Crowdsourcing solutions to tenure-track concerns

The tenure process is probably unsettling for everyone on some level.

Even if everything goes well, the process of being judged by your peers and others, with the possible outcome of losing your career can pretty much give anyone a stomachache. Sometimes we can channel worry into productivity and use it to keep from coasting or becoming complacent. Sometimes it is just discouraging or paralyzing.

Maybe some level of worry is unavoidable, and we just need to push through.  But what about when a concern calls for action?

The following concerns are based on real situations that have occurred at a variety of institutions.  What would you suggest?

Concern #1: What if by the time I manage to get tenure, I don’t like my colleagues or institution enough to stay for the rest of my career? Should I cut and run sooner, later or never?

Concern #2: What if I do everything my mentor advises, and get positive feedback from my department, but then the committee evaluating me doesn’t agree with my department and decides not to promote me? How can I make sure I am getting good enough advice to avoid this situation?

Concern #3: What if people at my institution disagree about the spirit and the letter of the guidelines for tenure?  How can I best prepare my case (and set directions for my teaching, scholarship and service) when I don’t know who will be on the committee when my case is heard?

Concern #4:  What if I was observed teaching by a member of my department and was given advice I really don’t like?  Under what circumstances should I take the advice and when can I ignore it?

The concerns are complex, situation-dependent and certainly have more than one possible appropriate response path. If you have one of these issues, I think it is worth finding a few mentors you trust (perhaps outside your institution) and discussing the issues with them.

Crowdsourcing solutions:  If you (or folks you know) have successfully navigated one of these critical issues, please share the idea in the comments.

Clarification:  These are not my situations – they are situations that I have heard about from colleagues nationwide.   I’m a full professor at this point (yay!) but often mentor junior faculty and wanted to hear what other people advise.

6 thoughts on “Crowdsourcing solutions to tenure-track concerns

  1. I am pre-tenure but close.
    1. Get tenure, and use it to leverage somewhere else. Cut and run sooner, I’d say. Or at least shop around, so you know what the possibilities are. I’m not sure what an argument for ‘later’ would be, honestly.
    2. This is a failure of your department, and it’s between the department and the tenure committee — not you. The department needs to protect its assets (you). If you anticipate this, then you need to get your colleagues to step up for you — to figure out how and where -they- make the best case for keeping you. This happened in my department years back, and everyone’s take-home from that incident was that the department should have done better, but that’s little comfort to the person who left. So if you see this happening, get the department to be proactive. You cannot cross that gap, between department and tenure committee, alone.
    3. I don’t know what to say beyond the trite “do your best”.
    4. Consider the underlying issue (is it really about having office hours, or more deeply, making yourself available and connected to your students?), make some change that addresses the underlying motive and indicates a willingness to cooperate/respond to criticism, then make a reasoned argument for your own choices in the response or packet.

  2. >>> Concern #1: What if by the time I manage to get tenure, I don’t like my colleagues or institution enough to stay for the rest of my career? Should I cut and run sooner, later or never?

    You don’t have to stay someplace forever. Right after tenure is a great time to move, careerwise. And “like” is not immutable. For instance, I loved my department for a long time, but in the last couple of years not so much (been here 12 years). The chair I respect and like as a person may have finally had too much Koolaid. I plan on going on the market the year after next, when my Eldest is about to start college and the middle is about to start middle school. I would time “cut and run” to suit your personal and professional clock. You should always have a move-ready CV (as some would say “publish your way out of a bad situation”).

    >> Concern #2: What if I do everything my mentor advises, and get positive feedback from my department, but then the committee evaluating me doesn’t agree with my department and decides not to promote me? How can I make sure I am getting good enough advice to avoid this situation?

    Are you at an R1? If so, what matters are grants, papers, and external letters. If external letters say you walk on water, you will be fine. Re mentor, some mentors suck. You need lots of informal mentors and do only stuff that a) several of your many mentors agree on and b) does not go against the grain of your being. (I just checked, it seems you are at a small private school with focus on teaching. Sorry, things are much more volatile in that case…)

    >> Concern #3: What if people at my institution disagree about the spirit and the letter of the guidelines for tenure? How can I best prepare my case (and set directions for my teaching, scholarship and service) when I don’t know who will be on the committee when my case is heard?

    Try to get your hands on sample dossiers of recently tenured people in related disciplines. My school always has several on file with grad school staff to look at.

    >> Concern #4: What if I was observed teaching by a member of my department and was given advice I really don’t like? Under what circumstances should I take the advice and when can I ignore it?

    Second and third and fourth opinion. How are your evaluations? If they are good, you have nothing to worry about. Teaching advice is generally useless and best practices are only transferrable in small details. You can always implement something small you like and not the whole big picture you dislike. For instance, my chair is pushing the flipped classroom like some is paying him to do it; he has been pushing it since I was on the tenure track. I think it’s bullshit and will never implement it. But I can try to schedule discussion sections in “active learning classroom” with round tables instead of a lecture hall and claim to be (sloooooowly) moving towards “active learning techniques” and “hands-on learning ” and “the flipped classroom”.

    Do you have someone senior in the department or better yet in a related department whom you trust? These questions are hard to answer without knowing department and university culture.

  3. 1) It’s generally easier to leave the more junior you are. Other than that, you can leave at any time. In my area it’s not unusual for people who are up for tenure to also apply for other jobs at the same time and no one will think anything of that.

    2) I don’t know what to do if it happens, but a way to prevent this is to also get advice from people in the university outside the department over your file. For example, in my university, the faculty association organises orientation sessions for faculty going up for promotion. In my experience the advice that the university people give is complementary to what my chair tells me (they emphasize different points, but I can sill follow both), so I strongly recommend getting advise outside the department regardless.

    3) When I was eligible for tenure, my two main mentors in the department couldn’t agree on whether I should go for it or wait another year (long story, not related to my research). Things only got solved when I invited the two of them to have lunch together with me and I asked the question directly. I realize this is a very particular situation, but in general, my recommendation is to take the advice in the context of the person giving it. Different people may be expert on different aspects of this complex process. In particular, anyone that has experience with the tenure process at your own institution (being an experienced chair, or someone who participated in more university wide promotion committees) can have very valuable advise that complements someone who is an expert in your field of research but knows nothing of the particular tenure process at your particular institution.

    4) I’m not sure how to respond this question. I’m in an R1 institution and as long as the teaching evaluations are OK, there is nothing else to worry about. I’d say, again, that you have to give some weight to the teaching advice, depending on the person giving the advice. Also consider the underlying issues as the first commenter points out.

  4. >>>>>>>Concern #1: What if by the time I manage to get tenure, I don’t like my colleagues or institution enough to stay for the rest of my career? Should I cut and run sooner, later or never?

    You can often earn credit towards tenure somewhere else, anywhere from 1-3 years. You can look for other opportunities within your institution, or like the PP said, be sure to have a CV ready. There are not a lot of positions advertised as either Assistant or Associate—at least not in my field it seems, so you may be giving up both rank and tenure (and probably money) if you move for an Assistant Professor position. It varies a lot if you can be appointed with tenure if you have it. Sometimes department chairs are not appointed with tenure. But people do move and give up tenure; it happens. It’s a lot to think about if a move could be good for you professionally and personally. I’ve seen this play out as both a candidate and search committee chair. Finally, some of the issues in academia are systemic, so a move might not solve your issues.

    >>>>>>>Concern #2: What if I do everything my mentor advises, and get positive feedback from my department, but then the committee evaluating me doesn’t agree with my department and decides not to promote me? How can I make sure I am getting good enough advice to avoid this situation?

    Make friends and be collegial with people in your college/school and on other university-wide committees as well as in your department. If your annual reviews are positive and you address any weaknesses and show growth, there should be less concern. Does your university do a third year review? That will also give you feedback on whether you are on track for tenure. There are so many layers of review of your portfolio: department P&T committee, Chair, college/school P&T committee, Dean, university level P&T, Provost, then Board of Trustees approval. It literally could be overturned at any step. It’s unlikely if everything has been positive, but theoretically it could happen. There may also be rules whether someone could serve on department, college/school, and university P&T committees at the same time. This could either work for you or against you. See my answer to #3 below.

    >>>>>>Concern #3: What if people at my institution disagree about the spirit and the letter of the guidelines for tenure? How can I best prepare my case (and set directions for my teaching, scholarship and service) when I don’t know who will be on the committee when my case is heard?

    If your institution uses a portfolio review only (either hard copy or electronic) then you have to put forward your absolute best effort to justify that you are meeting the guidelines for both tenure and promotion and leave no stone unturned. I needed a solid month to finalize everything, but I know others who took an entire summer. The worst thing you can do is put forward a scant narrative and little documentation. I realize that other institutions may do other things like external review, oral presentations, etc. This does not occur at my institution. If you’re at an R1, then publish and get grants. If you’re at a teaching institution, your teaching section is weighed more, but be sure your scholarship matches what is typical at your institution. With service, do enough that you meet the requirements. A colleague once told me she heard from her Dean that “No one will ever deny you tenure based on your service or that you failed to serve on some committee, but they will for your teaching and scholarship.” Do look at portfolios of those recently tenured and promoted.

    >>>>>>Concern #4: What if I was observed teaching by a member of my department and was given advice I really don’t like? Under what circumstances should I take the advice and when can I ignore it?

    I would state something that while I appreciate Dr. X’s feedback, I would not be sure all of these could truly work in this class and reflect on why you think that is so. If there’s something positive, talk that up. You don’t have to implement everything he/she suggests.

  5. Re: concern #1, in my field (ecology) it’s more common for people to move pre-tenure than post-tenure. As a previous commenter noted, that’s in part because many more jobs are advertised as the Asst. Prof. rank than open rank. Also, it’s more expensive to hire an associate or full professor than an asst. professor–more senior people are paid more. Though once you’re quite senior and ideally have a bit of admin experience, that can open up new opportunities to move (e.g., getting hired as a dept. chair, getting hired to run an ecology field station).

    And if you move after getting tenure, in my admittedly-anecdotal experience it’s likely that your new place will make you earn tenure again, with some shortened clock. It’s sometimes possible to negotiate getting hired with tenure if you already have tenure at a comparable institution, but it can be very difficult. I know of a very senior colleague who was exploring a move to another university and insisted on being hired with tenure, and permission to do that had to come from the Board of Governors.

    As other commenters noted, it’s not at all unusual to apply for other jobs when you’re pre-tenure, and getting another offer gives you leverage with your current employer.

  6. I’d like to 2nd (or 3rd?) the comments above about moving. In my field (education), you see almost no positions posted at the Assoc. rank. It’s all Asst. So, you’re going to lose a lot (or not even be looked at) when trying to move. I’m pre-tenure, and plan to stay where I am, but if I change my mind, I’ll do it before tenure.

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