5 Easy Pieces On Preparing for Tenure

I gave a short presentation as part of a FWIG (Faculty Women’s Interest Group) panel on preparing for tenure at last week’s ACSP (Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning) conference in beautiful downtown Milwaukee. The idea was to build on the Yellow Book. I added the 5th point to that talk based on a question from an attendee. (I added the postscript after seeing how these easy pieces might sound too easy, which isn’t what I meant by easy.)

They are obviously not comprehensive. The idea was to talk for 5 minutes about supplemental issues. I tried to be more big picture than detailed. Other speakers spoke very helpfully about the specifics of your self-statement and the importance of civility. With some luck, I can get them to post those notes here too.



1. What?

As the “Yellow Book” consistently implies, you should think further ahead than the review. It’s not even mostly about keeping your job.

Rather, tenure is mainly a device for (a) hitting your stride and (b) developing your permanent peer relationships. For that reason, you should welcome the process rather than agonize over it. Possibly more enjoyable if you think of it as a lengthy seduction of the field and your future peers.

2. Who?

For better or worse, your external reviewers should be your reference scholars; that is, the active people you respect most in your fields. See 1(b). Some people think they should cherry-pick external reviewers. This is a mistake — not because you won’t get tenure, but because you won’t have faith you deserved it and your confidence will suffer. And your prospective peers won’t be forced/asked to review your materials closely. This is a great opportunity to get known and branded. See 1(b) again.

3. How?

To build your referee base, use the referee process. Write/referee/discuss early/often. Follow Ann Forsyth’s advice here. Consider my rules of engagement there. If you worry you can’t do this well, or don’t care to, you are in the wrong line of work. The more you do these things, hard and intimidating as they may seem at the time, the more your thinking, confidence and state of mind will improve. You want to be happy and smart, don’t you?

4. Etc.

Both big-picture and day-to-day details of moving ahead in your career & managing workplace ambitions/anxieties are often bluntly addressed in “business” career advice blogs, books & columns. (e.g., the particularly succinct, insightful, and often unexpected/unconventional advice of Penelope Trunk, the “Brazen Careerist”)

5. More what.

There was a discussion during the Q&A part of the panel session about becoming familiar with the specific requirements and expectations for tenure at one’s home department and campus. Good idea. On the other hand, what matters more is what the expectations are for your field and target audience in the market in general.

In other words, what matters most is your market value. The bar you should keep your eye on is your overall success as a scholar/teacher/practitioner, not idiosyncratic, bureaucratic criteria. If your department’s expectations vary much from the market’s, especially if obviously lower, be aware this may not be in your best interest as time goes by. Set the bar high enough to keep your options open and your self-esteem stable.

ps. Don’t trust anyone you can’t afford to. For the record, especially if this post sounds too glib, I initially went up for tenure a year early, with my chair’s encouragement and support and a near-unanimous department vote (1 no), and was tentatively denied. Then my chair promptly switched sides and declined to appeal as, “it wasn’t a good use of [his] time.” And he stopped talking to me. I gather he was embarrassed by my/his failure and I guess I was supposed to disappear or something.

I was aware the odds of getting tenure were slim that year but failed to see the abandonment coming. While a huge fan of the don’t-take-no-for-an-answer versus all-that-glitters-isn’t-gold aspiration dynamic in Neil Young’s “Don’t Be Denied,” it was one of those useful experiences that, just the same, I do not recommend for the faint of heart — or perhaps even for the nonfaint. The principle stated rationale from the administration was a quite positive outside letter that nonetheless included the statement, in response to the question, Would the candidate be tenurable in your department?: “… he probably would not receive tenure here in the Harvard economics department.”

That I knew. I also learned many new, necessary things about myself, my chair, and the machine, including that you shouldn’t put all your faith in what other people tell you about the strength of your case or their support, especially people with charm who happen to be in authority. They lie in service of their own interests or, worse, just don’t know any better. And you are in no position to tell the difference. That leaves you and your loved ones for direction but, honestly, you are probably the more reliable source there too.

I recommend that your self-assessment be cold and clinical, and that you figure out a way to love what you do, then do a lot of it. Critical people in power can be your friends, certainly, but in general that works best when you no longer need them for a paycheck. For determining your value, you are on your own. If you don’t step up to take clear-eyed action now, you might well settle for nothing later.

A year later, my tenure case was air tight, as I was pissed, heartbroken and spiteful. So I’m not promising all will be fun and games, or that these 5 points are pivotal. But it isn’t about luck either, and there is no good reason not to try to ride the wave for thrills while you keep it in play.

Monday, October 22nd, 2007
randall Crane
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