How To Get Tenure: Dos and Don’ts

Joe Pa in a toga.
When there is a statue of you outside of your "office" I think you can assume you have tenure.

Sean Caroll, “a Cal Tech physicist denied tenure a few years back at Chicago” wrote a guide: How To Get Tenure at a Major Research University | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine. His field is not mine (or likely that of those reading this blog) but you should read his whole post because it has very relevant material and suggestions. I will provide just a couple here, with a few comments of my own. The first few points are obvious, well, should be, for example, “Do good work.”

  • Be prolific and reliable. No, tenure is not given or denied simply on the basis of how many papers you write. But… it doesn’t hurt. More importantly, if there is some standard of productivity in your field, try to maintain it all the time. Don’t have “a bad year.” Because if you have one bad year, who knows how many bad years you’ll have in the future?

More specifically, know what is expected by your department and college. A good chair or head should sit all their junior faculty down and make it very clear what they need to make tenure in that department. If they don’t, go and ask them. We are required to give our students a syllabus why shouldn’t departments do the same for their faculty? They should.

  • Don’t be too well known outside the field. I hate to say this, but the evidence is there: if you have too high of a public profile, people look at you suspiciously. Actual quote: “I’m glad we didn’t hire Dr. X; he spends too much time in the New York Times and not enough time in the lab.” And that’s the point — it’s not that people are jealous that you are popular, it’s that they are suspicious you care about publicity more than you do about research. Remember the Overriding Principle.

This, as with many of his comments, is what I would call a culture question. In line with my comments above, meet regularly with your department chair or head and find out what is and is not acceptable in your department.

  • Don’t write a book. This follows partly from the above; if you’re contemplating writing a popular book, and aren’t sure whether it will negatively impact your chance of getting tenure, you’re probably too far gone for this list to even help you. But it’s worth a separate bullet point because even textbooks are beyond the pale. (Probably the worst thing I personally did was to write Spacetime and Geometry.) You might think that a long volume filled with equations that provides a real service to the community would help your case. It won’t; it will hurt it. Why? Because while you were writing that book, you weren’t doing research. Catching on? (Obviously I’m writing from a field where research is conveyed solely through papers, not books; if you’re in a field where the serious research is contained within scholarly books, then by all means write all the scholarly books you can.)

And his caveat applies to us. In my two institutions I have had great departmental leaders who clearly articulated the expectations and they were the same (regarding scholarly publication): 6 articles in respected peer review journals and one book (not your doctorate warmed over!).

  • Choose your hobbies wisely. This is a bit more subjective, but I think there is some truth here. Even the highest-pressure departments in the world don’t think that faculty members can’t have any hobbies outside their work. But here is the paradox: you are better off if your hobbies are nothing like your work. Permissible hobbies include skydiving, playing guitar, or cooking. Suspicious hobbies include writing of any sort (novels, magazine articles, blogs), programming or web stuff, starting a business, etc. Why? Because there’s a feeling that this kind of activity represents time that could be spent on research. I don’t think blogging has quite the stigma it once did, although I have heard senior faculty members say they would never hire someone with a blog. But it’s a symptom of a willingness to spend your intellectual energies on something other than doing research.

And this, my friends, is why Mark Goodacre and I are presenting in a session coordinate by the SBL Student Advisory Board. In reality getting the job is not even half the battle. I suppose SBL does workshops on getting tenure (if they don’t, they should) but the major issues are often the same. I don’t think that blogging, being on facebook, twitter, etc. is actually going to harm your chances at a job or tenure. What you say on those sites may.

Underneath all of this is the unspoken (now to be written) assumption that you will compromise some of who you are and what you are interested in for the sake of getting tenure. Many will be unwilling to make that compromise. For me, it has not been a denial of my self or hiding “who I am,” rather simply a question of doing the work expected and required of me (not unlike a graduate program) and being savvy about my public engagement and interaction. So far so good…

HT: My Brother.


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