Mic-Drop Advice for Getting Promoted and Tenured

Katie D. Lewis provides recommendations for how to succeed along the tenure track in each key area of academe -- while also balancing the demands of motherhood.

October 29, 2020
 
 
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A decade ago, I earned my doctorate from William & Mary. A year later, I married and moved cross-country to live on the border in Texas. After one year of working as an adjunct and the birth of my first child, I accepted a visiting professor, non-tenure-track position at Texas A&M International University. One year later, I moved into an assistant professor position there, thus beginning my journey to become a tenured faculty member. Seven years, four babies and a second cross-country move later, I earned my tenure and promotion at York College of Pennsylvania.

The question I received most from colleagues and other Ph.D. graduates during my journey was “How? How are you doing this?” People asked this especially once they realized that I had four children under the age of 6, a husband whose job requires him to be away frequently and no immediate family living nearby.

After dropping the mic for a moment, I’m ready to share my advice to other young faculty beginning their journey to tenure and promotion who may also be wondering: How? How am I going to accomplish this? How will I successfully raise a family and travel this path? Is it worth it?

As a tenure-track professor, you must excel in three areas of scholarship: teaching, research and service. Everyone has a one area that is a strength; the trick is to identify your areas of weakness and find ways to strengthen them. Here are some recommendations for succeeding in each area.

Teaching

Keep a growth mind-set. Don’t be afraid to try something new. Just because the course has always been taught one way doesn’t mean that is the best or only way to teach it.

Be a reflective practitioner. Teach the course at least one semester following the previous syllabus (if you are lucky enough to be given one), and then, during that semester, make notes of what worked really well and what you might change. I make notes right on the syllabus, or if another professor and I teach the same course in multiple sections, we start an email thread of ideas back and forth. Don’t wait until the following semester to address the ideas -- you will not remember them.

Collect data. Course evaluations are not always the most useful surveys. How often does the information guide you on the specifics of your assignments? Instead, distribute informal surveys to students at midterms and finals to gather meaningful information about the assignments, lectures and any other areas where you’d like feedback. If you try a new lecture, activity or assignment, ask the students for reactions on the assignment immediately afterward: What would they change or keep? Students are brutally honest. When you gather feedback along the way, you have an opportunity to respond to any concerns and make changes.

Be consistent and fair. If you want to avoid the negative tomatoes on RateMyProfessor, you need to be consistent. Don’t let one student slide on attendance but hammer another. Students respect professors who maintain academic rigor and high expectations.

Align the course content. Teaching should not be done in a vacuum. Talk with the other professors in the department and find out how they are teaching similar content. Align your courses so that students are able to see how one course connects with another.

Strategically assign due dates. This will protect your own sanity as well as the students'. Do not have all of the major term papers or projects due during finals week. You will drown in grading. Instead, map out the assignments across all the courses you teach so they come in on a staggered timeline, allowing you to provide feedback and grades in a timely manner.

Give timely, specific and actionable feedback. This is key for helping the students grow as learners. No student appreciates finding out at the end of the semester a grade for an assignment they turned in weeks before. Make every effort to grade assignments within a reasonable amount of time.

Connect with the students. Share a story related to your lecture during class, ask student athletes about their competitions, find a student to mentor in undergraduate research. Building respect and rapport with students is essential for becoming a successful teacher.

Research

Identify your research agenda. Knowing your research agenda is essential for being successful in the field. Your research may have one core thread and several related spokes. That is OK, but they should all connect to the main area.

Set long-term and short-term research plans. The research process is a slow and steady -- moving through IRB, collecting data, analyzing the data and writing all take time. Therefore, you need to create plans for research over the next three years, two years and the current year. Consider ways to divide the data into multiple articles.

Be a tortoise, not a hare. It takes a long time for a manuscript to be published in top journals. You will be rejected. Take a moment and be angry, but then refocus, consider the reviewers’ feedback and create a plan of action. Can you revise and resubmit? Should you find a different journal?

Collaborate with colleagues. Find people within your department, college or university who have similar research agendas and collaborate. It’s good to find someone outside your institution, as well. The more opportunities you have to write with others, the more papers you will publish -- and also the better writer you will become. But be strategic about with whom you choose to collaborate. Consider their publication history, their motivation to write and the topic of their scholarship. Even if they’re an amazing researcher, if their research agenda isn’t aligned with yours, then the partnership may not be beneficial to you.

Be a one-person show. It’s also important to be published as a solo author. You need to establish your identity as a researcher in the field.

Become a grant writer. Grants are important for securing funding for your research, travel and scholarship. Applying for them is time-consuming, so ask other people who have written grants for advice and guidance. Aim for low-hanging fruit: if your institution offers internal grants, apply for them. That is an excellent way to get started as a grant writer, as well as for establishing your research presence at the institution.

Present your findings. Share your research at conferences and with colleagues on your campus. Other faculty members may not know what you are doing until you share.

Set aside time for research. At the beginning of each semester, set a one- or two-hour block of time a week for writing. Put it on your calendar, and give it a code name. Be selfish and don’t give up that time for other tasks.

Service

Play an active role on your campus. You will serve on some committees just because you are voluntold. Instead of grumbling, participate enthusiastically.

Take on leadership positions. Step up to help lead a department, college or institutionwide committee. It’s an excellent opportunity to make a name for yourself within the university and to have an impact.

Be active in professional organizations. Get involved on a variety of levels -- state, national and international. Again, you want to be strategic in your selection of committee roles. Consider the value to the organization, the time commitment and the benefit for you.

Reach out to local organizations. Find ways to give back to the community in which you live. Ask your colleagues where they serve locally and use this information, along with your personal interest, to identify an area where you can contribute.

Be strategic. Service at a variety of levels is important, but you cannot do it all. Think carefully about where you want to serve and in what role. It’s OK to be member in some organizations and a leader for others. Work smarter, not harder, and consider ways your service may also benefit your research or teaching agenda.

Network. Go to social events on your campus and create opportunities for collaboration across departments. Remember: representatives from across all disciplines serve on the tenure and promotion committees.

Each of these three areas are important to achieving success as a tenured professor. You cannot ignore one area and be successful. But if you are feeling overwhelmed, remember to strive for balance in some of the following ways:

Again, be strategic. The three areas do not operate in isolation, so find a way to combine them. For example, conduct a short-term research study focused on the courses you teach, or mentor an undergraduate student in a research project. Tie your research to your service and your teaching.

Find a mentor. Identify at least two people in the field to be your unofficial mentors. One person should be someone from your institution who can help guide you through all the unwritten protocol and provide practical advice. The second person should be from outside the institution and be able to provide the same mentoring as the first, but with a fresh perspective.

Seek out partnerships. Partnerships are important to your long-term success. Get to know colleagues on your campus and other professionals within your field. Attend conferences and go to social events. You are not only building a reputation but also creating a support system for yourself. Also, don’t let go of your ties outside higher education -- you will need those relationships for grounding. Find the person who is your cheerleader, the person that believes in you and your dream even when you falter. For me, that is my husband.

Take care of yourself. It is easy to become consumed by your tenure trek. Schedule downtime. Find ways to decompress outside work. Balance is hard to achieve, but if you cannot pause, you will become overwhelmed.

Motherhood

Motherhood was, in fact, the fourth element in my tenure-track journey. It is as overwhelming, awe-inspiring and time-consuming as research, teaching and service. Newborns shake up your life in wondrous ways, however, time seems to evaporate and previous routines go out the window.

To be successful, I had to adapt and find new ways to structure my time both at home and at work. For example, I am most productive in the early-morning hours before the rest of the house wakes up. This has become my time -- whether it is to catch up on housework, grading or reading emails, to get things done.

Some of the other advice I would share:

Be present. When you are home with the little ones, be present -- put down the cellphone, iPad or laptop. Be silly, have a dance party, play soccer and find joy in your children. Really engage with and enjoy being with your children and the joy they bring to the world. These precious moments can recenter and help you to refocus.

Find a mom tribe. Support systems are important, so find a tribe of women who understand the balancing act of working and parenting. Similarly, networking is essential in this career, and conferences provide a much-needed space to reconnect with peers, engage in adult conversation and find quiet time to write.

Something has to give. The demands of motherhood are infinite, but you cannot do it all. I learned this lesson the hard way. Look for an area that you can take a shortcut. Your baby will not remember if you used cloth diapers or disposable diapers. Not every meal needs to be from scratch. It is OK if the baby goes to daycare or rides the bus. In the end, your child will remember how you made them feel, and they will be proud of you for all that you have accomplished.

Is the journey along the tenure track worth it? Absolutely. Will it be easy? Probably not. Is it any easier on the other side of the tenure fence? Not really. You’ll have new goals and challenges to meet. But in the words of Kobe Bryant, “It is not the destination, it’s the journey. And if you guys can understand that, then what you’ll see happen is you won’t accomplish your dreams, your dreams won’t come true; something greater will.”

Bio

Katie D. Lewis is associate professor of education at York College of Pennsylvania.

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