Taking an Active, Strategic Approach to Tenure

This webpage is based on a presentation given by Dr. Magali Billen to early career (pre-tenure) faculty at UC-Davis. Both the talk and this page were written for an audience at a research university.

What Are You Trying to Achieve?

It's worth asking yourself, pre-tenure, what you are trying to achieve as a faculty member. Here are some typical answers:

1. To keep my head above water.

(Okay, yes, but then what?)

2. To get tenure.

(Yes, but the measures of success seem vague: How many papers, grants, awards, articles in the "right" journals, etc. do you really need? Exactly how good does your teaching need to be, and how will you know when it is? How much service is enough?)

These answers are typical, short-term answers. But they don't help you look beyond the short-term to your long-term career goals. Here's another possible answer:

3. To build a stimulating academic career.

There are several advantages to thinking this way. First, it allows you to focus your attention on pursuing your passion, seeking new understanding, and contributing to your field. After all, this is why you chose an academic career. Just make sure that other people find out about what you're learning: publish your results, present them at conferences, and give a copy of each article you publish to your department chair. Second, thinking this way allows you to take a long-term perspective, with a short-term achievement horizon. Your research success is (at most institutions) the most important factor for tenure, so focus your efforts on becoming a respected scholar in your field.

Useful Advice I Received: How to Be Strategic

Hit two birds with one stone.

Look for ways to gain research benefits from teaching and service.

1. Is there professional service that directly benefits your research in the long run?

  • For example, being Associate Editor for a journal:
    • helps you keep up on the latest literature
    • helps you become a more critical reader and a better writer
    • introduces you (or at least your name) to a broader audience in your field
    • helps you to network with leaders in your field (i.e., people who could write tenure letters for you)

2. Are there new avenues of teaching that would lead to new avenues of research?

  • Teaching a subject outside your specialty can help you to expand your topics of research.
  • You can use graduate discussion seminars to do the background reading on potential projects.

Share milestone results before finishing the race.

As you decide when to publish results,

  • Look for significant sub-results within larger projects.
  • Seek feedback from colleagues on whether a result is ready for publication. One great way to do this is to form a writing group with other new faculty in your field.
    • Meet regularly to set and check writing goals.
    • Read each other's writing and give each other feedback.

People who know you are more likely to invest in your potential.

  • Seek direct contact with sources of funding. For example: call agency program directors (with specific questions). Some fields vary on how this is done, so talk to someone senior in your field, first.
  • Seek direct contact with potential tenure-letter writers:
    • At meetings (look for smaller meetings with more opportunities for one-on-one discussions)
    • Send them your newest paper with a short note: "thought you might find these results of interest..."

Take time to make time.

  • Personal example: Teaching
    • I had very little teaching experience as a graduate student.
    • I had a sense of what effective teaching feels like from a student's perspective.
    • Teaching preparation takes a lot of time, even if your goal is to be "good enough" rather than outstanding.
    • I enjoy the feeling of delivering a good lecture, and loathe giving a bad lecture.
    • Solution: I attended a week-long workshop for new faculty on teaching methods in geoscience.
  • General advice: Sometimes investing a week to efficiently learn something new and useful will save you a lot of time in the future. Make strategic investments of your time.

Be happy.

  • Personal mantra pre-tenure: "If I can't get tenure working at a level I feel is sustainable for the next 20-30 years, then I'll go do something else."
  • Why does this work?
    • We are all over-achievers; that's why we're in academia.
    • You have to work hard, long hours, but you can't live life waiting for the next 5 years to be over.
    • Humans need time doing other hobbies, exercise, yard work, being with family or friends, sleeping,....
    • Giving your brain a break ultimately leads to more creative insight.
  • Personal examples:
    • I explore one hobby each year: pottery, singing, ballroom dance, hiking, ...
    • I make a point of making friends via the UCD new faculty network.

Develop a Strategic Mindset

When "opportunities" come knocking, ask yourself:

  • How does this fit into my long term goals?
  • Does this have potential benefits for my research?
  • Is this really an opportunity?