Things to avoid if you want tenure

Here’s some suggestions that have been compiled from several cautionary tales.

1.  Don’t let students walk all over you.  One colleague was always available to students.  From 10am to 6pm there was a steady stream of students in her office.  And she still got terrible evaluations, including on “availability” because any time she wasn’t there, they’d be upset.  The year that I taught another section of the same class, I set boundaries on the first day of class and every day I met, and I’d answer “I have just one quick question” with “Did you ask it on blackboard?” and “You should ask in class!  You’re not the only one confused!” and “If it’s about the homework, my office hours are X– think about it some more (or:  that’s why you should start your homework earlier)”  I got the same marks on availability *or better*.  Her students praised me for my availability because I would answer their questions for her class during my office hours (on the rare occasions she wasn’t in), but never outside of them (when I would laugh and say no, are you kidding?).  If you give students complete availability and aren’t always there, they will complain more than if you give them strict times and keep to them.

2.  Don’t let service walk all over you.  Another colleague was always on every committee and would do the bulk of the work and complain about it.  She even got herself locked into additional service from another (interdisciplinary) department as the outside committee member.  Many of us do a little bit of service for this other department, but she was on multiple search committees in the same year on top of grad committee obligations, even when the search wasn’t for something related to her area of specialty.

3.  Don’t make extra work for people.  One irritating colleague spent one year organizing service that nobody wanted or appreciated.  For example, telling admissions that they needed to set up individual appointments with every single faculty member to obtain faculty input.  And so on.

3a. Don’t be interpersonally obtuse.  That’s the problem with item 3 above, and likely some other items too: tone-deafness to department culture.

4.  Don’t start the book route and then change your mind midstream to the article route with a different topic then change your area of study to yet a third topic the year before your tenure packet is due.  Become an expert in something so that people can write you good letters.

5.  Don’t get a reputation for blocking hires of people that you think are more research active than you are.  Hint, if you’re blocking a hire for “personality” or “arrogance” (especially of an accomplished woman or minority, especially without previous evidence of any problem)… the problem is probably you.

6.  Don’t ask for help on your research and then get angry at reasonable suggestions.  Especially don’t speak condescendingly to racial minorities and to women, explaining to them why their reasonable suggestion just won’t work for you.

7.  Don’t make arguments that all that matters is the students if you’re at an R1.  The students matter 33%, give or take (and if take, then take from service, not research).  If it’s really all about the students for you, you need to be at a community college or a teaching college with little or no research expectations or else just off the tenure-track in a teaching role.

8.  Don’t just give up on research.  You need to make time for it every week, preferably every day.  Even a little bit can keep you connected during the busy times.

Live and learn, grumpeteers.  Or don’t, it’s up to you.  What “don’t do this” advice would you have for someone who wants tenure?

25 Responses to “Things to avoid if you want tenure”

  1. Leah Says:

    #7: why I left academics to teach. Teaching high school pays fine, and it was less work to get my license than to finish a PhD. And I get *plenty* of contact time with students.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I recently looked at the salaries of people teaching in the ritzy suburban school district that my cousins went to. People who graduated from college the same time I did are making more money than I am without a PhD teaching high school math. And I’m the one who makes more of the two of us on the blog.

      • Leah Says:

        I don’t know how much I’ll make at a private school over time. I’d be interested to see how much of a difference the free housing makes. Is it worth the $7k hit in my paycheck I took from public school? There’s other little differences too in benefits.

        I will say, I like teaching, and I didn’t want to put up with publish or perish. Research is fine but not how my brain regularly thinks.

  2. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Don’t ignore senior faculty when they tell you that putting all your research eggs in a high risk high reward basket is a bad idea and that you need to balance your downfield passing offense with the ground game.

    • The Frugal Ecologist Says:

      Ditto this one – I would even make it more general – don’t ignore the senior research faculty when they make recommendations about what is required for tenure.

  3. rented life Says:

    7a. Don’t assume community colleges and teaching colleges don’t expect research. They do, to get tenure. After you get that, your peers will look down at you if you do nothing (at least in my field), but to think you don’t have to do any of it? hahaha, there’s the door. R1 is 33% students. CC’s and teaching colleges are about 33% research, but you can’t skate on it and not do it at all. And if you don’t have a project with updates every semester….watch out. I watched a few colleagues disappear because they were always “working” on something no one saw result from. 3 years is too long for no results. (You can skate your first year.) The one freedom–research can have a broader definition in certain disciplines. (Fine arts, communication, English, for ex.)

    Also….show up to stuff and just LISTEN. I learned so much by listening, that I’d have information others had no clue on and were surprised I knew about. It’s a wonderful thing.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Research expectations at non-research places probably depend somewhat on field. In the humanities and some sciences there’s an excess supply of phds that drives up research expectations.

  4. CG Says:

    Hmm, there is more than one interpersonally obtuse person with tenure in my department. Perhaps this is field-specific (ha ha).

  5. CG Says:

    I also have to say that sometimes the advice that senior faculty give isn’t very helpful. There’s a person who posts frequently on my field’s listserv who is always saying things like, “Don’t get married, have kids, buy a house, take a vacation, etc. until after you have tenure.” And, “If you don’t publish two papers every year, including your first year, you’re screwed.” I feel that this person fails to acknowledge the range of approaches that may be successful, and also is kind of a jerk. The fewer people who listen to him, the better off we’ll all be, since the model he espouses is (in my view) a pretty archaic one. I’ll let you know next year if my own approach (two babies on the tt and a somewhat lumpy publication record that should, God-willing, average out okay) worked. If not, I’ll STFU.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It’s hard when they give conflicting advice too. Sometimes the senior folks just don’t know.

      In our department it’s pretty nice because we give annual reviews that have been discussed by the entire voting faculty. This not only gives the faculty member non-conflicting advice, but it also puts everybody voting in the dept on the same page.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Also, if what your senior person says to do is what it takes, it doesn’t sound like tenure is *worth*it. Much rather live my life during those years even if it means getting a different job later. (In my case I got tenure.)

    • CG Says:

      Right. That has always been my approach: to live a good life, and if I get tenure along the way, great. If not, I will do something else.

  6. Foscavista Says:

    Follow the faculty manual when it comes to preparing/organizing your (pre-)tenure materials. I am chairing a third-year review committee, and one candidate has turned in a (insert expletive here) of a portfolio.

    • chacha1 Says:

      I am having fun thinking of the most apt expletive to insert there!

    • Leah Says:

      I wish citing this example would make sense to my students when I explain why their binder needs to be organized my way. I really just want to say “because sometimes you need to do something the way your boss asked and not your way.” In my case, if I can’t find the papers, I can’t grade the papers.

      • chacha1 Says:

        Maybe you could just say “this is the structure you need to use, and your attention to following the structure will be 10% of your grade.”

  7. chacha1 Says:

    I’m not an academic, but I’ve never forgotten something my grad-school advisor told me. She said the best career move she ever made was not letting her department know that she could type.

    This was circa 1990 and she was close to retirement. :-) I think the current version would be something like “Don’t volunteer for anything unless it’s something you were going to do anyway; and then make sure people notice you doing it.”

  8. gwinne Says:

    I like yours.

    I also feel like an important one is “don’t say no to important service” either. My department (R1) is generally protective of junior faculty but there is still an expectation that you are on ONE committee per year in the department. I have a junior colleague who is avoiding some major service commitments because of it….and it’s going to be an issue at review time. We’re not talking about service that necessarily takes up a lot of time but has a lot of visibility…this goes to your point about reading departmental culture.

  9. First Gen American Says:

    With some minor modifications of context, most of this advice would be pretty sound in corporate america as well, except, replace tenure with promotable.

  10. darchole Says:

    Don’t be a theory or computer modeler type person in a department of bench/wet work type people, even if they say they want to move into your area.


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