Tips for new faculty on how to advance on the tenure track (opinion)

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You’ve landed the tenure-track job and now have five or six years to do the work that is going to get you tenure and promotion. As a coach and an editor with a combined 10 years’ experience supporting faculty on the path to tenure, we’d like to share our top tips for success as you advance on the tenure track.

Get clear on what is actually required to achieve tenure and promotion at your institution. Ideally, your tenure and promotion requirements will be spelled out in writing somewhere, but at many institutions, guidelines are either too general or too vague to help you define clear goals. If that’s your institution, you will need to do some sleuthing. Ask colleagues if they’d be willing to send you the dossier they submitted when they went up for tenure, as well as what they’ve seen while presenting to tenure-review committees.

You’ll want to determine, as concretely as possible, how people obtain tenure and promotion at your institution. How many publications do you need? How are different kinds of publications—journal articles, book chapters, textbooks, encyclopedia entries—counted? Do you have to publish in a particular type of journal? How will single authored versus co-authored publications be viewed? Will your readers understand what first- and last-authorship means in your discipline? Are you expected to have won external research funding? If so, do you need to have been the principal investigator? How are service activities considered in your evaluation, if at all? How is teaching documented and evaluated? How will your readers perceive student evaluations of teaching?

Getting answers to such questions can be challenging, either because people see their tenure file as confidential, or because the standards have intentionally been written to be general. Still, it’s worth the effort. It’s hard to plan toward a nebulous goal. Without clarity, you can’t make informed decisions about which projects to prioritize. Plus, you’ll miss out on the momentum that comes from seeing progress toward the goal.

Because people may be hesitant about sharing this information, you may have to build some trusting relationships before you make such requests. It may take you the entire first year in your job to get clarity on your end goal. If you’re not able to get sample dossiers from your institution, then, as a last resort, you might have to go to colleagues at other institutions to obtain some—but keep in mind not all colleges and universities have the same standards. `

2. Establish a sustainable research and writing practice. Most academics are evaluated on teaching, research and service. But teaching and service tend to have clear bookends to the work: you have to show up to class and to committee meetings. Research, on the other hand, easily falls to the bottom of the to-do list, so you’ll need to figure out how to manage yourself as a researcher and writer. How do you break big projects down into smaller tasks and keep them moving? How do you advance multiple projects without dropping the ball on any of them?

By sustainable, we mean a practice that gets you to your research and writing goals while keeping up with other commitments, including your well-being. Will you occasionally push, giving up some of your free time (or sleep) to meet a deadline? Perhaps. But regularly overworking is not sustainable. Sacrificing your relationships or health is not a requirement for tenure.

Instead, develop a weekly routine that includes teaching, research and service as well as rest, play and love. What that will look like in practice is up to you. Take time each week to review how you spent your time, how you felt, what worked and what didn’t. Adjust accordingly. Keep in mind that you don’t have to do this work alone. Use resources for accountability and support, such as a writing group or a coach.

3. Test-drive strategies for how you’ll present your accomplishments. Either in January or July of your first year, you should have your first annual review with your department head, during which you may be eligible for a merit salary increase. Use this review to practice communicating in writing what you’ve achieved.

For example, while many institutions have a CV template, not all departments expect tenure-track faculty to rigidly adhere to the template’s format. Is your department head open to you adding a cumulative summary of your publications or successful grants in a table at the top of each section? How would your department head respond to your teaching dossier including a comparison of your student evaluation scores to the average score of your departmental colleagues? Have any journals in your discipline published an article detailing the average h-index of assistant, associate and full professors? If so, given the debate associated with this metric, what would your department head think of you including this type of comparison in your tenure package?

Some colleges and universities view such cumulative and comparative data as an asset, as it helps readers at the higher levels contextualize your accomplishments and impact. At other institutions, comparing yourself to your peers would be regarded as gauche at best, and arrogant and inappropriate, at worst. You can use the annual review to test your department head’s response to a range of methods to share the metrics associated with your teaching and research. Even if you are only expected to submit a CV at this annual review, you can use this moment as an opportunity to prompt your department head to reflect on the range of ways you might communicate your achievements and to give you advice.

Few faculty members are aware of the options available for communicating accomplishments and impact, which is why we recommend reviewing models of colleagues’ tenure dossiers. The earlier you’re able to read their dossiers, the more time you have to experiment with and assess your department head’s response to the range of methods you might use to represent your work.

4. Use annual reviews to home in on the themes or threads in your work. As one of us, Letitia, has written previously, research evidence from psychology suggests that, if you describe everything you’ve done—both your best, highest impact work and your average, run-of-the-mill contributions—your reviewers will perceive your strongest evidence as less persuasive, because they will mentally average the whole scope of your work. That is, a dossier that provides evidence of both strong and just OK work is regarded as less strong than a dossier that only details strong work—even though the strong-only dossier might detail a smaller total number of accomplishments.

Recognizing the broad themes that govern you work will enable you to recognize opportunities that you should decline so you can focus your strengths around a program of research that matters to you. Your annual reviews, then, will help you fine-tune the themes that make most sense for the ways you’ll choose to represent your work when you ultimately prepare and submit your tenure package—which, in turn, may help you as you develop your research and writing practice.

Following these guidelines—understanding what’s required, establishing a sustainable practice, experimenting with communicating your accomplishments and fine-tuning the broad themes that cut across your research, teaching and service—should help you proceed more intentionally along the path to tenure. It’s hard work but, with careful thought and a trusted support system, it can be done.

Kate Vacek, Ph.D., is an academic writing coach at yourphdcompass.com. Letitia Henville, Ph.D., is a freelance editor of academic writing at shortishard.com.

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