Questions on Tenure and Promotion: Perspectives from Full Professors

May 29, 2018

This is the second of our two part series of Q&As on tenure and promotion. In part one, a panel of associate professors answered readers’ questions on how they prepared for the tenure process. Here, three full professors respond to questions on preparing for the T&P process. Our respondents are Scott P. Ardoin of the University of Georgia, Matthew K. Burns of the University of Missouri, and Kent McIntosh of the University of Oregon.

1. What are critical components of strong cover letters or personal statements? Many pre-tenure faculty report receiving little guidance or conflicting information about how to craft compelling materials and wonder if the letters/statements should be a narrative recitation of one’s CV, an argument for one’s impact in the field, or something else. 

Scott: I would not recommend regurgitating one’s vitae, as the committee will have access to the vitae. However, highlight your strongest pieces.  Help readers understand how your work is connected and that you have one or more clear lines of research.  Explain how their institution will enable you to extend upon your lines of research.  Focus on how you will be expanding your research.  Committees want to know that you have a reasonable  future research plan.

Matt: The primary purpose of the personal statement is to tell your story. For research, that means that you discuss the themes of your research and use the statement to spell out your programmatic line. For teaching and service, you also want to show how you have been strategic and programmatic. If you have received feedback and/or training, then discuss what changes that you have made due to the training, and the results (e.g., higher student ratings). This is also the opportunity to discuss your teaching philosophy (e.g., research as pedagogy, community of learners, etc.). I would suggest that you exactly do not narratively recite your CV.

2. Many scholars are stymied by the task of describing their teaching and service, particularly in institutions where research is the primary focus. What are your thoughts on how early career scholars can articulate and substantiate their teaching effectiveness beyond course evaluation data, as well as describe their contributions to institutional and professional service?

Scott:  If you can have a colleague observe your teaching and provide you with a commentary/summary of your research you can include quotes from their summary.  If you are already at an institution make it clear that you have published with your students.  Instruction goes beyond the classroom.

3. What are the most common mistakes you see among individuals preparing their tenure dossiers?

Scott: Writing a good dossier requires one to be proud of their work. Point out all of the great things that you have done.  Be pompous.  This is one time that it is expected.  Some people make the mistake of thinking that others understand their research and will understand how their studies are tied to each other.  Help your readers to understand your work and the link between your publications.

Matt: They emphasize quantity over quality. For example, a candidate might have 20 publications in lower-tiered journals, which would be a weaker case than 10 to 12 publications in top-tier journals. They also submit grants at the expense of writing articles. I suggest talking to your department chair and mentor about this, but I have told junior faculty to stop submitting grants and start writing up the data that they already have.

  1. Candidates for tenure are often asked to identify potential external reviewers. What strategies do you recommend for creating a list of potential reviewers, particularly in light of university rules prohibiting reviews by senior scholars with whom the candidate has an existing relationship or mandating anti-tampering/non-contact with reviewers? Should tenure candidates include a mix of associate and full professors as potential reviewers? When is it appropriate for a candidate to request that individuals be excluded as reviewers and how might that be done? 

    Scott: Talk to other senior level people in your department for suggestions and/or call your advisor for recommendations.  Good reviewers are key and some people simply are not all that nice.  You want to make sure you get someone who is nice.  Realize that your graduate advisor is still vested in you, so contact your advisor for suggestions and ask your advisor to review all of your materials for you.  Ask for assistance.

    5. Many pre-tenure faculty feel like they are sprinting for six to seven years in hopes of gaining tenure and promotion to associate professor. However, the next step, going from associate to full professor, seems an even more daunting process for many. Do you have any advice for early career scholars about things they can do now, to not only increase the likelihood that they will attain the rank of associate, but to carry that momentum forward to prevent being a ‘career associate’ or stalling out after achieving tenure?

    Scott: Don’t make the mistake of getting too involved in service work.  You have to get your research done. Make sure that you are conducting research that you love, this will help you to keep up your dedication to your research.  If you are doing your research because you love it instead of doing it to get tenured, you are not going to slow down.  Research should be fun.

    Kent: For me, it’s always been about establishing routines for getting research done. Some carve out big blocks of time and hold them sacred. I don’t usually have that luxury, so I break down my research/writing projects into small tasks and try to complete at least one done each day. I try to do it first thing in the morning, before I open my email. That way I know I will get it done.

    Matt: First, tenure should never be your goal. Researchers who see tenure as the goal wind up as a career associate professors. Second, find the faculty members in your department who always vote no (every department has them), and take them out for lunch. Ask them what a tenured member of the department looks like. Not, “how many pubs?” or “in what journals should I publish?” Instead, present it more generally. Then, during the same conversation, ask them to tell you about what a full professor looks like as well. Third, seek leadership opportunities. The primary difference, in my opinion, is leadership. Your scholarship will speak for itself. Don’t hesitate to promote your research (social media is great for that), but you should be strategic in other areas as well. In your 5th year and later, start looking for leadership opportunities. Don’t serve on committees, chair them.

    6. Some early career scholars may consider pursuing early tenure. What considerations would you offer for pre-tenure faculty who want to be evaluated for tenure before the end of their tenure clocks?

    Scott: My first suggestion would be not to do it.  What good is it going to be for you.  Your options for jobs will decrease with promotion and tenure (there are not many associate level faculty openings). If you go up early you are going to be held to higher standards because you are saying you are better than everyone else.  Just wait.  If you think your vitae is good enough to go up early, then you don’t need to be worried about tenure, so the rational that you just want to get over the pressure of tenure is not a rational one.  Just wait.   If you just want a raise, consider applying for a job elsewhere.  Maybe you will find there is a better job out there.  Getting an offer will help your university to recognize how valuable you are.

    Kent: Check your university policies and ask those who will be writing the departmental/college letter for you. Some university committees simply look at the total body of work and judge it regardless of the time period. Others will expect a lot more, and there is an institutional bias against those who go up early. If you doubt it in any way, it’s much better to go up on the regular timeframe, unless your case is stellar and you foresee a slowdown before then (e.g., having a baby).

    Matt: That is very difficult. Most universities have language that represents a potential early tenure case. At my university, the candidate must be “rare and exceptional,” neither of which are defined, but the terms imply an extremely high bar. I suggest talking to your department chair and mentor as soon as you think it is something that you want to consider.

    7. Some tenure candidates will be denied tenure and/or promotion at their institution. What recommendations do you have for dealing with this possibility and outcome should it occur?

    Scott: Consider going to a university that places greater value on teaching.

    We thank all of our panelists for sharing their perspectives on this topic! What other questions do you have on tenure and promotion?

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