Obtaining Tenure

The tenure process will be different for each of you. Generally it will take seven years as an assistant professor with the decision on tenure taking place sometime during your sixth year. A typical model will resemble the following. However, please remember that each situation will be different depending on the size and type of institution as well as the location of your department within the institution.

Young assistant professors are appointed for two three year terms plus an additional year to complete the promotion process. Sometime after your second year but before commencing your third year, your department chair will complete a dossier which will include your c.v., a description of your research, teaching and service comments, letters from colleagues from within your institution and at other institutions who are within your discipline area, and comments from your postdocs and students. The tenured faculty within your department will then vote to recommend reappointme nt for another three years. After the vote by the tenured faculty, your department head will have a meeting with you to discuss the outcome of this information gathering process. During this meeting your department chair will bring up any potential problems that may hinder any future promotion. Approval for reappointment at this time usually requires only the approval of the Dean.

During your fifth to sixth year as an assistant professor, letters are solicited from both internal and external experts in your area and comments are solicited from your current and former trainees. The tenured faculty members in your department will then meet to vote on your promotion to tenure. In the meantime, letters are solicited from both internal and external experts in your area and comments are solicited from your current and former trainees. If the tenured faculty in your department votes in your favor then a package is assembled and submitted to the Appointments and Promotions Committee.  The package will include support letters, a summary of your research, documentation supporting your ability as a teacher, researcher, and as a good citizen.

After the Appointments and Promotions Committee discusses the package your department chair will then go before the committee to address any questions.  If the Appointments and Promotions Committee approves you for tenure then the package is sent to the Executive Committee that is comprised of all department heads. Once the Executive Committee has their say the package goes to the Dean who sends it to the institution’s Advisory Board for a final recommendation.

What can you do to make sure you are successful each step of the way? Here are a few hints that may help.

Every Year

Don’t wait until your third year when you are being considered for reappointment before you revise your c.v. Do it every year! Ask your department chair for an annual performance review. This will keep you apprised of any deficiencies and hold off any unwanted surprises when reappointment time comes along. 

Network! Attend professional meetings and make your work known by presenting papers and posters. Also, network not only with your scientific colleagues but also network with the non-scientific personnel at your institution such as  institutional administrators, librarians, etc. These kinds of contacts can help when you need a piece of equipment delivered next month or when you need an interlibrary loan tomorrow.

Year 1

You cannot begin to think about tenure too early, so you will need to set up your lab as soon as possible. In many cases you will have negotiated your appointment as much as a year in advance, so you may want to investigate getting a head start by remodeling your lab space, ordering equipment, hiring technicians, etc. before you arrive. If you are hindered in any way in getting started see about having the start of your tenure clock” revised. Also, make sure you know the ground rules for tenure for your particular institution. Ask questions of your mentor or department chair if anything is not perfectly clear.

If you are not automatically matched with a senior faculty member as a mentor, ask the chair to recommend one for you. Having the chair select a mentor will hopefully keep you from unwittingly selecting an inappropriate mentor. Having an effective mentor from the beginning will help you wade through departmental politics, provide a sounding board for problems and issues, and get you access to advice on departmental etiquette and protocol.

If you recall your tenure package will include documentation attesting to your ability as a researcher, teacher, and citizen as demonstrated by your commitment to your university and the scientific community by your involvement on committees and scientific organizations, and by your letters of reference. However, the most important thing for you to focus on is your research. You should begin to participate on university committees (usually departmental committees for beginning faculty) but do not get so bogged down in committee work that it interferes with your research. Remember there are good committees and bad committees. For example a young assistant professor does not need to get on a curriculum committee particularly if there is a controversy over which direction the teaching is going. Also, learn to say no if committee work becomes a burden. Women and underrepresented minorities have to be particularly careful here because they may be overwhelmed by the number of committees they may be asked to join.

A funded research program accompanied by high quality peer-reviewed papers will be the number one factor in determining whether you get tenure. Apply for small grants ($5,000 - $25,000) from your own institution or from foundations. This not only will give you experience in grant writing but it will give you a sense of the fundability of your
research program.

Year 2

Submit a manuscript using data from your first year as an independent investigator. This is also the year that you should apply for an R01. NIH funding is seen as an independent measure of your stature among peers in your field. Get help with your R01 by having colleagues and your mentor review your proposal. This is also the year that you should optimally begin teaching. Teaching is one of the areas that you will be judged on when your tenure review comes up and it is probably the most difficult area to judge. Be sure to have students do an evaluation at the conclusion of each course. Universities usually provide standardized rating forms but students tend to lump their ratings at one end of the scale or the other so tenure committees will focus on the comments and look at your number of low ratings. Talk to senior faculty about what to expect as far as evaluations are concerned. A way to avoid the “ratings peril” is to devise a simple essay-type evaluation form that you pass out and score yourself. List the learning goals for the course at the top of the form and design the questions around them. Any negative comments should be discussed with your chair or mentor. It is also a good idea to have your chair or mentor observe your teaching. This can provide a balanced view of your teaching skills that may offset any negative student comments. It would also be a good idea to give a modified version of this form to the trainees and personnel that work in your lab. Don’t forget – while teaching is important, it will not alone get you promoted.

Your research has to be your highest priority.

Year 3

This is an important year for you. The tenured faculty will vote on your reappointment and you will have a formal meeting with your department chair. Hopefully you have been having regular meetings with your chair to discuss your progress so you should have a dossier that is good enough to get your reappointment. At the beginning of the year you should ask your chair to give you a checklist of what will actually go into your dossier.  Also, if your R01 failed plan to resubmit it and have a plan for back- up funding. If you are not doing well in a tenure track position and you want to stay in academia this may be the time to investigate moving into a research tract or a clinical track if you are a physician.

Year 4

By year four you should actually begin to become recognized in your field. You should have been asked and agreed to 0articipate in panels and discussions at professional meetings. If you are not being asked as much as you would like, you can continue gaining exposure by attending meetings on your own or suggesting a session for a national meeting. Applying for a BWF “Symposia and Meeting Panel Presentations” award would be appropriate at this time. You may also suggest review article topics to journal editorial staffs. But remember the best way to increase recognition in your field is by publishing in the primary scientific literature!

Year 5

This is the last year that you will have to address any deficiencies. If you do not have funding this should be your number one priority. If you do not have a good publication track record you will need to write up your data and submit it for publication.

Year 6

This is the year! It’s your sixth year as an assistant professor and you will be voted on for tenure. What should you have in your dossier to assure a successful outcome? You should have the following: a reasonable number of high-quality peer reviewed publications; be recognized nationally as an expert in your field and be in a position to have colleagues at other institutions vouch for your work; have major funding in place; and have a good track record in teaching and advising students and trainees.

The Physician Scientist

Of the physician scientists that BWF funds in the Career Awards program, about half will have clinical responsibilities. Generally clinical responsibilities will amount to 10 to 20 percent of your total time. Clinicians are generally required to generate enough income from clinical service to cover that portion of your effort. You will always be under pressure from clinical activities and you may need to clarify expectations from your chair. If you want to apply for an NIH K award be sure to discuss with your chair the salary coverage issues in advance of applying.

Many say that the physician scientist with clinical responsibility has an advantage when tenure time rolls around because of the extra dimension that clinical service offers. So for the physician scientist it’s the quadruple whammy of teaching, research, service, and the clinic rather than teaching, research, and service that the basic scientist without clinical responsibility will be judged on.

And finally, remember to work hard, collect data, network, and be a good citizen and your path to tenure will be a smooth one.

Edited and compiled by Rolly Simpson.   I would like to acknowledge the following for their suggestions, comments, and ideas:  Drs. Martin Ionescu-Pioggia; Bernadette Marriott; Victoria McGovern, Karen Ottemann; Suzanne Pfeffer; and George Sheldon.