Sunday, May 13, 2007

Tenure - some advice.

This past week there was a flurry of science blogging regarding tenure, such as these posts at Cosmic Varience (here and here), Rob Knop's post about his situation, Chad Orzel's commentary, and the Incoherent Ponderer's take on the tenure process here. The IP's take on things summarizes my general thoughts on the tenure process pretty well. In terms of the job pipeline, the biggest cut in population happens when trying to get a faculty position, not at the tenure stage. In reasonable departments, no one is happy when a tenure promotion case fails. Good departments (and schools and universities) try very hard to filter at the hiring level and give their faculty the resources they need to succeed. I can only think of two or three places (in physics anyway) that historically have had a "sink or swim" attitude (that is, hiring a junior person in an area today means that seven years from now the university wants the best senior person in the world in that area - being in-house is not advantage), and I'm not sure that's even true anymore.

In the links above, people are mostly focused on the process and outcomes; I think it would be useful to give some suggestions about how to approach the tenure process from the position of the junior candidate. I am hardly in a position to give too much sage advice about tenure, and what follows below is largely common sense. Obviously the situation is different in various disciplines and at different universities, but here's some basic points that I think should be considered. I'm sure I'll leave things out - feel free to chide me in the comments.

Understand the process. Find out how the tenure process works at your institution. This should be written down in a faculty handbook. Talk to your department chair, your faculty mentor (if your department has such a thing) or senior colleagues. Understand the timeline. Get a sense of the weight that your institution places on the different components of the job (see below). Does the departmental vote carry a lot of weight (as it usually does at Rice, for example), or are the deans or the university promotions and tenure (P&T) committee commonly overriding departmental decisions?

The process probably goes something like this: the candidate is hired for a 4-year tenure-track appointment, with some kind of annual reviews and a more major renewal review in year 3 or 4. (This gives the university a chance to end the process early if there's a major problem with an assistant prof, and forces departments to give some concrete feedback to the assistant prof about how they stand.) In the summer before year 6 (at most places) the candidate is asked to put together a dossier (complete CV, reprints of papers, a summary of funding, a statement about university service, a statement about teaching, a summary of research accomplishments, etc.) and suggest names for external evaluators. The department comes up with additional names for external evaluation, and sends the full dossier to some mix of the external people. Eventually these external letters come back, and the department reads them, puts the whole package together, and there's a vote of the tenured faculty (in October or November) about whether to recommend the assistant prof for tenure. The departmental recommendation then goes to the cognizant dean, and from there to the university P&T committee (which generally would have people from all sorts of disciplines on there, from bio to French lit). Sometimes P&T committees or deans can request more external letters, and they get copies of teaching evaluations, etc., and may meet directly with department chairs. Eventually the P&T committee makes its decisions (in late spring) and the candidate finds out. That decision is finally signed off by the president of the university and the board of trustees.

The research component. To get tenure you need actually need to be getting science done. There's no sure-fire recipe for success here, but let me make a few suggestions:
  • Have a mix of projects that range from easier to high-risk/high-reward. Having only one major project can be very risky, particularly if it takes five years to get any results. One key element of getting tenure is that people in your community need to know who you are, what you've done, and what you've been doing that's really yours - new stuff from your professorial position, not rehash of your thesis or postdoc work.
  • Make sure that your colleagues know what you're doing. Your colleagues are going to need to understand your work at least on some level, and particularly for hard projects, they will need to have some idea why it may take four years before a paper comes out.
  • Have backup plans. High risk things may not succeed (no kidding.). Make sure, for your students' sake and yours, that you have thought out the projects well, so that even if you don't achieve the BIG goal, you are still learning useful things that are worth publishing.
  • Have a high attempt frequency for funding. If there's literally only one agency in the world that funds your work, that's risky and unfortunate. Make sure that you know what your options are for funding sources. Call up program officers. Ask to get a chance to serve on review panels - you'll learn a huge amount about writing proposals that way! Know if there are state funding opportunities. Think ahead about private foundations (e.g., Research Corporation).
  • Do some self-promotion but don't sell your soul. If your external evaluators don't know who you are, that's the kiss of death. Make sure you give talks at meetings. See what you can do about getting invited to give seminars at other schools. Yes, this is one issue where "well-connected" people really benefit, but if you go to meetings and get to know the people in your field, it's not that bad. Get involved in your own department's seminar series, and invite in people that you'd like to meet and talk to.
  • Publish good stuff. This is always the tricky bit, and people joke about the "least publishable unit". Still, holding back everything for the one big Nature paper that may not happen is not necessarily the best strategy, for you or your students.
The teaching component. Do a good job teaching. Most universities have resources available to help you - teaching centers that will videotape your lectures, offer suggestions for improved technique, etc. Good teaching can only help tenure in limited ways at a research university, but poor teaching can certainly hurt a borderline case.

The service component. Do a decent job in departmental and university service. Don't let it eat all your time, but get involved in things that matter to you. It's also a good way to get to know your administrators and people in other departments. I'm not suggesting currying favor - just be a solid citizen.

Common sense. People argue about whether blogging can hurt your tenure chances. Blogging is only one example of a public forum, though. Use some common sense. Publicly badmouthing your institution, colleagues, administrators, etc. is not a good idea. (I'm not talking about hushing up legitimate grievances - I'm saying don't antagonize people gratuitously.)

I'm sure I could write more, and will probably update this later. This is some food for thought for now, at least.


NONE said...

Doug, great post, as usual.

Anonymous said...

I like the way you say "not just for your sake, but also for your students'...."

You must be a great mentor.