Understanding the Tenure System
Dr. Janice Bellace, Deputy Provost
Faculty Conversations on the Academic Job Search and Academic Life
Program: Understanding the Tenure System
Speaker: Dr. Janice Bellace, Deputy Provost and Samuel Blank Professor of Legal Studies, University of Pennsylvania
Date: Tuesday, February 28, 2006
When you look for your first academic job, everyone talks about looking for the “right fit,” but, all things considered, your focus should be, “Do I have a good chance of getting tenure at this institution?”
If you do not get tenure, it can be one of the worst setbacks in your career. People will notice this on your CV even years later.
If you think you will not be able to get tenure, go into an institution with your eyes wide open. Why would you accept a position where you could not get tenure? It might be for three reasons:
- You may need the money
- You may be looking to make contacts
- You are hoping this job will help you get to another tenure-track position at an institution where you can get tenure
However, you should be very pragmatic. “Can I get tenure here” is the main question. Other things should be secondary.
Ask a junior faculty member:
- In the last ten years, how many people have come up for tenure and how many have gotten it?
- How many people have left the institution?
- Why did they leave?
- Was it for family reasons?
- Was it for a better position?
- Was it because they wanted to bow out gracefully before being denied tenure?
- If the odds of getting tenure are bad, why are they bad?
- Are the standards for getting tenure very high?
- Are there budgetary considerations?
- Is the department a fractious one?
What is the length of the tenure track?
In most places the tenure track lasts been six-nine years, and is sometimes longer for those doing clinical research. This policy is usually stated in the faculty handbook, available online at many institutions.
At Penn the tenure clock is six years long. Essentially, this means you have two three-year contracts. At Penn, you are reviewed for reappointment near the end of your third year. This mid-term review varies from department to departmental. Your department will be asking the question, is he or she making good progress? At Penn, most junior faculty members get renewed. What is important is the message you get at the end of the review. If it is a good message, you’re probably on track for tenure. Conversely, you might get a negative message, something along the lines of, “we’re renewing you, but it doesn’t look good.” Ask your department chair for a frank discussion of your strengths and weakness. At Penn, it is unusual not to be reviewed after three years but it doesn’t necessarily mean your chances are good.
However, this differs from institution to institution. At prospective institutions ask whether they have a third year review. Do they use it in a similar manner as Penn, or is it a way to weed out junior faculty members before they come up for tenure?
At Penn, you come up for tenure during your sixth year. If you don’t get tenure, you will have a seventh year at Penn so that you can look for a new position. This is American Association of University Professors (AAUP) policy, and is based on the nature of the academic job cycle. You should double check that this would be true at a prospective institution.
Some institutions, the University of Chicago, for example, have longer tenure tracks. At the University of Chicago, it is about nine years. Junior faculty are reviewed at the five-year mark, and this review is practically a tenure review.
Again, ask questions. When is the mid-term review? How rigorous is it? How many outside letters does the committee ask for?
Ask junior faculty about extensions on tenure track. At Penn, the birth or adoption of a child or serious illness can get you more time added to your tenure clock. Is there a formal policy? Do people take the extensions and how is that received?
Everyone says that the three important components for tenure are:
You need to find out what the order of importance is for these three things at your prospective institution.
At Penn, research is number one. Here, your teaching has to be pretty good, but spectacular teaching won’t save your tenure case if your research record is bad. Service here tends to be modest, and some junior faculty members are even exempted from service.
One service responsibility that it can be good to take on before you come up for tenure is colloquium planning for your department. You get to pick speakers, and can make yourself more visible in your field this way.
However, at some universities and small colleges, teaching and service are very important. You should ask a prospective institution, “In this department, how do you define service?” You’ll find that the answers you get are very different.
Some colleges and universities put a high premium on teaching. If you’re expected to teach, you should be sure to discuss this with a prospective institution:
- Of course, you’ll remember to ask about teaching loads, number of prep times, and the types of students you’ll be teaching.
- You’ll also want to ask how teaching is evaluated. Do they rely on teaching evaluations? Will another faculty member observe your teaching? How do they determine teaching quality?
- Will you be able to teach in a class format in which you excel (e.g. a large lecture class versus a small discussion class)?
- Is there a teaching center for faculty on campus?
- Will you have a T.A.? When?
What research requirements look like will vary widely from field to field. Some questions to think about:
- Do you need to publish a book? Does having something in press count? Will you need to have published the first book, and have the second one in press? Do they include reviews in tenure files?
- Are articles more important? If yes, do the journals in which you publish matter? Are there numeric expectations? Do they rely on citation analysis? How do they evaluate second and third authorship?
- In the lab sciences, how quickly are you expected to be generating your own funding? How does your grant support count? What size grants are you expected to bring in? Do you have to have an R01 to get tenure? Do you have to have two R01’s to get tenure?
At some institutions, these criteria can be very rigid, state institutions in particular. At Penn, the review is both qualitative and quantitative.
The names of your external reviewers are submitted by your school/department. Sometimes the tenure committee will inquire as to why a particular name is on the list. At Penn, candidates get to list three names.
On the first day of your new faculty position, start thinking about who will review your work. It will make you focus on who the experts are in your field, and where you should publish. Make sure to secure funds to go to conferences before as you’re negotiating your offer. Visibility in your field will be very important at tenure-review time.