How to get tenure in a non top-tier research/research-teaching mix university

People always ask me how I managed to get tenure as a college professor while raising (and homeschooling) a young child as a sole parent. Moreover, while my advisers and I have a relationship of mutual respect and fondness, I have no career godfathers, no coattails to ride on. I have created my academic niche on my own. My life outside work is also quite rich. I read for pleasure, spend time outdoors, garden, volunteer, socialize, entertain and travel.  During this period, I navigated an accident, dealt with the loss of a family member and a major illness without getting off the tenure track. Given this history, I think I am qualified to write this post. You don’t have to be a tenure-track or tenured faculty to be happy and successful in life. But tenure is still the Holy Grail in academia in the US and Canada. If you don’t have tenured professorship, it is also difficult if not impossible to obtain higher academic administration jobs if that is part of your career aspirations.

First, look for a good personal fit when you find a job. I picked a school that provided sufficient resources for research such as summer support, travel funding, and reduced teaching load without creating a pressure cooker environment for research output. Some of us want to do good work but also have a personal and family life. My school was also appealing to me because of its location, town size, and cost of living. My commute is ten minutes during the worst of the winter and my mortgage does not take up a big chunk of my salary. At the time I took the job, on-campus daycare was also an attractive perk. As a single parent with no buffer resources, these factors were very important to me. I earned my tenure with no problem, drama or law suit and had the support from senior faculty members in my school.

A couple of caveats before I give you my advice.

  • You must read Radhika Nagpal’s account of how she sailed through tenure process at Harvard stress free on her own terms which included work-life balance. Not everyone of us is Harvard material, and at this stage of the game, I am humble and realistic enough to accept it about myself without feeling diminished as a person. Read my post on midlife reckoning.
  • When you are in it, it is very easy to believe that there is no life outside the academy and your publications, and tenure etc. define who you are. Oppressive  institutional processes such as tenure are designed to exact conformity and establish hierarchy. Remind yourself of that once in a while that it is so. Otherwise it is easy to get mired in it and take the whole thing more seriously than you should. Then life becomes torture instead of doing something you enjoy and find meaningful.

There is plenty of excellent advice online about how to get tenure at R1 research schools. The first and foremost of this is conduct outstanding research to the exclusion of almost everything. However, tenure requirements at Tier 2 or 3 schools are more complex because these schools also value teaching and service along with research. A Tier 2 research school has a reduced teaching load compared to teaching oriented schools and liberal arts colleges but unlike a Tier 1 research school, these schools also value and require good teaching evaluations. Akin to the infamous saying about women’s roles, you need to be a nerd in the lab/research, a magician/ storyteller/ entertainer/mentor in your classroom, and a great and generous colleague. Pretty tall order, actually.

Here are some tips for how to prepare and plan to get tenure in non top-tier research oriented schools. My advice is based on personal experience and stories I have heard from colleagues and friends in similar environments.

Know the currency This varies by discipline and type of school. Most non-top-tier universities require a combination of research, teaching, service and the fuzzy factor called collegiality. Learn more about the specifics in your field. Some disciplines require one or two books. In my field (organizational behavior in a business school), articles in highly rated peer-reviewed journals are the primary currency. Accreditation agencies also insist on Academic Qualification standards for which peer-reviewed publications are very important. Moreover, schools that are trying to rise in the rankings will use the tenure review process to establish higher expectations. A number of schools are also moving toward valuing if not requiring grant proposals, funded or otherwise even in non grant-driven disciplines. So do learn more about this in your particular school and discipline. Prepare to apply for funding, both internal as well as external, even if you don’t get it.

Ascertain priorities A number of schools have explicit or implicit expectations about the time you spend on various job responsibilities and the weights assigned to different aspects of your job. Most Tier 2 research schools tend to be 40% research, 40% teaching, and 20% service for tenure track faculty. It helps to track how you spend your time. You may be surprised by the discrepancy between how you think you spend your time and how you actually spend your time. Make sure that your time expenditure is aligned to your goals and priorities. In my scheme of things, my son always comes first. As a single parent, this clarity was a no brainer for me. For some high achieving people, parenting is about finding the best care and resources money can buy. No judgment from me, but I actually enjoy my son’s company and find hanging out with him and watch him play a video game as meaningful as finishing up a paper. A number of high achieving academics also have supportive working or stay at home spouses who pick up the slack with the children. As a single mother, I didn’t have the luxury of consistent support unless I paid for it. So this may be different for you.

Even if you have all the support necessary, remember that you may spend more time on teaching than you expected in the first year, especially if you have never taught before.  In my case, my courses involved new prep as well as learning to design courses on a different timescale. Moreover, during the first year, you are also likely to invest disproportionately more time in settling in a new location, helping your children and family make the transition etc. Which is why your first summer is extremely crucial for research productivity. I will address this in more detail later.

Set realistic goals and expectations In a R2 school in a non-STEM discipline, your teaching load is fairly high even if not as high as teaching schools. For example, my pre-tenure teaching load was 2-2 and my post tenure 2-3. If you are teaching for the first time, even a 2-2 load, especially if it require multiple preps, is likely to be time-consuming. If your school does not have a doctoral program (mine doesn’t), your research productivity is likely to be lower than those who have a number of doctoral students.

After ascertaining the requirements (no school is going to tell you the exact number of articles you need to publish to get tenure), set goals that are realistic. There is a lot of material available about making a five-year plan. One of the things that you might want to ask yourself is if you are planning on having any or any more children during this time. A number of schools offer parental leave/extension of tenure clock. Build this into your plan. You don’t have to use the extension but it is a good idea to make sure that you get your extension approved. Do not wait until a year after the baby is born to seek this extension. A number of your colleagues may see this as opportunistic manipulation of the system by you and it may negatively affect their perception of you.

Establish research and publication process Establish a pipeline. You also want to take your school or department’s process and timeline for tenure review into consideration here. If your school expects around 1 or 2 papers a year, then you should have at least 2 to 4 articles under review and R&R all the time. Guess what? Some of your papers will get rejected. So build a buffer in your pipeline. What worked for me was that I would submit one to three papers for my academy conference in January. After receiving the reviews on my submissions sometime in March or April, I would work on revising those papers for journal submission by end of the summer. This cycle meant that I was submitting one to three articles every year to journals. Not all of them got published and I am still working on a few revisions from that time.

Make sure that you present your work in progress to your colleagues at both your school and elsewhere. This will  help you build visibility with your colleagues who will get to know your work as well as get informal peer feedback. Do not let rejection disappoint you. If your paper gets rejected at one journal, find another journal and submit. The feedback cycle time in our profession is very long. Some papers take years from conception to publication. So make sure that you set intermediate goals and rewards for yourself so you can keep yourself motivated. And keep your writing time sacrosanct.

If you are a parent, do not wait till the last minute on deadlines. And do not expect to find long blocks of time to write. Your child may get sick just a day before deadline. So build consistent even if smaller blocks of time. When I was in graduate school and my son was a baby, my writing schedule was around his napping schedule. And believe me, he was not long napper. When you operate under those constraints, you get adept at using whatever little time you get to make progress.

Create momentum during the first summer As mentioned before, you might find it hard to get a lot of writing done during the first year of your job. So it is crucial to capitalize on the first summer to polish drafts and keep your pipeline moving. My parents visited me during my first summer and I established a productive rhythm with them. I would work from 7 am to 2 pm (when they would take care of my son) and then I would spend the rest of the day with them and my son. Being summer, it still gave me a good few hours with my family everyday. Sustained work on a daily basis helped me jump-start my submission pipeline.

Keep your writing time non-negotiable. Do not accept any summer teaching responsibilities for the first few years. Plan your budget accordingly so you will be free to focus on your research and writing at least the first three to four summers. Set a separate workspace if you are working from home or go to your office or other favorite writing spots those few hours. But do not forget to relax and rejuvenate. You don’t want to be maxed out when you get back to teaching in the fall.

Mixture of publication outlets: Getting published for tenure is a humbling process. Like me, you might have written the most impressive dissertation in your department’s history but the publication process is a whole another cup of tea. Much to my surprise, I found out that the top publications were all not clamoring for my papers. Even the ones that won awards in conferences. In fact, a number of them rejected my papers. So, one way to deal with this is to spread your risks. Do not rely solely on prestigious outlets. It is an excellent idea to submit to top journals on the first pass because even if the paper gets rejected, you might receive high quality reviews. But remember that you have a timeline to adhere. It is important for your ideas to get published somewhere. A good paper is one that is published, not the perfect piece on your computer. So don’t be prestige driven. If a top journal rejects your paper, don’t put the paper away. Find a different journal.

Perhaps for Tier 1 schools, it is a good idea to focus only on top publications. Otherwise, you will not receive tenure. You have more wiggle room in Tier 2 schools. So to maximize your tenure success, it is a good idea to have a mix of peer-reviewed outlets so your chances of publication are higher. Because they count in these environments, you will increase your chances of getting tenure. Although a number of schools are beginning to rank journals and require tenure track faculty publish in the top 3 or 4 journals, it is still possible in these schools to establish your case for publishing in other peer-reviews outlets especially if they are relevant to your particular niche. This would also help you build a reliable and consistent publication record. Rarely does someone get tenure on the strength of a single top publication. Your colleagues like to know that you will be consistently productive and that you are not a one hit wonder. So if you figure out that you are not a superstar, which you should know at least by Year 3, cast your publication net wider. If you are the next Adam Grant, I doubt you will be reading this post.

Conference presentations are useful but make sure that you convert your conference papers into full journal submissions within the next year or so. When too many conference papers are not converted into journal articles, it definitely draws the attention of the tenure committee members. Finally, I have never used the services of a professional editor but I have read and heard that prolific writers/scholars use their services to be more productive.

Sole-authored and co-authored publications. This is a real trade-off decision. Co-authors help you write more number of papers but these relationships also require investment. In my case, given my situation, I found it easier to write more number of sole-authored papers in the first few years because I didn’t have the spare energy to risk weak links in the publication pipeline. By writing sole-authored papers, I was able to keep some control over my pipeline. Later I started to write with some really cool people that I still work with.

Teaching In most R2 and teaching schools, good teaching is essential for getting tenure. Unfortunately most PhD programs do not train their students in teaching especially if you graduate from a top tier school. You don’t have to get perfect teaching evaluations but you will have to be a good teacher. If you struggle with this aspect, seek teaching mentors who can help you. Your school may have a Center for Teaching that could help you get better at teaching. Invite your senior colleagues to observe your class and give you feedback. Their letters and your actions based on their feedback can also be part of your tenure portfolio. Get your peers who are naturally good teachers to help you. And don’t over-prepare for classes. That will help you be more relaxed and spontaneous in class.

Develop a network of mentors Your school may have a mentoring program. Whether it does or not, find mentors other than your advisers from the PhD program. You need mentors in your new department/school as well as at the university level who can help with career planning and understanding local politics and dynamics. It is also helpful to develop mentoring relationships in your discipline outside your institution. You can develop these relationships by networking in conferences, seeking out people whose work you admire via email etc. Your mentors will also help when you need to get external reviewers to write you letters for your tenure review.

Peer Mentors and support group This is crucial for your sanity and setting up accountability structures for yourself. From a graduate school context in which you had an opportunity to cultivate a number of close friends/peers and oversight by your advisors, you move to a completely self-driven environment in your first job. Many people find that writing groups and peer support groups are very useful for this transition.

External reviewer letters This is one of the most crucial factors in your tenure review decision. Make sure that build a coherent body of scholarship. Your work in diverse areas is usually not interpreted (unfortunately) as a sign of your intellectual breadth bur rather as scatter shot and lacking depth. If you have coherent contribution it will be easier for your external reviewers to write good letters. Develop a potential pool of external reviewers from the beginning through your research and networking. Elite white males who are full professors in elite institutions are considered golden. Usually these letter writers cannot be your co-authors or advisers or any such close relationships. One way to develop these contacts is to offer service to the academy in whatever capacity. Being on the Executive Committee of my division in the academy helped me get to know a number of senior scholars in my area of work.

Service Most advice directed to tenure track faculty in top tier institutions highlight the need to say No and protect your time from service activities. However, in non top-tier schools, being a good colleague and an institutional member is a valuable commodity. So be fairly generous and cheerful in accepting service responsibility. But also be judicious. My school protects tenure track faculty from having to do too much service by restricting them to only one committee. But if you get an opportunity to serve on a higher-level committee or on the faculty senate, I would definitely encourage that, especially after Year 3. This will help you build visibility on your campus and connect with members from other units on campus. Finally, if you have opportunities to do service for your discipline, do take them. As mentioned before, this will help you get to know people in your field from other schools, but also be current in your field (through reviews etc.). But this is garnish and you won’t get tenure for being on a top-level committee if your research and teaching do not meet expectations.

Collegiality and Likeability This is the trickiest element hard to define and quantify. Even though tenure review processes are supposed to be objective, your colleagues are human just like you. Having been on both sides, I appreciate this dynamic even better now. When your colleagues vote for your tenure, they are voting to see your face possibly every day for the next thirty to forty years. Serving on various committees with you, maybe handling you as a supervisor, or the possibility that you may become Dean of the school one day – for all these, they need to like you. It doesn’t mean you need to suck up to everyone, but it is helpful to get to know your colleagues and let them get to know you. If you serve on a committee, do not be the jerk who leans back, keeps quiet and does not offer to take any responsibility. Your tenured colleagues work longer hours, take on more responsibility and can show you the institutional ropes. While you don’t have to prostrate yourself in front of them, it is a good idea to listen to them and pay attention to their feedback.

For example, I received very useful feedback on my choice of publication outlets early on. I was publishing in niche journals and colleagues on my review committee pointed out that I needed to publish in more mainstream journals. I did not like their feedback in the first instance but made an effort to switch around a bit. Similarly, as a single mother who also home schooled her child while working to earn tenure, I liked to work from home and minimize my on campus face time. A couple of senior colleagues mentioned to me that they don’t get to see me much on campus. There was also a generational shift in my school.

My school had hired a number of junior faculty members who were used to doing research online or remotely while the senior faculty members were of a generation who spent all the working hours on campus. I was reasonably productive and received more than adequate teaching evaluations and could have ignored their feedback. But I chose to pay attention to it and made sure that I connected with my colleagues more when I was on campus. I would keep my office door open when I was on campus so people could stop and talk to me. More than changing the direction of my work or my work-life balance, I demonstrated that I paid attention to their concerns and listened to their feedback. After all, tenure is like getting married; who wants to be married to a jerk who won’t listen or be flexible?

Be discreet I am not advocating hiding any information about yourself actively but it is a good idea to be discreet about your personal preferences (political, religious etc.) in your workplace. Coming from a graduate school experience in which everyone was your friend and you stayed up late drinking wine and talking, it may take a little time to adjust to a working environment. It may be a similar institution but your role is different when you are a tenure track faculty member. Moreover, your performance and by extension, you, are going to be judged by your colleagues. And despite what you may believe, until you get tenure, you are not one of them. They may go out for a drink with you, invite you to a party but you are not a permanent member and you are on probation. So putting your best foot forward and keeping irrelevant information to yourself is a good idea. Be pleasant, warm, friendly but not too familiar.

Everyone who gets a PhD is capable of highest intellectual work. If you are on tenure track, you have definitely hit the mother lode in the academic job market. So now all you need is continued discipline, planning, persistence and humility with a strong dose of self-esteem to make it to the next stage of being tenured.

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12 Responses to How to get tenure in a non top-tier research/research-teaching mix university

  1. Dawn says:

    Not only is this a good article about getting a tenure position but it’s a also a great article about not letting your circumstances or obstacles get in your way and hold you back from your dreams.


  2. Larraine says:

    Very comprehensive article about getting a tenure position.

    Liked by 1 person

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  4. frenchc1955 says:

    Thank you for a deeply useful and interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: “You have tenure, now what?” | Next Step to Nirvana

  6. kauaiartist says:

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