Rules for tenure?

Aug 15 2013 Published by under Careers, Life

*cough* *cough* Man it got dusty around here. Where's that feather duster?

Right, now things are cleaned up a little, what did I come back here to do? Oh yeah...

The other night there was a scintillating discussion covering that nebulous mythical thing called "work-life balance" over at Pub-Style Science. Go watch. I can wait.

Dum de dum de dum dum dum...

Watched it? Good.

As noted by ProfLikeSubstance and DrugMonkey, a particularly insightful comment was made by Michael Tomasson about each spouse having to shoulder 75% of the effort at home to make things work.

That's not what I want to talk about here.

I want to address something DrugMonkey commented on:

One commenter proposed hard and fast production rules for tenure--sounds good on the surface, not sure how to get theah from heah.

Yeah. No. Ain't gonna happen. Never. Ever. No way. No how.

At least not in my humble opinion.

The intertubes are replete with TT faculty and TT wannabes wanting to know what the rules are for tenure or why there typically aren't any hard and fast rules.* Ever stopped to wonder why that is? Why do many institutions keep junior faculty in the dark, providing only vague notions about number and quality of publications, amount of extramural funding, teaching quality and service?

The cynic would reply, "Obviously to cover their butts stupid."

'Tis true. That is a part of it. By keeping the "rules" unpublished institutions certainly can wield them in ways that benefit the institution.** We've all heard apocryphal apocalyptic tales of people being denied tenure despite having stellar packets. I'm sure it happens, but typically we only hear one side of each of those stories so there's little point in commenting on them. In each case though, the institution (and/or it's representatives involved in the T&P process) have decided that it's in their best interest not to award tenure.

I used to think that was pretty much it. Now I'm older, grayer and not quite so cynical about the inner working of academic institutions I can see there's a bit more to it.

It's all about flexibility. Yeah, I know that's not usually a word you see associated with academic institutions. But there it is. Not having hard and fast rules may be perplexing to those on the TT, and does give institutions the ability to screw over whoever they deem "not worthy", but it also protects...

...those on the TT.

This flexibility allows senior faculty, who strongly believe a marginal candidate is on the verge of hitting it big, to argue they should be given tenure. I've seen it happen. Or to argue someone who is highly disruptive and/or a truly lousy teacher should not, despite having the requisite number of publications and extramural funds. Hard and fast rules would screw over the former (imagine being just one publication short...) and potentially screw over the department in the latter case.

It also allows P&T committees the ability to take into account the current lousy funding situation. Granted, I'm not aware of any that have started to do that as yet, but that's not a result of there being hard and fast standards they MUST apply. It's more to do with uncertainty in how to deal with the situation.*** So this is something that is painfully slow to change. But at least the possibility is there given the rules are not formally codified.

But, you say, rules can be changed!


Ever paid much attention to the process of getting academic regulations changed? Your average dead garden snail is faster. And the contention that would result...

In fact that's another huge reason for not codifying tenure rules. Can you even begin to imagine the process? Remember, what it takes for you to get tenure in your field is very unlike what is require in art history. Or English. Or engineering. Or computer science. Want to get some idea of just how that process may go? Go sit in on a meeting of your faculty senate or whatever the faculty governing body at your institution is called.

Yeah. Ain't. Gonna. Happen.

Nor should it.

* My old posts on how many papers you need for tenure garner more hits than most my other posts combined.
** That's not necessarily a bad thing by the way.
*** Which Nostradamus can accurately predict that someone who came up for tenure without extramural funding will soon hit it big? I'm in a medical school so arguments that stellar teaching should outweigh lack of funding won't fly unless there's a very major shift in culture. Let's try to stay realistic.

12 responses so far

  • SciTriGrrl says:

    Wait wait wait wait got *LESS* cynical with age?
    How is that even possible?!

    • odyssey says:

      I got less cynical about the inner working of academia as I got to know more about them. Otherwise I'm far, far more cynical than I was in my naive youth on the TT.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    It's 90% about preserving the ability to dump the chump with good pubs and 55% about saving the promising case. 90+55=100

  • Sure, you (and I) have the luxury (privilege?) of becoming comfortable with bizarre university procedures as we enter post-tenure decrepitude!! Your points are spot on that it's all about flexibility and that this flexibility for tenure committees is actually a good thing.

    At the same time, there is a consequence to the vagueness that I am not sure is unintended: it serves to heighten the anxiety and make TT assistant profs work harder. Pre-tenure when I met with anyone in leadership, their musings over my prospects would put my blood pressure through the roof. "Hm...I'm not might be difficult." Ahhh!! I would race back to lab and work my fingers to bloody stumps.

    What I tell people now is that tenure is the reward the university gives you once they are sure you are such a workaholic that you won't stop working your ass off even when you don't have to anymore!

    • odyssey says:

      I don't disagree, although you are in a far better known institution than I. Things sound like they were, and are, more supportive here.

  • sciwo says:

    I'm the one that made the comment about clarity of tenure criteria, so I'll pipe up now. I'm far enough along in my career, that I can appreciate what you are saying, about how flexibility is necessary.

    But here's what motivated my comment: When I started my first TT position, I had a 6 month old on my hip at the welcome gathering at the start of the academic year. At some point in the evening, I asked the only other pre-tenure woman in the department, what do I need to do to get tenure here? Her reply: "I don't know. I just work as hard as I possibly can and hope that's enough." That scared the bejeezus out of me, especially coming from someone who was prolific, who's work was well-regarded, and who was open to me in her decision to delay children until after tenure. It seemed incredibly unlikely to me that I, with the baby, would be able to work to her level and yet she was still uncertain about her tenure prospects.

    Over the next 2-3 years, no one would give me straight out answers about the publication, funding, and teaching success I would need to keep my job. So I continued to live in fear. (This sounds like MThomasson's situation btw).

    Eventually I figured out that I was out-producing most of my colleagues and I wasn't just good enough to get tenure, but I was good enough to get tenure at a better university. So I left. But in the mean time, my quality of life and even, at times, my health suffered. Oh, and that stellar woman colleague, she nearly got screwed in her tenure process. (And, no, she's not a chump or a jerk. Just a woman. In a very male department and field.)

    I think a document spelling out departmental standards for productivity would be an excellent idea, and I think you could write one with enough flexibility to CYA if needed. And I certainly don't think it's too much to ask for a chair or senior colleague to be able to say that X, Y, and Z are the general expectations. Communication of expectations could prevent needlessly scaring the shit out of junior faculty and might allow them to make the decisions they need to about their own work-life balance. Sure, the internet is a great source of general advice on tenure, but as you point out it's incredibly field and university context dependent. What's necessary in biomedical sciences has no relevance to what's required in my field, and even generally knowing what a friend needed to do at a brand-name university doesn't translate to what I need to do in mine.

    Spelling out expectations is one of the ways that we can knock down barriers to women, POC, and anybody without the network of mentors to tell white men what's needed. It also might dampen the burnout and stress that give rise to these so many of these #scimom themes in the first place.

    • odyssey says:

      Sounds like the department you were in is seriously dysfunctional. Here, all you have to do is ask. As I tweeted to someone this afternoon, people should talk about what it takes. Often.

      Ultimately, it's the department you're in that holds the answer to "what does it take?" Ask early and often. Also use online databases to figure out what the last few people promoted in the department had at the time (assuming there were some relatively recent promotions). It's not that hard. Doing the latter gives you at least a ballpark answer in case your department won't cough up the magic formula. Once you have that, aim for better. Sometimes the target moves.

    • sarcozona says:

      Spelling out expectations is one of the ways that we can knock down barriers to women, POC, and anybody without the network of mentors to tell white men what's needed


      • Odyssey says:

        Okay, you'll have to explain to me how you think this will help. I'm not being facetious here - I really don't see how that would be an advantage. If a department is open about expectations, they don't need to be written down. If the dept is not open, that is not a place you want to be. They can always deny you tenure based on the nebulous "collegiality" component.

    • AcademicLurker says:

      My pre-tenure period was made somewhat less stressful by the fact that the Chair took me aside early on and sketched out what the nebulous promotion criteria really meant. E.g, "externally funded research program" meant "at least 1 independent RO1 and part of a PPG. Preferably more than that. Foundation money is fine for getting started, but don't imagine it will get you tenure".

      At the time it didn't even occur to me that this was unusual, then I started hearing horror stories from other institutions about people who had been kept completely in the dark and didn't find out until too late what the real rules were.

      Since then I've sometimes wondered what the results would look like if you polled who was given "the talk" early on and who wasn't. It wouldn't surprise me at all if the gender & race breakdown was, shall we say, uneven.

  • […] Ory Lab Sciwo finds her voice again? (#scimom and related) via Sciwo Work-Life Balance via Dr24Hrs Rules for Tenure via Odyssey Flexibility: more than a women’s issue via Ever on and on You both have to do 75% […]