The Tenure Track, part 1

I’ve written a lot about applying for a faculty job, how to give talks, and the importance of being a good writer. But I haven’t written very much about the things I’ve been doing in the last 4-5 years. All of the professional activities that I’ve been doing can be summed up in a simple word: Tenure.

I started my faculty position with the enthusiasm and excitement of someone who loves what they do and wants to see their science take off. Tenure was really an abstraction that seemed a long way off. In my uphill struggle for funding, my over-riding  immediate fear was not that I woudn’t get tenure, but that everyone that worked in my laboratory would soon be without a job.  Anyway, while I think that this is a reasonable approach your new status as a PI, knowing what is coming down the pike and setting yourself up with the maximum chance of getting tenure is something worth talking about. Don’t obsess about it, but educate yourself.

If you didn’t get a copy of the requirements and expectations for promotion and tenure in your department before you were hired, shame on you. But, since I know that none of you made this mistake and you possess a copy of such a document, don’t just tuck that thing away in a drawer somewhere and forget about it for the next 4-5 years. Read it now! Familiarize yourself with not only the requirements for tenure in your department and institution, but understand the process putting the packet together and what happens once you turn those documents in. If there isn’t sufficient detail on the process in writing, discuss the process with some of your more senior colleagues in your department who have already been through it.  Your departmental colleagues will be an invaluable source of insight into this process as you go through it yourself.

In looking at the requirements on paper, you are going to want to know what the expectation is for the three areas that pretty much everyone in an academic position has some responsibility for: Research, teaching and service. You already know that how your working hours are divided among these three areas was formalized in your appointment letter. It is worth nothing that there might be some reasons why the percentage of your time spent in each of these areas might vary from what is written in your appointment letter. Heavy clinical service appointments may actually consume much more of your time than your letter allots for those activities. In such cases you have every reason to see if the distribution of your time on paper can be adjusted to better reflect what you actually do in real life.  Talk to your chairperson about this issue, and understand that there may be some restrictions on the scale and kinds of adjustments that can be made.

Anyway- I’d like to write one at a time about research, teaching, and service as they pertain to tenure.  These topics will take more than one post, starting with research.

Now, it probably seems obvious to you that for tenure you must have published papers and you must bring in external grant dollars. But those two ‘requirements’ are really pretty vague. How many papers and of what ‘level’* or ‘quality’* of publication are expected in your department/institution for you to be considered tenure-worthy? Are 3 papers in Cell required for tenure in your department? If that level publication is required for tenure in your department, having a feel for that up front is important.

Where grants are concerned the kinds of things you might think about are these: you need an NIH grant, or is any federal grant enough? What about foundation grants (American Heart comes to mind)?  My sense of what kind and how many grants you will need to be considered a good candidate for tenure depends very much on the institution, college and department. Some departments have very heavy teaching or clinical service expectations, and may not care very much if you bring in an R01 or not. Research-based departments in very prestigious institutions won’t even consider putting you up for tenure unless and until you have 2 R01s.

Now that I have said all of this though- it is worth remembering that while your tenure ultimately determined by individuals in your institution, scientists in your field also have their say. Your tenure packet will be mailed out to scientists outside your institution (called ‘external’ reviewers, we’ll cover this whole subject in another post), who will evaluate your performance in either a letter or a phone call to your chairperson. I mention this because while it is critical to satisfy the requirements in your immediate environment, it is also important to develop a good reputation in your field. But that is a whole different post.

*For ‘level’ or ‘quality’ you can substitute Impact Factor or whatever metric your little heart desires. I use those terms only loosely, and do not wish to imply that the quality or impact of a paper in cell is necessarily greater than the quality or impact of a paper in, say, a society journal…

**You may have noticed that there have been some changes in some of the homes of blogs in my blogroll. I’ll shortly update the blogroll with new addresses!


15 thoughts on “The Tenure Track, part 1

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  2. Two thoughts:

    (1) Many private institutions do not have explicit written standards for tenure, other than vague shit like “recognized as a leader in their field” or some crap like that. My understanding is that–because they are government jobs–public institutions tend to have much more detailed explicit standards. Regardless, when people vote on tenure, there are no mechanisms to ensure that any existing explicit standards are followed properly. Accordingly, it is foolish to think that just by checking off entries on a list of requirements is gonna necessarily guarantee tenure.

    (2) Even the very elite institutions that used to require two R01s to even put someone up for tenure have adjusted to the times. People at these institutions are being put up for tenure with only a single R01, and some of them are achieving it.

  3. C PP – Both excellent thoughts. It is definitely worth remembering that just because certain requirements or guidelines are written down, or just because you do exactly what is written down- tenure is not guaranteed. For sure. Have any good examples that you wouldn’t mind sharing for times when someone did what was written down and stuff went wrong at another level?

  4. Even though many public institutions have explicitly written documents, those documents are written very vaguely (on purpose!). Actually, that vagueness can help you. If the document said that you “need 2 R01s” and you have 1 R01 and an NSF and a Macarthur genius award then they can’t help you. Instead what you’ll find is text like “strong evidence of ability to get federal-level funding”. At my BigStateResearchU, we’ve seen tenure given to faculty who didn’t have any active R01s, but who had had them in the past (and now have multiple ones – so we were right to give them tenure! ). The expectation definitely was at least one full R01 worth of federal funding, but if the document had been written as “an R01”, we wouldn’t have been able to give that faculty tenure. Similarly, we’ve seen tenure given to faculty whose publication track record wasn’t as stellar as we thought they were (and again, they now have several major breakthrough publications). If the document had specified impact factor or number of papers, we wouldn’t have been able to give that person tenure. Tenure isn’t something that’s going to be “do X and you get tenure”.

    This doesn’t mean that there isn’t an expectation. You should be able to determine that from the people who’ve recently gotten tenure and from your department chair, who really should be able to communicate the ranges of what is generally thought of as deserving of tenure.

    PS. I actually know of an institution that just told my postdoc that the expectation for tenure was 2 R01s. I don’t know what they’ll do when their current crop of junior faculty come up for tenure, but they are still saying “2 R01s”.

  5. My department has no official ‘set of rules’ for tenure, other than ‘excellence in research’. Lots of room there for interpretation. I think that perhaps two R01s was the requirement previously…but I am not sure these days. Time will tell!

  6. Thanks for the post! As a new tt faculty, I am certainly thinking a lot about the tenure process and I am looking forward to hearing your take on the whole process.

    As to CPP’s post, I don’t want to make this into an urban legend, but I do know someone that came up for tenure (thinking that they had done everything on the “list”) but was denied. This person got a 1 yr extention with another “list” that would correct deficiencies in the original tenure package. It seemed a little over-the-top, but with some hard work (and luck!) everything was crossed off THAT list. But, this person was denied tenure anyway. So much for the power of the list.

  7. Gerty-Z- I’ll probably deal with this in a later post but different institutions have different sets of P/T committees at various levels of the institutions- and the membership in these committees differ. A P/T committee that has faculty on it whose department (in same institution) have radically different expectations about tenure, can make life difficult for a candidate even though that candidate has great external letters and has satisfied the expectations of their home department. Also, there can be politics between such different departments about the number of faculty that get tenure in one versus the other. All ugly stuff but hard for a candidate to know about…

  8. DrDrA:
    Great post!

    And my experience is similar to qaz’s. Here at Big State U the tenure and promotion requirements are deliberately vague. That’s why it’s so important to thoroughly research the various requirements. <— Gratuitous plug for one of my own posts. 🙂

    We had something similar happen here, although in our case the person involved allowed something big on the original list to become uncrossed-off while dealing with the second list…

  9. I still remember descending into absolute panic when I finally sat down to read the P&T guidelines while preparing my mid-tenure review. I’m at a private institution and the guidelines are so very very vague, just as CPP describes. Plus the (mediocre deadwood) department had a history of firing good, funded people. That was the first time I realized that they could do whatever they wanted with me, no matter how many grants I had brought in (and I had brought in a lot).

    But it all ended well. Now I have tenure, and am looking forward to spending the rest of my career with my wonderful colleagues! (Hope the job market picks up soon…).

  10. While there are no criteria set in stone, a couple of things come to mind:

    Check out the records of recently tenured people in your field at peer institutions.
    (Should give an idea of how many papers and grants are needed.)

    At my university, there is a place where you can go browse representative, well-put-together tenure packets from the previous year. Public universities should all offer some version of this (being public and all), buty you may have to dig around a bit as to where.

  11. Even the very elite institutions that used to require two R01s to even put someone up for tenure have adjusted to the times. People at these institutions are being put up for tenure with only a single R01, and some of them are achieving it.

    Institutions that do this are making a grievous strategic error. In most academic biomedical research institutions the business model is that tenure is granted upon reasonable certainty of continuous future extramural funding (don’t be fooled by the research-teaching-service canard). If anything, the existence of difficult funding times indicates the bar for tenure should be raised, not lowered.

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