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Interdisciplinarity and Tenure

As any experienced search committee member will tell you, faculty searches tend to favor fresh young candidates whose work makes new connections among existing disciplines. This is a good thing; the most important science often lies at interfaces between disciplines. But despite this initial enthusiasm, some institutions don't follow through by supporting the work of scientists who don't fit into established categories.

Standard practice, endorsed by the Red Book of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), still tends to give disciplinary departments the loudest voice in the debate over whether a young scholar gets lifetime employment--or is fired. Many of those senior scientists--the ones guarding the gates--were trained as staunch disciplinarians, and they take seriously what they see as their obligation to keep out the barbarians who would water down standards and compromise the institution in the name of the latest hyphenated buzzword. Hiring-time enthusiasm can easily turn into tenure-time trouble, as young scientists realize--too late--that they are being judged by standards different from those (equally high, or higher) that they've spent the last several years of their lives working to meet.

This description makes the situation sound worse than it is. Science has made great progress in recent years in accepting interdisciplinarity. Awareness of the issue is growing rapidly, and interdisciplinary training programs are on the rise. Many of today's administrators and senior scientists recognize the challenges of interdisciplinary science, and they do what they can to support young scientists outside the norm.

So what, exactly, is the problem? On its face, it's that standards of scholarship vary from one field of science to the next. The degree of precision expected by some analytical chemists, for example, may be unattainable by environmental biochemists studying sludge collected from sewage treatment plants. Because a new field has ill-defined standards, or because they aren't widely known, each evaluator may end up applying a different set of standards.

These concerns can be--and often are--mitigated by caution on the part of evaluators. But this is a long-term problem in need of a long-term solution. The community of science must come to embrace the (rather obvious) fact that the future of science lies with the young, who tend to care less about disciplinary distinctions than their more calcified elders. The problems that young interdisciplinary scientists face will be solved only when the culture has changed. For now, "young scientists need to learn to appreciate and respect the cultures of other disciplines," says Nita Maihle, a senior cancer biologist and a program director at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. When those young scientists are in charge, she believes, things will be better.

But today's young scientists can't wait. If they don't win their tenure battles, that better day will never come for them.

So, what should you--a young interdisciplinary scientist--do to assure a fair hearing? It turns out that the best advice is pretty much the same for interdisciplinary scientists as it is for more traditional ones. What's good for the disciplinary gander is also good for the interdisciplinary goose, only more so. The questions for the latter are slightly different, but the answers are largely the same. Here are some suggestions:

* Choose your friends well, and support one another. Some senior scientists "get it" and others don't. Seek out the ones who do.

Your science may be new, but the experiences and challenges of doing new work are centuries old. You are treading paths cleared by generations of interdisciplinary scientists, and, although some may have grown stale, many of those trailblazers are still doing just that. Seek them out, and work with them if you can. If you can avoid it, don't refight battles that they fought long ago.

* Start early and seek information. If you want to know how to succeed, you need to know how the process works. Mentors and new senior colleagues often forget how much young scientists don't know, and the latter group often doesn't even know what questions to ask. Said one senior scientist who has seen the process from all sides: "When I [as department chair] sat with [probationary faculty], I could not believe the degree to which they were absolutely uninformed [about the tenure process]. While it is true that there is a mentoring responsibility, it's your career and your life that are on the line, and getting solid information on how the system works has to be a first order of business." Get to know your institution's tenure-evaluation procedures thoroughly.

* Seek feedback. Learn where the real power lies and in what committees key votes will occur. Find out who speaks for those committees, and meet with them on a regular basis. At most--but not all--universities, the most important vote occurs at the departmental level, and the department chair is charged with voicing any concerns the faculty might have. At medical centers, the process is often more centralized. Firmly (but politely) seek honest feedback from the likely key decision-makers. You may not want to know this, but it's important to find out how you and your work are perceived while there's still time to change perceptions.

* Seek respect within a discipline. As previously noted, AAUP's Red Book, the bible of tenure procedures, says that tenure decisions should rest mainly with a candidate's department, and most institutions give great weight to the department's opinion. Outside evaluators, too, may be chosen from the ranks of scientists working within traditional disciplines.

But departmental recommendations must be ratified at a higher level. "Reports which are tepid in tenor owing to a lack of confidence in understanding the details of research can be seen as lacking in enthusiasm at the next levels," writes an experienced scholar and administrator. You need to win not only your department's support but also its enthusiasm, if you want that opinion to carry the day. Your outside letters also must be strong. This, too, is easier to assure if you have succeeded by disciplinary standards.

But be wary: Don't give in to conformist pressures. Seeking respect within a discipline is a strategy for success, not a professional obligation. Don't change course just to appease those who think your work should be more conventional. Your work deserves to be judged on its merits.

* Explain the importance of your work. As one source for this article pointed out, in the early days of molecular biology, many biologists thought the field lacked creative content because of its focus on new methods. Many senior scientists don't take the time to learn about new fields of science, so you may need to do that work for them. Make sure your colleagues know what you are doing and why. Just in case you haven't made the point in years of working together, explain it again, as eloquently as possible, in your dossier.

* Influence the process at every opportunity. At some institutions, candidates for tenure are offered the opportunity to recommend outside reviewers or to comment on the makeup of the tenure committee. If you have such opportunities, take advantage of them. Recommend reviewers who know your work's importance and the field's standards of scholarship, but don't waste the opportunity by recommending candidates with whom you have a close professional relationship or those likely to be disqualified for some other reason.

Many institutions allow "unsolicited" letters; these will be weighed less than solicited letters are, but they usually will be read, so make sure your most ardent supporters write on your behalf.

* Write effective, shrewd, responses to critical letters. If you have an opportunity to respond to a letter that is unjustifiably critical, try (if you can) to succinctly point out, in the gentlest possible way, that the writer is not the best person to judge work in your field, and guide the committee toward more informed opinions (external evaluators and reviewers of papers or grant proposals). A point-by-point refutation of a detailed critique might not be a good idea. Remain professional, even if your colleagues don't.

* Cultivate good relationships. It would be a mistake to put unmeasured faith in senior colleagues and their judgment, but you will be doing yourself no favors if you think of your evaluators as adversaries. Some senior scientists are shocked to hear it, but it's quite common for young scientists to view even well-meaning senior colleagues as impediments to their success. You'll get more support from your colleagues if they like you, and they'll like you more if they believe you like them. Some scientists have lost their jobs, despite very strong records, simply because their colleagues didn't like them very much.

* Don't be cynical. The tenure process is far from perfect, but it is venerated. Senior colleagues are likely to believe in it, partly because it has merit; and partly because they've been through the process and made the grade. Cynicism is unbecoming.

* Shape the debate in your dossier. Experienced grant writers often encourage less experienced colleagues to do the reviewers' work for them. This is good advice, and it works just as well for tenure reviews. Lead your evaluators through the difficult task of evaluating your work (favorably, of course). One good way to accomplish this is to demonstrate in the dossier that you have gained acceptance within the scientific community--or your little corner of it. Show the extent to which others respect your work. Provide benchmarks: How does your publication record compare to scientists doing similar work? What are the impacts and reputations of the journals in which you publish? How does your grant-proposal success rate compare to the government funding agency averages? How widely cited is your work, and how does it compare to scientists doing related work? Don't forget, though, that citations increase exponentially with time, so a paper that's been out for 10 years will tend to have far more citations than a new one has.

Don't forget to spell out your contribution to each of your publications. It is often assumed--falsely--that the first author on a publication makes the largest intellectual contribution. Standard practice in the ordering of authors varies from field to field, but not everyone knows this. If you've been the major creative force behind a paper, be sure to make this clear in the dossier by explaining in detail what you did.

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