How To Get Tenure at a Major Research University

By Sean Carroll | March 30, 2011 9:56 am

[Update: added a couple of useful points.]

This is the time of year when prospective graduate students are visiting different universities, deciding where they will spend the most formative years of their scientific lives. Amidst the enthusiastic sales pitches, I try to make sure to remind everyone that the odds of success are long — there is a bottleneck that shrinks as you go from grad school to postdoc to junior faculty to tenure. Probably the biggest hurdle is the leap from postdoc to junior faculty; it’s easier to get tenure once you’re a professor (statistically speaking) than to become a professor in the first place.

But it’s not guaranteed! As many of you know, I was denied tenure myself. This actually puts me in a pretty strong position to talk about the ins and outs of what it takes to succeed, having seen lack-of-success (is there a word for that?) up close and personal. I’ve avoided talking too much about this topic, partly because armchair psychologists have trouble resisting the temptation to take anything general I would say and attempting to match it to specific people and aspects in my own case, despite a pretty thorough lack of familiarity with the facts. On the other hand, maybe I can offer some actually useful guidance to people who are trying to do something difficult and important for their future lives.

So here goes: how to get tenure. But first, caveats. My own experience from grad school on has been at top research places, so those are the only ones I can speak usefully about; the situation will generally be very different at places that put more of an emphasis on teaching, for example. So really I’m talking about places that think of themselves as being in the top 10 or so in their research fields. And of course, to every set of rules there are exceptions; it’s not hard to find people who violated one or more of these guidelines, so don’t take them as written in stone. Every case, and every department, is different. Finally, don’t think of these as too bitter or cynical; I’m simply trying to be honest, with perhaps a small slant to counteract some of the misinformation that is out there. (This misinformation doesn’t usually arise from willful lying, but from the slightly schizophrenic nature of the mission of research universities; see The Purpose of Harvard is Not to Educate People.) I’m generally in favor of the tenure system; like democracy, it’s the worst system out there, except for all the other ones that have ever been invented.

With all that throat-clearing out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks. Here is the Overriding Principle: what major research universities care about is research. That’s all. Nothing else. But even once you recognize that, there is still some craft involved in shaping your research career in the right way. This isn’t the place for me to pass judgment on this principle; I’m just elucidating its consequences. This is a how-to manual for the real world, not a roadmap for Utopia.

You’ll be pleased to learn that there are actually two different routes to getting tenure, so you can choose which one works better for you. The first one is simple to describe, and comes down to a single suggestion:

  • Be a productive genius. This deserves to be classified as a separate technique because, for the small number of easily-recognized true geniuses out there, the rest of the suggestions below are beside the point. Do whatever else you like, as long as you are revolutionizing the field on a regular basis. It’s worth stressing the word “productive,” though. The trash heap of history is littered with geniuses who thought it was beneath their dignity to actually produce anything; that won’t fly, generally speaking, in this game. So if the genius thing is working out for you, great; just be sure to put it to productive use, and you’ll be fine.

The rest of us schlubs, on the other hand, need a more explicit checklist. So here’s what ordinary people should try to do if they have a junior faculty job at a major research university, and would like to get tenure.

  • Do good research. This is obvious, right? So I’m not going to belabor it.
  • Be prolific and reliable. No, tenure is not given or denied simply on the basis of how many papers you write. But… it doesn’t hurt. More importantly, if there is some standard of productivity in your field, try to maintain it all the time. Don’t have “a bad year.” Because if you have one bad year, who knows how many bad years you’ll have in the future?
  • Be technically sound. Quality is sometimes hard to judge. But among different types of quality, it’s a bit easier to recognize “technical” ability — whether it’s doing fearsomely complicated calculations, or huge computer simulations, or what have you — than more “creative” or “imaginative” contributions. (To be clear: creativity is good, not bad. It’s just hard to quantify.) George Gamow, a very creative guy, had trouble getting a job at a top place because there were worries about his technical ability. And he practically invented the early universe as we know it.
  • Make an impact in the field. It’s not enough to do good work; your work has to be recognized as good. The single most important part of your tenure file is the letters from experts at other universities, comparing you to the best young people in your area. If any of them come back saying “I’ve never heard of this person,” it’s the kiss of death.
  • Get your name on something. A slight exaggeration, but if you have something named after you — a theorem, an experiment, a model — it’s a big help. The larger principle is that your contributions should be specific, not vague. Good: “she invented model A.” Bad: “she did major work in B, and was one of the first to think about C.” In Hollywood terms, have an elevator pitch. It’s easier for people to think about what you’ve done if it can be summed up in a sentence. When people ask “what was your major contribution?” have an answer ready.
  • Don’t be too well known outside the field. I hate to say this, but the evidence is there: if you have too high of a public profile, people look at you suspiciously. Actual quote: “I’m glad we didn’t hire Dr. X; he spends too much time in the New York Times and not enough time in the lab.” And that’s the point — it’s not that people are jealous that you are popular, it’s that they are suspicious you care about publicity more than you do about research. Remember the Overriding Principle.
  • Don’t write a book. This follows partly from the above; if you’re contemplating writing a popular book, and aren’t sure whether it will negatively impact your chance of getting tenure, you’re probably too far gone for this list to even help you. But it’s worth a separate bullet point because even textbooks are beyond the pale. (Probably the worst thing I personally did was to write Spacetime and Geometry.) You might think that a long volume filled with equations that provides a real service to the community would help your case. It won’t; it will hurt it. Why? Because while you were writing that book, you weren’t doing research. Catching on? (Obviously I’m writing from a field where research is conveyed solely through papers, not books; if you’re in a field where the serious research is contained within scholarly books, then by all means write all the scholarly books you can.)
  • Bring in grant money. Thanks to Steinn in comments for mentioning this one. Getting grants is a big help, because (1) money is good, and (2) it’s extremely quantifiable.
  • Take outside offers seriously. If another top place is interested in you, don’t just jump on it, but don’t blow them off, either; pursue the possibility, and let it be known that you are pursuing it. If you would really like to stay where you are and worry that they will let you go without a fight, squelch that worry. Maybe they will let you go, but if so, there is a strong possibility that they weren’t that interested in keeping you. (Duh.) Also, it always helps to be popular; professors are people too, and can be influenced by the opinions of others.
  • Don’t worry about teaching, leadership, organizing, etc. I don’t think being good at these things actively hurts you, although I did once hear a senior faculty member say that he was negatively predisposed to candidates who had good teaching evaluations. (He was joking, I think.) Why? Because you’re spending time on something that isn’t research. But generally it won’t hurt, it just won’t help. You will typically be told (as I was) something like “teaching isn’t really important, but if your case is very close, it can help put you over the top.” Everyone agreed my case was very close, and my teaching was among the best in the department; it didn’t help. The point is simple: this stuff is not research.
  • Choose your hobbies wisely. This is a bit more subjective, but I think there is some truth here. Even the highest-pressure departments in the world don’t think that faculty members can’t have any hobbies outside their work. But here is the paradox: you are better off if your hobbies are nothing like your work. Permissible hobbies include skydiving, playing guitar, or cooking. Suspicious hobbies include writing of any sort (novels, magazine articles, blogs), programming or web stuff, starting a business, etc. Why? Because there’s a feeling that this kind of activity represents time that could be spent on research. I don’t think blogging has quite the stigma it once did, although I have heard senior faculty members say they would never hire someone with a blog. But it’s a symptom of a willingness to spend your intellectual energies on something other than doing research.
  • Friends are good; enemies are bad; indifference is fine. There can be an element of personal politics involved in tenure decisions, although this is usually exaggerated by outsiders who don’t know much about the substantive issues. It is important to have people within the department who are respected and will make a strong affirmative case for you. It is also bad to have people within the department, especially respected ones, who are against you. (Tenure usually doesn’t just require a majority vote, it requires a strong consensus within your department.) But interestingly, it doesn’t matter that much if many people in the department don’t care one way or the other. They are usually happy to go along with the respected people closest to you academically, especially if they indicate strong support. You don’t need to be friends with everyone, just the right people.
  • Don’t dabble. Another slightly counter-intuitive one. You might think that, while most of your research work is in area A, the fact that you wrote a couple of papers in area B will be taken as positive evidence of your breadth and intellectual strength. Very wrong. What will actually happen is that your work in area B will be compared to the best people in the world who spend all their time thinking about area B, and you will probably come up wanting. Even worse, it will be taken as evidence that your interests may wander over time — so that, whereas you were hired to be an expert in area A, maybe in a few years you won’t be doing that at all. Kiss of death. Deep down, there is a strongly anti-intellectual strain within academia; you were hired to work in a specialty and that’s what they expect you to do. Once you get tenure, of course, you can do whatever you want; so it’s important that the department be reassured that you don’t want to do anything else.

Again, some of this may seem a bit cynical, but I’m trying to put things as strongly as possible so the message isn’t garbled by well-intentioned pieties. It’s certainly possible to get tenure while violating some of the above rules, but the trend should be clear. Let’s put it this way:

Places hire on hope, and fire on fear.

When you get hired, the facts that you are interdisciplinary and a good teacher and a strong leader all work to your advantage, because these really are good things. The people who hire you are sincere when they give you compliments for these qualities. What you don’t know is that, at the faculty meeting where they voted to hire you, inevitably someone said “Why are we thinking so hard about this? It’s a junior faculty job. Let’s just take the risk, and if they don’t work out they won’t get tenure.”

The tenure decision is very different than the hiring decision. When you get hired, everyone can afford to be optimistic; you are an experiment and you might just hit paydirt. When you come up for tenure, the prevailing emotion is one of worry. Even the biggest departments don’t get to hire that many people; tenured slots are extremely valuable and rare commodities. They are committing to you for the next three decades. And what scares them to death is that you will stop being a productive researcher. And any evidence that you enjoy doing things other than research within the field in which you were originally hired is, like it or not, possible evidence that you will drift away from your core mission once you achieve tenure. We all know senior people in good departments who are no longer productive; don’t give your department any reason to suspect that you will become one of those people.

Of course, there are things in life that you might judge to be more important. These aren’t guidelines about how to live your life, only about how to get tenure. It’s up to you to decide whether following them represents a sacrifice you are not willing to make. Nobody gets into this job for the money or the glory; career considerations aside, you have to make sure you’re having fun and chasing your passions. Good luck!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Advice, Top Posts
  • Andrew Dalby

    Seeing this my chances of tenure are zero. Unless I suddenly win a Nobel prize.

    The reality is also that you need to be a follower of the current fad. There is no point being in a field which is poorly looked upon or poorly funded. Your chances are even better if you are part of a powerful clique within a significant field. Then you will get tenure no matter how incapable you are. So this applies for choosing a graduate advisor. Pick a big name and ride their coat-tails to tenure.

  • Steinn Sigurdsson

    Bit cynical, but good.
    Though you left out a big component that universities care about: grant money.

    Most fields in science expect their research faculty to bring in serious $$$.
    Now it may not be literally: $1M before tenure or you’re out; or “one big grant and two medium”; or even “at least two grants every three years”, but… there is some truth to the desire to see “overhead should be large than your total salary…”
    Of course real universities don’t commit to any such actual hard guidance, it is all anecdotal.

  • Angela

    Up until recently I would have agreed with everything written here. However, I am not convinced this is true for big state-funded research universities (and I have tenure at one of those). We aren’t Harvard and never will be, but we did until recently we did follow these “guidelines” in judging people up for tenure. But now that most states are in financial difficulties, and the right wing rhetoric is loud – we have to be able to justify ourselves to taxpayers and suddenly the other stuff that’s not research matters. Research IS still the most important thing, but now the other stuff (teaching, outreach, mentoring, service) can hurt you because we don’t want to be stuck with people who will put us in jeopardy from a funding perspective. You need to demonstrate adequacy in those other skills.

    I personally think this is a move in the right direction. In fact I would argue that developing my teaching, mentoring and outreach has improved my research. But that’s a conversation for another day

  • Sean

    Andrew: that is false.

    Steinn: that is true, and I should have said something about it, but I’ve always been lucky enough to be protected by big umbrella grants.

  • Joseph Smidt

    Well, this is all nice to know. I hope the day comes where I can at least give the tenure thing a chance. :)

  • Jonathan

    Glad I left academia.

  • Alex K Chen (InquilineKea)

    Wow, how did you know that “George Gamow, a very creative guy, had trouble getting a job at a top place because there were worries about his technical ability”? Was it somehow related to the inclusion of Bethe on the Alpher-Bethe-Gamow paper?


    Also, wow, the incentives given by the tenure system don’t seem to match the types of incentives that would maximize the output of scientific genius. If you read Dean Simonton’s books “Scientific Genius” and “Origins of Genius”, you’ll actually find that people who have dabble and have multiple interests do tend to be more creative than non-dabblers w/o multiple interests. Not that I’m complaining about it – just something interesting that I’m pointing out

    As for the role of blogging among scientists, here’s an interesting article that just came out:

  • a postdoc

    I don’t always agree with everything you say, but this is one of the most valuable things I think I’ve ever seen on this blog. IMO, a lot of this applies to getting that faculty position in the first place (though, as you say, non-research endeavors hurt you less there). Every physics grad student should read this post.

  • Ryan

    I believe there is a word for “lack of success” – “failure”.

    (Just kidding)

    Some valuable insights here, and a great complement to the earlier post re: Harvard.

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  • Recently Tenured Prof

    At my large state medical university, the tenure formula is simple for research-intensive faculty (in order of importance):
    1. Unequivocal support of chair and departmental APT committee. This requires a good relationship has been fostered with all involved.
    2. Two R01s or an R01 and other significant extramural funds.
    3. Sit on one or several grant review committees (preferably NIH; ad hoc is fine).
    4. Quality, not necessarily quantity, of papers as determined by citations and impact factor.
    5. Teaching is required. Competence is determined by student reviews.
    6. Service on major department/university/grad program committees.

  • Curious Wavefunction

    Great list. I would also add that it helps to have worked with a big name for your PhD or postdoc. At the same time you need to display a streak of independence and cannot just continue your graduate and postdoc research in your new position. Even after you start, having some kind of a well-known mentor on your side helps. In her article on why she left academia, Kathy Weston mentioned not seeking out such a mentor as one of her failings.

  • TickingClock

    When I was interviewing for jobs I was explicitly told at a smaller place that getting outside grant money was a necessary and often sufficient condition for tenure. In the sciences, I don’t think the importance of this can be overstated. Serving on grant review committees may be less important in the physical sciences — I have done it, but did not get the impression that anyone at my institution actually cared about it.

    Another bullet point on the check list is graduating a PhD student (or students) and having them do well (ie get a postdoc) — or at least having them close to graduation. This may be a bit subfield dependent but given that students probably spend something like 3-4 years on the research phase, you should typically have at least one close to graduation (or graduated) before your review. A keen young assistant prof. who had gone four or five years without starting a grad student (or had grad students that did not flourish) would be seen as a cause for worry, I think.

  • Tara C. Smith

    I go up for tenure this fall, and the list from my department is similar to RTP’s above in #11. However, they’re pretty specific about publications (it should average 5-6/year, minimum) and less so about grants (“significant extramural support” is all they say). It’s the unknowns that are more scary to me–things like “personality” and “fit” still can make a big difference in tenure/promotion, just like they can in the initial hire. I’ve been working my ass of and on paper, I look great (pubs are rolling out nicely, 3 big federal grants + a half-dozen or so smaller pilot ones, a small army of students trained, service up the wazoo, great teaching evals etc.) but I do worry about my blog and other things that may hurt me in the more squishy areas of evaluation.

    One other thing–from talking to colleagues, it seems like almost *every* research institution has a bit of an inflated picture of itself, and likes to think they’re “top 10.” Perhaps Angela is correct and some of the public institutions will come to realize “they’re not Harvard” and judge accordingly, but I don’t think many senior faculty have yet gotten the message.

  • Landru

    Sean: All sad but true; now let me add an important point.

    You seem — not surprisingly — to be focussed on what to do to get tenure as a theorist specifically. For an experimentalist, the list has some overlap but is definitely re-ordered with “get funding” towering over everything else. Theorists may be where the genius and fame are found; experimental programs are primarily cash cows for the department, and what the department wants to be reassured about is that you can keep the milk flowing.

    Your remark about funding being quantifiable is especially true for work that takes place in large collaborations. It may take days to explain to your department chair exactly what your part was in the analysis of B-meson decay branching ratios and why it was so original and important; but it will only take him/her a few seconds to read how much overhead your part of the experiment brought in for the university.

    On the planes of theory, it is time and attention that are the globally limited resource; the answer to “Who is the best?” is given by “Whose are the papers that the most people take the time and effort to read and understand?” In experiment, the globally limited resource is money; the funding agencies only have so much of it, and so the question of which of two ideas — and their proponents — is better can be decided cleanly by asking which one got funded and which one didn’t. Our peer review is now registered through money.

    This leads to one bit of additional advice for experimentalists, that is not on your list: trot the globe, make connections, and get known. Give talks wherever and whenever you can when the right people will be in the audience. Get on organizing committees. Be known as the person who can always give a good talk on request for your topic. Make sure that the barons and heavyweights in the field hear your name as often as possible. I’m not sure how it works for theorists, but for experimentalists the opinion within one’s own department is almost irrelevant compared to the opinion of the community in your sub-field. When the chair sends out letters asking people to rate the candidate, and to compare him/her against similarly-aged peers, what’s really being asked is “Will this person improve the standing of our department in your eyes?”, and “Will he/she do so more than anyone else who might be available?”

    Visibility in the community is important because it’s directly related to funding in the future. Among theorists it may be true that the prime quality for a candidate to have will be genius, or at least productivity and correctness, just as you say; because this is what will be needed to generate the intellectual prestige the department wants in the future. The main quality that makes the experimentalist candidate promising, by contrast, is not genius but connections, and the political savvy that goes along with making them, since that’s what how the tenured professor will later massage the flow of money in a favorable direction.

    I know you sometimes unconsciously equate “physics” with “theory,” so for the benefit of your wider readership I just wanted to fill in the other hemisphere a bit.

  • spyder

    Be Jacob Barnett (an almost 13 years old astrophysicist) and have Purdue recruit you for a permanent research post?

  • Dave

    Thanks for the list, Sean. Two questions:

    1) Does not getting tenure in one place pretty much rule out tenure anywhere else?
    2) If you wouldn’t mind, which piece do you think held you back?

    Thanks very much again.

  • Tony

    “Deep down, there is a strongly anti-intellectual strain within academia; you were hired to work in a specialty and that’s what they expect you to do. Once you get tenure, of course, you can do whatever you want; so it’s important that the department be reassured that you don’t want to do anything else.”

    – Maybe this problem is more prevalent in the natural sciences? Isn’t it much more common in computer science / electrical engineering / law / economics / business etc. for faculty to have outside interests (e.g. advising or starting companies ) as well?

    It’s not surprisingly that a lot of the most talented students are leaving the academia track. Creativity and risk-taking is valued more in many other professions. But enough talented people stay too, there’s no shortage of amazing candidates vying for faculty positions. So maybe the current tenure system is efficient enough, there’s not much to fix.

  • Sean

    Dave, getting denied tenure certainly doesn’t help you get tenure somewhere else, and it can hurt. But it certainly doesn’t prevent it from happening, as countless examples prove.

    I don’t want to focus on my own case, since I’m trying to give suggestions of more general applicability here.

  • Not a Postdoc Yet

    The basic point that is hammered home should really be told to people considering research/academic careers from undergrad on up and repeated until people realize folks aren’t just glossing over the truth.

    Research is most important. Anything that appears to detract from your research can hurt you. But it might not depending on the department (but it probably will).

    I usually have a couple of questions to follow up discussions or pronouncements like this:

    a) How ’bout them tenured profs. that HAVE stopped producing? I know statistics from my department, but it would be an interesting quantifiable field to field and dept. to dept.

    2) What can/will people do to change anything about this and do they want to?

    Both outside the scope of this guide to be sure, but the second question is always a good followup to any discussion about these sorts of things (granting of funding, positions, resources, etc.)

  • Ryan Scranton

    Maybe I don’t have the proper perspective since I’m kinda sorta out of academia these days, but I don’t think I agree with your notion that the aversion to dabbling is a symptom of anti-intellectualism. In large part, dabblers don’t really add substantively to a given field (e.g. a depressingly large fraction of the physicists who dip their toes into biology or other fields). If one of the questions that the tenure committee is supposed to ask is, “Has this person made a significant contribution to the field?”, then the odds are that someone who dabbles a lot probably hasn’t.

  • martin smith

    I want to note the candor and personal courage you show in this, and other, blog posts. It’s often seemed to me that you have personal qualities that are rare in any profession.

  • Neil

    All good advice. I would add–diversify your portfolio. Home runs are great, but they have lower probability, so don’t try for all home runs. Get some slap hits on your CV as well. Sometimes, tenure can depend on the number of lines.

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  • Jacques Distler

    A small, but significant caveat to your “don’t dabble” injunction: “Don’t work on just one thing.”

    You may make major contributions to one particular topic, but if that’s all you’ve ever done, people will wonder about your versatility, and whether you will be able to adapt if, as will surely happen, that particular well eventually runs dry.

  • Counterfly

    I think it would be interesting (albeit to a much smaller set of people) to see an equivalently honest post on how to get tenure at a fancy small college (i.e. the places that have research expectations, top 50 US News types…)

  • Comrade PhysioProf

    I don’t want to focus on my own case, since I’m trying to give suggestions of more general applicability here.

    I don’t know jacke dicke about getting tenure in a physics department, but your advice is wholly worthless and counterproductive for biological and biomedical scientists.

  • Sharon Falconer

    Would being a black woman help?

  • Billy Budd, sailor

    Forgive my ignorance, but if you are denied tenure at one school, then what? Can you get tenure at another school? Would you have to do another six years as a junior faculty? Would any decent school give a tenure reject a chance?

  • Ted Davenport

    Sean, is the lesson of the story that you, who almost get tenure at a Big Name School, should have pitched your hat at a second rank school where you would have been more competitive? The point being that a smart post doc shouldn’t shoot for the stars when he or she applies for jobs?

  • JoAnne

    @Andrew#1 – don’t follow the fad, **invent** the fad. That’s what it takes at the top institutions.

  • orly

    @Comrade PhysioProf: *wholly* worthless? really? “Do good research,” “Be prolific and reliable,” and “Bring in grant money” don’t help biologists get tenure?

    A non-sarcastic answer outlining the differences in your field would be a welcome addition to this discussion, I think.

  • Joey

    Dear Sean,

    You are very brave to share this. I hope Caltech does not make the same mistake Chicago made.

    Best wishes…

  • Michael White

    This is a very interesting post. It sounds like you really have to sort of live a controlled life to get tenure.

  • Lab Lemming

    Hi Sean,
    Are there any productive genii who can actually get away with skipping most of your second list? It seems to me that while they might get away with more of the “don’t” clauses, if they aren’t doing the positive things they’re unlikely to pass muster.

    The only examples I can think of where genius gave a pass are in subdisciplines which are required for teaching but underpopulated by researchers. And in those circumstances it isn’t clear if the passing factor was genius, or just breathing.

  • Eugene

    Now, why didn’t they tell this to prospective grad students before they sign up?

  • Louis Rubbo

    I enjoyed reading this post and would agree with everything you said.

    I find this list sadly disappointing for a number of reason but mostly for the following. When you read books, such as Olson’s “Don’t be such a Scientist” or “Unscientific America” by Mooney & Kirshenbaum, you realize that there is a large disconnect between the general public and active research scientists. This discount can lead to an negative public perception of what science is doing, a poor understanding of the scientific process, and even an outright distrust of scientific results.

    Why I find your list disappointing is that to a large degree those scientists on the front lines of scientific progress are those in the pre-tenured positions at research heavy institutions. If tenure review committees are treating public outreach, or just general public dissemination, in a negative light, then those review committees are doing a disservice to promoting science.

    It would be nice if instead tenure review committees would not necessarily require, but look positively that a young scientist’s work has caught the eye of media outlets, or that a pre-tenured faculty member has taken some reasonable amount of time to reach out to the public to describe what they are doing and why it’s exciting.

  • Phillip Helbig

    “I don’t think blogging has quite the stigma it once did, although I have heard senior faculty members say they would never hire someone with a blog.”

    I don’t have the link handy right now, but Peter Coles mentioned on his blog recently that his blogging was positively evaluated. (Note: I think that in the UK, with people who have become professors in the last 10 years or so, there is technically no such thing as tenure anymore in that they can be sacked if the budget is tight.)

    It might be obvious, but your advice is slanted somewhat to the U.S.

    What type of position do you have at Caltech?

  • AnotherSean

    I think you’re spot on, and the criteria applies even outside the physical sciences. What I think is good about the system is that it weeds out the researcher that has no chance, and is committed to working on something with little or no value. And despite the criticisms of others, I have confidence that this can be determined fairly accurately. If not, the researcher can still contribute while pursuing a surfing career. Whats negative about the system, is that I don’t think much can be accomplished administratively in increasing the output of great ideas, which are the life blood of science, and by deffinition very rare. They can however, by offering sufficent incentive, improve the quality of education and outreach. For whatever reason, this opportunity is declined by the present academia.

  • a prospective physics grad

    Thanks Sean, this is really informative. Since I’m graduating this year and am trying to decide where to go to grad school and who to work with, it’s really nice to see all of these considerations laid out.

  • Bob McElrath

    I’d say you’re basically spot-on Sean, let me offer my prospective as someone who tried to take the really really hard route and come up with something new and important: don’t. You won’t be respected, you won’t be appreciated, and you won’t get a job, for all the reasons you listed. If it takes to long, you will be shown the door. But all the low-hanging fruit have already been picked. Hard problems require hard solutions, and the field just won’t stand for that. So instead we turn to “particle engineering”. Add a particle here, calculate its Lagrangian, make some plots. Rinse and repeat.

    Physics is publish or perish. This is the academic version of “the loudest kid in the classroom must be the smartest”. Everyone knows that is true, right? Publish, often, on crap. Keep publishing papers on the same things. Beat the dead horse. Make it so that your name is associated with topic X. Don’t try to revolutionize anything, don’t do anything creative.

    And because of all this, physics only progresses by sheer accident, and by the determination of people scorned by the system, and willing to continue doing physics at patent offices. “The trash heap of history is littered with geniuses who thought it was beneath their dignity to actually produce anything”. There are no geniuses, just people like you and me who had a good idea, and the guts to keep fighting, and keep working, when everyone starts ignoring them because it’s “outside their field” or “what has he published lately”. Hard problems are HARD. They take TIME. Publishing once every 3-6 months, as we do, is a major distraction from actually completing a hard project, and is a bad idea if you actually want to complete said hard project. I completely understand the plight of people forced out of the system, as I fear I will be. Sure some are just lazy, but others would get completely pissed off at the lack of respect shown to them. I’m almost there myself.

    We have a serious problem in physics. We are systematically incapable of hiring or supporting those willing to solve hard problems. Instead we train and encourage particle engineers, and discourage exactly those things we need.

    So, to all you tenured people: give respect to those with the balls to attack hard problems, evaluate their work, and HIRE them. Stop playing this “loudest kid in the room game”. And stop trying to hire people who ALREADY have jobs!!! “Senior hire” is code for “fuck young people”.

    — Bob

  • Andrew C

    This one really annoys me:

    “Don’t worry about teaching, leadership, organizing, etc. …
    You will typically be told (as I was) something like “teaching isn’t really important, but if your case is very close, it can help put you over the top.” Everyone agreed my case was very close, and my teaching was among the best in the department; it didn’t help. The point is simple: this stuff is not research.”

    As an undergraduate, I went to a small liberal arts college that really cared about its students and their education. It makes all the difference in the world. I then did a graduate program in a non-physics field at a bigger research university, whose values were closer to what Sean’s described in this post. I was shocked at the seeming indifference the professors showed in their teaching. As a student, there’s nothing less motivating than the feeling that your professor doesn’t give a _____ about the class you’re taking from him (or her), nor particularly about your education or future.

  • Marcus

    Say, Sean, I’d love to see a guest posting about getting tenure (or life in general) at smaller, more teaching-focused institutions. One hardly ever hears from that side of academia or how to enter it.

    (Does tenure even exist at such places?)

  • Sean

    Tenure certainly does exist at such places; the process and criteria are somewhat different. Anyone want to chime in?

  • Richard

    Bob McElrath,

    Your comment motivated me to look at your website and CV. You have a lot of papers and (from my perspective) a good-looking CV. You’re worried about getting a job? Maybe I’m missing something, but if you can’t get hired as a junior faculty member at either a research university or a liberal arts college, there’s something seriously wrong! :)

  • King Cynic

    Best advice for getting tenure: choose your school wisely. You are NOT going to the be the exception to the rule that most people at X University are denied tenure.

  • sievemaria lucianus

    What is wrong with doing physics at a patent office ? The university system is not for creative geniuses necessarily ? Its a very nice, cozy Umbrella and tenure is a gift – too good to be true mostly – like winning a lottery or choosing the right parents – super nice if you can get it but …

  • far too well rounded female physicist

    Sean this is another one of your fantastic and insightful posts.

    I know this was not the point of your post but I feel I have to mention that Success, Happiness and all those good things do not necessarily come with tenure at a top 10 place nor does lack of it prevent such joys. From a casual outside observer your move from Chicago to Caltech looks like it brought so much better stuff into your life (sunshine and a wife to name just 2) that you should perhaps be advising people how to avoid tenure!

    And your book will leave a far more lasting impact on the field than much of the research done by the tenured top 10 folks.

    I suppose the caveat I feel should be mentioned to grad students is not that if they are not willing to suffer through that list they should quit the field but rather that there are many ways to succeed in one’s goals. If doing research that excites you and having hobbies that you feel passionate about and living where there is some sunshine is important to you then having tenure somewhere overly constraining but famous may just be worse than no tenure somewhere famous or tenure somewhere random.

  • Alex

    Teaching-oriented places span a pretty wide range. Many R1 faculty with blogs seem to think that all teaching-oriented schools are small liberal arts colleges (SLACs). Actually, a lot of them are non-flagship state schools that offer mostly bachelors degrees, a smattering of Masters degrees, and at most a few (but often no) doctoral degrees. (And when they do offer doctoral degrees, they’re often in professional fields like education administration, IT management, clinical psychology, etc.)

    I’ve also met people from universities that offer substantial numbers of doctoral degrees, but either not in the sciences or not in every science, so the environment (especially in departments without doctoral programs) is somewhere between a research university and a teaching-oriented school. And then there are people from departments that have very small PhD programs, but most of their energy still goes into undergraduate education, so they describe themselves as having an undergraduate focus.

    Academia outside of the big research schools is actually pretty varied.

    The things that seem to be common (though perhaps not universal):
    1) Teaching loads are higher than at R1 schools.
    2) While the depth with which teaching is evaluated for tenure might vary, it is a non-trivial portion of the evaluation.
    3) The research evaluation is usually focused less on prestige and impact, and more on whether you can be active (i.e. quantity over quality) and whether you can successfully involve students.

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  • grad student

    It’s a pitty that writing “Spacetime and Geometry” hurt your tenure process… It’s such a great book! Many grad students, including myself, had a much smoother and fun time learning GR with it.

  • Cusp

    One alternative is to get a position at a University in a country that does not have the tenure process.

  • Cusp

    ps – Spacetime and Geometry is a great book

  • nevada

    What is the most attractive aspect of tenure? Is it the financial security, the sense of belonging and having a professional home, the prestige, or something else?

    How many tenured professors would be willing to give up their academic position for a guaranteed lifetime annuity equal to double their professorial remuneration?

  • Adam

    Very nice post Sean, your points definitely resonated with my experience. However, for those fretting about their tenure case at their current (or future!) institution, consider this: are you sure it is really the goal you should be seeking? Yes, tenure means job security and some unquantifiable measure of having “succeeded” as a scientist. But, there are also negatives, like job imprisonment. Try moving to another university with tenure – it’s nigh impossible since you’re too expensive and are competing with younger researchers with a lot more time and energy on their hands. Then there is the inevitable spike in teaching and committee loads that will keep you from your lab/computer/pencil and paper. And the pre-tenure stress you go through just to please your overcritical colleagues with vague selection criteria can be soul-killing and relationship-ending. I viewed my first faculty position as an extended postdoc with bonus teaching, and while I certainly heeded some of the advice of my peers (publish, give talks, make a name for yourself in your field), I also invested plenty of time into improving my teaching, pursing public outreach, taking *vacations*, etc. whether or not they helped my case. And even if I didn’t end up Ivy League, I still enjoy being a scientist.

  • Rob Knop

    I want to echo what was said above by a few people: especially for experimentalists, funding is of tantamount importance. I left before Vanderbilt had the chance to deny me tenure, but they would have. The chair of my department told me that without funding beyond what I had (all I got was part of an HST grant, once), my chances of tenure were basically zero… but that that was the ONLY reason it was in question. Honestly, I doubt that; my publication record was not good, although I did have a few things in the pipeline that I would have managed to get out if the demoralization from repeated grant denials didn’t completely kill my ability to do research. (I compensated by really caring about and working on my classes, which, as Sean points out, is UTTERLY wasted time.)

    I think Sean’s list is bang on. However, I have to admit that it makes me think it odd to still believe that tenure, at least as it currently exists at research universities, is a defensible institution. Yes, I admit that it’s not clear that there’s something better, so for the sake of all the people who ARE tenured, and the sake of the science we produce, we need it. But it does terrible things to people who are pre-tenure. And the list for what you need to succeed– it just makes me want to cry. My god is it screwed up.

    That Sean was denied tenure, and that his excellent graduate textbook was part of the reason, is evidence that the entire process has its head so thoroughly stuck up its ass that it makes me want to personally hunt down the senior astrophysics people at the University of Chicago and scream at them for hours straight about how they’re doing to astronomy what Fox News and the talk shows on Fox are doing to America. It’s just ridiculous. The tenure criteria are so stilted and so utterly ridiculous that we drive people to do the wrong things, and we select for people who do the wrong things. And it only self-propagates itself. Science is going to get into serious trouble if it doesn’t start recognizing that it needs to include communication of science as part of its criteria for “success”. (And I’m not talking about myself. I probably deserved to be denied tenure at a research university, as sad as I was about it. But there is no way in anybody’s imagination that any institution that isn’t utterly clueless would turn down Sean. And Univ. of Chicago did. There are some seriously fucked up blinders-wearing egos over there.)

    Oh, and, if you’re a prospective undergrad, read this and think very carefully before going to a research university for college! You would do far better at a small liberal arts institution where the criteria for success for professors aren’t openly hostile to caring about teaching, but rather where teaching is the primary mission. Only if you’re extremely self-directed and can benefit from being in a major lab (which IS likely to be a primary goal as a grad student, but is overrated for undergrads) are you better off going to one of these places than an excellent teaching-focused institution for undergraduate education.

  • Alex

    About being in a lab as an undergrad:

    At a research university, you can probably get in a lab (at least if the major isn’t too crowded) but there’s a good chance you’ll be handed off to a grad student. It’s not guaranteed–when I was an undergrad at a research university I was supervised by professors, not grad students–but it’s likely, at least at many places. At an undergraduate institution (this can be a small liberal arts college or a state school that focuses on undergrads) you’ll be working with professors. And many of those professors are (in my selfish opinion) quite smart and accomplished in research, and are projects of the same research universities as the R1 faculty, but they are working directly with you instead of handing you off to a grad student.

    Grad students are great people–we all used to be grad students–but they still have a lot to learn about research.

  • Phillip Helbig

    “What is the most attractive aspect of tenure? Is it the financial security, the sense of belonging and having a professional home, the prestige, or something else?”

    All of the above.

    “How many tenured professors would be willing to give up their academic position for a guaranteed lifetime annuity equal to double their professorial remuneration?”

    Not many, since it is comparatively easy to do but not many do so. The starting pay at a “real job” is about the same as that made by the highest-profile professors (taking only their salary into account; of course, they might have other sources of income, but that is true for people with “real jobs” as well). OK, it is not as guaranteed as a true tenured position is, but one earns enough so that one can live at an academic-salary level and save money so that if one leaves the job before retirement (voluntarily or not) one will still have enough to last forever.

    Put that way, this shows that the prime attraction of tenure is not the salary, though, depending on one’s personal circumstances, the dependability of that salary could be a big issue.

  • Kenneth Hass

    In my experience this advice is not cynical, it’s accurate.

    The good news is that if you love teaching and don’t have a disdain for undergraduates, there is a place where you will be appreciated and stand a good chance of earning tenure: the small, primarily undergraduate university. We still do research, but the motivation is to involve undergrads and enhance the teaching. A colleague boasts that he got tenure without bringing in a dime of external funding.

  • Kaleberg

    You might have better luck with your outreach at CalTech. Wasn’t the milli-kan defined as the proper unit of publicity?

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  • Brad H

    One should be a little careful to generalise, as the tenure process can vary wildly from place to place.
    A point to emphasize in many of the good points Sean made is that you have to make a clear-eyed assessment of the local environment. Some places appear to have the viewpoint that they’re doing you a favour and now it’s up to you to dazzle them with your brilliance. These are the places to avoid (many of the big private universities have this attitude). However, there are also many good, highly ranked research universities where the faculty make an effort to be personally invested in the success of the junior faculty. These are often public universities, and I suspect it has to do with the fact that they get fewer opportunities to hire and so it matters more that their hires succeed. Another important advantage of the public universities is that much of the process (most of “the file”) is, by
    law, public record, and you are allowed access to it. The same does not hold for private universities. When I came up for tenure I was dating a professor at a private university across town going through the same process, and she had much less information as she went along than I did.

    The short version of my point is that, if you pay attention and do your homework, the tenure process is not as inscrutable as some of the above makes it seem. You should be able to figure out
    the boundary conditions of your particular situation.

  • Brian137

    The rest of us schlubs

    What about us subschlubs?

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  • Marc

    Another thing that works against you? Having gone to the wrong graduate institution. Even if the reason you attended the particular institution is that your spouse got a tenure-track professorship there, there wasn’t another university for many hours in any direction, and you have a child who needs to see her parents at least *occasionally*, rendering commuting practically impossible, and not because of your ability to get into a “better” school. Practicality means nothing.

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  • petergreat

    True geniuses can violate these rules. Steven Weinberg writes books, changes research fields, writes books on different research fields, and even plays with fringe ideas. Thank god he doesn’t have a blog.

  • BitterExPhysicist

    When Weinberg got his phd, the rules were different (before “the big crunch” of jobs and funding in the 70s). Given that he violates most of the rules in the list, maybe in today’s environment he wouldn’t have made it.

  • Luigi Foschini

    Interesting post. Given my experience, I can in principle confirm your list. I am now tenured, but after 18 years of temporary contracts. I began in 1990 and had a permanent position in 2008… In all this time, I did many of the “not-to-do-things” you have written, so, in principle, you are right and your list is valid also in Italy (although, in my country, the friends could have an abnormal weight, with respect to the other points).

    However, I see a counterexample: if you work hardly, do not bother anyone, do not write books, blogs, and so on, then your boss could think that it is better to keep you under temporary contract as long as possible, so you can continue working for him/her. Otherwise, if you have a tenure, then you could either stop working or work for yourself.

  • giganotosaurus

    Thanks for the interesting post(s)…


    As a recently tenured sub-schlub, I think Sean’s list captures the essence pretty well.

    The standard initial advice given to assistant profs is that research, teaching and service are all key for tenure. During the quest for tenure, one is criticized on all three. But, at moment of truth, there is a rank ordering. It’s no surprise that prestige and money are at the top. The points below relate to NIH/NSF funding, and so are probably off-track for those in the Humanities. And for those outliers that have lots of Science/Nature papers, perhaps this is irrelevant to them, too.

    1. $$ first, please. If you do not land at least one major external grant (e.g. NIH or NSF), you’re in deep trouble. Preferably, you should have more than one, and they should overlap. While such expectations are falling out of touch with current funding realities, it sadly doesn’t change the expectation from the higher-ups.

    2. Productivity: i.e. lotsa peer-reviewed papers. Not only in this key for tenure, but of course, for reviewers of grant proposals. “How productive has this investigator been? Is s/he a good investment? OK let’s count the peer-reviewed papers…”. The process isn’t really that brain-dead, of course, but it does seriously enter the equation.

    3. Chest-thumping: Your tenured colleagues will review your package. Most profs are busy rolling their own Sisyphean boulder up a hill, many will have only superficial clues as to what you’re doing, or why it matters. Or worse, they think they know, but they really don’t. Such people can dismiss your research with an inaccurate caricature, and with political authority. So, you have to educate your colleagues, and help them advocate your case. Do everything you can to trumpet your work via website, posters, volunteering to give departmental seminars. This can burn time: you’d probably rather get real research done and train your graduate students and post-docs, instead of worrying about digital arts and crafts. But, it is time well spent. If slightly arrogant peacock strutting is not your first instinct, it may be worth learning.

    4. H-index and impact factor. Your colleagues are probably unfamiliar with the details your sub-field. But now, they have to pass judgment on your science. How? What’s the basis? They could of course read your papers. But this takes time, and there’s very little of that. Enter the holy H-index and journal impact factor. These metrics are often faves of administrators for assessing quality and promise. All your effort and hours are two-components of a ‘quality vector’. Personally, I think this is doing damage. But, as a sub-schlub, what can I do? The Ueber-schlubs define the rules.

    5. Teaching: great teaching cannot help you, but poor teaching can certainly hurt you. Our institution pays close attention to the student course evaluations. If you’re charged with teaching lots of beginning undergrads, you can be spanked severly. Understandably, many such undergrads do not understand just how damning those online nasty (possibly entertaining) comments can be to a tenure case. This is not to say that the evaluations are useless – they can certainly be useful for improving teaching technique. But there is a growing sense that these evaluations are weighted too heavily without careful consideration. Thus, the assistant professor has to work hard to resist the temptation to cater to the demands of a good Course Evaluation (“Everyone gets a new car!”), versus the demands of teaching well. The advice has been: be an adequate teacher, and spend no more than 2 hours a day preparing. For those of us that actually like teaching, this is wrenching.

    5. Service is highly political. The usual advice is to go for Committees that also serve your interests. That’s very clever, but this may not always be an option. The goal is to show that you’re a team player. Faculty do much of the administration, and paper work. Good service means showing you’re just as willing as anyone else to sacrifice research and teaching to focus “passionately” on administration.

    6. The outside letters for your tenure package: often, you have little control over this. And often, this list must exclude your PhD and Post-doc advisor. So, don’t count on help from them. Go out and give talks. Invite people to your institution that might be potential letter writers.

    7. Managing the above can be tricky; for the assistant prof, doing all these things can mean working right past your graduate students and post-docs. You conceive and do the experiment, fit the data, and write the paper. Now do that all again. I don’t think that’s good for graduate education. But it is often necessary to get those papers and grants in a timely manner.

    8. “small body of work”: Related to ‘chest-thumping’: I was told, to educate your colleagues, you should be able to point to a small body of unique and innovative work (backed up by papers and grants), that show promise and “sustainability” for the long haul. And you should be able to describe that “small body” succinctly, w/o buzzwords.

    9. I do tell my graduate students most of these points. It can be hard to get them to rally for these causes, if they don’t understand the entire picture. Some students, without this information, will treat graduate school as 9-5 job. That attitude seems to be increasing b/c more people are going into grad school for economic reasons.

  • Szabi

    Sean, great start of discussion. However, you got the role of funding totally wrong.

    Funding is very important as it *enables* you to do more and better science and research.

    Nevertheless it is a crucial aspect of modern research life for both theorists and experimentalists.

    Vision without funding is hallucination.

  • Brian137

    Thank you.

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  • James Stephens

    “I did once hear a senior faculty member say that he was negatively predisposed to candidates who had good teaching evaluations. (He was joking, I think.)”

    Why should this be a joke? In no other environment does the person who receives an evaluation (be it a performance review or a grade) get to grade the person who assigns the evaluation. This situation in higher education creates an absurd conflict of interest. If you want inflated evaluations from your students, then assign inflated grades. If I’m doing my job as an instructor the students will learn, but they won’t like me. It should be the job of our departments and administrations to ensure teaching quality, instead we give that responsibility to the students.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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