What is a tenure narrative?
A tenure narrative (also known as your personal statement) is a statement that describes your career: what you have done in the areas of teaching, research, and service. The statement should be a strong and persuasive case for excellence in teaching and research and make clear your valuable service contributions. It includes an executive summary and/or introduction, and sections on teaching, research, and service, and may include appendices of supporting documents.
Not everything you do will fit neatly into separate categories; blending of categories will sometimes happen. For example, mentoring undergraduates in research is arguably both teaching and research, and (depending on your institution) should be addressed in either the research or the teaching category, or both. Similarly, research in undergraduate education may have aspects that fit not only in research but also in teaching.
Who is your audience?
Your tenure narrative serves three audiences: (1) colleagues in your department; (2) people in the tenure review process who are not in your field (e.g., deans, college Promotion and Tenure (P&T) committee members, provosts, presidents); and possibly (3) colleagues at other institutions, if external review is part of the P&T process at your institution.
Your narrative provides the department, dean, P&T committee, provost, etc. with a broad overview of who you are, what you have contributed, and why it's a good idea to keep you and/or reward you with a promotion. A positive recommendation at the department and institutional levels will draw from the evidence provided to them in your narrative and CV.
Your narrative provides your external reviewers with a broad overview of your academic career (research, teaching, and service). These referees may be unaware of all the other things you do in your academic life, so don't skimp in your self-assessment of teaching and service contributions. A strong letter from an external reviewer will draw from the evidence provided to them in your narrative and CV.
How to showcase strengths
- Executive summary or introduction: For some reviewers this may only be that part of your narrative that will be read in detail; the remainder may be skimmed. Try to strike the right balance between too much technical jargon and a clear explanation of the different facets of your science. State your career goals, highlight your major contributions to date, and present a clear vision of where you're heading in the near future.
- Research section: Tell the reader what it is that you do, why you're excited about the science, and why it's an interesting (valuable) line of inquiry. What are the principle scientific questions that drive your research interests? What is your vision for your future research? Mention the number of publications since joining the faculty at your institution, as well as the number and total amount of grant awards since joining the faculty. When highlighting your research productivity explain co-authored publications, especially when you take secondary authorship to one of your students.
- Teaching section: Describe your philosophy regarding the teaching and training of the next generation of scientists and, if appropriate, non-scientists (for example, general education students or future K-12 teachers). Prepare a table that summarizes your teaching activity semester by semester (including course number, course title, number of students, and course evaluation information); acknowledge if the course is co-taught.
- Service section: Prepare a table that summarizes your service contributions to the department, college and/or university, and profession (including leadership roles and dates of service). Describe how your service contributions support the mission of your department and of your institution.
- Appendices: Include documents that support and highlight what you write in your narrative, such as reprints of your publications, examples of teaching materials that will represent excellence in your teaching (e.g., original lab exercises, syllabuses, and course websites), awards, research proposal summaries, and media articles about your work.
How to address weaknesses
Your narrative is also the place to acknowledge and address issues in teaching, research, and service that might be perceived as weaknesses. Your narrative provides the opportunity to demonstrate that you recognize the issue, you have learned from it, and you have moved forward in an appropriate and professional way.
An example: Perhaps you had a series of poor teaching evaluations for a period of time. This needs to be addressed. If the teaching evaluations were poor early on but improved with time, discuss what you did to overcome the challenges. How did you adjust your teaching methods to address the needs and/or concerns of the students? If your teaching evaluations were weak during a semester in which you were experimenting with a new course or new teaching method, what did you learn from the constructive feedback? Narrative reflection on teaching success and challenges can help reviewers understand inconsistencies in teaching.
R. Mark Leckie is professor and head of the geosciences department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Kristen St. John is professor of geology and environmental science at James Madison University. This essay is adapted from one they wrote for On the Cutting Edge.
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