Converting A Tenure – Track Job into A Tenured Job

Editor’s Note: This post is from University of San Diego philosophy professor Matt Zwolinski.

“Hi, welcome to Liberal Arts U.  Here’s your office, and here’s the schedule of classes we’d like you to teach.  When you’re not actually in the classroom teaching – which will be most of your time – we’d like you to do some research, and maybe some committee work.  As far as the research goes, feel free to start on it now or put it off for a while.  You can do it here in your office, or you can do it at the local coffee shop, it’s not like you’ve got a timecard to punch or anybody looking over your shoulder.  And you should be working on, well, I don’t know.  Something that you think other academics in your field will think is interesting.  We’ll check back with you in about six years and see how things are going. If we like what you’ve done, we’ll offer you a job for life.  Second prize is you’re fired.”

Welcome to your first tenure track job.

Getting a tenure track job is hard.  And trends in higher education probably mean that it’s only going to get harder.  So if you’ve got one, you ought to give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Alright, now that we’ve got that out of the way, it’s time to get to work.  Because you’ve got a lot to do in the next six years, and relatively little in the way of specific guidance about how to do it.

In what follows, I want to share some advice about how to succeed in converting a tenure-track job into a tenured one.  A lot of what I say here will apply to academic jobs of all sorts.  But my main focus will be on getting tenure at a liberal arts college.  Partly, that’s because that’s the only kind of institution I’ve worked at as a professor.  But partly that’s because there are a lot more jobs at liberal arts colleges than there are at major research universities.  And since you probably got your graduate degree at a major research university, your professors there are much better equipped to give you good and current advice on how to succeed at such an institution in the statistically unlikely (but happy!) event that you wind up at one.  Liberal arts jobs are different in some important respects, and warrant treatment of their own.

So with that said, here are some tips to bear in mind as you start your tenure-track job.

1)      They want to give you tenure.  There are some legendary places that hire junior faculty with the expectation they will not receive tenure.  If a school like this wants a tenured faculty member, they’ll simply hire someone who already has it at another institution.   Most places, though, are not like this, and almost no liberal arts college functions this way.  Think about it; hiring people is a huge pain.  Just the process of coming up with an advertisement, interviewing people, and making a hire takes a lot of time and effort on the part of people whose time and effort is already stretched extremely thin.  Then, once the person is hired, colleagues invest a lot of time in getting to know the person, mentoring them, and integrating them into the life of the department and the university.  People don’t want to go through all this work only to fire someone and start all over again.  At a liberal arts college, you would not be hired if the people who hired you did not expect (and hope) that you would be successful in getting tenure.  So the good news is this: all you’ve got to do is give them enough reason to justify their doing what they want to do anyway.

2)      Respect local knowledge.  If you’ve landed a tenure-track job fresh out of graduate school, you’ve got a lot going for you relative to your new colleagues.  You probably have a  better sense of recent books, articles, and trends in your field than people whose time has been occupied teaching, sitting on committees, and raising a family for the past ten or twenty years.  But before you let this go to your head – before you start making proposals for how to reform the undergraduate curriculum, or how to utilize the latest insights from public choice theory to run department meetings in a way that better reflects the social welfare function – remember that there’s a lot that you don’t know.  Specifically, take Hayek’s insight to heart that there is an important difference between scientific knowledge and knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place.  You might have an edge on your colleagues when it comes to the latest theoretical insights of your field, but they have a massive advantage over you when it comes to matters that are, arguably, much more important to both your daily life and your success on the tenure track.  Regarding your ideas for curricular reform, for instance, they know but you do not what similar proposals have been made in the past and how they have fared, which departments or faculty see their material interests as threatened by any proposed change to the status quo, what specific phrases or words are likely to trigger alarm bells in these people’s minds, who will vote down any proposal publicly advocated by person X simply because person X snubbed them on a different issue eight years back, and so on.  In an ideal theory of tenure, maybe details like these wouldn’t matter.  But in the real world, they can often matter quite a bit.  And a wise assistant professor will give him or herself plenty of time to become acquainted with them before speaking or moving too boldly.

3)     Be nice.  Which leads directly to my third point: be friendly with people.  Not obsequious, not fake, just genuinely friendly.  Because one of the little details that maybe shouldn’t matter but really does a lot is this: whether you will succeed on the tenure track will depend an awful lot on whether you’re the kind of person the people there decide they want to spend the next ten, twenty, or thirty years of their life with.  Being friendly is no substitute for good teaching and good research.  It’s by no means sufficient by itself to get you tenure.  But it’s probably close to necessary, and it can do a lot to nudge people’s interpretations of your teaching and research in a favorable direction when questions arise about your case that cannot be settled in an algorithmic, count-up-the-articles kind of way.

4)      Ask questions.  One of the hardest things about a tenure-track job is the uncertainty – uncertainty about what you should be spending your time on, whether your colleagues find your work to be valuable, and of course the big one: what are your prospects for getting tenure.  Some of this uncertainty you simply can’t do anything about.  But for much of it, there’s a relatively straightforward solution: ask questions.  Ask your department chair what the standards are for tenure and promotion.  Is there a specific number of articles you’re expected to write?  Are some journals valued more highly than others, and if so which ones?  How many people have been denied tenure in the past, and for what reasons?  Are departmental votes regarding tenure generally upheld at the college and university levels, and if not, how often and why not?  Nobody’s going to think you’re a pest for asking these questions; they’ve all been in exactly your situation.  So ask them, and ask them for anybody who might give you useful information – your chair, of course, but also senior colleagues in your department, your dean, colleagues in other departments, especially those who have served on the college-wide tenure committee, etc.

5)      Think like an entrepreneur.  Of course, one of the most important challenges you face as an assistant professor is balancing commitment to teaching with the development of an original research program.  The issue of balance is especially pressing at a liberal arts college where quality teaching will often play a more important role in your tenure evaluation than it would at a more research-focused university.  Even at a liberal arts college, though, it’s easy to spend too much time on teaching.  Time spent developing one’s teaching promises immediate rewards, whereas the rewards of research are often distant and uncertain. And preparing to teach a class is one of those tasks that can quite easily take up as much time as you allocate to spend on it, with virtually no upper limit.  So it’s important to set aside time for research – by which I mean time for writing or for reading that is specifically aimed to contribute to one’s writing – and make that time sacred.  There’s lots of good advice on this kind of thing from Mike Munger and David Schmidtz in IHS’s Scaling the Ivory Tower, which I highly recommend but won’t repeat here.

One thing I will add, however, is that in developing your research program with an eye toward winning tenure, you need to think like an entrepreneur.  Not just in the broad sense that you need to direct your own activity because there’s no boss around telling you exactly what to work on and when.  But in the more specificallyKirznerian sense of being alert to unrealized opportunities in the market.  Think about your research as a product you’re trying to sell.  The fact that you think your topic is intrinsically interesting is not enough to make it a good product.  There has to be a market for it.  And that means both that there has to be consumer demand, and an ability on your part to satisfy that demand.  So ask yourself, where is there an oversupply of talented producers?  All else equal, stay away from there!  What’s your comparative advantage?  What do you bring to your field that relatively few other people can offer, and how can you translate that into a product that lots of people are going to want?

Going through the tenure review process can be intimidating.  But there are things you can do every day from the day you start to help make the decision an easy one for your department and your university.  Get a little bit of writing done, make yourself a constant, pleasant, and helpful presence around the university, and take advantage of the resources that IHS offers to develop yourself as a teacher and scholar.  You wouldn’t be where you are if a lot of very smart and experienced people didn’t think you had the potential for success.  So show them that they were right.

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