My progress towards tenure: a self assessment

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgHere at Mystery U, we are evaluated on a calendar year basis, so in early January I turned in an up-to-date CV to our departmental review committee. Then I waited, and waited, and waited some more. Finally, a few weeks ago, I got a chance to see what the review committee thought of me, and I got to meet with the incoming and outgoing departmental chairs. I was actually one of the first people to see my reviews, because at the end of the summer I submit a dossier for the reappointment process. I'll be in the third year of my three-year contract, and the reappointment process for a second 3-year contract is the way they weed people out pre-tenure. Thus, the chairs meeting was a way for them to give me some feedback while I actually had a semblance of a chance to act on it before submitting my dossier.

As I prepared for the meeting and for seeing my reviews, I wrote an off-the-top-of-my-head self-assessment of my progress to where I think I need to be to get tenure at Mystery U. Below the fold, I'll share that list (slightly edited for pseudonymity). Later, I'll tell you how it went down in the meeting.

Good things for my reappointment case


  1. I have taught five different courses at the introductory through graduate level.
  2. My teaching evaluations have been OK to good, if not stellar.
  3. Enrollment in my upper level class increased from its first offering to its second.
  4. My teaching specialty is in demand at the undergraduate and graduate level because of strong employment growth trends.
  5. I am the only faculty member with a full teaching load that is teaching in that specialty in our department.
  6. I have 13 students enrolled in a graduate only course in Fall 2009. This course serves multiple graduate programs and meets a core requirement in one of the programs.
  7. I am recruiting graduate students. I currently have a PhD student and one MS student, and I have three-four entering MS students in Fall 2009.
  8. My PhD student has advanced to candidacy, and my MS student was awarded a departmental scholarship.
  9. I have supervised two undergraduate and two graduate independent studies. One of my undergraduate independent studies won an award at the University's undergraduate research fair.


  1. I have served on two search committees (1 faculty, 1 staff) and the host committee for a professional society meeting.
  2. I have real-name blog posts on -ology that have been read by thousands of people from around the world.
  3. I am being asked by multiple journals to review papers.
  4. I am convening a session at a national meeting this year.
  5. I was an invited speaker at two R1 university departmental seminar series in Spring 2009.


  1. Papers related to my PhD work are continuing to be published. (I have an h-index of 2.)
  2. I have actively applied for external funding at the state and federal levels on my own, with collaborators from other universities, and with collaborators from MU.
  3. I have secured two internal research grants, both of which mark a significant departure from my PhD work.
  4. I am actively contributing abstracts to the major scientific meetings in my field.

Weaknesses in my reappointment packet:

  1. Non-stellar teaching evaluations for some of my classes.
  2. Failure of my graduate students to present their research at regional or national meetings.
  3. Failure to serve on any standing committees at the department or university level. (In my defense, we haven't had elections since I've been here, and I did run for election for next year, but results are pending.)
  4. Failure to submit (much less publish) papers that show a clear break from the PhD work.
  5. Slowness of my publication rate from phd and post-doc work.
  6. Failure to secure external funding since arriving at MU
  7. Failure to submit a PI proposal to NSF or similar.
  8. Failure to have the ability to support graduate students on RA's during the school year.

Looking forward realistically: I have a steep road to tenure. Biggest hurdles are external funding and publication rate.

  1. I will have one MU pub submitted this summer or fall, but the work in still in the same geographic region as my PhD work, so I'm afraid it won't count much in my favor in the "clear departure from PhD" tally.
  2. I plan to submit an NSF proposal in November with collaborators at MU and possibly one in December, as well.
  3. Preliminary data being collected on one of my internal grants should generate multiple papers and proposals. Synergy!
  4. My MS student should finish hir MS by the end of 2010. If (s)he does, I'll be able to revise hir work into a paper.
  5. My PhD student should submit one or more papers in the next year. Perhaps I'll be a co-author there. (Hir work is largely independent of me, making me the advisor in an academic sense, but not so much in the scientific sense.)

More like this

Wow. I mean, yes, you have all sorts of stuff to do. But take a moment and look at that kick-ass list! You are truly a fantastic scholar and mentor! I can only hope to achieve what you've achieved when I've been in this gig as long as you.

SW, I was really struck with the order that you presented your list. Teaching, service, then research? If your Mystery U is anything like mine (and I imagine it is if the three year review has teeth), you need to prioritize research, research, and more research. Obviously you know this, but, prioritize it so that even your off-the-top-of-your-head self assessment starts off with research. Teaching and service always seem more pressing, but it is a dangerous illusion.

Not trying to sound harsh here. I'm up for tenure this year and wish someone had pounded this into me five years ago.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 30 Jun 2009 #permalink

Seems like a pretty balanced assessment. I think you did a good job of listing your strengths along with weaknesses, since it can be easy to just panic about faults rather than being proud of accomplishments. You've done a lot! But I think Anon makes a good point, especially since your weaknesses mainly fall in the research category.

Good luck with the meeting. I'm interested to hear how it goes.

If your PhD student is ready to publish, then getting her on an upcoming conference should be easy. As long as you don't feel it is too old-fashioned to submit an abstract after data collection, instead of before.

If you are convening a session, then invite them.

Also, masters students should be capable of writing their own papers without too much hand holding.

@Anonymous. I know it's research, research, research, but as I listed my strengths it was clear that research was going to have the least of them, so it got listed last.

@LabLemming: Yes, my PhD student does need to conference. I've been urging this, but when said student is also a parent and full-time employee they don't always see the value of these things the same way I do. As for my MS student, given what a battle it has been to get hir to write a thesis proposal, on this one, I'll settle for hir finishing the work and writing a thesis. If I push hir to also turn it into a manuscript it will never happen.

SW, this seems like a pretty in depth and honest assessment so far. How did it compare to what was discussed at the meeting with the chairs? Is there any chance for experimental collaboration with a more senior colleague in your Mystery U geographic area that could result in a quicker publication (without all the burden of writing falling on you?) or that you could use as a basis for writing one of the grant proposals? Are there any state-level grants that might have a higher acceptance rate as a stepping stone to the national level awards? Good luck!

I'm just a little surprised your PhD student is listed under teaching. Is that how professors see us? I guess I was hoping to be listed under research. I mean, that is what we do, right?

That being said, I was wust wondering if I can ask you (or anyone else on the interwebz who wants to answer) a question. My supervisor is in the same stage of hir carreer and hir three-year review is coming up. As hir grad student, I've been asked to write a letter of evaluation. But here's the thing: I've no clue what is expected from such letter. Any suggestions on style, professionality, content? I obviously can't judge any of the service parts, but research? Not sure. (I mean, I could give my opinion, but how much value is that, coming from a student?) So only supervision then? And do I talk about the things that could be improved (like a real evaluation) or is it supposed to be mainly positive (like a reference letter)? We're at a school where grad students call their supervisors by their first name, but how do I refer to hir in the letter? Professor First Last? Followed by First? Followed by Professor Last?

Overall, I'm relatively happy with hir. I'd like to write a nice letter and I'd hate to screw that up, just because I'm not sure what the conventions are. Anyone who can help me out?

By Grad student (not verified) on 01 Jul 2009 #permalink

wow, your list tells me you have some serious mental blocks and some unrealistic expectations of what gets done in the first 3 years. Agree w/ Anon 9:05, you need to put Research at the top of your list, but start with noting what you have accomplished - setting up a lab, designing student projects, initiating collaborations. Also, I think the whole 'break with the past' is overblown (I hear this as advice a lot) - all work moves forward,and if you collected the data since you became PI, and unless you have a conflict with your former mentor (s/he thinks certain topics are hirs) and/or your mentor is co-author, it should count toward your PI productivity. Think instead in terms of making your mark on the field such that established folks (who will be writing your tenure letters) can speak to your accomplishments. Erase the word "Failure" from your list: these were unrealistic expectations; it takes longer than 2-3 years to get things rolling, funded & published. Don't be so hard on yourself. If you've laid the groundwork, make a clear plan & work hard, these things happen in the second half of the pre-tenure period for most..

By neurowoman (not verified) on 01 Jul 2009 #permalink

@Grad student: This post from FSP should be useful. Good luck!

I also wanted to add: thanks for posting this, SW. As someone who has thought seriously of late about transitioning from industry to academia, Iâve always wondered exactly what the expectations were. We are in different fields, and a lot is probably field-specific ⦠but your post makes me feel as though Iâm better informed on the subject, in general. So thanks for your honesty â and do let us know about the outcome of the meeting. Best of luck!

Thanks a lot, Hope. That really is helpful!

By Grad student (not verified) on 01 Jul 2009 #permalink

Hi Sciwo, it is awesome that you have reflected on your progress and identified both strengths and potential weaknesses. I think this type of reflection is a real help in moving forward.

I am interested in your perception that you are 'slow to publish'. I am at a similar distance from my PhD, and although I am in a different situation from you, publication rate and quality remain critical indicators by which I am judged. I know that I am definitely more self critical of myself than others would be of me, in common with many other women. However, I still want to increase my pub quality and rate.

Have you really compared your pub rate with others at a similar stage, and in similar fields, or are you being overly critical? If you feel your pub rate is unsatisfactory (for whatever reason) and you wish to improve it, what can you do? I ask this as I have been reflecting on what I myself can do. I have been looking at specific goal setting, and getting an external mentor (with specific aims to address) as two strategies to help improve my performance in this area. Are there other strategies that you are using or that others could share that might help? I think this issue is widespread for female scientists, and beginning scientists with rather varied experience of supervision and mentoring.

I also think you should erase failure from your list. Thinking more laterally, your experience over the last few years has most likely increased skills such as communication, management and people skills, and these should not be underestimated in developing a successful longterm career.

kiwi's remark on reference points, for purposes of comparison, resonates with me too. Your admirably honest self-evaluation is in absolute figures. How about reference points? Do you have people who recently got past the tenure hurdle or who, in your perception, would probably get past it soon at your institution? How do you stand when compared to them (for better or worse)? I do not want to sound like a "curve fan", but I am afraid that is probably what it all boils down to, at the end of the day.

Second: what is the level of discrimination in your field/institution in terms of outlets? Do you have an "A" list of journals and "the rest"; or is any refereed pub as respectable as any other? For example, an "A" pub might be valued to be more important and valuable than a few "B" pubs. Does your department have such a list (explicitly stated, or implicitly shared as a guide in tenure decisions)?

Last, but not the least: do you think the aspirations and/or standards of your department will remain the same or change soon? Thinking strategically, the change of the department chair might be an indicator of an initiative or ongoing effort for higher-order change (e.g. coming from the dean or even the president of the university). Do you think this is an issue; and, if so, how would that affect your self-evaluation parameters? [Note that I am not referring to departmental politics, although that is an important dimension too.]

"hir" is a total fucking abomination! It is so fucking distracting it totally ruins the flow of reading, because it is NOT A REAL FUCKING WORD!

In terms of identifiability of an anonymous individual, how much difference does a factor of two make in the likelihood of identifying the person? And if you really think it makes a difference, for the love of god, just use "his or her".