Tenure and the Unspoken Rules

A newly tenured professor, having crossed the great divide, shares some tips for those hoping to follow.

May 25, 2007

Now that I have successfully achieved tenure at an R1, I feel the need to speak about what I have learned in the process. Some of this drive to write is because I want to share important lessons, but I also am compelled by the frustration and fear my junior colleagues share in facing the lack of clarity in expectations for tenure. (NOTE: I am writing this with my field in mind, which is an article-driven, empirically-oriented, positivist-dominated field.)

This lack of clarity is endemic to the nature of a process that is both institutional and extra-institutional, discipline-specific and interdisciplinary. That is, candidates are reviewed by people in their disciplines who are outside the school, people within their department or school, and people in the larger university. Each set of these folks has their own standards, and then there are differences within each group as well. (In one of the programs where I used to work, every member of the tenure committee outlined completely different standards and approaches to evaluating a candidate for tenure. That was not reassuring!)

To wit, my department values a variety of scholarship (theoretical, empirical, pedagogical, conceptual, etc.) and expects outstanding teaching in addition to one's ability to publish. Our expectations regarding publications are clearly quantified, although there are unspoken expectations regarding the high quality of publications and venues. There also is nothing in our written standards about single or co-authored articles or a need for external grant funding.

Within the larger discipline, however, there is a higher value on empirically-oriented articles, particularly articles that address the main topical issues in our field, and many R1 scholars would consider a lack of single-authored articles an indication of a lack of ability. Further, in the frenzy for funding at all R1s, some scholars would consider a candidate without external grant funding to be a failure and untenurable. While we send external readers a copy of our standards, reviewers read tenure files with their biases firmly intact.

These issues become more complicated at the college and university levels, where people in a variety of disciplines try to interpret candidates' work from their own disciplinary perspective. Scientists think nothing of articles with four or more co-authors, while those in the humanities may struggle to value articles over books. Further, some academics simply fail to value others in different disciplines. My friends who have served on university tenure committees tell me it is not uncommon for people to make fun of candidates' research areas, methods, and even the names of journals in different fields. Sometimes, when people on these committees find they have little to say about the candidates or their work, they find it easier to nitpick (e.g., "Why didn't the candidate publish an article in 2001 or 2003, and then publish 3 articles in both 2002 and 2004?").

What I take away from these many differences is that it is important for candidates to think about all of their audiences and be as proactive as possible in addressing the concerns of each. Some of these concerns can be addressed early in one's career:

  • Make a plan for how many articles or grant proposals you want to write each year. Return to the plan a lot, updating it with successes, failures, and amendments. And keep your eye on the tenure clock at all times.
  • Always be working on something: initial write, rewrite, grant prospectus, etc. I try to work on several things at the same time -- then, if I hate the article I am writing, I move to the prospectus and work on that. I convince myself that I am being rebellious and decadent (not writing what I am supposed to be writing), while still getting work done.
  • If you are doing a research project, map out the articles that can come from that project. Try to get at least three articles out of each project, either through a division of findings/topics or a mixture of conceptual and empirical pieces.
  • If you have to write grants for tenure, consider working in groups. Ask to join an ongoing project or ask someone senior to assist with your project. No one said you have to be funded all by yourself!
  • If you work in teams, work out a deal in which some of the articles will be single authored and some will be jointly authored.
  • Mix up the lead authorship for the jointly-authored articles so you can be lead author on one or more of them. It makes a difference!
  • Send your articles out to a variety of venues; don't publish in just one or two places. Pay attention to the status of the journal ... all journals are not considered equal. Ask around about a journal before you choose it. (Ignore this by year four -- start focusing on quick turnaround!)
  • Get to know senior scholars in your area: ask their advice and input on your research.
  • Go to your professional conferences and present or attend sessions on your research area. Introduce yourself to the speakers; they may eventually become your outside reviewers.
  • Take on leadership/participatory roles in your professional organizations, especially in organizations related to your specific research area; again, people will get to know you and you will be earning a "national reputation."
  • Be sure to ask around about outside evaluators before you select them. Some people who may seem very nice at conferences can sink you with negative or weak comments. They tend to get a reputation, and you can find out a lot from others who have gone up for tenure before you.
  • When selecting readers, see who has published in the same venues where you publish. Outside readers will not fault the quality of a journal in which they were published!

I also think it is important to note that you don't need to go about getting tenure the most traditional way. We all know how to get tenure: consistently publish in the top journals on federally funded, mainstream research on ONE mainstream topic using impressive methodology. Write most articles by yourself, but have a few that are written with others. Don't completely screw up your classes and serve on some committees. Brown-nose your way to being well-respected and liked by the best and brightest in the field.

The issue is ... we academics are a testy bunch of people, often driven by a passion for specific kinds of research, teaching, and service, and we don't usually follow rules too well. This certainly applies to me. I am a feminist lesbian academic who adopts a constructivist approach to research. This subject position makes me an outsider in many ways. Further, I ignored the advice to research an area that was (a) recognized as legitimate and (b) readily fundable, choosing to focus on topics that I cared about. While this cost me insofar as receiving funding, I believe I have been more productive because I was passionate about the topic area. I knew that to get the respect of some of my colleagues, I had to publish in the biggest journals, and I needed to publish a good number of articles. Nonetheless, I also ignored the advice to focus solely on articles; I co-edited a couple books along the way. I knew they would net me little in the way of tenure, but I saw a gap in the literature (and in teaching) that needed to be filled. I would argue now that the books did help raise my profile and introduce me to many scholars in my area of expertise, while making a clear contribution to the field. As you can see, most "minuses" can be turned into "pluses" if you learn about the game.

The gf has often told me that part of my success in getting tenure was really in understanding the game. I think that is true. I hope that, as a tenured faculty member, I can help others to do the same, in their own way. As I told a colleague of mine, we need to help junior faculty identify the best (unique) ways for each of them to achieve tenure.

So, if you like writing conceptual pieces, write the conceptual section of a colleague's empirically-based article. If you want to focus on teaching, not matter how much they tell you to phone it in, then turn your class experiences into a pedagogical article. If you enjoy service as a mentor to community youth, turn it into a research project. Make your own way and find what works for you! And if you find you don't want to play the R1 game, for God's sake, get out and go somewhere more to your liking. Don't wait until the tenure year. No matter what they told you in your grad school, there are many ways to be an academic!

Now that I am on this side of the untenured/tenured divide, I have to admit to feeling a little abashed. I don't feel that I have accomplished something so amazing in getting tenured. I suppose I have written some good pieces, along with some more average ones, and I have done some interesting research, but I have not done anything especially extraordinary. As I have written before, the "accomplishment" of tenure feels rather nebulous. But I do know that I feel much less stressed, and that is worth a LOT! In fact, I highly recommend it.


Lesboprof is the pseudonym of a faculty member at a public university in the Midwest.


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


Back to Top