Sunday, April 20, 2008

Career comments

Well, it's that time of the year again. Lots of blogging (here , here, here, here) about advice to tenure-track faculty (and other interested parties) about the tenure process. I've decided to dust off a post I originally made last May, with a few revisions and additions, to contribute to the discussion.

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.

Generally advice is not in short supply, though good advice can be. Many institutions are setting up official mentoring efforts to ensure that junior candidates have people to talk to about these issues. A colleague of mine found several nice documents online about this issue of advice-giving and receiving. This one (pdf), from the ADVANCE program at the University of Michigan, is particularly good. 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.
  • Get stuff going relatively quickly. Think about the timescales associated with publications and citations. Even if you do the greatest piece of work in your field ever, if you don't get it out the door at least a year or two before your tenure review (that is, a year before letters get sent out to external reviewers), it's going to be very hard for that work to have had much of an impact by the time of the decision.
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. People joke that getting excessively good teaching evaluations is a sign of misallocated time. That's not necessarily the case. The skills that you learn to be a good lecturer in the classroom overlap quite a bit with the skills you need to present research well - organization, an appreciation for your audience's perspective and knowledge, clarity, etc.

The mentoring component. This is related to both of the above. It definitely helps make the case that you are running a successful research and education enterprise if you can actually graduate students. This means making sure that they are making real progress, publishing papers (and/or patents), and ideally enabling them to land a good job (postdoc or industry) afterwards. This is not just altruistic; it's also enlightened self-interest - if you build a reputation for getting good people out in a reasonable timeframe and with real job prospects, it will help in graduate and postdoc recruiting in the long term. Managing a group isn't easy, and every student is different. If you feel like you're having trouble, definitely find colleagues to ask for advice! Every faculty research mentor has been there.

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. Becoming known as a pain-in-the-ass on this is not going to help you on any level.

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.) Remember, in a practical sense, the tenure decision is based not just on your scientific quality, but on whether you are the kind of colleague that people want to have for the next n years.

Don't panic. At some point, you just have to buckle down and do the work without inducing a psychodrama about the process. If you've been in a graduate program, you've undoubtedly known someone who, rather than actually solving their research problems, spent their time kvetching about how nothing was working. Don't do that to yourself.
Remember, you're doing this because you enjoy it intellectually (at least, some of the time!).


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Ad mentoring: I once overheard a comment about my adviser: "He must be a good professor, because look at his students." said...

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