Dear Kerry Ann,
I’m heading into my fourth year on the tenure track at a research-intensive university, and I’m still reeling from the third-year review I received last May. I’ve been working myself to the bone for the past three years, but in my review, my colleagues focused almost exclusively on criticizing my publication record, which I admit is not strong. My high teaching evaluations were barely mentioned, and they completely devalued my community work by counting it as service instead of scholarship. They even had the nerve to tell me, moving forward, to cut down my service by half -- without acknowledging the value of it to our campus.
How do I get my colleagues to realize that the community work I do should count as scholarship, that my teaching (which I spend a lot of time on) should be more highly valued and that they should stop fixating on the number of journal articles I’ve published? How do I get them to understand who I am and evaluate me for tenure accordingly? I want to win tenure, but I want to do so on my own terms.
Dear Miss Understood,
I appreciate your candor, and I know it can be difficult to receive a critical third-year review. When you’re working long hours and pouring your blood, sweat and tears into your work, it’s painful to hear that you’re coming up short or that your department’s values may be different than yours.
Without reading your review or knowing your university’s specific promotion and tenure criteria, I’m going to assume that being at a research-intensive university means that your promotion criteria are heavily weighted toward research. You’ve acknowledged that your publication record is below expectations, while your teaching and service activities exceed expectations. So it seems to me that there’s a disconnect between how you’re spending your time and how you’re going to be evaluated.
I’m afraid I’m about to say some things that are going to be hard to hear, but please know that I’m saying them with love, respect and the desire for you to get what you want: tenure at your current institution. That’s entirely possible, even with a critical third review to overcome, but if by “on your own terms” you mean that you want to dictate the criteria by which you will be evaluated, that’s not going to happen.
Your third-year review is providing an opportunity for you to discern the difference between how you believe things should be and the reality in which you currently exist. This is a critically important moment in your professional development, and it will require you to answer some hard questions in order to choose your path forward. Only you can make those decisions, but allow me to suggest a few thoughts for your consideration.
Those With Power Make the Rules
It sounds like you believe that your tenure and promotion criteria are negotiable, but they are not. By accepting a professorship at a research-intensive university, you implicitly agreed to promotion guidelines that are heavily weighted toward publishing your research in peer-reviewed journals in your field. That is the job you accepted, and that is the professional life you have chosen (at least for now).
At the most basic level, evaluation is a power issue. In other words, those who hold the power set the criteria. For example, who sets the evaluation criteria in your classes -- you or your students? Who sets the evaluation criteria for successful dissertations -- you or your doctoral advisees? In both cases, you have power, so you set the criteria and it’s up to your students to meet it. Similarly, awarding tenure is a major commitment by your university, and as such, your colleagues (at multiple levels) will evaluate you according to the existing criteria.
I want you to understand this point for two reasons. First and foremost, trying to single-handedly change the tenure and promotion criteria on your campus -- while you are on the tenure track -- is a fool’s errand. I’ve seen far too many brilliant scholars take this path and go down in flames. But if you truly believe in broadening what counts as scholarship (not just for yourself, but as a metric by which future faculty members are evaluated) then you will be the most effective in doing so by organizing other like-minded senior faculty members and working for change after you win tenure.
You Always Have Choices
While your university sets the criteria by which you will be evaluated for tenure and promotion, you get to choose whether or not you want to meet their criteria. In other words, you’re not powerless in the situation, because you have choices. You can choose to meet their expectations by changing how you spent your time. Alternatively, you can choose to view your tenure-track years as a seven-year postdoc. However you frame your time on the tenure track, now is the moment for you to make a conscious and intentional choice while recognizing that there are consequences to your decision.
For example, you can choose to continue investing the majority of your time in teaching and service, despite your colleagues letting you know that those areas are less weighted than research. Making that choice means that you accept the fact that you’re investing your time in activities that will not be institutionally rewarded but that you want to do anyway. You may earn lots of good karma, beautiful thank-you notes from students and profound personal fulfillment, but that doesn’t change the weighting of research in your evaluation.
Alternatively, you can also choose to invest your time (especially for the next two years) in the activity that you’re being told has the most weight: producing peer-reviewed journal articles in your field. There are also consequences to that decision in terms of your daily activity. You will have to learn to teach more efficiently, reduce your service and commit to writing every day.
It’s ultimately up to you to decide how you spend your time each day, but let’s be clear about the outcomes and consequences. Choosing to spend your time as you have in the past is equivalent to choosing not to win tenure at your current institution. It does not mean you are redefining the tenure criteria “on your own terms,” no matter how much you wish you were. Alternatively, choosing to shift your focus to your research and publishing means you will improve the probability of winning tenure. It will also improve your position on the job market if you don’t. The choice is up to you, and I encourage you to make it intentionally.
Your Review Is a Gift
I wonder if you are open to reframing your review? Personally, I believe that your colleagues gave you a tremendous gift. They let you know, in no uncertain terms, where you stand and what adjustments you need to make in order to be successful. They told you directly to: 1) prioritize writing and publication, 2) economize your teaching and 3) cut your service in half.
It’s both a gift of clarity and -- dare I say -- a two-year pass to say no to half of all incoming service requests. If it were me, I would refer to my third-year review every single time I received a service request by politely saying, “I wish I could, but my department has told me that I’m doing too much service. If I want to win tenure, I’ve got to focus on my writing, so I’ll have to respectfully decline your invitation to be on the landscaping committee this year.”
The Big Questions
If you have read thus far and your response is that you really wish your job were primarily teaching and service, then I must ask a few bigger and far more difficult questions: 1) Is your current job a good fit for you? 2) Do you want to spend your career trying to convince others on your campus that they should value the activities that you value? 3) How would it feel to work at an institution that is already aligned with your values and with colleagues who share them?
I have many clients who have gone on the market in their fourth year on the tenure track, particularly after a critical third-year review. They found jobs that are a better fit with who they are -- and who they want to become -- as professors. I know it’s hard to imagine, but it may be worth considering that it is easier to change jobs than to change the evaluation criteria for tenure at your current institution.
I realize that after many years in graduate school, one of the most uncomfortable realities about being on the tenure track is that you are, in fact, on probation. Yes, your colleagues are colleagues, but at the end of your probationary period, they are people who will go into a room, close the door and vote on your future. No matter what your opinion of the current tenure system, it is what it is, and it’s unlikely to change between now and your tenure review. Once you recognize that reality, you can start making intentional choices about how to spend your time during the coming year.
Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.
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