Tenure and Promotion: Updated Perspectives in the “Post”-Covid Era from Full Professors

As we approach summer, many early career scholars have begun preparing their tenure and promotion materials for their universities. This process can be daunting. The good news is many scholars have successfully navigated this process and want to see their early career colleagues be successful. We asked scholars who often write external letters of support for tenure and promotion packets and/or who review packets within their universities to provide advice on the tenure and promotion process for early career scholars.

Robin Codding (RC) is a professor at Northeastern University. Her work focuses on the intersection of intervention and implementation by developing and exploring the effectiveness of school-based academic interventions, the factors that contribute to student responsiveness of those interventions, and strategies to support intervention implementation.

Steve Kilgus (SK) is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His work focuses on social-emotional and behavioral assessment, particularly validating measures for screening and progress monitoring.

Shannon Suldo (SS) is a professor at the University of South Florida. Her work focuses on positive psychology, children’s subjective wellbeing, and the social-emotional functioning of youth participating in accelerated programs.

Many early career scholars feel daunted by the tenure and promotion process. What is the best piece of advice you would offer to an early career scholar at the assistant rank (perhaps advice that was shared with you)?

RC: The most helpful advice I was given is to integrate your teaching, service, and research efforts such that the themes that you are focusing on in each area intersect. For example, that meant that I (a) selected service activities such as manuscript reviews or served on the college research committee, whereby I could keep up on the literature in my area of expertise and identify resources; (b) taught courses in MTSS, academic interventions, and academic assessment, which was informed by my research and vice-versa. You can expand this concept by creating a matrix that includes the areas of expertise you are cultivating and then consult the matrix to see if future service, teaching, or research roles fit into that matrix before agreeing to commit to those endeavors. The idea being that all your efforts in the three areas are informing each other and are tied together.

SK: Most universities’ tenure guidelines are intentionally opaque. They were written to guide assistant professors while allowing the people evaluating them (e.g., department chairs, deans, provosts) a degree of flexibility in their decision-making. This leaves many assistant professors with large questions regarding what exactly is expected of them. “How many publications is enough? Should I go after grants? Do I need to land one?!” In my experience, it is very unlikely those in evaluative positions will give highly specific information. Thus, it can be helpful for assistant professors to establish some very clear goals for themselves. That is, how many peer-reviewed papers they will submit each year, the number of conference presentations they will deliver, the number and type of grants they will submit (along with a submission timeline across the pre-tenure period), and so forth. They can then bring these goals to leaders and ask, “Would a record that looks like this merit tenure at our university?” You might not get a straight answer, but what we’re looking for is, “Yes, a record like this is consistent with others that have been tenured here.”

SS: Keep in mind that your successful promotion is generally in the best interest of the colleagues in your institution who supported your hire, so lean into that potential network of colleagues for practical and emotional support throughout your tenure-earning years.  Tenure and promotion standards can vary substantially between institutions. Become very familiar with the evaluation criteria applicable to you, clarify your understanding with leaders in your unit, and consider prioritizing your professional activities to stay focused on success in those areas that seem to matter the most at your institution. Most universities offer multiple opportunities for feedback on progress toward tenure – for instance during the annual review process and perhaps a mid-tenure review.  Carefully consider all feedback received, ask leaders for elaboration as needed, and shape your subsequent academic goals and activities accordingly. Bottom line – you are not alone in your desire for a successful T & P decision – don’t be shy about actively seeking input and support from colleagues who have navigated this path before you!

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed how many of us work. As a tenure and promotion external letter writer or reviewer within your institution, do you continue to see COVID-19 effects on the tenure and promotion review process?

RC: I provide external letters for candidates for tenure and promotion, and I have not seen an impact on their portfolios. Fortunately, it seems many universities have extended the tenure and promotion deadlines accordingly.

SK: Absolutely. And the effects are not always that straightforward. COVID-19 effects can present as a quite understandable gap or lull in their productivity around 2021, perhaps due to illness or family care responsibilities (among numerous other obligations). COVID-19 could have also impacted an individual’s ability to collect pilot data, ultimately limiting their ability to submit a grant proposal supporting a large-scale project. There are numerous ways in which COVID-19 could have impacted a researcher’s productivity and trajectory, not all of which are clear. Thus, early career scholars must describe these impacts when going through the tenure and promotion process. Many universities have given early career scholars the option to write COVID-19 Impact Statements, which can be included in their dossiers. I have seen some folks express hesitancy to do so, fearing the vulnerability or worrying that their disclosures could be held against them. If someone feels as though their record speaks for itself and they have met the standard laid out for them, then perhaps such a statement is not necessary. However, if there is any question, preparing a COVID-19 Impact Statement might not be a bad idea.

SS: Yes, particularly as research agendas that required access to schools were halted in 2020 – 2022 and perhaps still limited as the workforce recovers.  However, not all senior faculty who are reviewing your materials may have been engaged in data collection at that time for a variety of reasons (e.g., in administrative positions, consultative research roles,), and can’t be expected to anticipate the professional and personal challenges you faced. Therefore, I think it’s wise to (briefly) educate the reviewer about the way(s) in which your plans were disrupted, delayed, modified, etc. during the pandemic, share how you pivoted with your research activities, and emphasize your accomplishments, studies in progress, and concrete plan(s) for the future. Consider crafting a story of reliance to provide context for gaps in activities and products.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on many early career scholars’ research given the applied nature of our work. What advice would you give to early career scholars about contextualizing their scholarship generally or research productivity specifically within COVID-19?

RC: Consider talking about the projects that were delayed but planned and how you will execute those projects in the future. Transparency about these challenges and how you pivoted is useful to illustrate your continued scholarship efforts. It might also be helpful to describe any new research methods or areas that you engaged in that might deviate from your research agenda but enabled you to continue to be research active. Perhaps you engaged in professional development to conduct meta-analyses and accordingly now are working in this area. Maybe you learned about secondary data analysis and have a future project planned that will use this technique. Finally, you might consider highlighting the work that you have ongoing (data you are collecting), grants recently secured, or manuscripts in preparation and under review as evidence of your future scholarship potential.

SK: I would suggest that early career scholars be as clear as possible about how COVID-19 impacted their work while staying within their comfort zone. Disclosing this information will be straightforward for some. For example, I found most of our projects shut down because, initially, students and teachers were not in schools, and our projects could not transfer to a virtual format. Later, when students and teachers were back, researchers were still not allowed in schools. This pushed back our timelines even further. Describing a situation like this is typically straightforward, as the reality of schooling during that time is familiar to many. However, for other scholars, COVID-19’s effects could be more personal. Some early career scholars found themselves becoming their children’s primary instructors. Others were taking care of loved ones impacted by illness. It can be challenging to disclose personal information, and in many circumstances, it might not be appropriate. And really, a large level of detail is unnecessary. Expressing that COVID-19 impacted one’s personal life in a way that negatively affected their productivity or performance should be sufficient for many tenure committees.

As an external letter writer or internal reviewer of tenure and promotion packets, what have you seen candidates do well when discussing their scholarship?

RC: Candidates do an excellent job of describing their research agenda by delineating specific research threads, highlighting the corresponding peer-referred research that has been conducted in that area, and summarizing their findings in such a way that the contributions to the field are clear. Furthermore, candidates very clearly illustrate how this work will be extended in the future and illustrate the big ideas that their scholarship is designed to pursue. As a letter writer this makes it easy to illustrate impact on the field and forecast future grant opportunities for the work.

SK: I find that strong discussions of scholarship possess a few key characteristics. First, it helps to start with a broader overview of one’s coherent research lines. These lines will be often related in some way, but it helps to describe them in a way that makes them distinguishable. It would help if these descriptions were written in a general way so that researchers from several fields could understand them. Although your letter writers will come from school psychology or closely related fields, most individuals evaluating your tenure materials within your institution could have a limited background in psychology or education. General descriptions support relevance to a wider audience. Second, it helps to operationalize a description of one’s research lines through a broad overview of the studies conducted within each line. It can help to highlight a few important and representative studies, including those published in prominent journals. Third, it helps to describe the impact of one’s research. In terms of impact on the field, does your research help address a literature gap, settle a scholarly dispute, or change the field’s thinking about a topic? Regarding impact on society, will your work yield an intervention that could improve outcomes for students with disabilities? Will it help to break down barriers and promote equitable access to mental health supports? Answers to questions like these could help a scholar describe the effect their work will have beyond the university walls. Fourth, it helps for a scholar to describe their post-tenure plans. Tenure committees (and external evaluators) want to ensure tenure candidates know what they will do post-tenure, speaking to their preparedness to continue within their role once their position has been secured.

SS: Tell a story about your research agenda that begins with a layman’s description of the topic area and why it’s important to education, then link together your research activities to illustrate a sequenced series of activities that contribute to school psychology research and practice, and pave the way for further scholarship—i.e., the next steps in your agenda. Consider staying high level when introducing your area of focus, zooming in to summarize findings from your relevant studies, and then zooming back out to make clear implications of your findings for research and practice.

What have you seen candidates struggle with when discussing the impact of their scholarship?

RC: In my experience candidates have done well describing the impact of their scholarship; however, their curriculum vitae (CV) is not always organized well and what constitutes scholarship has not always been delineated accurately across publication types. Accordingly, I have corrected the allocation of publications by type in my own letter writing. With respect to the CV, it is difficult to discern productivity when the CV is not well organized. It’s worth taking the time to review and edit the structure and organization of your CV so that it is easy to read and interpret.

SK: I have seen struggles in two directions, with some tenure candidates over-promoting the importance of their work and others under-promoting. But really, I have seen far more of the latter, where tenure candidates are reluctant to promote themselves and their work’s real or potential impact on the profession or society. This is an understandable challenge. As scientists, we are trained to discuss the importance of our work (not ourselves) while emphasizing the iterative nature of any single study or finding. But this is a different exercise – when preparing our tenure documents, we’re not reporting a study, we’re speaking to the totality of our work to date and to come. We also want to impress the folks with decision-making power enough to keep our jobs. Thus, it’s important to be forthcoming in describing the importance of our work while, of course, being mindful not to overstate what one has done.

SS: School psychology is an applied discipline; candidates can lose the reader if discussions of impact of scholarship overemphasize incremental advances to the literature without consideration of the implications of one’s scholarship to practice and training.

What other advice would you give to early career scholars regarding the tenure and promotion process?

RC: Review the requirements according to your university and attend workshops or presentations on the preferred organization of your tenure and promotion packets. Scholarship is important to focus on throughout the pre-tenure years (consider the rule of 2’s: 2 projects in preparation, 2 in process, 2 under review).  It is helpful to build a research agenda that will take you from year 1 to year 6 as soon as you begin your first semester in academia and review that plan annually. Service should start slow and gradually build with membership on committees first followed by leadership later; consider sticking with the same committees rather than adding a lot of different committees. Teaching takes time (for me it’s been about 3 semesters of the same class before I really like how it turns out) so be patient and responsive as you build your skills in this area. Try to work with your program and department to teach the same courses from year to year. Evaluate your own progress in research, teaching, and service each year and make adjustments as needed. And remember – you got this!

SK: Throughout the pre-tenure process, try to get lots of feedback from scholars within your university and across the profession. See if you’re on the right track, discuss common hurdles in the pre-tenure or evaluation process, and see what you can do to improve. Expect the process to be opaque – everyone seems hesitant to give you a straight and simple answer. However, someone once told me that if you set high standards for your work in terms of quantity, quality, and impact, and if you then meet those standards, it will likely be enough to earn tenure. Hopefully, you can surround yourself with others along the way who help you meet those standards, too.

SS: To the extent possible, try to stay focused on completing studies that fall under the umbrella of 1 to 2 lines of research, rather than allowing yourself to drift into many different directions that are seemingly unrelated. That said, good things can come from being open to new projects that are at least near your wheelhouse and have a high likelihood of access to data collection, funding, and/or collaboration with scholars who have complementary expertise.  Regarding the latter, good collaborators are gems to be treasured — work hard to maintain those relationships and be intentional about making sure they are mutually beneficial to all involved.

Thank you to Drs. Codding, Kilgus, and Suldo for their insightful advice on preparing for the tenure and promotion process! What advice do you have or have you received? Share below!

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