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Earning tenure is a multiyear process, and if you are just starting your faculty career, you will want to learn how the review, tenure and promotion, or RTP, process works on your campus. There are two major aspects.

First is the timeline for the submission and review of your documentation. Second are the criteria by which you will be judged. While not a checklist, the criteria indicate the sorts of things you need to achieve by the time you submit your file.

Many times, we focus solely on the criteria, as they can be viewed somewhat like a to-do list, and checking off items brings us comfort. Losing track of the timeline, however, can have dire consequences, so you should be mindful of both.

The Timeline

The process includes two different types of reviews: formative check-in reviews and summative decision points. Some universities also require you to write during your first or second year a professional development plan covering goals for your first six years. In addition to helping you chart out milestones for scholarly and creative work, grant submissions, and teaching and service obligations, you can create your own timeline to keep you on track for earning tenure. (If your campus does not require you to do this, make yourself do it.)

Early-career faculty members have multiple formative reviews. In many cases, the required documentation for such evaluations is less onerous than for the summative reviews. You might submit an updated CV and short narrative without any of the artifacts to back up your claims. Alternatively, you might submit artifacts associated with the past year or review period.

No employment decisions are made as a result of these reviews, but they are important because of the feedback you receive. The committees reviewing your file during these lower-stakes reviews should comment on your progress toward meeting tenure expectations and give you guidance on what to do to be successful.

Your summative reviews will likely come in year three (retention or reappointment) and year six (tenure and promotion).Year three will likely bring a reappointment decision -- whether to retain you and for how many years -- while year six typically involves tenure and promotion decisions. At each summative stage, you submit a file, usually much more extensive than for formative reviews, and your file is reviewed. The reappointment or retention review is followed by additional formative assessment reviews before the tenure and promotion decision.

If you have been awarded service credit, your timeline will be compressed. Service credit is time served in other positions that is applied to your tenure clock, with products developed during that time counting toward tenure. For instance, you might negotiate one year of service credit for a prior position.

Another factor that will influence your timeline is if you opt to temporarily stop the tenure clock -- for family reasons, for instance. Or, in contrast, some of you may decide that you would like to apply for tenure and promotion earlier than required. While the promotion, prestige and pay raise that come with early tenure are tempting, the stakes are high and you should be thoughtful when making that decision.

For formative and summative evaluations, you receive feedback from each committee level of review. Depending on the type of review, the feedback comes from department, college and university committees; your chair; the dean; and even the provost or president. You should bring the feedback home and read it over a cup of tea or glass of wine. The information you receive from the reviews leading up to tenure or promotion should influence what you do moving forward and what you write about in later reviews.

Criteria and Expectations

You should know as much as you can about the evaluation process. First, read and review the policy documents on your campus to understand the formal written guidelines and criteria. Second, consult with your colleagues about their understanding of and experiences with the process.

The RTP criteria and process should be spelled out in department-, college- and university-level policy documents. These documents represent a contract between you and the institution, laying out what you are expected to do in order to get tenure and promotions. The criteria are not meant to be a surprise. The document’s level of specificity varies from department to department and campus to campus. The intent, however, is for you to be evaluated objectively on the evidence you provide that demonstrates you have met the standards of performance in your assigned duties and scholarly and creative endeavors. Knowing what is expected of you helps you plan your first six years as a faculty member.

You should review the policy and document before you accept a job offer. The tenure and promotion guidelines on most campuses are public, and the process should be transparent. RTP documents have guidelines for instructionally related activities, scholarship and service. Pay attention to all three areas.

While we urge you to craft your own career trajectory, do not ignore this document. Just as the timeline for the review process impacts when you might need to accomplish certain tasks, the requirements themselves can help you prioritize activities and efforts.

Here are just a few examples of ways in which deep knowledge of RTP criteria and expectations can help you be strategic:

  • Suppose you need to publish four peer-reviewed articles to get tenure. Those articles need to be submitted in sufficient time that they can be reviewed, revised and resubmitted, and perhaps even in print by the time you submit your file for tenure. If your campus requires external evaluation of your file, the deadlines for submitting manuscripts will probably be compressed, because those articles need to be sent to external reviewers. You must plan with this information in mind.
  • If your department RTP guidelines indicate that you must publish a book to be tenured, with peer-reviewed articles as enhancements to the file, then you know you must spend time working toward a book contract and release.

Having a well-thought-through plan also helps keep you focused. You will be asked to serve on committees, invited to collaborate on grants and projects, requested to participate in outreach activities, and more. The opportunities might be wonderful and career enhancing, but if they do not align with your career plan, they may pull you away from your goals and keep you from doing the work you must do in order to keep your job.

Understanding institutional context is crucial to deciphering expectations. Minimum expectations for tenure and promotion vary across institution types. If you are at a research-intensive university, expectations for scholarly outputs are greater than if you are at a teaching-intensive university. The emphasis placed on service varies by campus and department as well. Additionally, the level of specificity in the document detailing what is required to earn tenure varies. The intent, however, is for you to be evaluated objectively on the evidence you provide demonstrating you have met the standards of performance in your assigned duties and scholarly and creative endeavors. A careful reading of the RTP document can help guide you.

Recognize also that, whatever the institution, people are rarely promoted and granted tenure for their outstanding service contributions. The balance between teaching and scholarship is differs at each campus, but you need to meet minimal standards in both to get tenure. If it is a choice between getting an article or grant submitted and serving on a time-consuming committee, the scholarly work is probably a better choice.

Uncovering Unwritten Expectations

Almost as important as what is written in the RTP guidelines is what is not written. Some of this ambiguity is understandable -- you cannot put every detail in a document -- but some of it is driven by the personal inclinations of senior faculty or administrators or the slow ramping up of expectations over time. While the ambiguity is not ideal, and is frustrating for many early-career faculty members, it may be the situation within which you must work.

In addition to reading the document, you also need to gauge the culture of your department and campus. This is where talking with your colleagues can be invaluable. As you think about whom to talk with, we recommend respected senior colleagues in your department, colleagues who have recently served on RTP committees and department colleagues who are slightly ahead of you in the process. Colleagues outside your department, college or school are generally less useful, as expectations may vary considerably. Senior colleagues who have not served on an RTP committee or who received tenure long ago are also less useful, as they are less likely to be familiar with current expectations, so you should talk with a variety of people.

Pick their brains about what counts, what is important and where you can best put your energy. However, always recognize that your faculty colleagues do not know your entire story or your complete file. When they compliment you and say you are a slam dunk for earning tenure, they do so with good intentions and incomplete information. While nice to hear, it may not be reliable feedback. Therefore, talk with them, listen to them, but corroborate your understanding by checking with lots of colleagues in your department, including your department chair.

It’s important to uncover unspoken expectations related to teaching, research and service. Here are some examples of questions that might not be addressed explicitly in the RTP policy but could have some bearing on your experience.

  • If peer-reviewed research articles are required, must one (or more) be in a certain type of journal, or is any peer-reviewed publication acceptable?
  • Must you be sole author on articles? If you collaborate, how important is lead authorship?
  • Should you be co-authoring with students?
  • How acceptable are online publications?
  • Should you be using data collected in your current position rather than in a graduate student or postdoc role?
  • Must your instructor evaluation ratings be excellent, merely close to the department mean, or show growth over time?
  • Is experimenting with new pedagogies and strategies in your courses encouraged, or should you be more conservative before tenure?
  • Where should you focus your service work for retention and, after that, for promotion and tenure? Do you need service work at all three levels (department, college and university)?
  • How is consulting work reported and counted?

By following these recommendations, you’ll be in a better place to chart your next steps.

In a follow-up article, we will describe how to create the reappointment, tenure or promotion file that shows your best work.

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