Oddly enough, I’ve just come from my annual review this week, which, in my department, is a little interview one has with the department head to help him determine merit pay. Even though I prodded my academic family members for advice on how to go in to this, I found myself unprepared. So I started this post to let me share some thoughts for other newbies heading in to their review, and solicit advice from the more senior folks on other ways to prepare and strategize. And then ScienceWoman requested this post. :-) So now I had better finish it and share.

About two weeks before our annual review meetings, we are asked to send in some writing about our goals. Specifically, we’re asked to plan our goals (in discovery, learning and engagement, which are our terms for research, teaching and learning) for the next year, reflect on how well we met our goals from our last review (not applicable yet for me, happily), and provide advice on how the school can better help me in these endeavors.

The first part for me I wrote in a way that tried to highlight that I have lots of innovative ideas (I argued :-) ) and the follow-through to get them funded, accomplished, and published. Kind of challenging as I have only just started, but I think it looked okay. I also made more general goals about stuff I wanted to do in teaching – a course I wanted to teach, how I wanted leadership opportunities in service, and so on. I said stuff I wanted in the record. Oh, and a minor pontification about what I think tenure is for, which is not as a stick to make early-career faculty into the images of their senior counterparts, but to protect academic freedom, and that I therefore wasn’t going to set my long term goal to be “get tenure.” More on that in another post, probably.

The second part I skipped. ‘Cause I weren’t here last year.

The third part I really didn’t want to turn into a rant. So I tried to highlight a few structural upper-level things, and not gripe about, say, how many people I have to get permission from before I get business cards printed, or something. I also tried to emphasize the things that I have found helpful, so that perhaps they won’t be lost or changed, and also because I realize it can be tough reading so much criticism without any bright sparks.

We’re also supposed to send in a copy of our CV, preferred in promotion-and-tenure format, and with the stuff from this year highlighted in yellow. For us, the format consists of various categories, with a narrative at the front of the category, and then various lists – papers we’ve published, grants we’ve submitted/gotten funded/gotten rejected, our teaching scores, etc. etc. etc. I’ve since learned that the narrative is where you get to put your spin on your story — if your story doesn’t come through in all the lists and tables, you’d better get it in the narrative.

For the review itself, I had planned on just “going in” and seeing what I was told. I was, therefore, unprepared when my chair asked me if there was anything I wanted to talk about. In fact, I had indeed had stuff I had wanted him to know, but I had already put it in my review document, so I didn’t know how to balance that. I asked what the review was going to be used for (merit pay) and whether it was going into my permanent file (no; seems this one varies by university and maybe department). I used the time to highlight some concerns I really had, such as what I will have to teach and for how long (as in, how many semesters), and some challenges I’ve had in finding graduate students.

About half-way through, we switched into him giving me feedback, and I bet you can guess what he more or less said: get 2-3 more graduate students, keep going out to get funding, don’t rest on your laurels, get your dissertation published, research research research, oh, and get those teaching scores up on that big first-year class. I felt it was pretty rote. Still trying to think about how I feel about this.

But by the end he encouraged me to keep being myself, not accepting mediocrity, and carry on carrying on. And he asked me, aside from the review part, how I liked being in the department. This is where I brought up my need for some help in finding a position for my husband here, as it is too too much dealing with commuting and two houses and trying to do this job. I think he might be able and willing to help. I’ll keep you posted.

I wrote down all the feedback parts of the review, and will put them in my own personal P&T file as a record of this conversation in case I need it later. And I’ll carry on carrying on.

So, after the event, my advice is:

  • Have a few things you want to get answers back directly on that you can talk about;
  • Have both good things and challenges to talk about;
  • Think about things you want help on that you can ask for directly;
  • Ask what happens to this conversation/review information, what are other review opportunities, what can you get things in writing and so forth; then gauge the rest of the conversation accordingly;
  • Take good notes;
  • Remember your chair has to have this conversation with *everyone.*

I think my review was pretty straightforward. What are other things you’d recommend people think about in their annual review, especially those that may be less straightforward, or more advanced in their pre-tenure careers?


  1. #1 Lab Cat
    April 3, 2008

    This is where I get bitter. I never had a decent annual review in my whole time for my first tenure track position. The department chair just saw them as a waste of time. One year I didn’t even get a review! In one review, he even rambled on about his efforts trying to get NIH funding, after I asked him about NSF.

    I wish I could do that over again and make more of a fuss to get better feedback. I should have found a senior colleague in another department to give me advice, I suppose. I was pretty isolated in my research interests in my college and that never improved.

  2. #2 qetzal
    April 3, 2008

    I’ve never been an academic (grad student & post-doc don’t count, of course), so my perspective may not be applicable. But one suggestion is to try to get feedback from your peers. If you’re truly interested in self-improvement (as opposed to just getting through the review as quickly and easily as possible), peer perspective can be much more useful than feedback from your supervisor.

    Of course, my career is in biotech, where collaboration & teamwork is the norm. In that situation, there are usually multiple peers you work with regularly, who can assess your work and give useful feedback. In academia, depending on the situation, you may not work closely with your peers very much.

  3. #3 Tex
    April 4, 2008

    Wow! Even at a pretty regressive land grant university in the reddest of states, written annual reviews are mandated for every faculty member, either as part of the pre-tenure process or post-tenure review. Supervisors, including department heads and deans, are not eligible for a merit raise of their own unless they have reviews on file for all of their subordinates. Maybe I should reconsider whether we really are more progressive than many of us realize … OK, no.

    I second qetzal’s remarks above about peer feedback, with the important addition that it is essential to find a mentor you can talk to about anything – preferably someone more senior, but who has no direct say in your promotion and tenure (other than a single vote at the appropriate time.) If you can find someone in your department, great. If not, look in related departments or perhaps continue to lean on former mentors like graduate and postdoc advisors.

    Finally, once you clear the tenure hurdle, maintain your relationship with mentors, who may eventually be able to help to with promotion to full professor.

  4. #4 Joy
    April 4, 2008

    I would also recommend trying to get an informal take on your review from colleagues, if they were included in the evaluation. At my school, the chair talks to all of my colleagues and writes up a letter based on their input. After my first review, I changed a bunch of stuff I was doing on the basis of my chair’s suggestions; it turns out that s/he misrepresented the opinions of my colleagues, and at my next review I got slammed for making those changes and not working on something else as much.

    So, if you have a friend, or a mentor, in your dept who is willing to give you a sense of whether the chair’s take/letter is right, definitely check in with them too.

  5. #5 ScienceWoman
    April 4, 2008

    Thanks! Your post and the comments both places are quite helpful.

  6. #6 Alice
    April 5, 2008

    Thanks for the additions and suggestions. I should mention for Tex’s benefit that we have a second review that does go into our permanent file that comes from the primary committee (which is our departmental-level promotion and tenure committee, also known at this point as all the tenured members of the department), and we get talked to about this too. But this review is different, I guess.

    I think we got off schedule somehow this year, and maybe they’re trying to get back on schedule? Not sure.

  7. #7 ecogeofemme
    April 5, 2008

    Ths was a really interesting couple of posts. I think that one of the shortfalls of the student/employee conundrum is the lack of formal reviews. Personally, I think it would do a lot of good for everyone to know if they are meeting expectations in a direct way. The guessing game we do now is counter productive.

    My impression of both of you is that you are relatively young for assitant professors, but like many people, I’ll be in my 30’s before I encounter my first formal review. Does that seem odd to anyone else?

  8. #8 Turducken
    April 9, 2008

    Ecogeofemme, it does seem odd to me. My doctoral program does annual reviews for all the PhD students. We fill out a long form with everything we’ve done (coursework, pubs, conferences, etc.) It’s used within our department to keep tabs on us and within the college to compare departments. The only odd bit is that there’s no face-to-face; the faculty have a conversation about us, and then we get a letter.

    It’s actually pretty helpful, although I don’t think most students take the letters seriously.

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