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Finding External Reviewers in the Tenure and Promotion Process

One of the most stressful parts of the tenure and promotion process for many of us concerns finding and working with external reviewers.  Each institution has its own process, but many seem to ask the candidate for a list of possible reviewers from which a dean or chair chooses reviewers.  I was told to provide a list of six people.  I met with my dean to go over the list and explain who they were and to what extent I knew them.  He chose three people and emailed them, asking if they would review my scholarship.  Luckily, those three agreed and received my packet soon after.

The hard part is choosing the right people.  That’s when things can get scary.  Our reviewers are supposed to be people we do not know so that they are supposedly impartial.  By not knowing them, however, we don’t know if we are choosing a loose canon or an irresponsible lout.  It’s part of the process that is out of our control, and that scares many of us.  It sure freaked me out.  I asked a couple of senior colleagues how they found their reviewers, and one told me that he contacted a few people he did know and asked them for people in his field who were “sane” and “fair-minded.”  Those were his exact words, and I liked them.  With that in mind, I sent the following email to four people:

I’m writing to ask for ideas for people I might ask to be external reviewers for my tenure case.  No, I’m not asking you!  While blog reading does not an intimate relationship make, it might make some people look oddly at a review.  My problem is that I am having trouble finding people who are at the intersections of rhetoric, gender studies, and medical humanities.  Can you think of anyone who is sane and fair-minded whom I might consider?  Even if they just work in two of those areas, that would be great.  Just a name and affiliation is all I need.  I compose a list of six people and give them to my dean, who chooses three.

I sent that email to four people.  Three of them were academic bloggers who would sometimes leave comments on my blog or respond to comments I left on their blogs.  In only one case had I met the person face-to-face, but I had developed a collegial relationship with each of them and trusted their opinions.  The fourth email went to a member of my dissertation committee who I thought could help with the medical humanities area; I left out the line about blogging, of course, and simply started off by updating her about my career.  In each case, I received three or four names.  I googled them and found official university pages for each of them, which helped me decide whom to put on my list.

In the end, the external review process was the most satisfying aspect of my tenure and promotion experience.  Each person thoroughly read my scholarship and wrote detailed letters.  Their criticisms were honest yet framed to show that they were not serious problems, and their praise was grounded in my words to show how they meant what they said.  During some of the dark days of the review process, I admit to pulling out these letters and rereading them for a bit of a boost not because they used nice words to describe my work but because they clearly read my work, engaged with it to develop their thoughts, and found it valuable.  That really meant a lot to me.

I believe I was fortunate to have conscientious reviewers because of the process I used to find them.  They were more than sane and fair-minded, and my contacts had clearly led me in the right direction, helping me find people I never would have found on my own.

One thought about our online lives, which comes up often around here.  One of my reviewers discussed reading my blog in his letter, and that stunned me.  I had no idea he was reading it.  He discussed it favorably in his letter even though I did not mention it anywhere in my review packet (I have written before about how I discussed my blog in my tenure documents themselves).  He admitted that reading my blog made him approach my work favorably, which I mention here to show that effective use of social media can lead to a wide range of positive effects (which also means ineffective use can be detrimental).

If you do receive a damaging letter, that is not the end of the world.  One reason for having multiple reviewers is to make sure that one person’s opinion does not determine the course of your career.  At my institution, we are allowed to write a letter that responds to our reviewers and enables us to develop an argument to show why the reviewer’s comments are misguided.  I have heard stories of that one lone letter that seems to come out of nowhere, yet those lone letters rarely hurt the applicant when the other two take a different track.

How about you, dear readers?  How did you find your reviewers?  What aspects of your institution’s process for external review do you find effective or ineffective?  Let us know in the comments.

(Photo by Flickr user Pink Sherbet Photography and licensed through Creative Commons)

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