Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Tenure 101

I have spent the past several days at orientation meetings at my new place of employment.  I am coming in with tenure (just as I did the last time), so I am not concerned about tenure directly.  I do care about tenure procedures because the granting of lifetime employment (essentially) is a pretty serious enterprise and how academic units deal with it shapes the culture of the place.  So, in the course of events, I asked questions about it, and I also watched the folks around me get heaps of advice from the various panelists.  As a result, tenure is on my mind.  Not the first time of course, as as a search of my blog will turn up many posts related to the future of tenure, the apparent randomness of tenure decisions, what a strange institution it is, how poorly it is portrayed in movies, that promotion to full can be problematic,* and so on.
*  One of the strangenesses at Canadian schools (I know have an n of two) is that tenure seems to be easier than promotion.  At Carleton, the tenure and promotion to Associate Professor are two distinct decisions and processes, and only one of them seems to have university-wide standards, and it ain't tenure.  I don't understand it at all, but that does seem to be the reality.

While one can give lots of advice, I just have two pieces of advice for this post: think about the profession's expectations and do not think big.

First, your department/school/college/university may or may not provide clear tenure guidance.  Do consult your colleagues, do try to observer what has happened in the recent past, and so on.  But as you strategize towards meeting the local standards, do try to get a sense of your discipline's standards** and try to match those.  In many places, the profession's standards are the same as or tougher than the local department. Those places that seem to be far more strict than the profession's?  Well, you should know that going in and prepare accordingly.
**  This is mostly written with research intensive schools in mind.  Liberal arts colleges will be similar but not identical.  The norms regarding research output for folks at liberal arts colleges may be different than for research universities, so keep my bias in mind--based on my experiences at the research schools.
Why care about the profession?  Well, since it includes more people, it is unlikely to change quickly.  A department can radically revise its standards in a short period of time.  But that is not really the important reason.  The two reasons are:
  1. Many places require letters to be written by folks outside the department to provide an external check. These folks are probably not familiar with the local standards and will probably rely on their judgment of what it means to be a good x ... a good political scientist, a good economist, whatever.
  2. Besides personal glory, satisfaction, ego, whatever, one should try to meet the profession's standards to maintain at least the appearance of mobility.  It is almost certainly always better to be seen as mobile than not.  You don't have to constantly threaten to leave.  But if you can leave by getting a job elsewhere, then you can if that needs to happen (your state/province goes to hell, the department blows up, you need to flee an ex, whatever).  Also, one of the only ways to get a pay increase is to be desirable.  Some places may give you a pre-emptive offer so that you do not even go on the job visit.  Most of the time, you will only get a big raise if you have a job offer from elsewhere.  That is not going to happen if you do not at least match the profession's expectations.  

Second, the idea of getting everything done by the time one is consider for tenure is awfully daunting.  I tell my PhD students that each day they are not writing a dissertation and not even a chapter but a section of a chapter.  For assistant professors, each day/week/month, they are not working on the entire tenure file, but a piece of it.  Just try to be productive, not that you have to birth a book by tomorrow.  If you need to average an article a year, then try to always have a couple under review.  Do not send something out and then wait and wait for it to come back like a Raven with a note from Winterfell.  Write something, send it out for review, and then write the next piece, and then send it out for review, and then go onto the third thing.  Do not try to be writing multiple things at once--having three articles on one's desk means there are three pieces not under review. As much as possible, have stuff in different parts of the process, so that if one thing gets rejected, you still have another piece under consideration and you can try to fix the rejected piece after you get whatever is on your desk off of it and in the mail. 
A few points related to this:
  • Do share your research before you submit so that you can get feedback.  You probably cannot anticipate all the likely criticisms.  Get your friends/colleagues/contacts to help you out, and you can do the same for them.  
  • Perfection is the enemy of the good enough.  A major cause of tenure failure is when people either work forever without finishing something or take something they wrote and spent time on and dump because it is not great.  Folks who leave their dissertation behind without getting much in the way of pubs are putting themselves at a huge disadvantage.
Anyhow, there is heaps of advice out there.  My two bits again are: think about what the profession expects; AND do not focus on the end so much as the step in front of you.  

The big thing to keep in mind for new faculty is this: if you have a tenure-track position (at a place that actually grants tenure), you have won the big battle.  Let me repeat, you have WON!  That is the hardest part in the 21st century thus far.  Navigating the next several years is stressful, certainly, and uncertain, certainly.  But you can get tenure at most places without working 80 hour weeks.  It is not easy, it is not certain, but you have far more control than you did when you were on the job market. 

And, yes, this entire post is about research.  There are places where teaching matters a lot, but at most research schools, being good enough at teaching is good enough for tenure.  You should aim for more because it matters and because it is a huge part of what one does.  But the aim in the first few years of teaching is just be clear, organized and enthusiastic.  Do not invest months of time on perfecting some slides or a syllabus or whatever until you have enough publications in the right places that make you feel a bit more comfortable.  Be selective about what service you do--try to make it work for you.  Do learn to say no but don't say no to everything.

Of course, your mileage will certainly vary.

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