The Tenure Process

By Mark Trodden | May 11, 2007 6:50 am

I have been reading with some interest the comments section of Sean’s recent post about blogging during the tenure process, and that of Rob Knop’s original post that prompted Sean’s observations. The specific topic of blogging while under scrutiny is something about which I think sensible guidelines are rather obvious – one may violate them at will, and such violations can make for wonderful voyeurism, but the consequences are clear and not necessarily unreasonable. However, what grabbed my interest most is the general sentiment that academia is broken and that the tenure process, and the requirements and guidelines that most institutions follow, are scandalously unjust. This also came up in another recent thread.

It is most certainly true that there are well-known examples in which the tenure process fails spectacularly – I know some of these extremely well. It is also true that some of the victims of failed tenure processes have blogged eloquently about the failings of the system, and, in general, I have no reason to doubt the facts in their individual cases. However, what one sees less often are descriptions of the well-executed tenure and promotion procedures that account for, in my experience, the vast, vast majority of cases.

Obviously, I cannot speak with authority or experience about all academic subjects, or absolutely all universities. However, I have spent a great deal of time at many different institutions, and have collaborators, colleagues and friends at an even larger number (I will generally not name institutions, for a reason.) Let me make it crystal clear in advance that I in no way wish to detract from the personal misery that many clearly talented people have described – I have close personal friends who have been or are in this boat. I merely think it might be useful to provide some balance.

So how is tenure supposed to work?

Some research institutions take the approach that, to a first approximation, they do not tenure junior faculty members, preferring instead to hire at the tenured level from the outside. Of those universities pursuing this approach (and there are very few) some have been extremely successful, and others notably unsuccessful. Far more common is the situation in which a university intends to tenure all junior faculty who satisfy certain well established and not batshit crazy (see first category for that) criteria in five or six years. This category encompasses almost all research universities in the U.S.

The typical criteria in physics are:

  1. Excellence in research, as demonstrated through peer-reviewed publications and (by far the most important thing) letters of recommendation solicited from a selection of external referees, a few chosen by the candidate and many others not.
  2. Funding of one’s research at some level.
  3. Competence in teaching, as demonstrated through peer review, innovations in teaching and, to a lesser extent, student evaluations. Note that the latter are often used in a general way to get a feeling for trends, and specific comments are not typically given any weight. This category also includes the successful mentoring of graduate students – ideally having graduated at least one Ph.D. student by tenure.
  4. Service to the department, the university and the physics community. This typically includes one’s work on departmental and university committees, innovations within the department, and any other ways in which one contributes to the intellectual and cultural life of the campus.

There is also the issue of potential and fit to the university’s future priorities. This seems a little nebulous, and I’m not sure how common it is, but I have heard more than once that “tenure is a forward-looking decision, whereas promotion is a backward-looking one”. There is definitely some interplay between these categories, and flexibility within them. However, number 2 is pretty standard, and the letters of recommendation (primarily from senior leaders in the field who have never collaborated with the candidate) better be almost uniformly highly supportive.

If one was to ask any junior faculty member at any research institution what the criteria for tenure are, they would, I am sure, give you pretty much this list – the criteria are not a secret. However, there is obviously a degree of subjectivity that enters when a given committee must judge whether they have been adequately satisfied. This subjectivity can be multiplied because a tenure case is usually put together by a departmental subcommittee, then voted on by the eligible faculty, then passed on to a college of arts and sciences tenure and promotion committee, who try to tear it apart before voting on it and passing it on to the dean, who adds a recommendation and passes it on to the vice chancellor, who makes essentially a final academic judgment, before asking the board of trustees to vote on the case. This is a lot of scrutiny.

One thing that departments can do to reduce the potential volatility in the system is to conduct frequent pre-tenure reviews of junior faculty, which are supposed to alert the department to any potential problems, and to advise the faculty member of any actions they should take in order to strengthen their ultimate tenure case. These are often performed annually, with the third year review being the most important and comprehensive, since it is then when a decision on extending one’s initial three-year contract is taken.

Another way to nurture and support faculty members and to optimize the chance of tenure is to provide research and teaching mentors. This doesn’t mean that a senior faculty member should guide the junior one’s research (one is supposed to be an expert with one’s own research program at that level), but rather to provide someone who can give advice on proposals, and other research-related questions, should they arise. A teaching mentor can sit in on a couple of classes and give detailed feedback regarding pedagogical techniques, class and time management, and grading.

In addition, the department Chairperson, typically responsible for service assignments, will often try to make sure that junior faculty members are doing their share (and building an adequate service record), while hopefully not being overburdened with the responsibilities.

So where can things go wrong?

Obviously, some people with sufficient credentials to be hired in the first place turn out to be unable to consistently perform at the standard necessary for a successful research and/or teaching career. Believe it or not, this can happen, although people very infrequently blog about it. I’m not talking about any of our friends here, but I have seen it happen, it is unambiguous, and while unfortunate and upsetting to a department, it is absolutely the right thing to deny tenure to such a person.

But there are obviously other possibilities. To give just one example (because the comment sections of two of our recent posts can provide you with as many others as you might ever need), which is particularly topical, funding sources can become much tighter than on average during the time that a given person is a junior faculty member. That can make number 2 particularly difficult to achieve for those academics who might otherwise manage it (there’s a joke about how clenched one spends much of one’s time as a junior faculty member in there somewhere). There is clearly a good case for taking this into account and, indeed, I have heard this discussed seriously at great universities.

However, one thing that I rarely see mentioned by people, particularly on blogs, is that at many, many fine institutions, physics departments work incredibly hard to make sure they feel they’ve hired the right people, mentor them pretty well, and tenure essentially all of them. As a friend and colleague at a particularly well-known university said to me a year or so ago – “I don’t remember the last time we denied tenure to someone, but it may have been thirty years ago, and we’re pretty happy with that.”

Certainly my heart goes out to the clearly talented people we all know in the blogosphere, who have been truly ill treated. However, at the risk of sounding like I’m sticking up for the Man, I also worry about the skewed impressions that many people might get from reading the associated comments threads. I was particularly struck by

Well, this is pretty depressing to me, as a grad student currently working in experimental cosmology. Maybe I should get out while I can!

If one has pursued an honest and balanced understanding of the pressures, the risks and the rewards of an academic career track, and decides to leave, then there is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with that decision. However, I would urge readers, and particularly students, not to think of the comment sections of posts like these as such a balanced sample. There is very little incentive for people who have had a fair and enjoyable academic experience to chime in and describe it. Misery loves company, and that is what you see. One can learn many valuable insights from these threads, and we are lucky to have had such honest and thoughtful commenters. One should just be aware that they are not typical.

If one does choose to pursue a graduate degree in physics, with a possible future goal of being a tenured professor, then one most certainly needs to do so with one’s eyes wide open. Many people will not ultimately attain that goal. Some by choice, others because they are ultimately not competitive, and yes, some because they become a professor, but are royally screwed by a colleague, or a committee, or an idiot dean, or an unappreciated funding crunch, or the mistaken priorities of a funding agency or political administration, or any one of a hundred other logical possibilities.

On the other hand, as Rob Knop so eloquently put it

it’s a really nice job. I get to spend a good fraction of my time doing what I love. I get to go to telescopes, take data, analyze that data, and think about and explore in detail the implications for galaxies and the Universe. I get to share my enthusiasm for physics and astronomy with college students — some of whom, frankly, are lumps in the mud, pains in the ass who couldn’t care less, but a huge fraction of whom are bright, intelligent, and curious. It’s a blast to be able to interact with those people, and to help them learn about physics and astronomy. I get to travel and share my enthusiasm with popular and high school audiences across the country.

It’s a damn good job, and I don’t buy this “professors exploited” thing.

It is a damn good job. And on the whole, if one looked at assistant professors of physics at research universities (I use this only because I can speak from experience there), I would think that the vast majority feels that they have been well treated, are appreciated, and are generally happy! Furthermore, most of them will end up tenured, even though the tenure process is a rigorous and challenging one.

Students – by all means gather as much information as you can to make the most informed decision possible about whether to attend physics or astronomy graduate school. But make sure you get your information from a range of sources. Go in with your eyes open and work hard. The road is hard, and contains many curves and a number of deep potholes. But there’s a lot to love and, for most people, if you make it to the tenure track at most research universities, your experience will be a positive one.


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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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