Getting past a poor third year review

For many academics, the third year review means make-or-break time. You’ve had a few years to settle in, get your own research started, mentor some students, develop and teach new class preps. In my field, funding is definitely expected by this time, and publications from your new line of study should be beginning to roll out.

Ideally, anyway.

For me, many things that could have gone wrong in my first three years, did. My research technician crapped out on me and cost me a good half-year of productivity while I was figuring out how to handle that situation. The research I had started wasn’t really taking off anyway–both the original Plan A as well as my back-up Plan B. I went through a divorce and was learning to handle single mom-hood. My departmental mentor just wasn’t sure what to do with me.

I dug out my own third-year review earlier this semester. While I was praised for my teaching and mentoring of students and my service work, my research was falling short. I was told both that I didn’t have enough collaborations, and also that the ones I did have were too diverse and not focused enough. I was publishing, but not enough. I had landed a few grants but, yeah, not enough. My summary paragraph stated: “At this point, ProfColleen is not making appropriate progress toward a review that will have positive results when she is considered for promotion to Associate Professor with tenure. It is imperative that she publish in an area of focus to increase chances of being competitive for funding, and that her service be similarly more focused to allow maximum opportunity for developing a cohesive record of professional productivity.”

When I read that the first time, more than 7 years ago, my stomach clenched. Even though I knew it wasn’t going to be all unicorns and rainbows, that paragraph still hurt. However, all was not lost, and I sailed through the promotion and tenure process. What did I do to turn it around?

1) Asked advice. A lot of it. I met with my Chair to discuss what I could/should do about the poor review. I wanted better advice than just “publish more, get more grants.” I already knew that, thankyouverymuch. She suggested some strategies to get my papers out, and that using a “lowest publishable unit” model for some of my data would be to my advantage at this point. She was right. I published some manuscripts that certainly weren’t GlamourPub-ready, but they got my name out there and proved to be a solid foundation for future grant proposals.

2) Expanded my mentor repertoire. This was critical. My other mentor, I felt, just wasn’t that invested in me, and he’d simply had much different life experiences and career trajectory than mine. I came to realize as well that even if he had been a “perfect’ mentor, having multiple mentors is typically a good thing in any case. This also helped me forge more productive collaborations.

3) Expanded my target agencies for federal grants. This was a direct result of #2. My previous mentor had pushed me toward a single government agency, which simply wasn’t working for my research.

4) Stepped back on my teaching a bit. I had been getting top marks in all my evaluations (both student and peer). I love teaching and hate to give students any less than what I feel is my full attention to the topic, but I was overdoing it in proportion to how my time needed to be allocated. This, admittedly, was a bit easier to do as I no longer had new preps to do at this time (though I did do a course revamp in my 5th year, as I inherited a course from a departing faculty member). This freed up time and allowed me to work on my publications and grant applications.

5) Adjusted my schedule and took whatever support I could get. As a single mom with no family in a 400-mile radius from my work town, I’d head to my hometown on breaks and have the kids visit with the grandparents, aunt, and uncles while I caught up on work. I also took advantage of the kids’ before-and-after-school program, which allowed me to keep them there after school until 5:30, rather than picking them up at 3 and trying to get work done with them at home. My maximum productivity tends to be in the late afternoons and late evenings (after the kids are in bed), so this helped me to get more done while the kids were still being entertained and having fun with friends.

Things I didn’t do that were suggested by my T&P committee: narrow my focus. I still have two separate-but-complementary areas of scholarship. One is clearly my primary area and another is secondary/minor, but I think I was able to show in my dossier documents that they work together nicely, and my secondary area of study also raises my profile in my primary research area. So don’t be afraid to disagree with some of the recommendations of your tenure/promotion committee. You know your work and your field better than they do.

In the end, your department wants you to succeed. Unless they’re completely dysfunctional, you should have multiple people to reach out to for assistance. Take advantage of that. Find out if your review is really as bad as it seems, or what your reviewers may be trying to say between the lines. If you’re reading here, you probably already know that there is a wealth of information available online to help you turn things around. Put together a game plan, discuss it with your chair, and go kick some academic ass.

3 thoughts on “Getting past a poor third year review

  1. This is great advice even if your third year review wasn’t awful! Your tenure committee is going to want to see growth between third year review and tenure, so everyone should do #1 and #2 at least on this list.

  2. Hi – Tenure, She Wrote is generally one of my favorite blogs with so many great, insightful posts, and this is no exception. Thank you! I’ve only just started a postdoc, in the European system, so a third year review doesn’t mean much to me, but I’ve heard “focus, focus, focus” a lot, too, particularly during my PhD. I understand it makes sense sometimes (I tell friends and colleagues the same, if I feel they have their fingers in too many pies because they haven’t figured out what they’re really interested in). But in my case I use two parallel, but complimentary approaches to answer one BIG, basic question, so I find it really annoying. Especially, since noone has ever said I’m underproductive in one of the two approaches, so why ask me to focus? Luckily, my bosses so far have been very supportive, allowing me to “multi-task”, but apparently it doesn’t get better as you move up the ranks. I will keep this in mind…

  3. Pingback: Don’t worry (too much) about whether you’ll get tenure, because you probably will | Dynamic Ecology

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