Preparing Yourself for the Tenure Process

Contributed by Kristen St. John (James Madison University) and R. Mark Leckie (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

Mountaineers leaving the top station of the Aiguille du Midi.

The information below contains advice and strategies to help you be plan and prepare your strongest case for tenure. The advice here is structured to give you concrete steps to be your own best advocate and to be as well prepared as possible. Each institution and department will have its own specific requirements and processes so it is imperative that you inform yourself of the tenure expectations at your own institution and use them as your primary guide.

Take Charge

Here are a few important ways to be proactive in your progress towards tenure:

  • Start early. The time to start strategizing about tenure is the day you arrive on the job, or even before you arrive. Lining up collaborative research opportunities while you are still a post-doc, thinking about where datasets will be generated (in your post-doc advisor's lab or your new lab?), the sequence and timing of publications (including which institution you list on the manuscript), figuring out when you will be teaching new courses that will require a lot of prep time etc. are all things that play into the very rapid five or six years leading to submission of your tenure package.
  • Inform yourself. Find out what the written (and unwritten) promotion and tenure (P&T) guidelines and requirements are at your institution. What are the evaluation criteria? What are the key deadlines? And who (i.e., the Department Head, the P&T Committee, both?) evaluates you at each specific juncture? Ask colleagues in your department who have recently received tenure about their experiences going up for tenure. Also ask them if you may examine their submitted tenure packages. These can serve as ground truth to the P&T requirements. Ask your department head or the chair of the P&T committee to see an example of the letter that goes out to external evaluators and find out if the external evaluator is provided with only your CV or also your narrative. If narratives are not typically supplied to external evaluators, request that the narrative be provided. To gain broader perspective, seek advice from colleagues outside your department to learn what the tenure climate is like at your institution and at institutions similar to your own.
  • Educate your colleagues. Educate your colleagues and administrators about what you do in teaching and research (and service) and why it is important. Educate them early and often while tenure-track, as well as in your tenure narrative. Communicating to your colleagues about your research is important is especially important if you are doing interdisciplinary work and/or if you are publishing in journals unfamiliar to your colleagues. Your colleagues include those on campus and off. Most on-campus colleagues will not be experts in your particular field, therefore explain what you do and its significance at a level appropriate to their background. Off-campus colleagues may be more familiar with your research if they are in your same field, but may need to be kept informed of other aspects of your career development, such as innovative teaching methods you are testing in your classes, your motivation for using them and their outcomes. Later these off-campus colleagues may be requested to serve as external reviewers of your tenure package.
  • Seek feedback and listen to it. The feedback may be verbal, written, formal, or informal. Be sure to seek feedback from your colleagues, not just your department head (administrators change). Seek feedback from colleagues outside your department and from similar institutions. Find one or more tenured colleagues to serve as your mentor or set of mentors. Multiple mentors can be very helpful because it provides you different perspective from trusted senior colleagues when you have questions and concerns. Formal pre-tenure evaluation check points may be set-up (e.g., annual reviews, 3-year review) at your institution, but even if these aren't you can actively seek feedback as you progress towards tenure. Take the initiative to talk with your chair and with your mentor(s) each year about your progress. Get feedback on your narrative before you finalize and submit your tenure application. When you get feedback listen to it. Listen (and read) between the lines - gentle phrases like "you might want to consider", may really mean "do it".
  • Benchmark your progress. Compare your measurable productivity (e.g., publications, grant funding, graduate students, new courses developed, teaching load, etc.) against both the stated criteria for your department/college AND the current assistant professors or recently-promoted faculty in your department. Institutions are constantly striving to improve the quality of their faculty, so your performance must be on par with current and recently promoted faculty. For example, if the stated publication goal in the departmental bylaws is 1 paper/year, but your junior faculty peers are producing 3-5 papers/year, then it's likely that "the bar" will be raised to this new level. Departmental bylaws or guidelines are often outdated and are usually vague enough that tenured faculty can redefine the stated benchmarks, without changing the bylaws. Hence, the criteria for tenure-track productivity can be substantially higher than indicated in these documents. All of the information needed for benchmarking can usually be downloaded from faculty CVs or profiles on the departmental website, or you can even benchmark yourself against assistant professors at other institutions that are ranked slightly higher than your own. This can be useful, because typically your department will request external letters of evaluation from institutions that are of the same type as yours, but with higher ranking or reputation. Benchmarking can also be helpful because it produces cold, hard, unforgiving measures of relative productivity. Publications, money, and graduate students aren't the only factors considered in tenure decisions, but they're very important and you can't ignore them.
  • Decide whether this is the right institution for you. One of the major questions that you, as a new faculty member, should ask yourself with respect to tenure is: "Do I actually want to get tenure at this institution, or do I want to invest energy (and how much) in trying to get a job somewhere else?" The job market is tight and you may have taken the first tenure-track job you could get. However, this job may not be in the location you want, or not at the type of institution or department you envisioned for yourself. If you are unhappy in your new tenure-track job, you have a hard decision to make of whether to stay at your current institution and adapt, or to seek job opportunities elsewhere. But the bottom line is it that it is your career and it is your choice.

Make Concrete Plans

To make your best case for tenure it is valuable to actively plan for it, and to start on this plan as early in the tenure track as possible. Central to this plan is (a) articulating in writing your goals for teaching, research, and service, and (b) assessing how they align with departmental and institutional expectations, and (c) putting together a concrete plan of action to meet your goals. Below are two organizational and planning strategies to help you in this planning process:

Example 1: Charting Your Progress Toward Tenure (developed by Rachel O'Brien, Allegheny College)

This progress chart is formatted with space for you to track your teaching, scholarship, and professional service activities. It can be used to help identify your strengths and weaknesses and help prioritize short-term goals as you prepare for mid-tenure and full tenure review.

Example 2: Career Planning Worksheet (adapted from the Department of Geology & Environmental Science, James Madison University).

This worksheet is formatted with space for you to write down both your career vision and your anticipated activities in the areas of teaching, scholarship and professional service for a moving 3-year time frame. Articulating a vision is critical and should guide your anticipated activities. This is a document that you can and should be revisiting throughout the year because it can serve as both a guide post and a record of what you are doing and why. It can also serve as a document to draw from when writing your narrative (personal statement) for your tenure package.

Time Management

Once you have developed a concrete plan you will need to follow though. This will require time management.

Additional Strategic Advice on Preparing for Tenure

Recently tenured geoscientist Magali Billens (UC Davis) prepared a presentation on Taking an Active, Strategic Approach to Tenure for the new faculty orientation on her campus. It includes advice on: how to hit two birds with one stone, how to share milestone results before finishing the race, and how to take time to make time. Although written for an audience at a research university, much of Dr. Billens' advice is relevant for early career faculty members everywhere.

Tenure Narratives and CVs

A strong tenure package is essential to successful tenure application. At a minimum, the tenure package will typically include a narrative and a CV.