The Tenure Process

Mark Trodden gave a nice outline of the tenure process over at Cosmic Variance, laying out the general criteria used by most colleges and universities:

The typical criteria in physics are:

  1. Excellence in research, as demonstrated through peer-reviewed publications and (by far the most important thing) letters of recommendation solicited from a selection of external referees, a few chosen by the candidate and many others not.
  2. Funding of one's research at some level.
  3. Competence in teaching, as demonstrated through peer review, innovations in teaching and, to a lesser extent, student evaluations. Note that the latter are often used in a general way to get a feeling for trends, and specific comments are not typically given any weight. This category also includes the successful mentoring of graduate students - ideally having graduated at least one Ph.D. student by tenure.
  4. Service to the department, the university and the physics community. This typically includes one's work on departmental and university committees, innovations within the department, and any other ways in which one contributes to the intellectual and cultural life of the campus.

That's a good summary, and with some adjustment of the relative weights, applies perfectly well to the tenure process at small liberal arts colleges as well (most notably, external funding is not an absolute requirement at smaller schools, though it certainly helps. Also, we don't have Ph.D. students.).

"That's awfully vague," you might say (particularly if you were this commenter to Sean's post). "Couldn't they be a little more specific?"

The short answer is "Sorry, but no." The long answer is that excellence in teaching and research are sort of like pornography.

No, that analogy has nothing to do with the quality of the plots ("I'm just looking for someone to help me... normalize my wavefunction...")-- it's a reference to the (in)famous Potter Stewart quote that while he couldn't easily define pornography, "I know it when I see it."

This can be highly frustrating to scientists, who like clear numerical criteria, but it's hard to really put a clean, objective measure on either research or teaching. Particularly in our litigious society.

For example, you might try to set a research standard of, say, ten publications in peer-reviewed journals. Then you get somebody who publishes eleven articles in the Journal of the Slovenian Physical Society, or, even worse, Philosophical Transactions of the Discovery Institute. To avoid that, you could specify five articles in peer-reviewed journals above a certain impact factory, but then what do you do with the candidate who publishes only four articles in Science, but one of those articles lays out a complete theory of quantum gravity?

Any attempt to lay out clear objective standards is going to leave loopholes that will allow failures that are every bit as bad as what you get with the vague standards. In the end, I think you're pretty much forced to leave the exact criteria open to interpretation.

The key to keeping things fair is then to focus on ensuring that the process is as clear and fair as possible. Which is why so much time is spent on the procedural aspects of tenure-- because it's easier to define the tenure process than tenure standars.

The packet sent to tenure candidates at Union has a copy of the instructions for the chairs of the review committees. These run to fifteen or twenty pages, detailing the process for selecting external reviewers, for interviewing faculty, and even tables of random numbers to be used in selecting the students to interview for the review. Some elements of it end up looking kind of crazy, but there are reasons for all of it.

There's still the possibility for a bad decision-- get the wrong external reviewers, or a particularly bad set of students to interview, and things can go horribly wrong-- but you're not going to do a lot better. The goal is to establish a set of procedures that get each candidate a fair and professional review by colleagues who are in a good position to judge how well they meet the general goals for the faculty, and by and large, that process works (at least locally-- I don't have any first-hand experience of the tenure processes of other schools).

If there's something in the process that needs reform, it's on the human side. As Rob Knop puts it in a comment to Mark's post:

What's broken about the system is how amazingly stressed out pre-tenure people are. It's not just me. I mean, I may be reacting more poorly than most- although it's probably a combination of that and the fact that I'm more likely to speak out than about any other junior faculty member out there. (I have other reasons to think this besides the blog.) But there are a vast, vast number of people who have told me about sleepless nights, going on antidepressants, losing motivation and getting less work done because they think there's little hope of succeeding anyway, etc. -- it's huge.

Tenure is broken because of the side effects it has on those who feel the sword of Damocles hanging over their head, not necessarily because of the outcome of the tenure decision. We're taking our creative young people and putting them in a pressure cooker situation that may in some cases squeeze out extra productivity, but in some cases does huge damage not only to those people, but to the science results.

Some of this stress is unavoidable, given the stakes-- I've said many times that the difference between academia and industry is that academics pack thirty years' worth of I-might-be-fired-next-week stress into the five or six years before the tenure review. That's only half kidding. As you're coming up for tenure, you're facing a process that will make the difference between stable employment for the next thirty years and being back on the job market next year, and there's just no way that that won't knot people up.

I do agree with Rob, though, that there are some elements of the process that amplify the stress of junior faculty to no good end. I think this is partly a mistaken belief that fear is an effective motivational tool-- it is, to a point, but not for everyone. In particular, I'm not sure it's as useful for academics as many people seem to think.

My research motivation is never higher than when I come back from a conference-- I spend a week talking about exciting new developments in the field in general, and talking to people who say nice things about what I'm working on. My research motivation was seldom lower than after being asked "Are you doing enough to get tenure?" I think the only lower point was after the lab flooded.

I think that there could be more done with positive encouragement. I would've liked to hear more people express a positive interest in my research-- even something along the lines of "That sounds really interesting. It's really cool to have somebody here doing that" is good, but a specific interest is even better. I think chairs and deans could reap some benefits from sending a message to junior faculty that the department or college cares about them as individual scholars, and not just as publication-generating machines.

Of course, that's not without its risks at the institutional level. In particular, you run the risk of having the sort of communication breakdown described by the Dead Dad, in which the Dean says "We'd like to see you do well," and the faculty member hears "We're happy that you're doing well." That can turn into a real nightmare if lawyers get involved.

Still, if you're looking for small ways to make the tenure process more humane, I think the reward might be worth the risk.


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Consider that the tenure process as it is described to me not only runs on fear and intimidation, but it actively selects against people (such as myself) who simply won't put up with that as a primary motivating factor. (Fear is sometimes used to try to motivate me at my job, but I have sufficient resources and options that my response can afford to be actively hostile. And it generally is, in those situations.)

Tenure is often sold as a means to generate academic freedom, but paradoxically, the people trying to get it strike me as some of the most un-free people I have ever seen in my life.

By John Novak (not verified) on 12 May 2007 #permalink

And I meant to add that the situation sounds not unlike medical internships and residencies, where the unstated goal seems to be to squeeze as much work as humanly possible from ten candidates, knowing only two are going to get what they want after seven years.

By John Novak (not verified) on 12 May 2007 #permalink

Cynics have often observed that the tenure process guarantees that you get a minimum of 7 years of insanely productive work out of the 30 or so years a person is on the faculty. And if they have a multi-year grant at the end of that time, there is a good chance the university will get a very good financial return on its investment over a large part of that person's career. Even the deadwood will serve the purpose of covering classes for the ones traveling to do research.

There is not much academic freedom during a time when your emphasis is on keeping the funding agency referees happy, but those with tenure can take chances in the future without risking their job ... if they have any creativity left.

My other comment is really more appropriate in the comments to the CV article, but I'll put it here. No one should enter a PhD program in physics without knowing the facts about production rates and jobs. See, for example, the graph
of PhD production, among other data on the AIP Education and Employment site

BTW, that big crash after 1970 resulted from faculty hiring going from almost everyone to almost zero in five years after the baby boom (and university enrollment) reached its peak.

There is a pretty steady rate of hiring for tenure track faculty (the numbers are there from past years), but they will not absorb all of the theoretical particle physics and observational astronomers being produced.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 12 May 2007 #permalink