Friday, March 27, 2009

Advice to those seeking tenure

There was an excellent article in IHE today providing advice to those in a tenure-earning position. I was going to add it to a collection of articles in a followup to one of my "jobs" series, particularly part 4 on tenure at an R1, but think it deserves its own place.

What I Wish I'd Known About Tenure by Leslie Phinney.

Read it, but keep in mind that it is clearly written about tenure at a comprehensive or graduate research university, not a teaching college like a CC. (The author was formerly at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)

I should add a few comments about the parts I think are relevant at a CC, but will do that at another time.

Updated on March 28, after the first 3 comments appeared:

One of those instances of someone with a high-quality research program being denied tenure at a top-10 physics department (alluded to in my comment on this blog) is in the list of blog comments at the bottom of my article two summers ago about the difference between being hired into a t-t job and earning tenure in it. I've also put a back-link to that article up at the top of this blog entry. UIUC is in the top 10 for both physics and engineering, so the experiences of the author of that opinion piece about tenure are most relevant at that level of competition. Unlike universities at other levels in the top half of all physics research programs, the top ones are much more likely to hire people without the presumption that they are more likely than not to earn tenure if they merely continue to publish grant-supported research. I have heard respected researchers refer to a particular department as being "nuts" to deny tenure to certain individuals, individuals who went on to great success in their field (at another university). For example, getting a 4-year NSF award and a NASA fellowship (as in the case of Dr. Phinney) would absolutely guarantee tenure at a mid-tier R1 unless you did something illegal along the way.

Now, as noted earlier, I am going to add my comments about each item in the original article, mostly (but not entirely) from a CC perspective.

  • 1. The Gamble: Part of the gamble at an R1 is that the 3 M$ commitment is balanced against what the university has already gained in profit from the first 7 years of research funding by the person up for tenure, and a judgment concerning the chance this productivity will continue. The other part of the gamble concerns the cash flow at the university in any particular college or department. The latter consideration is all that applies at a CC (where the gamble might be "only" 1.5 M$), but that decision is normally made before the t-t line is advertised. There are some exceptions, particularly today with the chance of further major budget cuts on the horizon, where one-year hires occur without the promise the job will even be considered for tenure. It does remain true that the final decision is made in the college's interest.
  • 2. The Fraternity: This is generally good advice, but some of it reflects being a female professor in a college that has few women above the Asst Prof or Instructor level. Physics shares that distinction with Engineering, whether in academia or private practice, so this is advice that looks more significant to me than it would someone in the Evergreen areas or Education (where Sherman has his experience as a historian of education). It is much less important at a CC where female and minority faculty are more common than at universities, particularly in the sciences and math, but still relevant. However, I think the tenured faculty at our CC push this process of integration into the college so less initiative is needed by the newly hired prof.
  • 3. Making a Solid Case for Tenure: This pretty much mirrors what I wrote about tenure in my "part 4" article about universities, and I already wrote a detailed article about the differences at a CC as part 5 in my jobs series.
  • 4. The Gray Area: I believe this bit of advice has little relevance below top 10 institutions, although it can also apply at upwardly mobile top-quartile or (in particular) second-quartile departments. Elsewhere, hires appear to be made with the assumption that the candidate will likely get tenure unless they screw up and fail to maintain the quality research and/or teaching program that got them hired in the first place. That is certainly the case at our CC, but I have seen one instance where the person just didn't have what we thought they did.
  • 5. Risk Factors: This is mostly relevant toward the top of the R1 heap, and many of the things I mention under item 3 (and in my "part 4" article) apply here as well. It certainly is VERY risky to go to a top R1 without a research post-doc and some experience with grant writing to support a research program that is uniquely yours rather than one identified with your major prof. It can even be risky to take a teaching job at a CC with little teaching experience.
  • 6. Mobility: This observation looks a lot different to me today than it might have a few years ago. Budget cuts have made my job much harder than it used to be, due to significantly increased student loads and less support from staff in the last two years. However, I doubt that it is any better at most other schools! But, if necessary, I think I have the record needed to move elsewhere (assuming that the utter collapse of our state government is the exception and not the rule). And that should be the message to someone at an R1: Build a program good enough that you can move to another, more rational institution if your first choice does not see the value in your contribution.
  • 7. Priorities: I can relate to this. My priorities are much more easily satisfied teaching physics to motivated, upwardly mobile students than pushing a research program at an R1. That is also true for a significant number of the PhD faculty at my CC.
  • 8. Job Flight / 9. Life Choices: To thine own self be true.


Sherman Dorn said...

I thought it was off the mark in many ways, especially the claim that most tenure cases are in the "gray" area. Not true, even at many places with frankly dysfunctional administrations. In my experience, most tenure cases are easy ups or downs -- that doesn't mean that everyone gets through but that the outcome is easily predictable at the beginning of the process, and the upper levels of administration don't need to spend that much time on most cases.

Doctor Pion said...

Agreed, but UIUC is not USF, particularly in engineering. I have seen instances of persons being denied tenure at "top ten" R1 institutions in my field that would have been quickly (and I mean quickly) granted tenure at mid-level institutions.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Another reminder of why I don't belong in an R1! :)