How to get tenure in 90 minutes

Sep 01 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

You might not guess it by looking at me, but I've been to a lot of orientations in my life. A lot. I couldn't even tell you how many times I've been orientated. So as a seasoned orientation veteran, I can say with some authority that yesterday's new faculty orientation at NJU was one of the best.

It was a full-day affair, with much opportunity to mingle with my fellow n00bs, and mingle I did! I met people from all over NJU, from the Biology and English departments to the Art and Journalism schools. I even got to talk to the Dean of the whole school about my research! Oh sure, we were also inundated with hours of boring numbers talk--we have this many new TT faculty, our incoming students' SAT scores went up this much over the past 10 years, our external funding has doubled in the last five. NJU is teh awesomez!! Etc.

But once the dog-and-pony show (as an esteemed colleague of mine so eloquently put it) was over, they kicked out the faculty who were hired with tenure, and shit got Real™. They brought in several newly-tenured faculty for a 90-minute panel on How to Get Tenure at NJU, and their candidness and wisdom were much appreciated. I tweeted their bon mots as fast as my thumbs could go, but I figure those of you who haven't embraced the 140-character revolution might also like to be enlightened.

So without further ado, I present to you #tenurein90min:

I took this not to mean that we should prepare to seek other employment in five years--in fact, they explicitly said that they have positions for and intend to grant tenure to each of us--but that you should strive to make yourself as impressive as possible. First and foremost, of course, know the NJU requirements for tenure, but also talk to your friends at other institutions, and take inspiration from their tenure process.

This, I feel, is great advice no matter what stage of your career you're in. Get a new paper, a new grant, a new committee, a new award. Keep building.

I'm paraphrasing, of course, but the panel members could not emphasize this enough. Make sure that by year four or so, you know at least a good handful of the absolute top people in your field.  One panel member noted that he realized around that time that he wasn't connected enough, and spent the next year inviting himself to give talks, introducing himself to the bigwigs, and making sure everyone important knew who he was. Self-promote, people! Nobody is going to do it for you.

"The first few years are all input and virtually no output," one panel member said, "and that can be demoralizing." He went on to say that it happens to EVERYONE, and that you can't let the lack of immediate reward get to you.  I'm pretty sure my Scientopia peeps Prof-like Substance and Professor in Training have written on this very topic, but my quick search couldn't find the exact posts. Anyone have the links?

Yes, well, if my incessant iPhone-checking during yesterday's presentations is any indication, I am on their level, you know what I mean? Ooh, shiny!

Like most things in this crazy game, 'tis a delicate balance. I'd really like to hear from my faculty readers on this one--how do you manage to expand in new directions (that may require help from others) but at the same time show independence and leadership?

Armed with all this fabulous knowledge, we then proceeded directly to the reception next door, where we quickly drank away said fabulous knowledge. Aren't you glad I wrote it all down?

8 responses so far

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    "(H)ow do you manage to expand in new directions (that may require help from others) but at the same time show independence and leadership?"

    Let me handle those in reverse order.

    Showing independence and leadership is easy, because they are self-initiated. "Leadership" is often as easy as saying, "I'll do that" when nobody else has done.

    Expanding in new directions comes from two things:

    1. The data you collect - which you cannot predict in advance.
    2. The people you meet - which you cannot predict in advance.

    So there are limits to how much you can plan to do that. Instead, you have to be watching and waiting for opportunities present themselves. The more irons you can stick into the fire, the better, so the right person walks through the door, you'll have the iron hot and ready to strike.

  • Heavy says:

    This is a pretty awesome list of advice, thanks so much.

  • KateClancy says:

    Great list, Dr. Becca! I enjoyed it as it was being live-tweeted. I definitely had trouble in my third year (now in my fourth, though due to a rollback will have my third year review this year). And it was demoralizing, crazy-making, even.

    I just wanted to second what Zen said -- that it is very hard to predict how your research will go. Let's just say, oh, hypothetically, that you develop an absolutely amazing research project, get absolutely amazing results... but it is at the bottom of your coauthors' priority lists, yet they absolutely refuse to let you publish anything without their reviewing publications with a fine-toothed comb. It could take an extra eighteen months to get that research published. Or let's say you develop, purely hypothetically of course, a cool project with a very senior person that is very successful with grants, only to have that person decide last minute to completely change the project, rendering your contribution meaningless. Or, and again this is hypothetical, you could gather some totally cool data, only to not be able to use it due to bureaucratic errors.

    Now, even if this all happened, totally hypothetically, to one person... that person could surely survive. Thrive, even. It's a matter of taking stock of what has gone wrong or what is taking too long, and looking back at the projects where one has more control. Finding someone who will let you freak out and lament that you will never get tenure is key. Then you can form a plan that will help you recover from any unforeseen issues.

    If you have the right mentorship, some of the above hypotheticals could be prevented. But the best mentorship still can't control for unpleasant collaborators, broken equipment, students who hide from you, or other issues.

    It's going to be a bumpy ride. But I know that, even looking back on the worst bumps, I still thought (and think now) that I have the best job in the world.

  • scicurious says:

    Love this advice, esp the "add one line to every section of your CV every year". KILLER advice!

  • tideliar says:

    Sci beat me to it! Love that line.

    And Kate...OUCH!

  • "The first few years are all input and virtually no output," one panel member said, "and that can be demoralizing." He went on to say that it happens to EVERYONE, and that you can't let the lack of immediate reward get to you. I'm pretty sure my Scientopia peeps Prof-like Substance and Professor in Training have written on this very topic, but my quick search couldn't find the exact posts.

    I'm too busy to write about this stuff but I'm pretty sure PLS has. The third year is the make or break year, or at least it was for me - the official pre-tenure review, more teaching, more responsibilities, desperately trying to get grants funded, trying not to kill colleagues/students/administrators, etc. Sigh. Prepare yourself for a lot more grey hair. But people do survive and come out the other side. Sometimes funded (YAY!). Sometimes not.

    I'll get around to posting about this one day. When I'm not busy herding cats.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    The third year is the make or break year

    Agreed. I had gotten some foundation awards in the first 2.5 years, but I received the official notice of award for my RO1 *1 week* before my 3rd year review. "A relief" doesn't even begin to describe it.

  • The "make yourself tenurable anywhere" is a very important point. And just to be clear, what it means is that you should put as little time and effort as necessary into teaching and institution-level service, because those things don't help you get tenure anywhere other than where you're currently at. The only things that help make you tenurable elsewhere are research accomplishments, extra-institutional networking, and extra-institutional service.

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