5 Steps to Achieving Tenure

What is Tenure?

Tenure is one of the most sought-after milestones for university faculty. Tenure is a category of academic appointment that is indefinite, that is, without an end date. Tenure grants a faculty member job security and higher pay, but not only that, they are granted a greater level of academic freedom - to research and examine views at their discretion (American Association of University Professors [AAUP], 2018; Ehrenberg, 2012; Reis, 1999). It is generally believed that this freedom is not only beneficial for the school community, but for society as a whole. As Clark, Houten and Perear-Ryan (2010) said, “Tenure has long been viewed as a necessary protection for academic freedom, a principle held dearly in academia.”

“Tenure has long been viewed as a necessary protection for academic freedom, a principle held dearly in academia.”

In general, aspiring educators first need to secure a “tenure track” position, which is the pathway to the promotion and academic job security. For example, through the tenure track, an assistant professor may become an associate professor and then a professor. The tenure track will typically involve a probationary period that lasts for 7-10 years and another year after that, where the tenure committee evaluates the candidates’ work. The candidates are mainly judged based on three key areas, or what is commonly known as the standard triad: their teaching effectiveness, research and publications, and service to the community (Schimanski & Alperin, 2018; Clark et. al, 2010).

"The candidates are mainly judged based on three key areas, or what is commonly known as the standard triad: their teaching effectiveness, research and publications, and service to the community."

Common Challenges of Reaching Tenure

The job security and preferred status of tenure are important career goals of professors, but for many it can also be a challenging and daunting process balancing new demands and escalating expectations. The most common challenges are the extensive probationary period while working to fulfill the research, teaching, writing and service requirements, which can be highly competitive. 

During the probationary period, the faculty member prepares, maintains and submits a dossier, or collection of official documents, demonstrating scholarship, teaching and service. The dossier should paint a clear picture of what has been accomplished in a faculty member’s professional career and the quality of their work. There will likely be opportunities and milestones throughout the probationary period where the university reviews the dossier and feedback is provided. It is important that the dossier is started at the beginning of the teaching career to ensure it remains up to date and available for review at a given point without extensive revisions. 

Another challenge is that the expectations and requirements of tenure can be frustratingly vague. Every institution and even every department will have a different process and different expectations. There are similarities from school to school, but it’s best for faculty to ensure they understand what is expected of them at their institution.

"The expectations for tenure also change over time, so understanding the current and relevant requirements is especially important."

The expectations for tenure also change over time, so understanding the current and relevant requirements is especially important. For example, as Boyce and Aguilera (2019) state, generally speaking, faculty in the 1980s were expected to demonstrate excellence in research, teaching, or  service, but 20 years later, all three came to be essential, with research as the top priority in most cases.” 


Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education

The Carnegie Classification system was established by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 2015. It has eight categories that range from doctoral universities to master’s colleges and universities to baccalaureate colleges focused on arts and sciences and other fields. The Carnegie Classification system is used across institutions to compare performance and allow academic institutions to benchmark academics, enrolment and research (Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, 2016). 

It is helpful for tenure track professors to review the Carnegie Classification to understand the expectations that will fall on them based on their discipline and institution. 


5 Steps to Help You Reach Tenure

As discussed, the three major categories used to evaluate aspiring professors for tenure are Teaching, Research and Service. The following five steps address these three categories holistically and will assist you on your road to becoming a tenured professor. 


Step 1 - Know the expectations and document progress

The last thing you want to do is go into the process blindly. Get clarity upfront by asking your institution for the official tenure and promotion guidance in writing. This document is often publicly available in a faculty handbook or through the Provost or chief academic officer. Read the guidelines and discuss them with individuals both inside and outside of your department. At this stage, you are preparing to embark on the tenure track journey and are starting to build valuable contacts and relationships and collect information that will help guide you in the right direction through the probationary period. Remember, you are not alone. Other professors have travelled this path before you, and some professors are working towards the same goals as you. Use this to your advantage - reach out to others early and be strategic with how you collect information and plan each year’s work. 

"...reach out to others early and be strategic with how you collect information and plan each year’s work." 

Often, institutions will have Faculty Advancement offices that offer workshops on tenure preparation for junior faculty. Take advantage of these every year to meet other faculty and the university admin and stay on top of any possible changes to the tenure expectations discussed. 

Keep in mind, there is not a one size fits all approach to tenure. Each tenured faculty will likely offer their unique advice. For example, some may advise new faculty to take things slowly at first and only focus on what counts. Others will advise new faculty to determine what is/are the most important criteria for tenure and invest energy in those areas. While similar, the approach and proceeding steps taken will differ. 

“Documentation is a great weapon” (Larson et al., 2019). Documentation is important both for personal documentation and to track conversations with the admin. For example, it is critical to get in writing what is expected of you and to not waiver from that. Suppose you have an in-person conversation with the dean or department to go over the expectations. In that case, this could be as simple as sending a follow-up email thanking them for their time and summarizing the tenure requirements.

Have multiple conversations - and at various points. Collect as much information as possible and at the end of the day, prepare the best you can, balance the thoughts and advice of others with what is best for you. It’s not a race or competition. Faculty need to balance their personal needs with their professional needs and do what is best for them while ensuring stress and pressure are managed and addressed during the probationary period. 

"Collect as much information as possible and at the end of the day, prepare the best you can, balance the thoughts and advice of others with what is best for you."

Step 2 - Collaborate Regularly 

The committee needs to be impressed by the instructor’s efforts to achieve tenure, which requires a little groundwork. The relationships built with committee members beforehand will help them understand more deeply and holistically why you want and deserve tenure and why you would be a strong fit as a permanent addition to the institution (Whitaker, 2018). 

Be mindful, these interactions and relationships need to be authentic and genuine. There is likely seven-plus years of probationary period. If every interaction is about impressing the committee members, it will quickly become tired and inauthentic. Committee members and school heads understand what tenure means to a professor. New faculty should show them through the work and interactions with the students, community and peers why they are a good fit.  

Additionally, while collaboration and networking are important, new faculty should be careful with how aggressively they jump into networking. It is difficult to establish these relationships, and it’s common to spend the first semester, or even the first year, getting nothing done beyond getting coffee and drinks with many people. It’s also important to understand the group dynamics before diving in on a collaboration. Not all work is good work.

That being said, new faculty members have to consider how to set up a network and how best to do it. One option is to look at thesis/dissertation committees. It’s also helpful to find a partner for research, someone you may already have a relationship with, and who is looking to publish and who has a good work ethic. Interdisciplinary relationships can also be beneficial to broaden your network and scope of work. 


Step 3 - Seek Professional Mentors

The research in your tenure journey is a long process that includes going through IRB (Institutional Review Board), collection of data, analysis, and writing – all of which take time. You must, therefore, have long-term and short-term research plans to ensure that you are going at the right pace. Many pre-tenure faculty focus on quantity rather than quality, but having five articles in low-tier journals is not better than having three in top-tier journals (Houdyshell, 2009). So, keep a balance between impact, publication venue, and number for the research requirements in your tenure process.

It can be incredibly challenging to navigate this journey alone and understand the intricacies of the process - what to spend time on, where to go for clarification, and even how to overcome the personal struggles that may come up along the way. Mentorship is an excellent way to help navigate the process with an ongoing supportive relationship.

Mentorship is different than networking. It’s not about casting your social net far and wide. Spend time evaluating those in your circle. Is there someone in your circle who you feel comfortable asking for honest, direct feedback? Make sure you are upfront and respectful with them so they know you are hoping to ask them questions that come up along your tenure journey. It may seem uncomfortable at first, but it is far better to be upfront when it comes to articulating what you're looking to get out of these conversations. This ensures that both parties are aligned and clear about expectations. Don’t fear - there are mentors out there for everyone. As you progress, you may develop relationships with many mentors who all help in various and unique ways.


Step 4 - Understand funding expectations

Funding is a critical part of the research. Science, technology and research cost money, and it’s common for professors to need grant revenue to bankroll their work beyond the start-up phase (Boyce and Anguilera, 2019). In addition to the necessity to secure funding for research, having grant support from funding agencies and their peer review panels indicated they view the instructor’s research favourably. This, in turn, is likely to be viewed favourably by the committee at the university. 

For new faculty, career awards from private foundations and similar sources can be a potential source of financial support. These types of grants tend to be short and straightforward, which will help get the research started. For the longer term, project-based grants from “NIH, NSF, DoD, large foundations or other agencies are the standard way to keep a lab solvent” (Boyce And Aguilera, 2019). 

 

Step 5 - Be Strategic 

Tenure track professors should be strategic while offering service to their community, part of the three tiers of the tenure track. For any new faculty, it will be tempting to say yes to every opportunity, but it may be wise to limit extra service on-campus and focus on what matters for your tenure process and also benefits your research agenda (Houdyshell, 2009). With this in mind, it’s also not wise to isolate yourself from the school community. Balance is key; being able to manage your tenure process while contributing to the overall school community. Not only that but being involved on campus is an important, and often rewarding part of the experience. 

In the case of the Carnegie Classification system, this is a helpful resource to consult to understand the best strategic focus depending on the particular institution. For example, for R1 schools (doctoral universities), where the focus is on research, writing peer-reviewed articles in the first two years can be challenging to say the least. For a more strategic approach, new faculty can set aside time weekly in the first couple of years to write and work on grant opportunities reflecting recommendations of other scholars (Larson et al., 2019; Bowen 2005). 

Lastly, teaching is tough time-consuming work. It is easy to become completely consumed by course work - grading and lesson preparation. While these tasks are critical, make sure you learn early on how to manage these responsibilities along with research and service. Take advantage of tools and technology, like Kritik, to help you have more efficient and effective teaching. 

Kritik helps professors save countless hours grading and dealing with course administration while implementing peer assessment that increases engagement and critical thinking of students. 

"...make sure you learn early on how to manage these [teaching] responsibilities along with research and service. Take advantage of tools and technology, like Kritik, to help you have more efficient and effective teaching." 

Final Verdict...

The road to tenure is long and challenging, but it can be incredibly rewarding. Have a strong vision of achieving tenure, but make sure to stop along the way to enjoy and appreciate the here-and-now. Every experience is different, and while there are general steps and factors to consider, make the process uniquely yours, and when you look back from your tenured position, you will have built your future based on your values and interests -- uniquely yours.

Chait, R. P. (Ed.). (2005). The questions of tenure. Harvard University Press.

Donoughue, F. (2008). The last professors: The corporate university and the fate of humanities.

Houdyshell, M. (2009). Ten tips toward tenure: Advice for the professional journey. College & Research Libraries News, 70(8), 469-470. 

Larson, L., Duffy, L., Fernandez, M., Sturts, J., Gray, J., & Powell, G. (2019). Getting Started on the Tenure track: Challenges and Strategies for Success. SCHOLE: A Journal Of Leisure Studies And Recreation Education, 34(1), 36-51. 

Lewis, K.D. (2020). Mic-Drop Advice for Getting Promoted and Tenured. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/10/29/tips-advancing-academe-and-gaining-tenure-opinion

Schimanski, L. A., & Alperin, J. P. (2018). The evaluation of scholarship in academic promotion and tenure processes: Past, present, and future. F1000Research, 7, 1605. 

Whitaker, M. (2018). How to be strategic on the tenure track. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Yoon, A. H. (2016). Academic tenure. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 13(3), 428-453.

Justin DeMarchi
Content Marketer and Education Consultant

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