Tips for progressing toward tenure at an R1?

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In our newest “how can we help you?” thread, a reader asks:

“Yay!” I tell myself. “I did it!” After many job-market cycles I managed to get a TT job at a R1 school. It’s what I wanted. Having said yes to half a dozen collaborations throughout the years and twisting my research to fit the goals and visions of three research projects (through as many postdocs), I made it. I don’t mean to sound sarcastic, I am pretty happy. But as I’m beginning my first semester “on the clock”, I find myself staring at a “timeline to tenure calendar” that I worked up: a 200-or-so column table with each “week” over the next four years taking up one column.

I feel as though I have at least two options. First, I can stick to the spaghetti-&-wall method, where I keep juggling through a bunch of research collaborations that are all vaguely tied together and hope enough sticks to make a coherent case for tenure (especially to an outside letter writer). Or, I can prune off those that I’m less invested in, clear the plate I have in front of me, and drill down into one or two areas within which I might plausibly, to an outside letter writer, be seen as a “field leader.”

Going with the first tried-and-true method would likely yield a large number of publications and maybe a grant or two, but at the perceived risk of not becoming a top-tier or renowned expert in any single issue or cottage industry or sub-field. Going the second route might yield fewer deliverables, but might also allow me to develop that “expert-flair”. Of course, there’s also the risk that I’ll choose poorly, or never develop that “expert” reputation (what makes one an “expert” anyhow? Is that even something that tenure letter writers really care about or am I just assuming that?). I’m also sure that there are other, perhaps better, options that I’m not considering.

To file it all down to a few points: are there good (better?) strategies for organizing or prioritizing one’s projects in an effort to maximize one’s chances for tenure? What do tenure letter-writers really look for? Is this just all a species of impostor syndrome? Do / should people “change” their workflow once they’re “on the clock”?

These are excellent questions, and I’m curious to hear from readers who are in the know. Although I don’t work at an R1, based on what I’ve heard from others my recommendation would be for the reader to ask the powers-that-be in their department and university exactly what is expected for tenure (e.g. departmental tenure committee members, college deans, etc.) before setting on a strategy. Here’s why I say this…

First, I’ve heard anecdotally that at some R1s, whether you get tenure has little to do with how much one has published or where, but instead on whether you are a “field leader”–that is, whether your tenure-letter writers say you are “one of the top-5 early career people” in a particular field, or even on a particular topic. In fact, or so I’ve heard, it’s entirely possible at schools like this to regularly publish in top journals and still be denied tenure (if, for example, your publications are in great journals, but don’t forge a coherent project sufficient to make you a leading figure on a given topic). Alternatively, I’ve heard that at other R1s, one of the main issues in tenure is how many grants you pull in–as some universities are tight on money and ‘need’ tenured faculty to have a track record of consistently bringing in lots of outside money. Finally, though (or so I’ve heard), there are other R1s where the main question is whether you’ve met some minimum standard of publications (e.g. at least 6 publications, or 1 per year, in top journals). 

Anyway, long story short, my sense is that tenure standards vary greatly across departments, colleges, and universities, so it’s probably critical for the reader to find out exactly what is expected for successful tenure cases where they work. Also, just to belabor the point, I would think it’s important for them not merely to ask people in their department about this, as departmental tenure committees can sometimes have different standards than college committees or administrators (remember, successful tenure cases have to be approved at many different levels, such that even if a department recommends you for tenure, tenure can still be denied at a higher level). 

But these are just my thoughts, which (admittedly) are based largely on things that I’ve heard second-hand. Do any readers out there who work at an R1 (including readers who got or were denied tenure at one) have any helpful tips or experiences to share? Here, again, are the OP’s questions: “are there good (better?) strategies for organizing or prioritizing one’s projects in an effort to maximize one’s chances for tenure [at an R1]? What do tenure letter-writers really look for? Is this just all a species of impostor syndrome? Do / should people “change” their workflow once they’re “on the clock”?”

Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More

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