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:
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.