Telling Postdocs About Tenure

Two groups that support basic research sponsor weeklong course to help young scientists navigate through their universities.
June 9, 2005

Higher education associations and scholarly societies can release all the reports they want to about how colleges are or should be paying more attention to teaching in the tenure process. But when the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund convened a panel to advise postdocs and new faculty members in the sciences on how to win tenure Wednesday, the overpowering message was: Research is still king.

"I have two words for you: grants and papers," said Matthew Redinbo, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Teaching and service "have to be there" and can't be ignored, he said, but "it's the first two things that are going to get you tenure."

Redinbo represented the newly tenured at Wednesday's session, which was part of a weeklong course in scientific management at the Howard Hughes campus in Bethesda, Md., outside Washington.

Suzanne Pfeffer, professor and chairman of the biochemistry department at Stanford University, represented those on the judging end of the process, and her message was similar. "Most important, of course, is scholarship," Pfeffer said in ranking the areas of evaluation for a tenure candidate.

(That doesn't mean, though, that bad teaching -- or at least poor teaching evaluations -- can't hurt you, Pfeffer said in relating that "medical students can say the most amazing things" that tenure candidates have to defend themselves against. Her favorite, she told the group, uttered about her: "I refuse to learn about fat metabolism from an anorexic teacher.") 

Howard Hughes and Burroughs Wellcome designed the program in response to a sense that young faculty members (and would-be ones) spent huge amounts of time immersed in their disciplines but relatively little learning the nuts and bolts of working at a university. This course, which the organizations are helping individual universities to replicate on their own campuses, features sessions on establishing and leading a lab, "mentoring and being mentored," designing courses, and, of course, getting funded.

The session on tenure was a mixture of the practical and the philosophical. Noting the importance of external letters of recommendation, Pfeffer told the young scientists that they had to "get out there and get your work known" by presenting papers or posters at conferences or at least actively participating in discussions by asking thoughtful questions that show they know their stuff. "You can't just be in the lab," she warned.

She also encouraged young scholars setting their research agenda to "be brave and try something new" rather than just hewing closely to the work of the lab in which they did their student work.

Redinbo urged those applying for a job to ask hard questions about how the tenure process works at
that particular institution -- what proportion of comparably situated people earn tenure, how and at what stage of the process unsuccessful candidates tend to stumble, etc. "Ask about the history," he said. "Places that have been difficult to get tenure in tend to stay difficult." Redinbo also encouraged those on the receiving end of negative reviews from scholarly journals to "let it go," to avoid burning bridges that could come back to haunt a candidate in the tenure process.

R. Kevin Grigsby, vice dean for faculty and administrative affairs at the Penn State College of Medicine,
listed "too much service," "being exploited by other faculty," and "lack of discipline in saying No"
as three of the five biggest pitfalls he's seen for tenure candidates (the others were lack of mentoring
and "confusion and diffusion" of research priorities). 

That resonated with several audience members, including one who asked for advice on "how to tactfully get out of doing some things" that senior colleagues in her department asked her to do, as she felt she was doing much more service than many of her peers. Pfeffer's advice: document all that she's doing and find a mentor who can make the case that she's doing more than her share and help her fend off those vying for her time.

The remaining panelist, Meta Kuehn, opened her presentation by telling the audience that she had "wondered why you should listen to me," since she, an assistant professor of biochemistry at Duke University, is "untenured just like you." But the group was rapt as she talked about the "personal side of the equation," which included an extended discussion of the conflict between family life and the tenure clock, which, despite increased attention paid to the topic, "is not going to change -- it's a fact that is just with us, end of story, period."

Kuehn described the challenges she has faced taking three maternity leaves, including one that resulted in the birth of a child with Down syndrome and another in twins. She said it was not unreasonable for tenure candidates to "expect compassion" from those judging them, but "don't expect them necessarily to know how to show it." After the twins were born, she said, Duke officials told her, "You'll probably need some additional time, because we suspect this is complicating, right?" drawing a laugh from the crowd.

Kuehn said she found it difficult at first to ask for more time. "I thought it made me a weaker person by expecting help," she said. But her experiences injected a human element into the tenure system, she added, and "I don't think humanizing the process can possibly be a bad thing."


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top