Each year when I meet with prospective candidates for tenure or promotion in my college, I mention that they will need to nominate several individuals to provide confidential external evaluations of their work. Since most of them are unfamiliar with the external evaluation process, a barrage of questions ensues. Based on those conversations, I have structured this article as an FAQ for future promotion and tenure candidates.
I hope it will provide useful background and also spur readers to ask their deans and department chairs for details about the practices at their home institutions.
To set the stage, here are the bare bones of the typical process used for gathering external letters of evaluation. The bylaws of the department, college or university generally specify that a certain minimum number of external letters must be obtained (e.g., 4-5); local culture will set an informal maximum (12 would be a large number).
The chair or dean asks the candidate to suggest a pool of individuals who might be asked for external letters and also independently creates a separate pool of names. The administrator then chooses names from both pools to create a balanced master list of potential reviewers and solicits evaluations until the required number of letters is in hand. (Interested readers can follow these links to language describing the process at my college  and university .)
What is the purpose of the external evaluations in tenure or promotion cases?
Briefly, they place your work in broader context. In considering you for tenure or promotion, your institution is deliberating whether its intellectual capital would be improved by asking you to assume a higher rank. Your record will be scrutinized for evidence of productivity and impact – and also for indications that you will continue to be an excellent scholar and teacher. Consulting only local opinions would run the risk of using parochial, and possibly outdated, metrics or of having insufficient expertise to judge a case accurately. Seeking input from experts with a strong national (or international) reputation provides additional perspective.
What are the external evaluators asked to comment on?
While they will be encouraged to comment on all areas of your work (including pedagogy and public engagement), if scholarship is a key factor in tenure and promotion decisions at your institution, then the writers will be asked to focus on this aspect of your case. They would typically be requested to discuss the context, visibility and impact of your scholarly work and to cite evidence supporting the analysis. They are often requested to rank you among your national peers, either in general terms or through comparison to specific individuals in your discipline at comparable institutions. Sometimes, evaluators are asked whether your record would lead to tenure or promotion at their institutions.
Who initiates the request for external evaluations?
This is done by the chair or the dean, following the bylaws of your department or college. Soliciting these letters is not your job. Indeed many institutions prohibit tenure and promotion candidates from asking colleagues to write letters on their behalf. However, the process often requires the chair or dean to ask you for the names of a few individuals whom the chair or dean might include as reviewers.
Is there anyone I should not nominate?
The simple answer is that you should not squander nominations on those who are ineligible. Most institutions require that evaluators hold at least the rank to which you aspire and that they not have served as your doctoral or postdoctoral adviser.
Recent collaborators may be seen as insufficiently independent of you to provide an objective review – unless there is information they are uniquely qualified to provide. For example, if you work in a large scientific collaboration, its leader could describe your intellectual contributions to the organization and your leadership roles within it. Or if you have written a book with a more senior faculty member, your co-author could explain which aspects of the book were your responsibility and how your collaboration operated. When nominating a collaborator, be sure to explain why.
Evaluators are often expected to be affiliated with institutions comparable to yours (e.g., by Carnegie classification) – unless there are reasons to do otherwise. For example, if your scholarship is partly in earth sciences and partly in geoscience education, referees will be sought for each aspect of your research portfolio. Since geoscience education is an emerging and specialized field, experts in that area may well work at institutions that differ from yours. Again, be sure to mention why a particular nominee would be an appropriate evaluator in your situation.
Whom should I nominate?
Among those eligible to be evaluators (higher rank, not your adviser or collaborator, at a comparable institution, distinguished within your field), nominate those who know about your work, seem interested in it, and are likely to provide detailed commentary. People who have heard you give a talk at a conference, moderated a panel you sat on, edit a journal in which you publish, or have visited your department and spoken with you about mutual research interests would be good candidates. In other words, people who are knowledgeable about your field and also appreciate your place within it. As I frequently remind faculty members, famous academics who have never heard of you do not fit this profile; leave them out of your pool of nominees. If your institution wants a few letters from distant “superstars,” the chair or dean will include them in the master list.
How many names should I suggest?
That depends on the practices at your institution. To ensure that the evaluation process is objective, it is commonly required that a majority of the letters be from individuals who were in the pool originally suggested by the chair or dean.
So your first job is to research the numbers: Does your institution specify how many names you must suggest? If so, there’s your answer – and you can skip the rest of this paragraph. If not, then find out (a) how many letters must end up in your file, and (b) what fraction should be from individuals suggested by you. Then double those figures. Senior faculty members often receive more requests to perform evaluations than they can accept. So if two letters are expected to come from writers you have suggested, you would submit 4 names to the chair or dean.
Is there a downside to suggesting a large number of names?
Yes. Once you place an individual’s name in your pool, it is removed from the chair or dean’s pool. So if your pool includes all of the leaders in your field who are familiar with your work … then only a few of them can be asked for letters about you and the rest are embargoed. Your chair or dean’s pool would have to contain a separate set of distinguished individuals who may know less about your work or be in a different subfield. And that would not be to your advantage.
Should I contact my nominees to ask if they can write? NO!
Let me reiterate: NO. Many universities require that external evaluators explicitly acknowledge the degree of acquaintanceship between themselves and the candidate. Some specifically say they will discard any evaluation letter written by anyone whom the candidate approached about writing a letter, to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. The process is set up to keep a degree of remove between the candidate and the writers (that is why the chair or dean handles the whole process) and to allow the writer to be as candid as possible. So you should absolutely avoid “tainting” any potential external evaluators.
What information should I provide along with the names?
At a minimum provide the name, full contact information, and degree of acquaintanceship for each nominee (e.g., “We have never met, ” “We were both on the same conference panel,” “She presented a colloquium in my department last year”). Keep in mind that the writer will also be asked about your degree of acquaintanceship, so you should be scrupulously accurate.
But why stop at the minimum? Include a brief (3-4 sentence) description of each individual’s position within the field to show why he or she would be an appropriate external evaluator. If there is any special circumstance (e.g., a former collaborator, or someone at a different type of institution), explain that here. This information will assist the chair or dean in assembling the master list of evaluators and in justifying the master list to the central administration at later stages of the review process.
Will I ever see the evaluations?
As with other forms of peer review, confidentiality is used to elicit frank analysis. You should expect neither to see the letters, nor ever to know who was asked to write them. A summary of the general sense of the evaluations or a few brief quotes (with identifying information redacted) may appear in a report you receive about your case. Policies regarding the confidentiality of external evaluation letters vary by institution and according to state law, so I urge you to consult your faculty handbook for details.
If you are a tenure or promotion candidate, direct specific questions about the process at your institution to your chair or dean. This is too important to be left to chance.
If you have any general questions about this topic that were not addressed here, please send them to me and I’ll try to answer them in a future article.
Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of Lyman Briggs College and professor of physics and astronomy at Michigan State University.