Your Tenure Decision Year

Kerry Ann Rockquemore suggests ways to minimize stress and think ahead -- regardless of what your department decides.

July 29, 2015

Dear Kerry Ann,

I'm coming up for tenure this year, and while I've done everything I can to create the strongest possible portfolio, I feel anxious, insecure and somewhat resentful. My anxiety stems from the fact that I'm going to have to spend the better part of the academic year wondering about my future. It’s going to be awkward going about my daily activities as if everything is normal, all the while knowing that people are reading my materials, meeting together and making decisions that have a significant impact on my life.

While the specter of my colleagues openly exercising power over me has loomed large over the past five years, the idea that it's actually happening this year feels overwhelming. Why does it have to be this long and dramatic a process? Even though my mentors keep telling me I have a strong case, I don't know how I will make it through the year.


Anxiously Under Review

Dear Anxious,

I understand how unsettling the tenure-track years can be, and I know that for many faculty members the year you are under review is the pinnacle of that stress. I agree that the system we currently use to evaluate faculty for tenure is unnecessarily lengthy and opaque, but I don’t imagine your campus will be changing its tenure process before you come up for review. Because you can’t change the external circumstances and you’ve done everything you can to put together a strong case, what’s left to work on is how you frame the year ahead. So take a deep breath and let’s reconsider this new year in a fundamentally different way.

New Year, New Story

While it's not uncommon for your tenure review year to feel like a pressure cooker, that doesn't have to be the case. You can choose to think about this year in any way that supports you and your professional development. In other words, you’re currently visualizing it as a year where you are under the complete power and control of your colleagues. That's a pretty disempowering story, but it's only one of many possibilities. Alternatively, you could interpret this year as a year of transition, because you are, in fact, starting this year as an assistant professor and you will either end this year as a tenured associate professor or you will be moving on. And to state the obvious, a year of transition is a significantly more empowering story than “I’m at the mercy of my colleagues.”

Because you have a strong case, why not choose an empowering story? It will encourage all kinds of positive activity. If the upcoming year is a year of transition, then it means you can spend the year planning your posttenure pathway and laying the groundwork for your posttenure projects. Whether those are service activities that you've postponed until an appropriate stage of your career, more ambitious intellectual projects, drafting fellowship applications, or something else entirely, these activities will all provide you with a direction for your nervous energy that is significantly more useful than ruminating on things that are outside your control.

New Year, New Mentoring Network

If you’re willing to reframe the year as a transition period, then it becomes a great opportunity to start rethinking your mentoring network for your next chapter. Every time we transition from one stage of our career to another, we need new mentors, new skills and new strategies for success. So why not start building that next-level mentoring network this year? Building out the next level of your mentoring network will enable you to have conversations you wouldn't have had otherwise, consider options that you might not have considered and open up new opportunities you didn’t even know existed.

New Year, New Self-Care

I’m not suggesting that you won’t experience some unusual stressors this year that are unique to being under review. You most definitely will! But in times that we know will be stressful, why not add in some extra self-care? Consider what activities bring you stress relief (not just momentary avoidance) and give yourself permission to have more of them! Whether it’s exercise, time with friends, sex, journaling, yoga, laughing, gardening, playing music or getting a massage, go ahead and structure some of that stress relief by putting it in your calendar now (daily, weekly and monthly).

New Year, New Job Possibilities

I know there are mixed opinions on this, but I believe that tenure-track faculty with strong research portfolios should go on the job market during the year they are under review for tenure. I have this opinion for several reasons. First and foremost, it’s a safety valve for you as a scholar. If you get turned down, it’s better to shift directly into another position than spend a tortuous terminal year (after being turned down) interacting with those who rejected you. And if you do win tenure, it will enable you to choose whether you want to stay at your current institution or go elsewhere. Explicit choices increase commitment, and that is a win for you and your campus.

But even more importantly, there’s just a certain way that we all get taken for granted by our departmental colleagues. Familiarity often breeds devaluation of our work, not validation. As such, being on the market during your tenure year has an amazing way of putting you into contact with people who are genuinely excited about your research, thrilled by the possibility of your joining them and actively courting you. Campus visits under these conditions can be invigorating and transform your energy from “I hope they let me stay here” to “let me check out my options and decide if I want to stay.”

New Year, New Perspective

Finally, it may also be helpful to remind yourself that this is your job, not your life. If you win tenure and are promoted to associate professor, you will still be the same person (but with a different title). And if you get turned down, you will recover, move on and be successful elsewhere. I mention this because sometimes we elevate the decision to a level that is so high that being turned down feels like annihilation and winning feels hollow. You may want to consider what (or who) can consistently help you to put this decision into perspective.

I hope that you can sense the core issue at work in all of these suggestions: while it’s true that others are making an important decision that will impact your professional life, you are not powerless. Moments when you feel power differentials acutely are precisely the moments you want to step back, reframe the situation, reach out to others, enhance your self-care and remind yourself that winning or losing tenure is not a life-and-death decision.

I hope that readers will offer their own thoughts and experiences on surviving the tenure review year in the comments below, and keep the great questions coming! You can email me ( or leave a question on my Facebook page.

Peace and productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore

President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity


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