How to Survive the Tenure Process

Something old, something new, on the topic near and dear to every academic.

The old is a post by Doug Natelson from a couple of weeks ago, giving advice on how to get tenure, as a response to the recent flurry of tenure discussions on science blogs.

The new is an article by Lesboprof at Inside Higher Ed, giving advice on how to get tenure, in the wake of passing her own tenure review. She’s pseudonymous (obviously) and cagey about her research field, but what’s striking is how consistent the advice is between the two. And it’s excellent advice, so if you’re starting out on the tenure track, and worried about the future, go take a look.

I’d add one thing: Take all the advice you’re given with a grain of salt.

A couple of years ago, I went to an AAPT conference on the teaching of calculus-based introductory physics, which accounts for the bulk of the teaching that we do here. There were a lot of itneresting techniques discussed, by people who were really enthusiastic about whatever method they were discussing.

And every one of them said the same thing on hearing I was junior faculty: “Wait until you have tenure.” They all said not to try anything new or unusual in classes, even when their own research said that new and unusual techniques work better, because whenever you try something new, you risk getting bad teaching evaluations, and that can jeopardize your tenure prospects.

I decided to ignore that advice, in part because the last teaching evaluations I had gotten were pretty bad, so I didn’t have much to lose. But also, at some level, I need to be able to do what I want to do. If trying new things to make my teaching better was going to cost me tenure, I wouldn’t want to work here.

You might say “But if you just keep your head down, and do nothing controversial until you get tenure, then your’e free to be as radical as you want…” In principle, that’s true, but in practice, there’s always a reason not to do things. Once you pass tenure review, promotion to full professor serves as the carrot. If you become a full professor, then there’s the possibility of an endowed chair. And by the time you get one of those, you’re probably close to retiring, and why would you want to mess things up?

There’s always a reason to make the cautious and conservative choice. But you know what? If I wanted to be told what to do and how to behave, I could easily double my salary working in industry. I went into academia in part because I want to be able to direct my own actions, and that’s what I’m going to do.

Now, it doesn’t hurt that I’m not the sort of person who’s going to do anything all that radical in the first place. I’m not prone to being actively insulting to people in public (though I did lose my temper once, and refer to the college’s budget practices as “completely insane” in a general faculty meeting…), or doing anything really outrageous in the classroom. But when it comes to the direction of my research projects, the teaching of my classes, and the service responsibilities I take on, I’m going to do the things that seem most interesting to me, because that’s why I went into academia in the first place.

And sometimes that pays off. The changes I made to my classes after that workshop didn’t hurt my teaching evaluations– quite the opposite. The next term I taught intro physics was one of the most successful classes I’ve ever had, and the students who were in that class have said really nice things about it to me in the years since.

So listen to the advice that you get about how to survive the tenure process, but make your own judgements about what’s right to do. There’s no point in working in academia if you’re not going to take advantage of the freedom that it offers you.