Initial Publication Date: July 1, 2008

Tenure FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

In our workshops for "Early Career Geoscience Faculty," some questions about tenure come up frequently. Click on a question below to jump to its answer. Disclaimer: the answers given here are our best attempts to summarize general practices in academia in the US. The best source of the most accurate answer for any specific institution is that institution.

How much is enough?

The better question here is "Where do I go to find out how much is enough at my institution?" Different colleges and universities (and to some extent, different departments within those colleges and universities) have different expectations - sometimes vastly different expectations. You need to know what the expectations are for you, right now, in your department, at your institution. Good sources of information:
  • Most institutions have a formal document outlining tenure requirements
  • Many institutions have meetings, run by someone on the tenure/promotion committee or by an administrator, describing the tenure process and requirements
  • Recent tenure cases in your department (or comparable departments) -- but don't use just one data point; there's a lot of variability within faculty members who earn tenure
  • Colleagues at comparable institutions
  • Your department chair
  • Your dean
  • The members of the tenure review committee
Be sure to ask about expectations across the board, not regarding just research or just teaching.

Don't ask just one person, either. Occasionally, you do run into that rare person who tells you what they think you want to hear, instead of what you really need to know. While you don't need to ask every person you possibly could about what it will take for you to get tenure (you don't have the time, and it will just make you look neurotic), you do want to ask a few people in different positions and make sure that you are getting the same answer.

Finally, don't focus so much on quantity (number of publications, for example) that you neglect quality. Outside reviewers are asked to comment on the quality of your work, its impact, and the venue -- not on the quantity of papers published. Do your best work and publish it in the most appropriate journal(s) you can. And do make sure that you are first author on at least some of your papers.

What "counts" toward tenure? And what matters most?

Again, this depends on your department and your institution. Almost every institution cites excellence in teaching, research, and service as their criteria for tenure, but they vary in what constitutes "excellence" and in how they expect you to divide your time among those three areas. When you ask about what it takes to get tenure at your institution, be sure to ask clarifying questions about your specific activities, or activities you are thinking about. For instance, does the citation index of peer-reviewed journals factor into how my research is rated? Is pedagogical research valued as highly as geoscience research? How is multidisciplinary research evaluated? What about student research that gets presented at conferences but never published - does that "count"? Is grant productivity measured in number of grants, number of dollars brought in, or some combination of the two?

How can I find out whether I am "on track" for tenure, in my first few years?

In many places, if you are in a tenure-track position, you should have an annual performance review, typically with your department chairperson. If he or she has your best interests at heart (and most of them certainly do!), s/he will do a thorough review and give you an honest assessment of your performance, and of any areas that need improvement. If at all possible, get a written copy of your review.

If necessary (most chairpersons are quite busy!), be proactive in scheduling your review, and ask for one even if it is not standard practice. You should also prepare for your review, making some notes to take with you about your accomplishments that year, your plans for the future - particularly any changes you plan to make to address any areas where you'd like to improve, and any questions you have.

Similarly, a larger, pre-tenure review is standard practice at many institutions, usually around the end of the third year. Again, be proactive if necessary, prepare for your review (at this stage, you may need to prepare a semi-formal report, but take notes even if you don't have to), and ask for a written copy of your review.

Where can I find a "tenure mentor," someone to help me keep on track for tenure?

Some departments/institutions have formal mentoring programs. If yours does, take advantage of it. Either way, there are lots of places to look for a mentor, and you may want to find more than one person, especially at first. A member of your department with whom you get along well can be a great choice, but if your department is factionalized, beware of allying yourself with any one "side." A member of another science department can also be an excellent mentor, especially at a smaller school. Such a person has the advantage (usually) of being outside of any politics that may exist in your department. Any recently tenured faculty member at your institution, regardless of department, can provide you with some insights into the tenure process. Sometimes this kind of "outside" perspective can be very helpful - especially if the committee reviewing your tenure package will be made up primarily of non-scientists.

If you would like a mentor from another institution, you can also look on MentorNet. (more info)

What is the tenure process?

This, too, depends on your institution. Your chair, recently tenured colleagues, members of the tenure review committee, and often institutional offices such as the Provost's Office should all be able to describe it to you. Be sure to ask about the pre-tenure year parts of the process, as well - annual reviews, third year review, and so on. Here are some common elements:
  • Annual reviews, every year prior to tenure
  • A more extensive third-year review
  • In some cases, a pre-tenure sabbatical semester is granted, to give you time to move your scholarly work forward and to prepare your tenure case
  • You prepare a tenure package that documents your excellence in teaching, research, and service
  • Outside review letters may or may not be requested, depending upon your institution
  • Typically there are multiple levels of review within the institution, usually involving a departmental tenure review committee, your department chair, perhaps a college tenure review committee and college dean, perhaps an institution-wide tenure review committee. In most cases, each group makes an independent recommendation for or against tenure, often with votes recorded.
  • Ultimately, your tenure case is sent on to the president/provost/trustees, who make the official decision
  • You are informed of the decision
  • Your department and other colleagues are informed of the decision

Is it possible to alter the "tenure clock"?

Generally, yes. There are several situations that may lead you to want to alter the tenure clock in your case. Your institution will generally be agreeable to such changes - they are on your side, having invested a lot in you by the time you've been on campus a few years. Some examples:
  • If you become pregnant, or your spouse gives birth, or you adopt a child during your pre-tenure years, most institutions will "stop the tenure clock" for a semester or a year, if you want them to. Some will also do this if you are caring for an ailing, elderly relative.
  • If you come to your institution with some college/university teaching experience, you may want to negotiate an accelerated tenure process. This should be taken care of during contract negotiations.

Will it hurt my chances of getting tenure?

While sufficient data do not yet exist to answer this definitively, most institutions are committed to tenure decisions being independent of the "length" of your tenure clock. Ultimately, what your institution wants to know is whether you will be a productive faculty member in the long run, making positive contributions to your department and the institution. They look to see whether you have made progress toward being successful in your new environment. Taking a break should not hinder your chances if you are productive when you return from that break. If you will need extra time to prepare your tenure case, it is in the best interests of both you and the institution for you to take it.

What should I include in my tenure package? What should I be doing, in the early years of my career, to make assembling that package easier when the time comes?

The detailed contents of tenure packages vary from one institution to another. You should, of course, ask about the requirements for tenure packages at your institution - in many places, there are very explicit instructions about what to include, page limits per section, and so forth, much like the requirements for preparing major research proposals.

That said, most tenure packages include these common elements:

  • Your curriculum vitae
  • A narrative, or tenure statement, describing the themes that unify your career. This is your chance to make your own case for tenure. Ultimately, you want to describe who you are, professionally, and why you are an asset to the institution. This should be accessible to any academic, in any field of study, not just to specialists in your discipline. To avoid sounding pompous, use excerpts from other people's writing (letters, emails, whatever) who have praised your work. And for the benefit of those outside your own field of study, go beyond describing your work, to describing its impact - awards you've won, invitations to speak, any kind of recognition you've received.
  • Supporting data. This usually includes detailed lists - of courses taught, field trips led, teaching evaluation data, research publications, conference presentations, grants won, student research projects supervised, professional development activities, service to professional organizations, committee service, and so on. Along with the lists, many institutions expect reflective commentary on each topic: how your research publications and student projects are related to your overall research program, how your teaching has changed as a result of teaching evaluations and other input, how your relationship to the institution has expanded with your service to the community.
  • Documentation. This is where you put the "raw materials": your publications, abstracts from presentations, successful grant proposals or final reports, syllabi for your courses, teaching materials you've written or developed, your teaching evaluations, letters and emails from students and colleagues describing how great you are (including solicited letters from external reviewers), and any other materials that support, or document, your tenure case.

The time to begin assembling your tenure package is when you first start your career in academia. Collect the documentation and start the lists you will include in your final package. At this stage, you do not need to do a lot of sorting; simply set aside folders (both paper and electronic) of materials to sort through when the time comes. Include any formal or informal messages you receive (emails, notes, etc.), from students or colleagues, thanking you or praising you for your work. Update your files every semester, or at least every year. Take advantage of any annual review process to collect materials that might ultimately be included in a tenure package.

Similarly, early in your career is the time to make a strategic plan for yourself: where do you want to be, professionally, when you come up for tenure? What do you want to have accomplished? Set a reasonable schedule for achieving your goals. Among those goals, do not neglect to cultivate professional connections. Typically, you will need to solicit letters of reference from established scholars in your field, assessing your potential as a scholar. These letters will be strongest if they are from people who know you and know your work well, and who honestly think your work is significant. You are investing in your future when you engage in networking and self-promotion.

By the same token, share your good news all along the way -- when you get a paper published, tell your colleagues. Let them know you're happy about it. In addition, send your "preprints" to colleagues whom you think will be interested in your work. That way you will increase the number of people who know you're work.

As the date of your tenure review gets closer, be sure to get feedback on your tenure package from a couple of trusted and experienced colleagues. Seek feedback both from within and outside of your own department.

If I don't get tenure, what can I do?

Well, that depends. The first thing to do is to honestly assess your situation and your options. The most common reason, by far, for not getting tenure, is failure to meet your institution's criteria. Tenure committees, by and large, are made up of very conscientious people, who work very hard to evaluate, fairly, your career so far and your potential for the future. That being the case, you should spend some time thinking about why you failed to meet the criteria for tenure. Is it because an academic career is not a good fit for you? Is it because your current institution or position is not a good fit for you? Is it because you went up for tenure too early?

If, after some soul-searching, you decide that you want to stay in academia, you have a couple of options to choose from. At many institutions, you can appeal your tenure decision, or less commonly re-apply (once) the following year. If you want to continue working at your current institution, you may exercise this option, making sure that you address whatever constructive criticisms the committee had about your tenure package. Were there areas where you met the tenure criteria, but failed to document it? Were there areas where you did not meet the tenure criteria, but where you could improve your performance in the next year? Get (and use) feedback about where your tenure case was weak.

If you feel that your current institution (or department, or position) is not a good fit for you, or if re-applying for tenure is not an option at your institution, apply for jobs at institutions that are a better match for your interests. You can be honest about not getting tenure in your interviews, but present your reasons for thinking that the places you are applying will be a better fit for you, and that you will be successful there. Also, be prepared to describe the changes you are making, if any, in response to the critiques of the tenure committee - it will demonstrate your dedication to your work.

In extraordinarily rare circumstances, you were denied tenure for political reasons. In this case, you still have choices:

  • If applicable, re-apply the following year, especially if the personnel on the tenure committee will be changing.
  • Cut your losses and run. An atmosphere like this may be too poisonous to work in. You might want to apply for jobs elsewhere.
  • Take legal action. Beware; this is both time-consuming (it could take years) and costly (on an economic and emotional level). However, if you really want to, you'll need to gather all the evidence you can muster to document your case. Here's where your written annual performance evaluations, all of which say you are outstanding, will come in handy. Recall, however, that annual performance processes are typically different than formal pre-tenure review processes, which weakens the argument that positive annual reviews should equate to tenure.
  • Some combination of the above.

Is tenure transferable? How much mobility is there in the job market once you have tenure?

Tenure, in general, is not a transferable quantity, but something decided upon by each institution. If you are tenured at one institution, any new institution will know this and consider how to proceed. It is, of course, more economical for institutions to hire new faculty at the assistant professor level. Nonetheless, if you are a very strong candidate for a position, and the new institution really wants to hire you, they may well find a way to make you an attractive offer that includes tenure.

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