how i got tenure


This week I received word that the University of Georgia is forwarding my name up to the president and board of regents for approval of tenure. At this point it is all been decided and just a matter of ceremony.

Whooo! I got tenure!

Tenure, for young academics, is that magic word that represents all we work for our first 7 or so years after earning the doctorate. At a point when our academic unit feels is right (around the 5-6 year mark), a tenure dossier is made and includes one’s CV listing research, teaching and service duties (due April 2009 for me). During the summer before the package is voted on (summer 2009 for me), the package is sent to at least 3 reviewers at peer institutions who are experts in that scholar’s field. The outside reviewers look at the young scholar and essentially summarize his or her work then answer the all-important-question of whether he or she would get tenure at that outside reviewer’s institution. The reviews come back (Aug. 2009 for me), the department votes (Aug. 2009 for me), the college votes (Sept. 2009 for me), then off it goes to the university for consideration (Sept. – Dec. 2009 for me).

The purpose of tenure, though perhaps archaic in the modern world, was to allow scholars the freedoms to pursue knowledge regardless of who it may offend. If your research is controversial to the church or state, theoretically those with tenure can’t lose their jobs for pursuing such academic interests. One could argue this is how we know the world isn’t flat and a slews of other facts we now take for granted.

These days tenure is more of a simple milestone. Some institutions don’t even offer it anymore.

Even so, it creates much stress for young faculty members.

How many publications do I need before I go up for tenure? (I’d been told 2 per year, so about 12 would be minimal.) How will I know if I’m doing well? (Annual reviews and a good 3rd year review should provide feedback.) Can I go up for tenure early? (Not at UGA.) What if one of my outside reviewers is someone who hates me? (I was able to provide a very short “black list” of potential outside reviewers I *didn’t* want to review my dossier.) Will I be fired if I don’t make tenure? (Essentially, yes.) I previously worked at another institution before coming here, will those years count or do I have to start the tenure clock all over again? (I was given the option to either carry over my LSU years or start over, whatever worked best for me.)

In the end, my dossier (pdf) turned out to be good enough, warts and all. In the dossier, I had 26 peer-reviewed journal publications, a few teaching awards and served on the right mix of committees. Enough people in the field were citing my work in a diverse set of journals. I made the cut.

The path to tenure for me was very focused, but not stressful. I was always mindful and working toward it but never stressed about it. I just wanted it done with.

My research stream definitely changed as a result of my pursuit. I had been given very specific paths that I should pursue in order to get tenure, paths that I never would have naturally taken on my own. At first packaging my research that way felt forced, but in the end I really think that I as a scholar grew from it, it connected me more to my teaching and the changes in my research program are ones I believe I will keep now, post-tenure.

I don’t feel as if getting tenure were hard. I was certainly focused, but that is just my personality.

I’ll leave young scholars with a few take-aways from my own tenure journey looking back. This list got so long, I ended up breaking it up into sections.

RESEARCH

  • set annual goals for yourself in regard to publication, make sure they exceed what your department tells you (if your department tells you 2 per year, shoot for 3-4)
  • use your CV as a living document to keep track of the projects you are working on, where things were submitted, MS numbers for items under review, future works, etc. When you send your CV out or post it online though make sure to remove the works under review & work in progress to protect blind review (huge pet peeve of mine)
  • keep a tenure tally comparing yourself to other tenured professors in your department to help give you a quick look as to whether you are on track
  • if a senior colleague suggests a different packaging of your research, give it a try because it may actually be a good suggestion (& help you place your work more)
  • get out of your hall/college — meet other people around campus. It will open you up to other theories, approaches & even if you’re just getting out¬† socially it can still help give you a more multidisciplinary frame of mind that will improve your scholarship
  • don’t sit in your office all day long, go out & talk to colleagues. When I was a grad student I heard a stat (not sure how true it is) that there was a correlation between how prolific a scholar was and how often he or she would just chit chat with colleagues. The idea is that you will get inspiration, help & maybe collaboration from your colleagues if you’re talking to them
  • use breaks (winter, summer, holiday) for focused work on projects. I would go into every break with a set of goals for each of my manuscripts in progress — sometimes I’d get it all done and sometimes I was too ambitious, but the time away from campus was a great opportunity to focus
  • collaborate with colleagues — you do more work quicker and can then handle several different papers at once
  • keep authorship in mind — try to be first author and solo-author as much as possible
  • don’t waste your time with non-tenure seeking activities, for me this meant don’t consult. There was money to be made but in the end it took way too much time away from what my focus should have been so I stopped doing it.
  • revise & resubmits take priority. Once you have one, you’re one step closer to publication so don’t let that slip away. Make the changes the reviewers want (most often it will make the piece better despite your grumblings) & push aside other projects in order to get these done in a timely manner. There are actually 2 r&r that I let slip away during my own tenure journey & that is an unfortunate waste.
  • your 1st year is the most important – make a solid attempt to get at least 3 things under review by the end of the 1st year. Set your pace to win the race. You will never catch up so start off with a bang (and not just relying on dissertation, but start new projects as well).
  • your journal submissions don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be done. Get work out the door & don’t obsess – make sure it is good but shooting for perfection will hold you back. The final published version will be different after the review process anyway.


TEACHING

  • try to combine teaching & research to make the most of your time. I did this by collaborating with my undergrads on their research class projects (after the semester was over, I was last author but did the post-class work to get it published) and centered my lectures around my own research interest
  • be smart when you write syllabi for your classes so you optimize learning for the students but don’t create repetitive & time-consuming grading for you
  • use a TA to help you with as many admin teaching tasks as possible & research work


SERVICE

  • serve on diverse committees in the dept/college, but not too many — don’t serve on a university-level committee your 1st 3-4 years if possible


POLITICS

  • don’t go to everything, but go to the events that matter — find out what the “important things” are that you need to show up for within your dept/college but don’t feel like you have to go to everything. I’m probably worse at this than everything else, but as nontenured faculty you want to get your face out there. But going to every college and dept event could kill your research focus. Ask around about what the “must be seen at” things are (likely faculty meetings & start/end of semester get-togethers) then go to those.
  • network at conferences because those senior scholars in the room may be your outside reviewer in a few years


NAVIGATING THE PROCESS

  • stay focused but not stressed
  • get feedback from a senior colleague about your cv over coffee¬† once a year — you might not be packaging yourself in a way that will make sense to a chemistry professor on the university tenure & promotion committee and that senior scholar can help you put your best foot forward
  • 2 years before you want to go up for tenure have “the talk” with your supervisor to make sure that your plan is feasible. Work out a schedule. Since I was using my 2 years from LSU in my tenure clock here at UGA, I had to get the timing just right on my 3rd year review then tenure package. If my dept head hadn’t realized in enough time what my intentions were, I might have been delayed. Once you are a year out from putting together your package, make a checklist of what paperwork is due when so you can start to create deadlines & get samples of the packages. Dossiers are odd little documents and likely your university has a very specific format for yours.
  • get examples! Ask colleagues who have recently successfully completed the tenure process if you can see their dossiers (Dr. Bryan Reber and Dr. Lynne Sallot at UGA both gave me copies of their recent dossiers – Bryan’s for associate with tenure and Lynne’s for full). You can copy the format and it also helps you in knowing what to write in your own.
  • start writing your dossier about 2 months before it is due. Mine was due in Mar. 2009 to my dept head, so I wrote it over winter break 3 months before. I sat down with Dr. Bryan Reber’s dossier and nearly word-for-word typed in what he had in his about his career but replaced the facts with those about my own. That made writing the 1st draft so much easier than I believe it is for others.
  • talk with other new professors in your same cohort about tenure. Socially, I used to take weekly walks with Dr. Lisa Lundy during our 1st 2 years at LSU & we were both picking up different pieces of what was expected for us thereby able to combine notes. Plus it is nice to have someone to talk to about expectations & the tenure journey!

I didn’t sell out. I didn’t burn out. And I reached my goal. Nothing too exciting, but it is nice to be here none-the-less.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a revision I have to finish.

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