Questions on Tenure and Promotion: Perspectives of Associate Professors

March 19, 2018

Many of our readers are graduate students and new faculty concerned about tenure. We queried our pre-tenure members for their questions about promotion and tenure, then sought the perspectives of midcareer and senior scholars in school psychology. In the first installment of our three part series on tenure and promotion, three associate professors respond to questions about preparing for the review process. Our respondents are Jamilia Blake of Texas A&M, Michael Sulkowski of the University of Arizona, and Amanda Sullivan of the University of Minnesota.

1. 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. How did you approach the task of preparing your cover letter/personal statements for your tenure dossier? 

Jamilia: The candidate statement (personal statement) should highlight the key contributions your research, teaching, and service is making to the field and as such should be narrative document.  Your CV provides a quantitative account of what you have accomplished in a set amount of time.  I often think of my CV as my personal reference list.  However, your candidate statement is qualitative and provides the context for your work.  It should not merely be a narrative recount of your CV.  It is your opportunity to bring attention to themes in your work that you feel are important and will eventually have impact on the field.  It is your space to discuss how your work shows promise for changing school psychology practice and research.  Everything stated in your candidate statement should be supported by evidence from your CV or supporting documents (e.g., I have # articles that speak to this work; name specific articles; I received X grant/award for this work).  I also look at the candidate statement as a way to help your reviewers make sense of your CV, your candidate statement will help reviewers and your colleagues determine what you deem is important in your work and will influence what they will focus on. To prepare for this task, I asked my mentoring committee (two full professors) to identify individuals in my department who they felt like had a strong packet when they were being considered for promotion and tenure.  I then went to those individuals and requested to review their candidate statements (most agreed, some did not).  I reviewed their statements along with their CVs to see how they captured the essence of their work.  Beyond helping me determine what was important to focus on, doing so also gave me a general idea of how my department/college wanted candidate statements formatted.  I also looked at my CV and reorganized by publications by topic so I could more easily see the themes in my work.  From there, I decided which aspects of my work I was most proud of and fully captured my intellectual contribution to the field.  This helped me with selecting representative publications I would include in my dossier.  It also assisted me with more fully describing the quality of my work and contribution to the field in my candidate statement.  I must be honest in saying that some of the publications I identified as my representative publications were not my most well-cited publications, but they were the publications that I felt most proud of, fully demonstrated my ability as a researcher to independently engage in high quality scholarship, and I believed would eventually make an impression on the field.   Then I met with my mentoring team to discuss what I planned to include in my statement and the representative publications that I felt best captured this work.  Once I received their feedback, I began writing my draft. With each version of my draft, I asked my mentoring team and senior colleagues at my institution that I trusted (both within my department and outside my department) to review my candidate statement and give me feedback.  I went through multiple drafts (at least 5 or 6) before it was ready.

Michael: I approached the task by trying to describe a clear line/lines of research and then describing how my teaching and service related to my research. Having an integrated statement makes it look like you’ve been intentional and organized with what you have done to be competitive for tenure, even if it feels like your research, teaching, and service efforts are a bit disjointed. Also, it is important to have several senior faculty who are not part of the T&P process review the statement and offer constructive feedback. Lastly, I think it helps to bolster the narrative statement by infusing it with quantitative productivity metrics such as the H-index, i-10 index, and total number of times your work has been cited.

Amanda: I think it’s really important to tailoring the statement and other materials to your specific context. Together, the CV and statements should speak to tenurability in your current position. For me, that meant becoming familiar with my department tenure code, the college tenure guidelines, and the university tenure code, along with the department and college vision/mission. This is something I did very early on—before I accepted the position since it was part of my decision to join my current university. I had conversations during my campus visit about expectations for tenure and promotion. I’m fortunate to be in a place that has an annual review process in which the materials are very similar to those used for promotion (sans external reviews) so I was prompted to develop my statements early (October of my first year!) and revisit annually. This process may not be in place in  many institutions, but early career scholars can start early in crafting their story so that it can be a guide for activities pre-tenure rather than something crafted post hoc.

That said, when I refined those materials for my tenure dossier, I revised the statements somewhat to speak to a broader audience since the documents were going to be read by many individuals outside my unit, including external reviewers, the college T&P committee, the dean, and university administrators as the dossier went through the process. Rather than writing exclusively to school psychology faculty or my department colleagues, I tried to gear the statements toward a general academic audience, many of whom I assumed would have no idea what school psychology was, let alone my position within the field. This forced me to think very carefully about how I worded things and how I described my contributions and potential impact. I tried to explain to a lay audience the goals of my work and the relevance to educational systems, situating my scholarship and teaching in particular in a broader social context for readers outside of my field. I also tried linking explicitly back to relevant elements of the unit and university tenure codes by using the phrasing from those documents and describing how my activities aligned with or embodied those expectations. As Jamilia noted, I tried to help readers understand the information provided in my CV, assuming that they wouldn’t necessarily draw the same conclusions that I would (or hoped they would) about what everything meant or how it fit together. Instead, I used my statements to explain activities and describe linkages between them—to tell the story I wanted them to take away from reviewing my materials.

My department didn’t provide much guidance on structure or length so I tried to find a middle ground based on the requirements of other departments in my college (which ranged from a few hundred words per domain to a 10 page limit) and struck a middle ground. I started my research statement with a general description of my research interests/strands and the goals of that work, then for each of the three strands described, I explained the importance of the general area of scholarship, my specific projects with citations, and the value of it plus any recognition received. In my teaching statement, I briefly described my teaching philosophy, including specific practices used, then I summarized my activities in classroom teaching, advising/mentoring, and collaborations with students following a basic structure of goals, methods, and outcomes with a tables of supporting data for each subsection and links to my scholarship whenever possible. My service statement was much of the same—goals, activities, outcomes—with discussion of how activities were an extension of my scholarship and teaching.

2. Pre-tenure faculty also often wonder what else to include in a dossier beyond these cover letters or personal statements. That is, how should one compile ‘evidence’ of accomplishments warranting tenure and promotion, particularly when faced with the seemingly daunting task of filling a file box, binder, or other vessel with tangible markers of ones’ professional accomplishments. How did you assemble your dossier beyond CVs, cover letters/statements, and representative publications?

Jamilia: My institution had specific instructions regarding what materials to include in my dossier; however, there were additional items (which were optional) that I included to support the statements I made in my candidate statement. At minimum, you should include your CV, three representative publications that best captures your work and the eventual impact you will have on the field, and your teaching evaluations.  After including these essential pieces, I would review your candidate statement again and consider what items will further support the claims you make in your statement that are not listed on your CV.  For example, I might include a list of the impact factor of journals and rejection rates for the journals I publish in as well as my h-index.  For journals without impact factors, I would look into software that generates citation/mention indexes (e.g., a media-based form of google scholar) to see how often your work was mentioned/referenced/cited in non-peer reviewed outlets.  If I identified that I was doing an area of work that few have studied, I might summarize a literature search of the work in my area  (e.g., include a screen shot of the number of articles published on that topic in the last 5 years) to illustrate my contribution to this body of work. Another way of doing this is to reference recent meta-analyses/systematic literature reviews that have called for additional research in my area of expertise to illustrate how my scholarship fills this gap.  If I mention in my statement that I engage in high quality teaching practices, I might include sample student comments about my teaching from my teaching evaluations that speak to this or a copy of a peer observation and evaluation of my teaching.

Michael: If you have them, it is good to include physical copies of written/co-authored books. Also, if allowed, adding collaborator letters can help augment external letters. Often, letters from students can be added to a teaching portfolio to give life to the TCE reports and selected student statements. Similarly, it can be helpful to include letters from senior faculty who have observed/evaluated your teaching effectiveness in class or at a workshop. Lastly, syllabi for newly developed/modified classes and novel teaching or instructional resources/curricula/technologies often can highlight innovative teaching.

Amanda: I looked to the policies for mention of the type of activities considered under scholarship, teaching and service and basically kept those in mind as I went about my work. I created a folder in my email and on my drive where I could save anything relevant such as unsolicited feedback on teaching, scholarship, or service (e.g., notes/letters of appreciation students, users of research, presentation attendees, editors, etc.). Instead of it being a time consuming process in the summer before my dossier went forward, it was literally 3-10 seconds here and there over several years. If a reader sent a note of appreciation about an article, I dropped it into the T&P folder after replying. When an article was published, I saved the PDF to the T&P subfolder for pubs. Of course, I also had files of each project, grant applications, presentations, and course materials so I could draw from those when needed . Then, when the time came to assemble my dossier, I just printed and sifted into the appropriate file folders in my tenure box. Since my department didn’t provide much guidance on what to include, I erred on the side of putting in anything internal reviewers might want to see so for research I had file folders for peer-reviewed publications, book chapters, other pubs, presentations, grant proposals, and honors/awards/acknowledgment. For teaching, I had syllabi, student products, evaluation data, observations, and other feedback. Service was sparser by comparison, but had any certificates of appreciation/honors/awards, and any other miscellaneous documentation I’d accumulated (e.g., emails of appreciation from participants in events).

3. Many scholars are especially stymied by the task of describing their teaching and service, particularly in institutions where research is the primary focus. Our readers are often concerned about supplementing teaching evaluation data, of which there are notable limitations, but are unsure of what types of data or documentation are appropriate to include. What did you do in your letter/statement to articulate your teaching effectiveness?

Jamilia: Yes, this is perhaps the most challenging aspect of the dossier to address.  I recommend including peer evaluations of your teaching and statements from students about your teaching extracted from teaching evaluations to document the effectiveness of your teaching beyond traditional teaching evaluations. To do this, I would identify the faculty in your department who are deemed as the most accomplished teachers (e.g., received teaching awards, have high teaching evaluations) and request that they observe and provide an evaluation of your teaching.  I would use these peer evaluations a progress monitoring tool, if you will, to improve your teaching as well as a method to document your teaching quality.  I would include these peer evaluations of your teaching (one or two per class) as an additional attachment in your dossier.  I would reference not only that you voluntarily participated in peer teaching observations but how you used the information to improve/enhance your teaching in your statement. I would also conduct multiple teaching evaluations throughout the semester/quarter with your students (e.g., midterm and post-term) and for each evaluation, I would ask students to leave comments.  I recommend using midterm teaching evaluations for two purposes: as a form of formative assessment to identify ways to improve/enhance your teaching during that semester so long as it does not create an undue burden on students and as another method for documenting the quality of your teaching.  I would include a summary of student’s statements about your teaching in a table in your dossier and reference this table in your candidate statement as well.

Michael: I created a table that compared my TCE ratings for various categories to the college mean ratings. Additionally, I talked about how I developed a new course consistent with my research/scholarship and modified existing courses to better approximate advancements in the field and best practices. It can also help to discuss how your teaching and service has helped with the health of the program, department, college, or academic unit. For example, you can highlight accreditation-related work, taking on additional advisement or teaching responsibilities, or committee work that you did to ensure that things continued to run smoothly.

Amanda: At my institution, the tenure policy describes teaching as including classroom instruction, supervision, advising, mentoring, and professional learning provided to the community, so I oriented my teaching statement and documentation broadly in recognition of all of the different activities that are encapsulated. I included tables summarizing course evaluation data, student research activities (co-authored presentation and publications), and progress to degree. My tenure box included other documentation/certificates from any professional learning undertaken to improve teaching; syllabi; artifacts of student learning; and ratings and write-ups from teaching observations. A resource I found very helpful was a university webpage on evidence of teaching effectiveness, since our Provost for academic affairs discouraged reliance on course evaluation data and instead recommended other tools and artifacts to include (i.e., peer evaluation of syllabi, student artifacts, classroom observation). Even if your unit doesn’t provide guidance, seek info from higher levels of the university.

4. Based upon your experience, what types of service were most valued when your materials were evaluated? To what degree did you emphasize service to the profession versus service to the university? Within your service to the university, at what level of service was viewed most favorably (i.e., program, department, college, or university)? 

Jamilia: I emphasized both.  My department goes to great lengths to protect Assistant Professors from over committing to service.  As such, my department values service to the program/department more so than to the college and University for Assistant Professors.  In terms of national service, my department saw memberships on journal editorial boards and participation in national service organization executive committees as appropriate level of service for an Assistant Professor.  I discussed my invitation to serve as an editorial board member and as ad-hoc reviewer for prominent journals as evidence of my national service in my statement.  I also explained in detail what my participation and leadership on program and department level committees within my institution entailed.  I described how my conducting in-service presentations for various community stakeholders and local school districts was a form of program/department, and University service because doing so fostered University-community relationships and collaborations that ultimately assisted the program and department in securing and maintaining practicum sites and supervisors for our students. Moreover, these presentations contributed the dissemination of knowledge regarding evidence-based practices.

Michael: Regarding service, I’ve heard that non-university service should suggest that your work is having a state or national impact as you move up to the associate professor rank. Regarding university service, I think it is probably best to illustrate that you’re a good team player and were successful in the work you did.

Amanda: In my department, both internal and external service are valued, but service to the profession, especially that related to scholarship (editorial activities, grant reviewing) and community engagement, are highly valued pre-tenure, and there’s some expectation that pre-tenure faculty are shielded from excessive internal service. That’s not the case everywhere. Hopefully, learning about service expectations happened early—as in before accepting a position or very early on so that activities would be somewhat aligned with expectations. I don’t mean to suggest that the tenure policy should determine all of one’s professional activities, but realistically speaking, I think there should at least be some effort to align activities and relative effort with expectations for tenure and promotion if you want to be successful at an institution. Institutions and units vary in the relative value placed on different kinds of service pre- and post-tenure, so it’s helpful to find out early and be strategic to the extent that makes sense for one’s broader, long-term career goals. My department’s tenure policy described a variety of kinds of service from international to departmental, but specifically highlighted discipline-specific and institutional service in evaluation of pre-tenure faculty, so I organized my service statement to describe discipline-specific service (e.g., professional organizations, journals, centers) and institutional (university, college, department).

5. Candidates for tenure are often asked to identify potential external reviewers. What strategies did you use, or would 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? If appropriate, how did you (or would you have) handled asking certain scholars to be excluded as reviewers?  

Jamilia: Again, this depends on your institution.  My proposed list of external reviewers were a mix of Associate and Full Professors, but mainly Full Professors.  I selected individuals who I felt had some expertise in my scholarship and so could speak to my contributions to the field with that respect. However, my program and department also offered a list of external reviewers.  Per my University’s process, I was not informed of the final list of external reviewers that were invited to review my packet.  My department head invited external reviewers to review my packet so I had no contact with the external reviewers throughout the tenure and promotion process.  However, after I was notified about the decision regarding my tenure and promotion, I was able to see who drafted my letters and all were full professors.

Michael: I looked for full professors who I haven’t worked with who would still be aware of and likely think favorably of my work. In addition, I selected people who seemed like reasonable people that had positive reputations in the field. Furthermore, it is important to select people who are at universities with similar or higher Carnegie Foundation Classification rankings or people who are holding important roles in the field such as being the lead editor of a flagship journal or holding a distinguished chair position.

Amanda: My college’s tenure guidelines specified that external reviewers should be full professors, but that exceptional associate professors could be included, and that individuals should be recognized scholars in the field from peer institutions. Former mentors and co-authors/investigators were excluded. I was also told that my department’s preference was for fulls with exceptional recognition or appointments (e.g., journal editors, endowed chairs, fellows, upper admin). Reviewers were going to be asked to comment on 4 prompts: the impact of my work, it’s quality, whether I’d met expectations for tenure, and performance relative to peers, so I kept all of this in mind when considering who to propose. I generated a list of potential reviewers who I thought would be well situated to review my scholarship (the first two prompts), as well as those I thought could review my overall career development (the latter two prompt).

I wasn’t involved in requesting letters, and didn’t know who ended up being chosen until well after letters were received, so the expectation for no contact was easy. My institution also allowed opportunity to veto potential reviewers for conflicts of interest. In my case, I asked for an individual to be omitted because I knew the person had a highly contentious relationship with one of my mentors. In another case I asked for a person to be omitted because I thought our scholarship was highly dissimilar (topically, theoretically, methodologically)  and because they didn’t have the appointments sought to allow more of a birds-eye evaluation of my contributions and performance relative to peers in the field.

6. After tenure dossiers are submitted, most candidates face several months’ wait before a decision will be rendered. What strategies do you recommend for navigating this process and the uncertainty it entails?

Jamilia: I would advise any candidate who is waiting on their tenure and promotion results to continue to focus on their scholarship and to remember that there is a space for their work in the field.  I would encourage all candidates going up to consider what is in the realm of their control.  I believe that the only thing you have control over in your career, but especially during the tenure and promotion process, is your productivity (e.g., what you produce and how much you produce) and the way you present your work (e.g., journal outlets you choose). You cannot change what you did before you submitted your packet/dossier nor you can you control what reviewers will say or think about your work, so do not consume yourself with these matters.  Instead, focus on what you do have control over.  I would advise you to spend your energy and time on publishing and engaging in high quality research that is meaningful to you while you await your tenure and promotion decision.  This will do two things.  First, it will reinforce that you are a strong and committed scholar to those around you and two it will enhance your portfolio and CV for future opportunities that may come your way.

Michael: Take a little time off, relax a bit, take up a new hobby, travel, start a new novel/TV series, etc.

Amanda: One of my favorite pieces of advice received was “Just do good work.” This came from a senior scholar who’d joined UMN at the same time I did when we were chatting at our university’s new faculty orientation. Worried about starting a new position? Just do good work. Not sure how to handle department drama? Just do good work. Worried about measuring up to others? Just do good work. Anxious about P&T? Just do good work. Worrying won’t change anything, so I just focus on what I could control: continuing to do good work. I know ‘good work’ can be unpacked in a variety of ways and may mean different things to different people, but I like the simplicity of the idea of just doing what you believe is good work. Worst case scenario: you eventually go somewhere else to do that good work, but would that really be so bad if the current place didn’t value or recognize the work you’d been doing and presumably wanted to do?

7. 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 or probationary periods?

Jamilia: I would speak to my department head/college level administration about what the timeline requirements are for submitting your packet/dossier for tenure and promotion to be sure that you are clear on your University policy.  Then I would speak to senior faculty to assess the culture/faculty attitudes surrounding people submitting their packets/dossier early.  From there, I would have someone external to your University who is well-respected in your specific area of expertise and who is from a comparable institution (e.g., based on Carnegie ratings/AAU membership) that will not be a potential external reviewer critique your packet/dossier. I would ask this person to evaluate your materials and give you an honest assessment of whether you would receive tenure at their institution. I would ask them to offer specific recommendations to strengthen your packet/dossier.  With this information, you can make an assessment as to whether you should submit your packet early or spend the additional time on your clock building a stronger portfolio.

Michael: I decided to do this at the recommendation or my dean and through consultation with other senior faculty members (in school psychology and related fields). Also, before pulling the trigger, I compared my productivity to associate professors at peer institutions to see how I stacked up.

Amanda: First, does institution allow it? Some don’t. But if the institution does allow it and decisions of tenure are to be based on meeting specific criteria, it’s important to be clear on what they are and how your record compares. It can be helpful to consider the profiles of recently tenured faculty and to consult senior faculty and unit and college administrators. Expect a diversity of perspectives and look for convergence. Know how you’ll be evaluated relative to tenure policy and what prompts external reviewers will be given so that you can self-evaluate relative to those. Before making the decision, I consulted senior colleagues, paid attention to cases from the few years before I was considering going up, including cases where tenure was denied in my college. It’s something I had at the back of my mind when I started my position having come from a few years at another institution, but beyond learning about the policies and expectations, my focus was just on doing good work. Then at my fourth year annual review, I asked for feedback on my readiness to go up. Since it was favorable, I did.

Have you had a different experience at your institution? Do you have tips or strategies to share? Comment below.

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