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Perspective: Advice on Achieving Tenure

Cathy Ann Trower

You've been hired onto the tenure track. That's no small achievement--but it is hoped that you already have your eye on the next prize: tenure. With tenure, you will have achieved one of the most important milestones in an academic science career and a near guarantee of professional stability. Tenure is worth planning for. So what do you have to do to get it?

There are few guarantees on the tenure track, but those who succeed are deliberate and systematic in helping themselves and others, seeking help and advice, being self-aware without being self-absorbed, and making themselves indispensable as departmental citizens.

To achieve tenure, you need to know why, how, and when to perform the necessary tasks--that is, the process of getting tenure--as well as the politics: whom to approach, when, and how. You need to learn how to document your accomplishments. And, of course, you have to do good work.

Let's start with a definitive list of best practices for getting started on the tenure track. In an ideal world, you will have:

- Negotiated a start-up package that's the envy of your colleagues, with the lab space, equipment, personnel (graduate students, postdocs, technicians), and funds you needed to hit the ground running.

- Negotiated teaching and committee-work reductions for the first year or two so that you can focus on establishing your research program.

- Gained experience writing grants and scholarly papers while in graduate school and during your postdoc--though these are skills that should continue to develop over time.

- Been invited to collaborate with senior colleagues in ways that enhance your career, not just theirs.

- Found senior faculty champions in your department, including a mentor or mentors, who help you instructionally (helping you build skills), developmentally (interpreting experiences and feelings), psychologically (providing emotional support, helping with anxiety management), and instrumentally (critiquing work, nominating you for awards, collaborating on research, and providing links to networks).

- Chosen an institution with a supportive research environment, a rich community of scholars, and adequate resources (time, money, and capable graduate students).

Alas, rarely is the world "ideal." No matter; you can still achieve tenure. Here are some suggestions for getting what you need to succeed from your institution and colleagues, starting now.

Tenure, deconstructed

First off, you need a detailed understanding of your institution's tenure process (timelines, procedures, clock-stopping policies, and so on); criteria (the particular balance of the three key criteria--research, teaching, and service--and what counts for which); standards (the performance threshold for each criterion, especially research); and the evidence needed to document your accomplishments (what needs to be in the tenure dossier). Let's look at each of these items in sequence.

(University of Innsbruck)

On Tenure

Also in Science Careers this week:

- Special Feature: Getting--and Not Getting--Tenure. Science Careers describes how to get tenure--and what some people do when they don't.

- Life After Rejection. You've been denied tenure--now what?

- In Person: A Simpler Life. A recently rejected physics professor rediscovers the pleasures of carrots and carpentry as she ponders her future.

Process: When do I need to submit what to whom? Most institutions do an adequate job of describing the routine and mechanical aspects of the tenure process in a faculty handbook. Locate a current copy of your institution's handbook online; typically, the provost's Web site is the place to find it. As soon as you start your tenure-track job (or, ideally, before), become familiar with everything it says. On points that require interpretation, ask your department chair or mentor--or both. As one junior faculty member with whom we spoke said, "Some people are worried about appearing stupid if they ask questions, but I think it would be more stupid to not ask and not get tenure!"

Criteria. At a minimum, the faculty handbook should provide some general language about the relative importance of research, teaching, and service at your institution. But the key word in that sentence is "general." I've read some pretty vague policies.

But even reasonably explicit standards may require interpretation. At most institutions, the department chair is the primary interpreter of written tenure policy; it's his or her obligation to communicate the unwritten "rules of the game." Don't stop there; seek alternative viewpoints from colleagues. But be wary of advice from distant departments, however insightful and well-intentioned: If you're in engineering, information from your buddy in the physics department might not be directly applicable. Even within, say, chemistry, what's expected from inorganic and analytical chemists might not be identical.

Standards. In the sciences at universities, you need to prove that you are an "excellent" scholar--so find out what that means. What level of journal should you be publishing in, and what journals are considered top-level? How many publications are you expected to have? What's the best number and mix?

To get tenure, you need to be an accomplished teacher--so find out what that means in your department, how it's measured, and the level of attainment expected. How much time should you spend preparing for class? Holding office hours? What are the grading norms? You need to know these things before you can conform.

Don't forget about service: Find out what committee work is required and what you can afford to decline. Not all service is created equal. Some committee work is necessary but won't help your case, and some of it is just plain unnecessary. Some committees will claim far too much of your precious time, and others could lead to conflicts with administrators or senior colleagues; steer clear of those. If you're getting too many service requests, ask your chair to intervene.

At the same time, be aware that certain types of service, especially outside of your institution--on grant-reviewing committees, for example--can help you make important professional connections even as it enhances your tenure dossier.

Evidence. Speaking of your dossier--what should go in it? The centerpiece is your curriculum vitae (CV), which should list every scientific thing you have ever done and everything you will do from now on. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of logging your work.

To document your accomplishments in research, your CV should contain a chronological list of books, edited books, book chapters, journal articles, technical reports, and other work, clearly denoting what is published and what is under review (if there are multiple authors, you need to state your role); funding received with you as principal investigator or co-investigator; and proposals submitted but not funded. It should also include patents and patent applications, presentations at scientific meetings (with invited talks clearly marked), invited talks at other universities and your own, and (though this might properly belong in the discussion about documenting service) public lectures.

For teaching, your CV should list all courses taught; involvement with graduate students (lab experiences, theses, dissertations--as a committee member and adviser) and noteworthy research accomplishments of undergraduates; supervision of postdoctoral scholars and researchers; curriculum development; advising load and work with student groups, committees, or task forces; teaching and research awards and other major accomplishments.

Either in or outside the CV, include descriptions of your students' and postdocs' subsequent accomplishments. Which of your undergraduate protégés have gone on to graduate school, and where? Which postdoc and grad-student protégés have gone on to become practicing scientific professionals, especially faculty members?

For service, you'll likely need to list (on the CV) editorships and reviewerships; grants and papers reviewed; offices held in professional societies; consultation activities; administrative service; and service on committees at the university and departmental levels, as well as your role in each activity. If you're a clinician with clinical duties, seek out information on how best to document these.

The CV is the centerpiece, but there's much more to a tenure dossier. You'll probably need a description of your teaching approach and philosophy, with plans for the future and a teaching self-assessment. Almost certainly, you'll be expected to describe your research plans. Course syllabi, your published papers, your funded and submitted grant proposals--some or all of these things have a place in your tenure dossier.

Getting it done

In short, you need to know precisely what accomplishments are expected and how to document those accomplishments. And then you need to make an early start toward meeting the standards and assembling the required documentation.

Some institutions/departments provide examples of recently successful dossiers; ask for them. If the department can't provide examples, seek them out from scholars who have been tenured over the last couple of years--preferably in your department, because otherwise you can't be sure the same standards apply.

Here's some practical advice for staying on the tenure track:

- Don't put all your research eggs in one basket! Maintain a range of projects, some high risk and some low risk, some likely to mature quickly, some less likely, and some likely to pay off only after several years. High-risk, long-payoff projects should be balanced by steady, lower-level productivity.

- Teach effectively but also efficiently; try to minimize your new course preparations, especially early in your career.

- To save time, get help: Hire a housekeeper, let your technician manage your lab's day-to-day activities (but stay close to the research); use the resources offered by your institution's Office of Sponsored Programs.

- You know those opening paragraphs you labored over for that grant proposal? Reuse them to open a journal article or conference presentation. Turn those presentations into papers or book chapters. Don't waste anything; use your scraps.

- Gain visibility on your campus and in your scholarly community because you'll need several letters of support. Attend campus events. Introduce yourself at conferences to colleagues in your field and take advantage of every opportunity to talk about your work.

- Be a good colleague. Don't fade into the woodwork or be so busy that you're inaccessible to peers, colleagues, and students.

- Seek feedback, formal and informal, from peers, near-peers (those who made tenure recently), and senior colleagues. If it's not automatic, arrange an annual review, with a more extensive review in year three, or in years two and four. Get feedback from your chair--in writing, preferably, but asking for that could be awkward if it's not required. Be open not just to praise but also to constructive criticism ("tough love," as one pretenure faculty member calls it). Ask how you can improve. Don't assume you know.

- Weave yourself a tapestry of mentors, formal and informal, at all levels, at your university and beyond. Especially helpful are members of your department who recently achieved tenure.

There are few guarantees on the tenure track, but those who succeed are deliberate and systematic in helping themselves and others, seeking help and advice, being self-aware without being self-absorbed, and making themselves indispensable as departmental citizens.

Cathy Ann Trower, Ph.D., is the research director of Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.