Ask the Grumpies: Tenure Game by Discipline

Rumpus writes:

So I know what being a professor at this large state university in the school of engineering is like. I need to bring in money ($200k+) or I’m deadwood and I don’t get tenure. Everything else (student evals, service, even papers to some extent) is extraneous. And writing a book chapter or getting a teaching award may well be the kiss of death because it shows a lack of focus. What’s it like in other disciplines? Do you really not need to beg anyone for grant money? What are the pressures that drive your time then? I feel like this is a game of Career, that old boardgame…where at the beginning you picked what you needed to get to win so that different people were striving for different things.

Great question, Rumpus!

#1 will start off.  In my social science, student evals are only important at some schools, generally liberal arts colleges or colleges that do not require much research.  Similarly with service– you need to be a good citizen, but not that good a citizen.  Grants are a bonus but they are definitely not necessary.  I have several book chapters and a teaching award so I hope they’re not the kiss of death!  Though I do understand at the top 10 schools they look a bit askance at you if you win a teaching award prior to tenure.   The pressures that drive me are to get papers in top general interest journals (I haven’t) and top field journals (I have).

#2:  I feel like if you chose to be an engineering faculty at a large school, you know ahead of time that you depend on grants to keep your job.  It is somewhat true in my field, but only at some schools.  That’s why I’m not at those schools, because I don’t have the grant chops (much as I would like to).  I absolutely beg people for grant money (which is beneficial for my career) but rarely get it (which is why I’m lucky that it’s only encouraged, not required, where I am).  Publishing is the pressure that drives my career, but I can get a lot done on very little money.

Grumpsters, what’s it like in your discipline?

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13 Responses to “Ask the Grumpies: Tenure Game by Discipline”

  1. Practical Parsimony Says:

    My tenured astronomy professor, the big, slovenly, egotistical jerk, told us he did not have to teach us anything to keep his job. No, our complaints fell on deaf ears at the university. He told us how many millions he brought into the school through his connections and influence, and how he would never be fired because he was too valuable. (Yeah, and the last time he had time to get his hair cut was in France. You know, stringy pony tails don’t look good on all men.) Anyway, the last I heard, he works right up the road at NASA. I guess he was right; he has influence. Obviously, a hairy navel showing because his shirt did not meet nor extend beyond his navel did not hurt his career. Blatant abuse of students and sexist remarks by him were offset by his ability to bring money to the university. At the research university he was publishing all the time.

    I learned nothing in astronomy. I was taught nothing in astronomy.

  2. Linda Says:

    I only flirted with academia and ended up escaping it due to my lack of commitment to give my life to my professor. Then I started my career in non-profit fundraising where your worth was measured by how much money you could bring in. I left that and moved to the corporate world where worth is ultimately measured by how much money one can bring in via selling services. Sounds like no matter where you go you’re expected to bring more money into the organization than you are paid.

    Ultimately that’s what I learned: “politics” and people are same no matter where you go. The best way to get ahead is to do solid work and build a good network inside and outside the organization.

  3. Spanish Prof Says:

    Depends a lot on the school (I’m in Spanish). At an R1, it’s a 2-2 teaching load, and you need a book and six peer-reviewed articles to get tenure. Unless you’ve been accused of something serious, teaching really doesn’t matter. At a place like Harvard, same as above (although maybe smaller teaching load), but in addition to the book and articles you need to have a contract for a second book. And you still probably won’t get tenure. At other places, ask before you get hired. I have a friend who works for a regional public, 4-4 teaching load, no sabbatical release, and still needs a book for tenure. I have another with at a small school in a small town, same 4-4 teaching load, and him presenting a paper in a regional conference made the front page of the local Sunday newspaper. No publications required.

    At my non-elite (but pretty decent) liberal arts college, it’s a 3-3 teaching load, and 4 peer-reviewed articles (or a book). Teaching evaluations are very important. If you are the best teaching but don’t have the publications, they will not tenure you. But if you have the bare minimum publications and your teaching evaluations are bad, they may not tenure you either. But if your teaching evaluations suck but you have published as in an R1 (or close to it), then you’ll get tenure.

  4. rented life Says:

    It depends on the school for me too–I’m in a social science (or lib arts, depending on the school). At a R1 type, it’s all about the money, the publications, research more than actual books though, and if you’re good at teaching that’s just an accident because students don’t matter. At lib. art schools it’s good teacher first, some research/activity in your field through books or other works, and then service to community is last. At the CC I’m at? They say teaching is most important but the reality is service to school and community are first, and teaching and research/artisitic endeavors are a close second and third. The inability to clearly define what they want me to focus on most (and then giving me the time to do such) is a pain.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Unclear directions would make me ragey. I actually went around to my senior colleagues at the end of my … second? … year and asked them what one thing I should focus on in order to finish the year strong. They mentioned teaching but emphasized research. The message was pretty clear. Could you do that?

      • rented life Says:

        I’ve kind of tried but we’re in flux right now. The dean made it clear: teaching first (yay! My strength!) Supervisor ranked them all the same (weird. But so is he.) However, Dean is retiring in June and his opinion matters little after that point. And until other tenured people stop fighting within the department, it matters little what I do. Since I have no idea if I’m renewed, and won’t know til April, I’m applying for job! That’s my order of importance!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yes! On the market always takes precedence.

  5. femmefrugality Says:

    Totally unqualified for this one. I’m not a professor. Nor am I studying to be. But I’ll comment anyways :)

    I saw this show about college professors striving to get tenure (via grants/research) while the actual education level of the university was ebbing. The students they were producing were lazy and inept. The professors seemed frustrated, but there wasn’t much they could do about it. The show made it seems like this was an epidemic in our nation.

    Do you guys feel this way? Or was I watching a fear-mongering documentary? :p

  6. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    “I can get a lot done on very little money.”

    I can’t even f*cken sneeze without it costing huge amounts of money. Personnel, supplies, reagents, equipment, service costs, etc. I worry every f*cken day about how to pay for the shitte we do.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      See, there’s the catch. You have ulcers… but you also have personnel and supplies. Maybe after tenure I’ll change it up a bit. I hope you don’t worry TOO much! Hang in there yo. Somebody gotta do awesome science.

  7. tiffanydrape Says:

    great post, great questions! the game is tricky everywhere!


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