Road Signs to Tenure

February 17, 2004

As a relatively new junior faculty member, the specter of the tenure process looms in the nooks of my professional mind. I am in the middle of my second year as an assistant professor at a major research university in the South where I recently had to turn in my official dossier for the first time.

The very thought (and process) of having to boil down your academic career into a three-ring binder (within a suggested 100-page limit) is intimidating, no matter what anyone tells you. Especially if you take into account that it is partially through an evaluation of these materials that your academic future is decided.

In an effort to understand how to structure and pursue my research, improve my teaching, and sustain my community involvement so can become as productive as possible, I asked for guidance from six trusted professors who have won tenure and have taken part in tenure decisions in their respective universities. Keeping in mind that these conversations occurred separately and that they were just that, conversations between friends. I thought that some of their advice was insightful, frustrating, and helpful -- often at the same time.

I began by asking them one simple question: What should new faculty members keep in mind, and do, as they prepare their bid for tenure?

What follows is not meant to be a recipe for tenure, but it is intended to focus the efforts and energy of junior faculty members like myself who are in the process of stretching for that brass ring. Although the "tenured ones" do not know one another, their answers did reflect some common themes that can be stated in five, straight-forward suggestions.

First of all, be patient. All of the professors that I talked to mentioned that point. Tenure is a process. That is why institutions give you five or six years before you must make your case. Four of the six professors said, in one way or another, "Never go up early for tenure unless you are stellar in all aspects of your research, teaching, and service." Also, the majority of these professors recommended fostering patience in your research as well. They preached quality over quantity (easy for them to say).

What emerged as the next "helpful suggestion" came as a bit of a surprise. In one way or another, all of the tenured professors told me to "forget about tenure," as one of them put it. In fact, a couple of them compared the "What do we do for tenure?" question to "How long should the dissertation be?" question.

We are not here in order to "get tenured," they said. We are here to teach well, pursue sound research, and try to improve the world around us in some way. If we do those things, then tenure will follow.

Honestly, it is answers like that that cause me the most frustration because of their "Zen-like" quality. Gaining tenure is not like achieving nirvana (or, so I hear). But, nonetheless, I understand the spirit of the comment.

The third general suggestion that surfaced seemed a bit more helpful and concrete: Keep everything.

"Everything?" I asked. "Yes, everything," they responded in turn. Every e-mail message that supports your work in the classroom, every note from a colleague who thanks you for a job well done, and, of course, anything that demonstrates the quality of your scholarship. The more I spoke with the professors, the more I understood that they did not mean that I should present everything in my dossier. But -- and this is important -- it is my responsibility to use certain documents to prove to the university that I deserve tenure, rather than turn in a slim dossier on the assumption that I am owed tenure.

Their next to last suggestion was in the same vein as the third, but I think it deserves special attention: Be your own advocate.

When we do something worthwhile, it is up to us to have it noticed by the university and the community. One professor, who had been a dean in a large research university, told me that while he always tried to keep up with the individual achievements of his faculty members, it was almost impossible. He said that good news from faculty members was always appreciated, but added this caution: Make sure that every "normal happening" isn't made into a success story unless it truly deserves to be.

The final suggestion offered by each of the professors seems to me to be the most important: Talk to people who know the ropes at your institution.

Don't wallow in uncertainty and waste time and energy on worry. Find someone who can clearly explain your institution's expectations and guidelines in an unofficial sense. All of the professors said they had led tenure-discussion workshops at one point or another, but they commented that the information is sometimes best understood over a cup of coffee or a walk to the library.

Undoubtedly, the tenure process is very complex and specific to each institution. However, there are certain holistic strategies that I hope will help me to frame my efforts during the next few years of my professional life. That sentiment is captured in one of the final thoughts offered to me by the oldest professor with whom I spoke. To paraphrase: Whatever path we choose in academe, it is more important to decide on the map that will help us achieve the goal than the destination itself.

Now where did I put that atlas?

Miguel Mantero is an assistant professor of foreign language and English as a Second Language education at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.