What to Know About the External Scholarship Review Process for Tenure: Advice from Tenured Faculty

Lindsay Fallon (University of Massachusetts Boston) and Heather Ormiston (Indiana University Bloomington)

For those beginning tenure-track faculty positions, the tenure review process may seem far away. Yet, it is never too early to start planning and thinking strategically about how you will structure your tenure packet, craft your personal statement, and demonstrate impact in the areas of research, teaching, and service. One essential element of tenure review at most universities is the external review process. The external review process is often nebulous and can be difficult to navigate without mentorship or guidance. We endeavor to share a bit about this process here to shed light on what happens during external review and how to set yourself up for success.

External reviewers are typically individuals who are already tenured at another institution. At some institutions, external reviewers must be Full Professors while at others, Associate Professors can serve as external reviewers. Some universities may have policies regarding the type of institution at which the external reviewer works. Given differences across institutions, it is important to know your institution’s policies. Most often, the chair of the tenure candidate’s departmental review committee or department chair will contact and send materials to potential reviewers for review. Frequently, these materials include the candidate’s personal statement, CV, and representative scholarship, although reviewers might be sent additional materials depending on the institution. 

External reviewers are typically asked to produce a letter (or complete a comprehensive online form) that evaluates the tenure candidate’s scholarship. Reviewers conduct these reviews as an act of professional service to the field. Instructions to the external reviewers might include (a) considering if the candidate would likely receive tenure at the reviewer’s institution, (b) evaluating the strength of the candidate’s research trajectory, and/or (c) commenting on the impact of the candidate’s contributions to the field. Further, an external reviewer is typically notified if the candidate will see the letter or not. 

At my (Lindsay’s) institution, tenure candidates are asked for a list of possible external reviewers from institutions with similar research activity. Candidates are told to consider listing individuals who might provide a fair assessment of the candidate’s scholarship, but with whom the candidate has not collaborated on research (e.g., not published a paper or chapter together). The tenure review committee also produces a list of possible reviewers. Then, the tenure review chair contacts a selection of external reviewers from both lists. This process may differ at your institution, so it is very important to know your institution’s external review procedures.

Advice from Tenured Faculty

We wanted to gather more information about this process and asked Dr. Janine Jones (JJ; University of Washington) and Dr. Amy Briesch (AB; Northeastern University) for their recommendations. 

1) What is important for early career psychologists/scholars (ECPs) to consider when devising a list of external letter writers? 

JJ: This is going to sound counterintuitive, but it is important. When compiling a list of potential letter writers, ECPs will want to help the committee by leaving off some of the most obvious scholars that are leaders in your area of expertise. You see, the committee has a responsibility to come up with several names of scholars that are NOT on your list. If they only made requests of the people on the list, it is perceived as “stacking the deck.”  Thus, you want to leave them room to ask the leading scholars on their own. At many R1 institutions, it is a regular practice to specify which external reviewers came from each list. The ECP’s list can consist of people that know your work, cite your work, but do not collaborate with you regularly. They are supposed to be scholars who are an arm’s length of your scholarship.

AB: You want to create a list of those “arms’ length” scholars who are doing work in a similar area to your own because they will best be able to speak to how your work has contributed to the field. At the same time, however, it can also be important to consider how similar the individual’s position and institution are to your own. Universities often ask for lists of letter writers at “comparable or aspirational institutions,” but it can be helpful if the letter writer has a grounded sense of what reasonable expectations are for teaching, scholarship, and service in a position like your own (yes, someone could theoretically look up the tenure standards for your specific institution; however, is it likely they actually will?).

2) What advice do you have for early career scholars about relationship building so that letter writers might be familiar with an early career scholar’s work before a request to write a letter is sent? 

JJ: This is a great question. I think many relationships of this kind come through service activities (e.g., serving on national boards, committees, mentoring programs). Ad hoc committees and task forces are exceptionally useful for this purpose. Those allow you to get to know other scholars in the short term while also giving you experiences that do not create conflicts of interest that would preclude a senior scholar from serving as an external reviewer.

AB: My recommendation would be to seek out both research and service opportunities that will allow you to interact with more senior scholars in the field in different ways. Presenting as part of a symposium, for example, is a great way to both interact with more senior scholars and to introduce them to your work. Similarly, engaging as part of an interest group or task force on a topic related to your research interests can allow for meaningful interactions that may not have happened otherwise.

3) When you have written an external letter, what is your process? How do you approach this task? 

JJ: As I got more experienced at it, I recognized that I feel the pressure to write a strong, detailed, and personalized letter since the stakes are so high. Thus, I only accept the requests where I am familiar with the person’s work, those who I know (from a distance), those who I know their advisor or mentor, and/or when I personally know the tenure committee chair. So my first step is deciding whether to say yes or no.

AB: Although your full dossier will be evaluated across the three domains of teaching, research, and service, the focus of the external letters will largely be on research. As such, I turn first to the candidate’s research statement to develop a grounded sense of how they view themselves as a scholar. I then move on to both (a) review the representative publications provided by the candidate/committee and (b) seek out additional publications that will help me to understand where the candidate has been and where they are going. In my letter, I want to be able to make a case for how the candidate has developed an individual research identity and how they are expected to impact the field moving forward. 

4) When you have written an external letter, what do you look for in the candidate’s packet? What do you emphasize in your letter? 

JJ: Once I have accepted the task, I schedule the steps needed to get the letter done. I schedule time to read the tenure statement, the CV, and all of the articles submitted in the packet. I like to start with reading the statement, because the statement teaches me how to view the candidate. It frames the person’s scholarship for me and allows me to read the CV and the articles with the same lens.  

AB: After I have had a chance to read through the candidate’s materials and feel that I have a strong sense of their work, I then go back to the committee’s instructions to see what specific questions the university wants me to address in my letter. As a tenure candidate, I don’t think that I ever thought about this piece. Although most universities will ask similar questions (e.g., How has the candidate impacted the field? What evidence do you see of future impact?), some may have very specific questions that they want the letter writers to answer. If the candidate has already sought to answer these questions in their statement, this can be incredibly helpful in the process.

5) Any additional advice for early career scholars regarding external letters?  

JJ: Do not underestimate the power of your tenure statement. It really does shape the view of the external letter writer. Take time to tell your story the way YOU want it told. When we read that, it guides us in powerful ways. 

AB: The only other thing that I would say is to try and not get too intimidated by the process. Although it can certainly feel very daunting (sort of an amped up version of the blind review process for manuscripts!), the external letter writers are there to help provide objective context for your work to individuals who may know nothing about school psychology. As someone who has served on the college T&P committee, reviewing dossiers for faculty in fields such as pharmaceutical sciences and physical therapy, I know that I could use all of the interpretation and context that I could get! Thinking about external letter writers in this way may help to make it feel less like a gauntlet to run through!

Concluding Thoughts

There are several key takeaways from the advice above. We reiterate a few here:

  • Take time in your pre-tenure years to build your network. Traveling to conferences is of course helpful, but if funds are limited, connecting with colleagues who do research in your area might be possible via participation in relevant service committees or connecting informally via email or Zoom. Participation in the School Psychology Research Collaboration Conference (SPRCC) is another great option to meet several senior researchers in the field who might be able to serve as external reviewers for you.
  • Mentors can help you think about your list of external reviewers. You might ask mentors for suggestions and/or to review your list and recommend additions (or subtractions).
  • When crafting your personal statement for tenure review, you might find out what external reviewers are asked to write and incorporate that content into your statement. For instance, if external reviewers are asked to describe the impact of your scholarship, you might be explicit about the extent to which your work has been cited and/or the impact factor of outlets that have published your work. This evidence can then be used by reviewers to make a case for the impact of your scholarly contributions.

Finally, both esteemed panelists conveyed the notion that external reviewers typically want to support you with their review. Tell your story in your statement and select your representative publications with intention. Make it easy for reviewers to highlight all of the amazing work you have done. You’ve got this!

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