Say you're an assistant professor at a small liberal arts college. Think you can do just enough research to keep a hand in and still get tenure because of your intense devotion to your students? That's a serious miscalculation, says Nancy Dess, PhD, a psychology professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles and a member of APA's Board of Scientific Affairs (BSA). The idea that liberal arts colleges are teaching institutions that don't require professors to have solid research programs is just one of the many myths surrounding tenure, say Dess and other senior faculty.
Another misconception is that junior faculty can glide into tenure because they have amassed tens of thousands of online followers or appear frequently in the media. Or that by saying yes to every invitation to serve on a committee, a faculty member can curry favor with tenure decision-makers. Wrong and wrong.
Tenure is a high-stakes decision, for both tenure seekers and their institutions. "I remember a colleague saying that getting tenure isn't anything like getting married because tenure is forever," says Dess. "Everyone—junior faculty, senior faculty and administrators—can get anxious."
To help assuage that anxiety, the Monitor spoke with several BSA members and other senior faculty about what it takes to get tenure. Here's what they said.
Different contexts, different expectations
No matter where you're seeking tenure, the process is similar (see "The tenure process"). And the criteria used to make that decision are also broadly similar. "Tenure is typically a three-legged stool: teaching, research and service," says Jim Diaz-Granados, PhD, who heads APA's Education Directorate.
But being successful in your bid for tenure means understanding how your institution prioritizes those missions.
Take liberal arts colleges. "The primary job of faculty at liberal arts colleges is undergraduate student development," says Dess, explaining that teaching, research and even service should all further that mission.
While it's true that liberal arts faculty aren't expected to publish as many journal articles as their counterparts at Research I universities, says Dess, they must be active scholars—with a twist. Their research should be shaped toward providing meaningful opportunities for undergrads, she says. That means giving students ever-increasing responsibilities in the lab, not relegating them to data entry or cage cleaning. The teaching responsibilities of liberal arts faculty might include academic advising and supervising student research projects. Some faculty service should also foster student development, such as by redesigning curricula. "These activities needn't be a zero-sum game," says Dess. Involving students in high-quality research and national service related to science education and mentoring can also boost the faculty member's professional profile.
At large research universities, the quality of a faculty member's research is the No. 1 factor when it comes to deciding if that person will get tenure. These institutions typically expect a couple of refereed publications each year, says BSA member Keith F. Widaman, PhD, professor and associate dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside. "It's nice to see 10, 12, 14 publications," says Widaman, adding that a portfolio should be balanced between top-tier journals and smaller, more specialized journals.
At universities where research is a lower priority, fewer articles are required, he says. The California state university campuses, for example, are more focused on teaching, so while they still like to see some research, about half as much is needed.
Research topics matter, too. Tenure decision-makers want to see a coherent research program that will be fruitful for years to come, says Diaz-Granados, who was a tenured faculty member and chair of Baylor University's psychology and neuroscience department before coming to APA. "If someone has 10 articles on different disconnected things, it's going to be much more difficult to make the case for tenure," he says.
Don't swing too far in the other direction, however. Although tenure decision-makers want to see that faculty can follow projects through to completion, they don't have to keep digging ever deeper into the same area to win tenure, says Aaron S. Benjamin, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Most people end up doing that anyway; they find the thing they want to do and then beat the hell out of it," he says. "If anything, they need to be encouraged to think outside of the tiny problem they're working on."
Getting grant funding to support that research may be another important part of the tenure decision. "For some kinds of research, you really need extramural funding to pull off adequate science," says Widaman. (Plus, some research-intensive universities may want faculty who can win big grants as a way of boosting their rankings.) If faculty members can't support their research, he says, their tenure bids aren't likely to be successful. If the person's research doesn't require external funding, getting a grant is a "feather in your cap" but not typically required for tenure.
This emphasis on research doesn't mean candidates can get away with lackluster teaching—unless they are real research superstars. "If you have research that's notable and recognized as being on the cutting edge of your field, you can probably get tenure with average or mediocre teaching," Widaman says. But for most candidates, high-quality teaching will be an important part of the tenure decision.
And while research-intensive universities typically protect junior faculty from onerous service obligations, Widaman says, it's important to do enough—such as advising or serving on administrative committees—to demonstrate that you're willing to contribute to your department, university and field.
In clinical programs and medical schools, the same basic tenure rules apply, but how candidates meet their obligations may be a little different. Seeing patients might help fulfill the service requirements, for example, while supervising trainees or lecturing to residents could help meet the teaching requirements.
Clinically oriented candidates may need to educate more research-oriented faculty serving on their tenure committees, adds Andres De Los Reyes, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Because clinical studies can take a long time to conduct, clinically oriented tenure
Increasing your odds
Senior faculty members offer these recommendations for those hoping for tenure:
Give yourself a head start. Preparing for tenure should start even before you have a faculty job. Do lots of teaching in graduate school so you're ready to jump into the classroom, says Benjamin. "That way, even if you haven't taught your own course or chosen textbooks, you're already comfortable with being up in front of a class and interacting with students," he says. Choosing an active researcher as a mentor and securing a postdoctoral fellowship can also help ensure that your CV has plenty of publications, says Widaman.
As soon as you start a faculty position, ask your department chair what format your school requires for tenure documents.
Clarify expectations. Your department may have a document describing the kinds of information used in promotion and tenure decisions, such as publications and grants. But don't treat that document like a simple checklist, says Dess. "Your record will be used within your institution and by external experts to judge the quality and sustainability of your work—your professional trajectory—not your box-checking ability," she says. Have candid conversations with your chair and others about how you can succeed, she suggests.
Start building your portfolio from the get-go. While tenure committees realize it can take a year or two to set up your lab and design your courses, don't put off publishing for too long. "If you do it all in the last two years, it looks like a huge push to get it done," says Diaz-Granados. "That can be a red flag." Don't put off preparing your dossier, either. As soon as you start a faculty position, ask your department chair what format your school requires for tenure documents and add sample syllabi, grant reviews and other items to your portfolio as your career progresses. Also, start coming up with a list of the external reviewers who will help assess your work as part of the tenure process. Typically, candidates provide a list of half a dozen or so names of tenured professors at peer institutions who don't have a personal or professional relationship with the candidate but can comment on his or her work. The tenure committee comes up with its own list.
Learn to say no. Junior faculty, especially women and people of color, may face tremendous pressure to join departmental or university committees, organize campus events and participate in other service activities, says Dess, noting that senior faculty may genuinely value new perspectives or may just be looking for tokens. Junior faculty themselves may be eager to serve the institution in these ways. But if such work interferes with your scholarly output, you could be undermining your chances for tenure, Dess says. She urges junior faculty to find allies who can help them defer the most time-consuming service until after tenure.
Be a good colleague. Be an asset to your department and your institution and engage in productive work relationships, says Dess. And don't get in the way of getting jobs done by failing to perform required administrative tasks or responding past the deadline on action items, she says.
Seek ongoing feedback. Some schools assign mentoring teams to guide junior faculty through the tenure process. If not, create your own team as a way of gathering different perspectives and creating advocates for yourself, suggests BSA chair Sara Jo Nixon, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Florida's College of Medicine. At the very least, meet with your chair, your mentor and other senior faculty once a year and act on their feedback. This kind of communication will decrease your chances of an unpleasant surprise. "People think of tenure as a mysterious process, but 95 percent of the time everyone knows what direction things are going ahead of time," says Benjamin, who explains that candidates who will have trouble meeting tenure criteria are typically told ahead of time and advised to seek other career opportunities. "I've never seen a case where someone was shocked by the outcome."
For a set of interactive modules on securing tenure and other issues of importance to early career academics and researchers, see APA's Science Career Series at www.apa.org/career-development/courses/index.aspx.
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