Ask the Right Questions

Candidates for tenure should not count on their departments or colleagues to clearly lay out what's expected of them, Rena Seltzer writes.

September 18, 2015
 

Sonya was upset when her colleague was denied tenure at the college level despite having departmental support. She explained when I interviewed her for my book:

"It isn’t as if Dawn hadn’t published a lot, but they are not giving her full credit because of the kinds of publications that she has. The senior people in her department didn’t have the kind of record that they now expect. And there are fewer publishing outlets than there used to be. Dawn really believed in collaborative work, and our college encouraged that. When they told her to consider projects with this department and that group, she didn’t realize that they also expected her to have some solo work. And they say that teaching is valued here, but they don’t really mean that. And no one ever says exactly what the requirements are."

Dawn was able to resubmit her portfolio the following year, and with some additional publications, she was granted tenure. But in addition to the stress on Dawn, the prolonged consideration of her case put a strain on her entire department, as well as other faculty members in the college.

The themes Sonya raised echo frustrations I hear over and over again from my coaching clients. The bar has been raised at all levels of higher education. Universities are attempting to boost their research profiles in order to attract top students and bring in grants. Assistant professors are expected to have more publications in top-ranked journals than was required 10 or even five years ago. A frequent refrain is, “My senior colleagues wouldn’t be here if they had been held to the standards expected of me.” Written guidelines are frequently vague enough that even for an exemplary teacher with a solid service record and solo publications in top-tier journals, promotion is not guaranteed. Despite the uncertainty, there is much that can be done to increase one’s likelihood of success.

Review Requirements

To understand expectations for promotion, start by reviewing the written requirements for your department or institution, but don’t stop there. You will need information from several sources to gain as clear an understanding as possible. Senior mentors can be helpful, but their advice is not always up-to-date. One professor said that although her graduate school adviser had some useful guidance, “she’s also given me advice that worked for her in the 1960s and the 1970s, which is really different than me in the 1990s and 2000s.”

Given changing standards, it is helpful to also look at the records of people in your department who went through the process recently. Because many professors post CVs on their websites, they are easy to access and can be used as points of comparison. You can also ask successful colleagues who went up shortly before you if they would be willing to share their promotion files. In addition to showing the number and types of publications, these files include teaching and research statements that can be used as models.

Look Farther Afield

If you do work that is off the beaten path, you may need to look farther afield for sample promotion materials. For example, public health researchers engaged in community-based scholarship cannot produce publications as quickly as their lab-based counterparts, so they need to provide context for evaluators to understand their body of work. Scholars whose work is outside of their department’s mainstream can reach out to colleagues in similar situations, even if they are at other institutions, to ask for sample research statements.

Understand the Local Environment

Because the unwritten rules and expectations vary greatly among institutions and departments, it is also crucial to understand your local environment. A professor who trained at a major research university but joined the faculty at a teaching college explains,

"The advice I got from my adviser at a Research I university was not necessarily the same advice that my dean would give or that the committee deciding tenure would give. That was an important realization for me. The big advice my adviser gave was to negotiate for a lesser teaching load, and so I already had -- I didn’t know this until several years later -- a negative mark on me from my department because here I was trying to get out of teaching in their minds. My adviser was giving me good advice if you’re going to a research university, but if you’re going to a university where teaching is more important, or teaching is the same importance as research, then that’s not good advice. And my other adviser had told me, you need to publish already, and you need to publish, past tense, and you need to be going on your book, and that isn’t at all what my department was telling me. Oh, and you need to be going to conferences all the time, and that wasn’t at all what my department and my college was telling me."

This professor did need to complete her book to get tenure, but with a lower overall publishing expectation, her colleagues were more concerned that she get off to a good start as a teacher than that she publish early. And because her program did not expect faculty members to have name recognition with the leaders in the field, presenting at conferences was not a priority.

Ask Specific Questions

When my coaching clients ask senior colleagues directly about criteria for promotion, they are sometimes frustrated by replies such as “I’m not the best person to ask” or vague admonitions to publish “as much as possible.” Professors often get more insight when they ask a specific question; for example, “I made a list of publishing venues and ranked them as A level or B level. Do my rankings look right to you?” Another approach is to explain that you value the person’s input but will be talking to others as well and don’t expect him or her to be the final arbiter on the subject. People are often more willing to offer their opinions with this type of disclaimer.

To uncover unwritten expectations, ask these questions:

  1. How many articles should I be getting out each year? What do you think is a minimum number, a middle-of-the-road number, above average?
  2. I made a list of possible outlets for publication. Could you help me rank them? How would you rank this newer journal or this online journal?
  3. Is it better to have fewer articles in top-tier journals or many publications in less competitive outlets? Is there a minimum number that have to hit the top tier?
  4. How important is it that I have some solo work? Is one paper enough, or do I need several? If most of my work is collaborative, could you help me think through how I might get a solo article out of my research? Would a review paper count for a solo work? What about a theory paper?
  5. How do books count as compared to articles?
  6. Do I get credit for book chapters or only peer-reviewed articles? If I can arrange to have my book chapter go through a blind review process, will that count?
  7. What criteria are used to determine national/international recognition?
  8. Is a particular type or size of grant required for promotion?

Don’t be surprised if you receive different answers from different people. Although you may never get an exact blueprint to follow, having conversations with several senior colleagues and taking a look at the publishing records of those recently promoted in your department will give you a clearer picture of what is needed and increase your chances of success.

Bio

Rena Seltzer is president of Leader Academic, a national coaching and training business based in Ann Arbor, Mich. This essay is adapted from her new book, The Coach’s Guide for Women Professors Who Want a Successful Career and a Well-Balanced Life (Stylus).

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