My progress towards tenure: it's all about the $

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgA few weeks ago, I blogged a self-assessment of my progress towards tenure. It seemed like an apt time to reflect in the hours before my annual review meeting with the department chair(s) and in the months before my packet for reappointment is submitted. Reappointment is the first and only gatekeeping between me and submitting that tenure dossier in three years. I feel OK about reappointment, but less so about tenure. So that's the focus of the navel-gazing. (I suspect such gazing will only get worse as the next few years wend on.)

In my self-assessment, I identified a number of areas where I felt I needed to improve my performance in order to increase my odds at achieving tenure at Mystery U. When I met with my chair(s), the list was shorter:

"Get significant federal funding as PI."

Let's break that down:

  • Get = Effort doesn't count. Who cares about 10% success rates and year long turnarounds? You have to succeed in getting the money, or you won't succeed in getting tenure.
  • Significant = supporting at least one grad student per year on a research assistantship.
  • Federal = NSF or NASA, because there really isn't much else that I can get that will provide significant funding. State grants apparently don't count.
  • Funding = We wants the money, and we wants it now.
  • As PI = Collaborative work is nice and all, and we talk a good talk about cross-disciplinary collaboration. But unless you are in charge, and bringing the overhead in here, we're not really interested.

"Oh, yeah, and while you're writing those proposals, make sure you keep publishing at the same rate, and serve on a nationally-visible committee at your professional society. But be sure to pick one that's not too much work. But it has to be visible - get your name out there. Oh, and by the way, due to the economic crisis, your teaching load is probably going to go up and TA support will probably go down. But don't worry, the dean has made it clear that tenure expectations aren't going to decrease. Keep up the good work."

It was a rude wake-up call to say the least, but I'm glad I got it this summer and not two years from now. I'd come to think that the best solution to the combination heavy teaching/heavy research expectations, was to try to do projects that required little money, but yielded a low- to medium-impact paper. I figured that going after the big, sexy grants and big, sexy science was secondary to pumping out several papers per year. At least that's the way our departmental evaluation guidelines seemed to read. But perhaps I was misled by standards that are different for tenured folks versus untenured folks. Mystery U strives to be an upward trajectory, so in some sense the tenured folks are apples, and us tenured folks are, well, a different kind of apple.

So the task for this year is to figure out how to keep pumping out the papers, while writing a record-breaking number of grant (successful) proposals. Anyone have a time turner?

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It sounds like you only need one good federal grant, so my advice would be to focus on one or two of the most likely candidates, and write the very best proposal/s you can. (Rather than writing "a record-breaking number" of less well thought-out proposals). Plan ahead far enough to collect preliminary data specifically for this proposal/s. And then you will still have several opportunities to respond to reviews and resubmit. Just my two cents!

I've seen the "Get significant federal funding as PI" strategy addressed two ways. In one way, my husband wrote tons of proposals thinking that one would stick. In the other way, my colleague focused on writing a few perfect proposals. Both strategies seemed to work. It sounds like you have a ton of preliminary data - that should boost your chances quite a bit! Good luck!

Yup -- that sounds like EXACTLY what I'll be up against. I was going to put in for a grant this summer, but have decided I need to invest more time in preliminary data instead, because that is a serious weak point for me. My hope is once I have the data I'll be able to generate some higher-quality proposals. Sounds like you're already there with the prelim data, so you're in great shape!

If you get a Time Turner, be sure to lend it to me from time to time :).

I don't understand your last point. You can write a collaborative proposal with people at other universities, and each of you is PI of your part of the proposal (so each university gets its indirect costs). Or you can write an interdisciplinary proposal at your university, with you as PI. Being PI on a grant doesn't preclude collaborations or interdisciplinary research. In fact, if you can write a collaborative proposal with a senior colleague at another university -- someone with a good track record of funding and who is looking for an interesting new collaboration -- that might be ideal.

Well, that sounds like a bucket of cold water to the face. But, yes, good thing you know now while you can do something about it. I'm rootin' for ya.

A depressingly familiar scenario. Get money whilst doing everything else perfectly. Very tough call - but at least you're not alone!

The staff development trainer at this place described the 'perfect academic from the univerity's point of view - an insomniac workaholic beloved by the research councils'.

I have to disagree with FSP. Unless you are judged differently in your field than I am in mine, it is very important that your accomplishments can be directly attributed to you. The tenure committee will assign less value to a joint-PI grant than to a grant where you are sole PI because they won't know if the joint-PI grant was awarded because of your brilliant ideas, writing, and accomplishments or those of the other PI. They might not count it for you at all.

I disagree with joe, co-PI status is fine, but overhead money needs to come to YOUR university. Clearly you now have found out what is required, and that is true of nearly every school, MONEY. Sad, but true, innovative teaching, and other stuff is not what they are after, I left a moderate sized school because they were shifting from teaching student centered to research money fame centered. I have always been student centered. So, 1) get papers out, grants even with great ideas will not be funded if you do not have papers out, regardless of connection between papers and grants. Get papers out, 2) contact prgram officers, and begin writing now. 3) evaluate yourself and your school. Maybe they aren't the match for you. a good time to leave is pre-tenure decision but just as you ahve published and written some proposals, you will really know how to sell your self. I did that 10 years ago and couldn't be happier. Small colleges aren't less work, but for me its the work I would rather be doing (while still being able to keep research active.)