Alleviating Tenure Torture

A confluence of factors, including heavily tenured-in departments, fewer tenure-track positions, demographic trends, and a glut of Ph.D.s looking for employment, have placed tremendous strain on junior faculty members, making the tenure barrier increasingly difficult to surmount. Teaching and research records that would have earned probationary faculty tenure at prestigious institutions several years ago are no longer enough. The pressure to publish is greater than ever.

Young faculty face other problems as well. In an increasingly interdisciplinary academy, many probationary faculty note the ambiguity that arises from frequent changes in department chairs and differences of opinion within and among departments about what areas of scholarship, what methodologies, and what publication outlets count the most toward promotion. Preoccupied with trying to understand ambiguous and shifting tenure requirements, and faced with a dubious future if they don't win tenure, probationary faculty admit to feelings of ambivalence, anxiety, and vulnerability. Many report receiving mixed messages that create suspicion, distrust, and a sense of "living in limbo" and "playing archery in the dark."

Neither probationary faculty nor the academy should accept these feelings as normal. It is in the interest of both young scholars and academic institutions to address the issues that lead to this anxiety. Rather than quietly accept negative conditions and live in fear, probationary faculty should engage their mentors and department chairs from the start in a dialogue about expectations. The personal and institutional cost of doing nothing is high: Many junior faculty, particularly women and people of color, leave the academy in frustration.

Questions You Should Ask

What specific combination of teaching, research, and service is required?

Many job candidates ask this question up front if it isn't clear in the position announcement--and it usually isn't. Once you have the job, you should sit down with your department chair and discuss how the department and the institution weigh teaching, research, and service. Get it in writing. Many institutions provide ranges that roughly characterize departmental and institutional expectations. For example, the faculty handbook at a research university might read, "Probationary faculty are expected to spend 65% to 75% of their time on research activities and the remaining 25% to 35% on teaching activities." Ideally, the handbook (or some other document) will spell out what is meant by "research and teaching activities."

The work plan of a probationary faculty member at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology is exemplary, leaving little doubt about what is expected:

  • Teaching (0.5 FTE, 3 classes per year)

  • An average of 2 to 3 research projects at any given time, and therefore about 2 proposals submitted per year

  • Involvement in "one or more outreach activities, approximately at the scale of participating in one activity per year and leading a workshop once in 3 years."

Some institutions exempt junior faculty from service activities or ensure that the service load is minimal. You might want to deliberately seek a department where that is the case, especially if you lack teaching experience.

What are the specific performance criteria for tenure? What counts and what doesn't?

Once you know the work-balance expectations, you should ask how you will be evaluated. Seek specifics. Ask your department chair what counts for tenure and what doesn't--and get it in writing. If publishing in one journal--but not another--counts, you have a right to know this. If you are required to generate research grants, find out the dollar-amount expectation and the number of graduate assistants you are expected to support. Ask how teaching is evaluated and what level of proficiency is required. Ask what it means to be a "collegial" member of your academic community--are you expected to be best buddies with your colleagues, or is it enough to maintain a professional demeanor? Ask your department chair if you might look at portfolios (the documentation of research, teaching, and service) of successful predecessors. A copy of what was submitted should be housed either with the department chair, the dean, or the provost. The file should exclude confidential materials such as letters of recommendation.

The point is that you should not be trying to hit a moving target or to guess where the target is. Research shows that your work life will improve, your stress decrease, and your satisfaction increase if you know what is expected of you on the job.

Returning to the University of Minnesota example, a tenure candidate's work plan there reads that, in order to succeed, she should do the following:

  • Produce "one new or revised class about every other year"

  • Receive "a score of '5 out of 7' on most student evaluation metrics"

  • Advise 10 to 15 undergraduate students each year

  • Oversee the research of 1 to 2 undergraduates per year

  • Demonstrate evidence of research focus by the 5th year, including "1.5 articles in international journals or widely regarded refereed books, approximately 2 nonrefereed papers/reports and 3 papers presented each year"

  • Carry out "funding efforts [that are] sufficiently successful that 2 to 3 graduate students are supported on external funds at any given time."

Take it on yourself to ask a series of questions of mentors, senior faculty, and the department chair about what counts and what does not, especially if you get conflicting advice. Take notes and repeat it back. Not all institutions will be as specific as the University of Minnesota in helping you understand departmental expectations for tenure. The annual work plan process is relatively new at the University of Minnesota, and some senior faculty have reservations about it. Wherever you are, there is likely to be a certain level of concern about the specificity of guidance and the risk of grievance. However, try to get the chair to be as specific as possible, in writing, and meet with him or her annually to review your progress.

What is negotiable and what isn't?

You may be able to shape the allocation of your work effort, within institutional parameters. Ask if there is any leeway in the balance of teaching, research, and service, within specified appropriate ranges. There may also be some flexibility in the length of the tenure track itself. Some institutions allow probationary faculty to stand for tenure early, and some allow a longer process. Others have stop-the-clock provisions (typically for 1 to 2 years) for scholarly leave; medical leave; or family leave for childbirth, adoption or child rearing, family emergencies, or chronic illness of a family member. Some even offer time out if difficulties arise in the lab that set back your research. Find out how rigid the tenure guidelines are at your institution. All of this information should be available in the faculty handbook, but you may need to probe for details about how the policies actually work.

Be aware of the politics on your campus. If stop-the-clock provisions are available, find out if anyone uses them. Many junior faculty, especially women in the sciences, say that they fear being stigmatized if they take advantage of such provisions. The reproach for a man who takes family leave may be even greater! Ask for advice from a trusted senior faculty member.

How am I doing?

Ask to be assessed along the way; don't wait until the end of the probationary period. Since probationary faculty are typically employed on 1-year contracts until they stand for tenure, you should be reviewed annually, with a very thorough, in-depth, formal review at the midpoint that specifies the strengths and weaknesses in your portfolio. Periodic assessment, both formal and informal, lets you know where you stand and allows you to course correct. Be sure to ask your reviewer(s) to be very specific in your formal reviews about what you're doing well and where and how you need to improve. Adjust your work plan accordingly, in writing. If you have questions or receive conflicting advice be sure to ask your chair for interpretation.

Are there mentors?

One problem with traditional mentoring systems is that they are one-on-one. This is wonderful if you are lucky enough to have a great mentor. However, not everyone is equally gifted at, or interested in, mentoring, and sometimes two personalities just don't match. One solution is the process used by the Department of Small Animal Medicine and Surgery at Texas A&M University, College Station, where junior faculty are assigned a mentor committee composed of productive scholar-educators from the home department and other academic units. All committee members must serve at least until their colleague has been awarded tenure.

Central responsibilities of committee members include the following:

  • Peer review of lecture and laboratory class objectives, class materials, exam questions, draft manuscripts, grant proposals, clinical skills, student evaluations, the teaching portfolio, and formative participation in classroom visits

  • Development of an in-depth 5-year plan

  • Advice about using start-up funds most prudently to prepare for the tenure track, developing networks on campus, managing time and stress, coping with campus politics, and balancing personal and professional responsibilities

  • When applicable, assistance preparing a dossier for consideration for a tenure-track position.

  • Will I have one committee throughout the probationary process?

    In an ideal world, you would have a single, unchanging committee throughout your probationary period. Just as doctoral dissertation committees seldom (and only under extraordinary conditions) change, so should tenure committees remain stable. This is one simple method to take some of the fear out of the journey: If committee membership must change, because of unforeseen circumstances, the rules that apply and the process that is followed should not change--all the more reason to have carefully documented your work plan and progress in writing along the way.

    Department chairs should take responsibility for the well-being and success of probationary faculty--but don't count on it. There is much you can do to take charge of your own professional life; don't expect your chair or mentor to do all the work for you. Take matters into your own hands. And, when you have tenure, don't forget what it was like. Do everything in your power to make the journey less tedious, more equitable, and clearer--to guide other young scholars along the tenure path.

    * Having previously served as a faculty member, a division chair, and an academic administrator, Dr. Trower is currently a researcher at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She has studied faculty employment policies and practices for the past 6 years, with a particular interest in early career faculty. She recently completed a national survey of doctoral candidates and junior faculty that examines how they make choices about working within or outside of the academy and what factors they use when deciding among more than one academic offer. This article is adapted from The Department Chair: A Newsletter for Academic Administrators, 9(4), with permission of Anker Publishing Company.

    Follow Science Careers

    Search Jobs

    Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

    Top articles in Careers