How to Get Tenure at Almost Every Other Research University

By Julianne Dalcanton | March 31, 2011 4:14 pm

Yesterday Sean wrote (yet another) comprehensive insightful post, this one about what’s involved in getting tenure at a “major research university”.  There is a tremendous amount of good advice in that post, and in the comments.


I have to point out that the advice is very heavily weighted not towards “tenure at a major research university” but instead towards “tenure at one of the top 10 schools in the US”.  As evidence, here is a plot of the latest NRC rankings (red) and US News rankings (blue) of physics departments (shamelessly lifted from here — thanks HappyQuark!).  I have helpfully circled in green the departments where Sean has been on the faculty:

Physics Rankings

Now, this is not saying that much of Sean’s advice isn’t generally applicable, but one should recognize that the vast majority of people who may be seeking tenure advice are not going to be at institutions with tenure criteria as strict as the ones Sean is considering.  There are scads of fantastic scientists doing interesting work at places that aren’t in the top 5 of the NRC rankings, and probabilistically speaking, you’re more likely to be working towards tenure at one of those.  While MIT may have a <50% tenure rate, the odds are far better at many institutions.

Personally, I found Sean’s advice really really dispiriting, and it probably would have freaked me out to read it as a postdoc. And yet, I find myself with “tenure at a major research university” without ever having lost sleep to fears about achieving seemingly impossible standards.  I worked steadily, but not insanely.  I had a couple of kids.   I “dabbled” in other research areas, some of which turned into major research areas down the road.  And it worked out (although, it likely wouldn’t have “worked out” if I was at Chicago or Caltech).

I think if one wants to make a more general statement about “how to achieve tenure”, I think the key is to show that you’ve got “traction”.  Look at recently tenured (<10 years) people in your particular department at your particular university, and evaluate what they tend to do well (say, undergraduate teaching if you’re at Swarthmore, or running giant experiments if you’re at Harvard). Then, demonstrate that you’ve got traction that is pulling you in that direction.

For example, if all the tenured faculty have research grants and students, and you don’t, then you’ll appear to be spinning your wheels.   Instead, if you have a grant or two, and are showing increasing success with your proposals, the tenure committee can believe that you’re evolving into what the department expects of its tenured faculty.  For most universities, you don’t always need to be completely at your destination, but you need to show that you’re actually traveling down the proper path at a decent clip.  The closer you are to the destination, the better your chances, and the more competitive the tenure process, the closer you’d better be.  (Sean’s point about “firing on fear” is basically saying that a tenure denial is based on their fears that you will not wind up getting to where they need/want you to be.)

The final point I’d like to make is my concern that Sean’s fairly conservative prescription eliminates the real “upside potential” of taking risks.  A colleague and I have had many discussions about the fact that, because we were more than willing to leave academia, we were more willing to take risks.  These risks paid off in more interesting research than the path we were headed down as young postdocs.  (The one caveat is paying attention to timescale though — trying to establish a new field of research won’t be a good bet if it takes 10 years to pull off.)

In summary, while Sean’s suggestions are excellent rules for guaranteeing tenure in a physics department at any university in the US (especially that one about being a productive genius!), you can still likely achieve tenure with a less terrifying set of recommendations.

  • Sean

    Everything Julianne says is of course completely correct. It’s like we’re playing “good cop, bad cop”!

  • Rich W

    As someone who is tenured at Swarthmore – thanks for the shout out!

  • Beth W

    Also reporting from the liberal arts neck of the woods, research quality is at least as important as teaching quality for tenure at some liberal arts colleges. Don’t want too much of the “we’re just about teaching” stereotype to get spread around…

  • Julianne

    Absolutely — should have said “effective undergraduate education through teaching and research”!

  • HappyQuark

    I’m glad it could be of help.

  • Julianne

    I’ve seen a lot of crappy visuals presenting the NRC data, and yours was one of the nicest! Making effective plots is an art.

  • Krish

    Sean’s advice wouldn’t have just freaked out a postdoc, it freaked me out, a guy who’s just going to start graduate school in physics. Thanks for not making it sound so scary. But thanks too to Sean for pointing out several realities of the academic world. I suppose one shouldn’t jump into bed with academics without atleast a taste of what’s ahead.

  • Krish

    I hope this all not a April fool’s prank, with Julianne posting tomorrow saying, “Ha! Gotcha! You all got your hopes up, but in reality… you’re all screwed!” 😀

  • Julianne

    Well, I would second Sean’s upfront assertion that one needs to pursue graduate education in the sciences with the realistic expectation that you won’t actually wind up with your advisor’s job. I completely concur that the transition from postdoc to faculty seems to be the hardest step in the chain at the moment, at least in physics and astronomy. Positions at public institutions have dried up with cutbacks at the state level, which has put a serious dent in things. Thankfully, there are a lot of potentially interesting jobs one can do with graduate training in physics/astronomy, many of which could be far more enjoyable than being a faculty member, depending on your personality and interests. So, make sure you do enough self-reflection to figure out exactly what sort of day-to-day job would make you happiest, and don’t simply assume that “running a large research group and grubbing for grant money while writing endless recommendation letters and teaching 100’s of undergraduates” is your dream job, just because it’s the job of “physicists you’ve happened to meet while on a college campus”.

  • astro

    True to an extent. One caution… don’t assume that doing a little better than the average of the recently tenured faculty is “good enough”. Many institutions are attempting to “improve their ranking”. This translates to having greater expectations for each batch of junior faculty.

    Another tip… know who/what committee is the bottle neck at your university. And write your research/teaching/service narratives targeting that level. E.g., if a university is facing budget cuts and faculty denied tenure are unlikely to be replaced, then you’d have to have performed pretty poorly for your department to want to risk trading you for an empty chair. So the bottleneck may be at a higher level, e.g., your college committee or dean. (I haven’t heard of a recent case in astro that sailed through all three and ran into trouble at higher levels, but I suppose it’s possible.)

  • Research Editing

    Great article Julianne.

  • Eugene

    Thanks for making me feel better!

  • Ann Onymous

    As a postdoc currently looking for a permanent job, the tenure track system in the US totally freaks me out and is the single most important aspect that would make me decline a job in the US if I get another offer elsewhere.
    I have had extensive discussions with faculties from various places regarding this. Lately the director of a *small* physics department at a *small* public university I applied to told me they expect their faculty to lead at least 2 papers a year to get tenure (in addition to getting grants regularly, having successful graduate students, etc.). I was told (from a 100% trustable source) that some institutes have the policy of denying tenure to half of the people they hired. I find this whole process extremely disheartening and demotivating. My home country (where I am also applying for jobs) does not have any tenure system (or rather everyone gets tenure after a 1 year trial period but denial has basically never been heard of). Subjectively I do not see any obvious difference in the level between researchers in both systems which makes me wonder if the process is any useful in its current form. I know people in both systems who have published 0 paper in a decade. I think there is a sort of selection effect too in that tenured faculties will have a strong tendancy to defend a system that landed them a tenured job which makes it hard to reform the system to make it more humane. As sad as it is to say that, I do not want to take the “risk” to have children before getting tenure, that is if I manage not to have a heart attack before then because of the stress.

  • Bart Wakker

    I find this discussion is missing something very important. The list of items that is given as things one has to do is incomplete. I did all of it. I got an average of 3 grants a year in the 80-300k range. for each of the past 13 years. My citation count is larger than all but 2 to 4 people in my department (depending on how one measures it). I get invited for conference talks. I get invited for writing a chapter in a series of books that will cover all of astronomy. I teach graduate students. I was PI on 9 HST programs, including 90 orbits this year. Yet, I got a job _interview_ for a faculty position just once. My own institution recently rejected me again in favor of a 30-year old with 2 papers, which I judge as nonsensical toy model playing. Nobody tells me to leave, but instead they say they want me around. But, no job is waiting and soft money it remains. From this I learn that the _only_ important thing is to make the right friends at the right time. The quality of one’s work is 100% uncorrelated with whether or not one gets a job offer. Making oneself popular is. Just a warning to everyone reading this and thinking that merit has anything to do with the issue.

  • don’t kill the messenger

    Can we be honest about another major trend in astro hires in the last decade or so, especially in the last few years? As a card-carrying, latte-drinking, NYT-reading liberal, it’s become absurdly obvious even to me that every shortlist seems to have women who are nowhere near as qualified as their male co-candidates. And they are, in fact, hired disproportionately for starting faculty. I accept (and have argued over beers at AAS meetings) that there’s a genuine historical bias that needs to be corrected, but I’ve come to believe that departments are catastrophically over-compensating, hoping to hire “at least one”. It remains to be seen how these women will fare when they come up for tenure. The effect on the postdoc cohort right now is very demoralizing — superior male researchers are facing an extreme bias that didn’t exist when they entered grad school. One might argue this is an overdue swing of the pendulum. But it’s not obvious that it’s even positive for women in science over the long term. I’ve heard many comments from male faculty that new women hires are “lightweights” and “not to be taken seriously”. The really strong women, who would doubtless succeed in a more balanced environment, are cast in with the mediocre new lot. In 20-30 years, when the “grey beards” consist of the women and men who were hired today, the women, on average, will be the do-nothing-dinosaurs. Whereas the men, due to the extreme un-natural selection of today’s environment, will still be going strong. What conclusions will society then draw about the relative research abilities of the sexes? And how will science have been weakened by the loss of those excellent male researchers who will have been forced out of academia? Or do we not even care anymore …

  • Ben

    There are a lot of good scientists out there right now and while one can second guess a few spots on any department’s short list, in general departments have a surfeit of good choices and in general they hire people who have promise of being talented researchers over a long run. Trash talking recent hires indicates a mis directed focus – spend mental energy on making your own work better, not on the perceived deficiencies of others’ work. You don’t have to be loved to get or keep a job, but if you radiate an attitude that will make other people miserable, there are only a few departments in the country that will want to take you on.

    There’s a long and dire history of older men evaluating younger women as lightweight and I wouldn’t rush to take any such comments seriously.

  • réalta fuar

    To put it bluntly, what a load of shite! Lots of colleges, of all stripes, in the states make a point of tenuring half or less of their new hires (and they’re fecking PROUD of it, as many of them will tell you). Liberal arts colleges are often HARDER to get tenure at than research universities (and most are turned down because their research is said to be lacking, NOT their teaching as their faculties aren’t any better at teaching, on average, than anywhere else). Bart Wakker and don’t kill the messenger have it exactly right above. The one thing said by Julianne that IS correct is that you’re NOT going to get your advisor’s job. An inconsequential fraction of people get ph.d’s in physics and astronomy who do not WANT their advisor’s job, so just about everyone is going to be shattered, at some time, by not getting tenure whether they’re turned down by Chicago, Swarthmore, St. Mary’s, or Podunk U.
    You can tell your students this from now until the Big Rip and they’re not ever going to believe you, since they all think they’re special enough to be the Exception.
    If you ARE the Exception, as all the C.V. bloggers are, rest assured that you’re not a better scientist, a better teacher, a better advisor, a better ANYTHING than those who were turned down. What you most likely are is a) lucky and/or b) a popular person (perhaps a brown-noser) who makes everyone feel better for having chosen you. (and before anyone asks, yes, I have tenure and fit category a) above). If you have tenure and fit b) above, congratulations, you’re well on your way to being a dean or v.p.

  • Ben

    Well, so much for the idea that collegiality is considered in tenure decisions.

    Write papers, get grants, don’t irritate people unnecessarily. Everything else, and everyone else, is kind of out of your control and you might as well not worry about it or them too much.

  • réalta fuar

    I would disagree with Ben, a bit: NEGATIVE collegiality does matter. One should never forget that members of tenure committees, at whatever level, do not have to justify their decisions. If they don’t like you for whatever reason, whether it’s the way your part your hair or you choice of significant other or the fact they don’t really want to be around you for thirty years, that works for them. That last point is probably the primary reason people get turned down for tenure, in fact. One should never fool oneself that you have ANY control, because you really don’t. (that’s not to say that not working hard is a good thing, just that doing all the “right” things only gives you the illusion of having control. It’s that illusion that can destroy you when you’re turned down, as most will be).

  • Ytivarg

    I think Sean’s comment is provocative but I find it very contradictory against all the ideals that is noble and good. Sure one may not get tenure but getting a tenure was not the ideal that most people set out to do when people start doing science. If getting a tenure means sacrificing all my creativity, then when my time will arrive to work for a tenure i will decline this Faustian bargain!

  • i used to live on mars

    Every time discussion on tenure arises in this blog, I get kick out of reading the comments from bitter people (i.e., mostly without “permanent” work) as well as those who defend the status quo (i.e., either already tenured and set and done for life for good, or nontenured people just trying to swallow the bitter situation by pretending that everything really is fair).

    I understand that without getting to some sort of permanent position those who are deep into their science career may have to waste a couple dozen years of formal education and efforts when they switch careers. But people should realize that tenure is a very strange system (one that serves little purpose in the current climate), and few outside academia enjoy such contract. People get cut all the time if they are not suitable for the job or the business emphasis changes within the industry, for example. People are literally just pieces of puzzle, you know. Basic scientists, given what they do really have little impact on society and it can probably not even sustain itself without subsidy from that powerful something, should know that they are not entitled to anything.

    It takes only one student to replace a tenured advisor. How many did yours advise? Reasonably smart scientists should have known better what they were getting into.

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  • GamesWithWords

    I would be careful about using the NRC results. Perhaps the NRC data are appropriate for physics, — I didn’t check — but when I double-checked their numbers for my field (psychology), I could find no relationship between their raw data and reality. That is, when you look at the raw numbers that go into their rankings (publication rate, grant rate, etc.), they just aren’t true. I don’t know if they simply misunderstood the numbers that they found, reporting number of apples as the number of oranges, or if they just made the numbers up. Either way, the rankings — at least for psychology — are meaningless.

    More here:

  • an_astronomer

    @don’t kill the messenger:
    Respectfully, I have to ask for at least a little bit of data about the claim of “reverse sexism” that you are making in the hiring process. There is extensive data to support exactly the opposite claim, that astronomy is still an extremely challenging field in which to be a woman, because their gender alone places women at a disadvantage. In the National Academy of Sciences’ 2007 publication, “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering”, they summarize a number of factors disadvantaging qualified women, including bias in the peer review stage of publication, bias when procuring grants, and bias when reviewing CVs for job applications and promotions. These biases have been quantified in studies, and all work against very qualified women astronomers. The National Academy specifically cites that “a woman, in fact, had to be more than twice as productive as a man to be judged equally competent”, as determined by a study about review for postdoctoral fellowships. I point out that other disadvantaging factors exist for women in astronomy, such as a lack of female mentors in senior positions, a lack of parental leave, and overt harassment. These are also mentioned in the National Academy of Science report, but are understandably more difficult to quantify.

    I invite you to read more here- they include references to all the studies that I mentioned above.

    In the absence of any scientific documentation about the “extreme bias” against male astronomers that you claim exists, and the extensive evidence for the continued effects of unconscious bias against female astronomers, I think your claim that men are being “forced out of academia” because of reverse sexism is very likely untrue. It is probably just the opposite: that bias continues to exist against women astronomers. Comments such as yours, in which you provide unsubstantiated claims of many women’s unworthiness to be your academic peers, are actually actively harmful to women scientists, because they are consistent with an overall cultural bias in astronomy that unfairly evaluates and dismisses the efforts of women. So too are comments that you have reported from male faculty that new women hires are “lightweights” and “not to be taken seriously”- I think it is very likely that unconscious (or perhaps not-so-unconscious) bias is operative in comments such as these, and it’s highly unlikely that a scientist who has made it successfully to the faculty stage (man or woman) is worthy of being totally dismissed in this way. I call your attention again to the citation about women needing twice the qualifications to be considered equally competent to their male peers- these new female faculty you mentioned may have an identical number of publications as the professor who calls them “lightweights”, and still they might be perceived disdainfully. So I ask you to carefully consider, in light of these studies: who is being unfairly disadvantaged?

    Thank you for the wonderful article, Julianne! I’m sorry to get off-topic with a conversation like this one, but I couldn’t bear to think of the number of young women astronomers following this blog, who would feel very discouraged by a comment such as the one that “don’t kill the messenger” wrote.

  • another astronomer

    @an astronomer

    Yeah, it seems that “don’t kill the messenger”‘s whole comment needs a giant [citation needed] added to it.

  • Julianne

    a. astronomers —

    Thanks for taking this on. I didn’t have the heart, after feeling like I’ve written the same responses over and over again.

    For the record, I did go over to the astro Rumour Mill, investigating the claimed over-representation of women. Scanning the list of US offers that have names attached, I’m seeing pretty much the usual. Not sure which “underqualified women” they’re talking about either. The one’s with 8 first author papers in the past 2 years? The one with a couple of Nature papers as a postdoc?

    Look, faculty hiring has always been a chaotic process subject to differing opinions, and colleagues have second-guessed hiring decisions for as long as I’ve been in the field (“They hired _him_??? When they could have hired X, Y, or Z?!?!?!”). Only difference is that as the number of women in the field has increased, there are actually enough women that we get to second guess occasional female candidates too. Progress! (But see the classic xkcd on how this usually works differently for women).

    The only possible substantive change that might support DKTM’s thesis is the fact that many universities (especially publics) have hiring freezes right now, and will only allow hires that contribute to diversity. So, I could imagine that potentially contributing to an uptick in the proportion of hires that eventually go to women or minorities. But the thought that the number of such positions is soooooooo large that they’ve run out of highly qualified candidates is risible, given the depth of the talent pool and the shortage of positions overall.

    The bigger issue is that the job market sucks big time at the faculty level right now, and scarcity rarely brings out the best in people.

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  • BitterExPhysicist

    I honestly think part of the issue in advice giving/getting is that people dramatically under-emphasize the role of luck. You might take a risk that pans out, but dozens of others take similar risks and it fails them.

    There are so many scientists that want so few faculty spots that in the end, the only thing that differentiates them is luck. You HAVE to know the right people, you HAVE to publish regularly, you HAVE to pull in grants, and on top of that you HAVE to be lucky, because far too many people fit the first three. Luck should be at the top of all these lists, but no one wants to admit “there but for the grace of god..”


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