What does tenure take?

img_2416I have long been fascinated by the academic concept of tenure. Like making partner in a law or consulting firm, getting this offer of a position for life (in essence) is a sign you have arrived. The problem is that it's not always 100% clear what it takes to leap through this hoop, and it is a hoop (if you don't make tenure, you can't really stay long-term. It's an up-or-out sort of thing). New faculty members sometimes don't know what matters and what doesn't, and that can affect how they spend their time.

So I asked "Beatrice," a blog reader who was just recommended for tenure, to tell me about the process, and what she thought mattered. Beatrice is an associate professor in the natural sciences at a mostly undergraduate institution. She has two young children who were born while she was on the tenure track. She and her husband, who has a PhD in the same field, suffered from the common "two-body problem" in which it is difficult for two academics to land tenure-track positions in the same geographic area. Their solution was that he adjuncts occasionally at Beatrice's university, but has mostly been the primary caregiver to their kids.

So did Beatrice know, going into the process, what tenure would take? "Yes and no," she tells me. "My institution made clear the categories of evaluation (research, teaching, mentoring students, and institutional service), and the faculty handbook gives examples of activities that could contribute to proper progress in each of them, but there was no specific information about how much of each was required." At some institutions this is spelled out in more detail, such as you need X number of major journal articles, but not at Beatrice's university, and so she "found it wise to try to have conversations with my chair to get more specific information about requirements for our department members. That helped me focus my time quite a bit."

Here's what she figured out about managing her time along the way: "I learned early on that it was important to make small, continuous efforts on projects in an environment that fostered the work. A journal article generally does not happen overnight!" Far from it. What must happen, in reverse order: acceptance by a journal, review by reviewers, revision by the authors, review by reviewers, preparation for submission to a journal, the actual science work, and coming up with the idea. "And all that is assuming that it gets accepted by the first journal to which it is submitted, which is not a given." Also, since Beatrice's institution is primarily undergraduate, she had to work with undergraduates, which adds its own challenges (and joys, I suppose!) To get something on her CV for tenure might take two years or more.

"When I look at my CV now, I see the milestone achievements and think about the little things that led up to them: participation in a scholarship review group with faculty, some weekends here and there where I arranged with my husband for me to be hunkered down to really push some writing or some computer coding or some experiments out, or things as mundane as a regular meeting a collaborator and I set every week for a semester which ended up being the key time for getting an article out."

She did three things to continue to make progress on these multiple, multi-year projects:

*Surrounding herself with people who kept her accountable (her husband and her scholarship review group)

*Making a visual chart of what was in progress, and next steps. "When I had moments where I would have an open space of time and tune out, looking at that list would jump start me back."

*Setting aside regular time to spend on projects that were in critical phases.

An example of the latter: making use of child care at her gym during a summer in which she needed to get one particular article done. The gym offered 2 hours of childcare, so she would work out for 45 minutes, shower, and then use the remaining hour to work on that article. Note: unlike some gyms, hers didn't dissuade this sort of thing, and had a lounge area and coffee and a regular group of people fitting in a bit of work. "When I finished that time each day I knew I had done diligent work on the project and could move on to other things," she says.

Of course, there are plenty of people who do diligent work. The little secret of tenure, like partnership, is that there's a people aspect to it as well. First, you need good relationships: people have to stick up for you. But second, other people know the secret hacks for getting through the hoops with minimal pain. It behooves you to ask. "My relationships with more senior faculty friends were very key in helping me know how to divide my time among our four areas considered for promotion," Beatrice says. "They helped me understand how much needed to be done for my teaching quality to be in good order, but also how to communicate what I was doing in teaching so that it would be evaluated appropriately. They also advised me on some key strategies for training students and working with them in a manner that wasn't in competition with actually getting the research done."

Indeed, some faculty women she had lunch with regularly even told her about grants she could get that would allow her to buy herself out of part of her regular teaching load. This gave her more time to get her research done, and had the benefit of showing that she could attract grants — a key factor in getting tenure.

While Beatrice's husband took on primary parenting duties, she still wanted to manage her time to be available to her kids. A key part of that? Not spending time she could be with the kids on other household tasks. "For a long time I scoffed at hiring housecleaning, but finally one of my faculty friends gave me information about someone she worked with that did a great job, what the rate was, etc. Doing the math and thinking about the time I was usually spending on housecleaning, it really turned out to be a no-brainer," she says. "Once I had children I also convinced myself to stop overthinking about toilet paper being 5 cents cheaper per roll at one store versus another. The time saved by setting up an automatic shipment from Amazon is more than worth that savings of money."

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10 Responses to What does tenure take?


  1. Lily says:

    While I know there are a LOT of challenges to academic life, the structure and (relative) clarity around tenure is amazing compared to other careers. Yes, getting those journal articles done is super tough, and the reduction of scientific careers to article counts or h-scores is a worrying possibility – but at least there’s a clear goal. I don’t have clarity around what it would take to get to the next step of my career, or even really what that step would be. Definitely something to reflec t on as clarity around what to work on would help me make the best use of my time, and increase the likelihood of achieving something. I tend to have 101 things going at once…

    • @Lily- I think this is one of the toughest concepts for people to get their heads around moving from school to the working world — that many careers *don’t* have straightforward trajectories. In school, junior year follows sophomore year, and if you accumulate x number of credits, you graduate. There is no clear path to building a living as, say, a writer. You have to talk to various people, figure out what works for you and what doesn’t, and so forth. This is one of the reasons networking is such a good idea. Not so much for finding the next project as understanding, from people who’ve been around the block, what the next project should even be…

  2. Jennie says:

    For a short time, I worked for a university as an adjunct professor. During that time I saw very little in the way of clear expectations to receive tenure. I realize I was part time adjunct and not a full time faculty member, but my closest friend was the department chair (she nominated, but tenure was awarded by a committee) and had commented on the mystery of who was granted tenure and who was not. I am not sure every school follows the same protocol. I moved into high school full time and our school does not offer tenure to high school teachers, but our neighboring state does. It is curious that given my degree/experience/articles I would be granted a significant raise if I moved 15 miles down the road into a new school. I’m just not willing to change schools to get it.

  3. Calee says:

    Hooray for another person using gym daycare! I don’t think I would have started my company without a tip from a friend about a gym with Valet parking, 4 hours of amazing childcare and a coffee shop as part of their family plan. I spent a summer driving 20 minutes to the gym, 3-4 days per week with an infant and a preschooler. There is no other way we could afforded that care, and so got me the time to start something that has changed our family’s life.

  4. DVstudent says:

    This is fascinating, as a grad student in the natural sciences who aspires to be a tenured faculty member one day.

    I remember complaining to my parents (Dad is a STEM prof, Mom is a HR director) about how I felt like my post dinner ‘workout/hobby/read/relax’ time was just going away in favor of errands/cooking/chores. They listened for about 2 minutes and told me to make some major changes: 1) Amazon prime to deliver everything. 2) Hire a housekeeper for a monthly deep clean. I get quite a bit of ribbing from classmates for budgeting a grad student salary on a housekeeper, but the amount of time it’s saved me in the past 2 years is well worth it. I still sweep/wipe/vacuum, but the really intricate stuff is left to someone who can do it much better/faster than I can

    • @DVstudent – I’d say that’s a great example of putting your money toward what matters to you. A few less pizzas and beers and others might be able to afford it too.

  5. smh says:

    As someone on the tenure clock, I would add that it’s important to move toward tenure at your university without losing sight of what’s valued more broadly in your field, if that is in any way different from what’s valued at your home institution. It’s common for people to go on the market in their tenure year, and you’ll only be competitive if you’ve kept a broader audience in mind (esp. important if one isn’t at a top institution). You might either want or need options!

    • smh says:

      For example, to achieve tenure, I have to publish at least 5 peer-reviewed articles; where I place these articles (journal ranking) is not terribly important for my home institution. However, I aim high because that’s how am, but doing so also might help give me options.

    • @smh- yet another reason to be networking! You not only want to know what your department head cares about, but what other department heads care about.

  6. beth says:

    I think that tenure can be especially confusing because it looks different for different universities/fields/specialties. Tenure at an R1 university (where I am) is very different than tenure at an undergraduate institution which is very different than tenure at a 2 year institution. Also, tenure in literature looks different than the natural sciences which looks different than the biomedical sciences (my area). I think the all encompassing term of “tenure” confuses people because it varies so greatly in each situation.

    What do the tenure committees value at my R1 in the biomedical sciences?- NIH R01s and papers (the bigger the impact factor the better).

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