Sunday, August 12, 2007

Physics Jobs - Part 4 (Tenure Standards)

The previous article defined the different categories of academic jobs. This one is about preparing to keep one of those jobs.

College is fundamentally different from high school (a detail that is poorly emphasized in freshman orientation), and graduate school is fundamentally different from college (a detail that also comes as a surprise to some students). A post doc, pretty much required for most top-tier faculty jobs, needs to be significantly different from grad school if you want one of those few jobs. Finally, as important as it is to get a good faculty job, getting it is definitely not the same as keeping it.

When you apply for a job as a college professor, the letters of recommendation come from a few faculty that you know really well and who (hopefully) want you to get that job. When you try to keep it, the most important criteria might be whether your competitors think you would be granted tenure at their school, which is probably better than the one you are at.

I'll bet you did not know that. That is why I am writing this article.

There have been a number of good articles recently about earning, and not earning, tenure at various types of institutions. I've put a list of those links at the bottom of this article and strongly recommend that you read them. I am certainly no expert on this subject; no one person can be. My goal here is sort of pedagogical, so I am going to break down the requirements for tenure a bit more narrowly than usual to make my point. In the process, I think I am trying to frame the discussion a bit differently than is the norm.

  1. Outside letters of recommendation from non-collaborators, all of whom must be tenured faculty at institutions considered equal or better than the one you are at. You only get to choose a fraction of these people. They will be asked to write about the past quality and future promise of your research from a national and international perspective.
  2. Ongoing external (grant) funding for your research.
  3. Peer-reviewed publications of high quality, measured not only by the number of papers you publish, but by the journals you publish in and the number of citations your articles attract. Some places only want to see your top ten greatest hits, not the full list.
  4. Graduating a PhD student or, at minimum, an MS thesis student. Supervising undergraduate research would fall in this category if you are at a BS-only school that emphasizes that experience.
  5. Excellence in teaching at the undergraduate and/or graduate level as determined by peer review (other faculty who visit your class) and student evaluations.
  6. Service to the department, college, university, and the national physics community (which includes service with professional organizations).

These are listed so the first ones are of greatest importance to a top (or wannabe top) R1 program. Only the last ones matter at a Community College, so that sort of job search gets its own article in Part 5. Note that documenting all of this is your job, and requires a certain amount of record keeping over the 5 or so years that you are working toward tenure. This is something you need to get used to doing early in your research career.

Now lets look at each of these in turn.

1. Letters.

The requirement for outside letters is usually buried in with publications and the quality of your research, but this requirement can be the biggest concern for faculty at top schools. Yes, many of the letters come from a list of people you provide, but even your list has to identify people who have never collaborated with you. It can't just list the 3 people who recommended you for the job. More importantly, it usually cannot list anyone who is not at a "peer" institution, meaning they must be in a department ranked as high or higher than your own. You need to prepare for this from the start if you want to keep a faculty job at a research university.

How do you prepare for this?

First, forewarned is forearmed. This is something you can start working on while in graduate school. In the business world, it is called networking. Good thesis advisors (and often entire research groups) will train you to give good talks from day 1, and then push you out front at meetings. If they don't, find someone who will help you with those skills. But if you have an advisor like the one in this cartoon from Piled Higher and Deeper, there is no reason to go all passive and slide through grad school. There is absolutely no reason why the girl in that cartoon should not put a copy of her papers in the other prof's mailbox with a cover letter saying that her advisor told her about his book and that she thought he might find the articles interesting. Then follow up and make a collaboration happen.

It is your senior colleagues and your friends from grad school and your post-doc school that get you invited to give seminars and colloquia so that more people know what you do. However, it will be your job to be sure that they realize what you do is really important by giving a good talk. Since this section was getting too long, I have moved comments about talks and some related info to the bottom of this article.

Second, get at least one good faculty mentor as soon as you get that job and be sure you understand the policies at that university. This is definitely an area where the details are different at each school, and they vary significantly depending on the ranking of the university or college you are at. Most departments will have some kind of mentoring process in place, because they have invested too much in you (six years of salary, startup funds, not to mention the opportunity cost of lost time if they have to start over) to just ignore you for 6 years and then fire you. However, incompetence at mentoring can be as fatal as actual malice. Denial of tenure is rare, but the risk is far from zero.

Start thinking about where those letters are going to come from before the last year when you put your tenure binder together. Talk to senior colleagues elsewhere and ask for their honest opinion of your research, and what you need to work on to get tenure. (If they are not close collaborators, you might even find someone to put on your list.) If you are at a highly ranked school, they will likely only seek letters from the top 10 or 20 programs in your area. Most 2nd quartile universities want to be in the top quartile and will look there for letters. I know of a few cases where a person had to fight to get a letter from a place that had a quality research program in a specific subfield but was not a top R1 university.

Getting good letters is also one of many places where your choice of grad school can make a difference. Ditto for your choice of post doc school. However, getting a degree with enough fame attached to its name that you can get a great job offer will not guarantee that your name will rate good letters, nor guarantee that you can write a convincing grant proposal. You still have work to do.

2. External research funding (grants).

Not having a grant or three to support your research will be fatal at any R1 (the "very high research activity" Carnegie category). It is no surprise at all when someone is denied tenure at a 2nd quartile program because they do not have adequate external research support. They expect you to pay your grad students, a post doc, buy equipment, cover all travel, and support the college infrastructure through "overhead". My comments on the first item ran way to long to say anything much about overhead, but the sooner you learn how grants are put together, the better. You need to start learning the facts of life in grad school, and you need to do it yourself as a post doc. You must learn to play this game to keep your job.

Among other things, you can never have a shortage of new ideas. You also have to do what you say you were going to do, which means you have to have done enough work on that new idea to know that it is not a crazy one. Enough work that you can sell it as something that can be done ... and that needs to be done. Some faculty save a few projects for a rainy day. If you are going to work on something that will take a few years to pound through, it can't be the only thing you are working on. You can't let a current project eat up so much time that you don't get started on the next one.

You also need to sell your ideas to the people who will evaluate your proposals. Since they are, generally speaking, the same competitors who will be asked to write letters, some of the strategies in the first item will also help you here. People tend to believe your promises if your previous ones came through with flying colors.

3. Publications.

This is what you are supposed to know how to do after a post doc, but there are some details. At top programs, where you publish is as important as how many papers you publish. Similarly, single author papers and work that is identifiably yours (clear enough that all letter writers know it) are important. Some places even have a formal point system assigned to journals (5 for PRL, 4 for PL, 2 for Phys Rev, 1 for the others). Know the rules, and listen to your mentor.

Preparing for this starts in grad school but continues through the post doc years as well. If your thesis advisor does all of the writing, what will you do when you are the thesis advisor? Short answer: find a different job. Learn as much as you can about why certain decisions are made. Learn how to write a good response to a referee's report on your paper. Learn it all.

4. Research students.

You need them, and you need them to succeed, which means you need to come up with ideas with the appropriate scope for an undergrad, 1st year, MS, or PhD project. Good publishable ideas that can be completed in the available time frame. You may have to take the lead in getting the paper written and published. At some point, you will become a writing instructor for your PhD student.

5. Classroom teaching.

This has more importance the further down the ladder you go. We all know cases of poor teachers who are brilliant researchers, but it is less common than you might think. (Good researchers have to have good communication skills, so they can usually teach if they put their mind to it.) However, I do know one person who was utterly unable to communicate with undergrads and barely able to communicate with grad students during the first part of his career. He got tenure on his research, but turned into a very good teacher about twenty years later. That would not happen at a 4-year school where teaching is the life blood of the institution.

Because this topic is so important at Community Colleges, I will say much more about it in part 5, the final installment of this series.

6. Service.

You need to do this, and do it competently. You can't sacrifice the more important items to this particular task, but you also can't alienate the faculty who have the first vote on your tenure by being a jerk or unreliable when some task is given to you. This is how you show that you think of yourself as part of the institution. It can also be where you tell them that everything they know is wrong and that things should be done the way they were done at Xyzzy U. (Do I have to tell you that that is a bad idea?) Undergrad institutions put more emphasis here, particularly when it comes to advising student groups and clubs.

Info related to promoting yourself:

The importance of effective presentations cannot be emphasized enough. Good talks result in a buzz, and more invites to give that talk. One bit of advice I was given was to watch how a particular person put his talk together rather than following the talk itself (which was a variant of an excellent one I had heard before). If you know that a particular person gives a good talk, pay attention to its organization and the level of the material. You might notice that an audience likes to hear a few things that they already know, and see those things used to link together an argument that is plausible even to experts. This is particularly true at a departmental colloquium.

Blogs about tenure decisions

There is more than this, of course, so read the discussions and follow the links in the articles and out of the discussion area to other blogs.

  • Chad Orzel on the tenure process from the viewpoint of a liberal arts school, Union College. Chad, an experimental physicist, recently earned tenure and promotion to Assoc. Prof.
  • Mark Trodden on the tenure process from the viewpoint of an R1 university, Syracuse. (Syracuse ranks number 56, in the middle of the 2nd quartile.) Mark is a full Professor of theoretical physics.
  • Rob Knop on why he was going to be denied tenure at an R1 university, Vanderbilt. (Vanderbilt is ranked number 57, also in the middle of the second quartile.) Rob was, until recently, an Asst. Prof of Astronomy. His PhD degree is from Caltech (ranked number 5).
  • Sean Carroll who was dumped by Chicago and took a research job at Caltech in fall 2006. (Chicago is ranked number 7 in physics, Caltech number 5.)

If, like Sean Carroll, you seek tenure at a top 10 physics program, your department is going to ask people at Princeton, MIT, Berkeley, Caltech, Cornell, Illinois, Texas, UCSB, and maybe Yale if you would get tenure at their university. [I left out the number 1 program, Harvard, because that is where he got his degree. Some places will not take letters from your alma mater, others do.] I personally can't see where he ran into trouble, but it could take just one negative letter and one or two faculty at your school who don't like your research program (for any reason) for you to be in trouble.

Updated April 2009:

There was a really good article about the transition from post-doc to professor from Professor in Training that deserves a link here as well as in my March 2009 article about an "advice for a new professor" article in IHE. I gather that PiT is wrapping up the first year of research AND teaching. Quite the perspective. If you go there, don't miss the link to another good article on this general subject (what a post doc doesn't know). There was a lot I did not know as a post doc, which was the main reason I decided to collect things I had learned personally and from friends in this "jobs" series. I've written a bit more today in the blog, and there are a few other related articles (also linked in the "jobs" category) that I posted in March of 2009.


Successful Researcher: How to Become One said...

Great post!

Doctor Pion said...

That is quite a collection of suggestions and links you have there. Although the links have a mathematics emphasis, much of what I saw in Tao's blog applies to physics as well.