical for the development of your research program and your success in getting tenure, and – last but not least – your personal satisfaction and peace of mind.

How do you get adequate support while on the tenure track? I write here for a tenure-track faculty member in a first appointment at a research university, but most of the issues discussed here can likely be generalized to other types of institutions as well as to non-tenure-track faculty.

Adequate facilities and resources. For junior faculty in sciences and engineering, the quality of individual lab space and shared facilities can make or break one's career. Unfortunately, many universities are strapped for resources (money, as well as facilities) and may delay in making good on the promises they made in the offer letter, such as assigning lab space shortly upon your arrival. While this may be nobody's fault, it is really important that you push gently but incessantly to have the promises kept. For instance, if you are waiting for a lab, find out if there are any spaces that are rarely used or not at all, and ask for permission to adapt them. Sharing a lab with another faculty member may be a temporary solution, but make sure it does not count as a permanent solution and does not lower your priority for future consideration. Even though you lack seniority and tenure, it is important to keep pushing until you get what you need. Any feathers you ruffle will be far easier to smooth out than will an inadequate research portfolio down the road. If you are quiet, the assumption is that you have what you need.

Staff support. Do not underestimate the importance of staff for your success as a faculty member. Staff are the glue that holds departments together. This has become painfully obvious now that nationwide budget cuts have resulted in the permanent loss of many staff positions. In my experience, staff are usually very dedicated and very efficient people, who are also overworked and underpaid. Being courteous and respectful toward staff and showing appreciation for the work they do is the least a faculty member can do (for instance, do not expect a staff member to drop everything and immediately work on an assignment just because you dropped it off at the last minute). You will find that many time-consuming things can proceed fairly smoothly if you have an efficient staff person on your side. Also, staff members have the rare perspective of the interaction with all the faculty members and can be a valuable source of information on the department climate and politics. Furthermore, departmental, college, and university level staff personnel are likely your primary points of contact about how things work, where to have paperwork submitted, payroll, immigration status for foreign faculty, and even procedures for grant submissions and administration of funding awards. Therefore, forging good relationships with staff early on is critical.

Support from other faculty. It is likely that you have been hired into a department where faculty members get along with one another for the most part; some interpersonal quarrels may exist, but they are usually not toxic, so you as an assistant professor should be able to stay out of conflicts without having to pick sides. As a junior faculty member, you were most likely brought into the department to strengthen research in an existing area (if the department wanted to start hiring in an area where they currently have no one, a prominent senior hire with a named endowed chair would have probably been the first hire in that area instead).

There are probably several faculty in your disciplinary sub-area who have championed hiring you, and who are your most likely future collaborators and supporters. You are likely to closely interact with one or more of these colleagues -- which is precisely why they can, in principle, be the most damaging to your tenure case, as close interactions may, in fact, be too close for comfort and lead to competition, irritation, or animosity. If you end up with a bitter enemy in the department, this person may once have been an ally or a collaborator, and strong interactions led to a clash. So keep your collaborators and allies close, but be careful. For instance, avoid gossiping; if others are gossips, don’t join in – and try to get out of any excessively negative discussion about any of your colleagues.

I am not saying not to trust anyone, but rather to be very, very careful about whom you trust with information that can damage your case. Don’t lose perspective that these faculty will be casting a vote on your tenure case, and that due to strong interactions they will have a strong opinion of you, which sometimes may not be as favorable as you think -- but will carry a lot of weight, coming from someone believed to know you well. Faculty are people, with all their virtues and flaws, and some come with oversize but fragile egos. While it is good to be cautious and I have no doubt scared you out of ever talking with any of your colleagues, you will be encouraged to learn that, in the vast majority of cases, your area colleagues and collaborators are indeed your strongest supporters, and are often the people who will give you the most and the best advice on all issues academic.

Most faculty apart from your area colleagues and/or your collaborators will likely start as ambivalent, or sometimes mildly hostile towards you (if you were hired over a pet candidate in a competing sub-area). Depending on the size of your department, these faculty may be many. These people will be usually be civil but aloof, and will generally think about you in terms of passing interactions and your progress as documented on your CV. These are the people with whom you should be friendly as you serve on committees together and share an occasional lighthearted joke or commiserate about the administration. These are the people who will likely view your CV in objective terms and will support your getting tenure if your record is strong. Moreover, if you have an opportunity to seek guidance or to collaborate with a leading faculty member in area of expertise outside your field, grab it. It can be helpful to have an independent ally outside of your subfield to keep your agenda moving ahead.

Furthermore, I recommend that you lay low in terms of department politics in the first few years on tenure track. Do attend the department faculty meetings, but mostly listen and try to determine how the department hierarchy looks (for example, often the loudest people are not the ones best respected; try to determine who the heavy hitters really are, and who the potentially most difficult ones are).

Department chair. If your department has a rotating department chair position (where a faculty member serves as chair for several years), it is likely that chair will change once and perhaps even twice between your hiring and your tenure decision. Ideally, the chair will be supportive of junior faculty and ensure they are adequately supported in terms of facilities and resources, as well as that they have reduced teaching and service loads at least in the first year or two on tenure track. Also, the chair ought to make sure that you understand the criteria for promotion and that you are given regular feedback on your progress.

Do your best to build a good and collegial relationship with the current chair as both a colleague and an administrator. You should do your share of service as a junior faculty member, but be aware of what the requirements are for all junior faculty and avoid volunteering too much time and energy to activities that do not directly benefit your tenure case, even if you feel this would get you in the chair’s good graces – it likely won’t, not in the way that ensures long-term respect for you. Also, be aware that chair, like any other faculty, may not necessarily be your friend as he/she may have other, stronger loyalties that predate you. If you feel you are not in the chair’s good graces even though you feel you have done nothing wrong, try to be realistic in assessing what chair’s agenda is (with the help of trusted colleagues, if possible) and decide if you need to strategize around it.

Formal and informal mentoring. Some universities require that a formal mentoring committee be assigned to every assistant professor on the tenure track. Mentoring committees often consist of one or two faculty who are supposed to be the first point of contact for tenure track faculty when questions regarding teaching, research, or service arise. The committee may be required to meet with the assistant professor to go over the annual progress report, with or without the department chair. You may have a say in who your committee members are, and it is best if they are people whom you trust. I recommend finding out early what the university-mandated and department-mandated types of feedback on your progress are, and, if there is any type of mentorship you have the right to, I advise that you try to have it materialize. Ensure you get all the feedback that you have the right to, and do so early on.

Sometimes the faculty in a formal mentoring committee are well-intentioned but may be too busy to meet with you when you need them, or you may not be too willing to inconvenience them and ask for advice, so they ultimately fail to fulfill the purpose. But there are usually multiple opportunities for informal mentoring. For instance, excellent mentoring can be provided by your collaborators in other departments, as collaboration keeps the lines of communication open and you can freely say what’s bothering you without it coming back to haunt you at tenure time (of course, gossip travels fast and knows no boundaries between departments, so be cautious whom you trust even outside the department).

Sometimes, if you are member of a minority group, there may be university-wide mechanisms (inquire about them with human resources or diversity affairs office) to have a senior faculty outside your department assigned as a formal mentor. This person can also offer plenty of advice on the workings of the university, and you can share your thoughts and fears relatively freely as this person will again not be casting a vote on your tenure case.

Peer support. Most universities offer introductory/orientation workshops for new faculty. These are great opportunities to meet young faculty from other departments, who will be undergoing the trial by fire in much the same way as you. Often, some of these people end up joining the group of your closest friends, as they understand exactly what you are going through while not being your direct competition. I recommend getting involved in these workshops, and taking advantage of any later activities that foster interdepartmental peer bonding, such as college-level or university-level junior faculty coffee or lunch meetings. In addition, for minority faculty, there are often more-or-less formal support and fellowship groups (e.g., groups reaching out to women in sciences, or to international faculty).

If there is no established infrastructure for this type of support, consider starting your own peer support group with a few kindred spirits you have identified in different departments. Make it a habit to meet every few weeks or monthly for lunch or drinks after work. At least until tenure, it is certainly less dangerous to complain to a friend from a different department about the annoying Prof. Bigshot from yours than it is to give Bigshot a piece of your mind. Do not underestimate the therapeutic powers of camaraderie and commiseration on your well-being and professional success.


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