Tenure review is a process that is hard to wrap your mind around until you are actually going through it. It is one thing to know the broad expectations—which individual universities and departments can be more or less opaque about. It is quite another to actually sit down and account for five years of your life. But, like with financial accounting, it is so much easier if you keep things organized as you go. So, as I reflect on having gotten through the tenure process successfully, here’s the stuff I wished I known earlier.
I was fortunate to be in a university and department where in my very first year, several mentors had explained the tenure process, timeline, and expectations. By the time I went up for tenure, I felt confident I had met those expectations and understood how it would all happen. And yet, when given the outline I needed to follow to put together my tenure review file, I found myself suddenly scrambling to collect things.
Many mentors had told me to save everything, but boy do I wish someone had sat me down and told me how to organize it. Had I spent a little time each year adding to my tenure materials—rather than pulling it together once I got the outline for my tenure packet—the spring and summer of 2017 would have been much easier for me.
Get clear on the requirements
Find out your department/university’s outline of tenure materials, required forms, and any other details as soon as possible. These requirements might change—my university’s tenure submission processes and even some key details changed multiple times during my time on the tenure track. But you can always reorganize as you go.
Start organizing early
Save everything and start organizing it according to the outline of how you are meant to submit your materials. I set up a Dropbox folder with subfolders organized according to the outline I was given. The top level structure looked like this:
Neatness counts to tenure case reviewers and the easier you make it for reviewers to find what they are looking for in your materials, the less it looks like you are trying to “get away with” something.
External reviewers matter
Think about who your external tenure case reviewers could be and keep a running list. How departments choose external reviewers varies, but usually you get to submit some names (you do not always have to submit names and there may be reasons not to—ask your colleagues about this).
Typically tenure case reviewers have to be in your field(s), broadly defined, and from peer institutions as determined by the Carnegie Classifications of Institutions of Higher Education.
Your external tenure case reviewers cannot be your former professors, mentors, or collaborators, so keeping a list will also be a good reminder of who NOT to collaborate with before you go up for tenure.
Make sure your CV is truly comprehensive
Make sure your CV includes EVERYTHING, especially service. Count any unpaid labor as service, including guest teaching and community work. As I prepared my materials, I actually went through my Google calendar and realized I had missed a few presentations and guest teaching I’d done, which I then added to my CV.
Document as you go
If there are any forms you need to fill out, find that out early on and add to them as you go. I had one teaching assessment form that required I list enrollment numbers for every course and independent study I had taught at my home institution over the past five years. By the time I went up for tenure review, that was twenty-two courses. Had I filled in this information at the end of every semester, it would have been much easier.
Some other forms I had to fill out required dollar amounts for every grant I received over the past five years. Had I filled that out every semester, it would have made much less work for me at the end.
Keep track of student success
One thing you are assessed on in the tenure review is your students’ success. Keep track of dissertation and thesis titles, advisees, and honors theses in a spreadsheet for easy reference.
Ask students to update you when they publish work from projects they completed with you, get jobs or fellowships, or do anything else that counts as “student success” because you are evaluated on it for the tenure process. During my five years running up to tenure, I had kept a list of my advisees’ names, but when compiling my tenure packet I found myself desperately trying to track down the titles of student projects from people who had long since left the university.
Gather evidence of your teaching awesomeness
Keep track of all teaching materials as you go. Tenure reviewers and other faculty know that teaching evaluations are of limited use, yet they are still required as part of the tenure process.
Peer reviews of your teaching, your syllabi, examples of student work, your own teaching statement, thank-you cards from students or people you guest taught for, and other additional information can help contextualize official student evaluations. Not everyone reviewing your tenure packet will read these materials, but that is not your primary concern. Your primary concern should be providing all the evidence you can that you should get the so-called “job for life.”
Deep dive into metrics
Familiarize yourself with what counts as “indicators of impact.” I am fortunate to work at a university with amazing librarians who put together a handy resource guide on impact metrics. In addition to journal metrics and citation reports, however, save a copy of every book review you receive (I recommend setting up a Google alert for your book title), “fan mail” (Yes, sometimes academics get this!), requests to republish or translate your work, keynote invitations, syllabi where your work is assigned, and press coverage of your research or teaching. These are all evidence that your work has had an impact.
The impact metric research is best done as you are preparing to submit your tenure packet (as the numbers change over time), but the rest you can organize as you go. I had to go back and save copies of interviews I’d done with various publications and wished I’d done more of that as I went.
Get digital copies of your publications
Ask your press if they can give you a PDF of your book(s). If you submit your tenure materials digitally, this will save you from having to buy multiple copies of your book, which not all departments are willing to pay for. Save and organize PDFs of all your publications as they come out as well.
Document and evaluate service
Document all your service activities and your performance in them. Documentation of you doing service can include things like invitations to serve on editorial boards and give talks. Documentation of your performance in those service positions can include thank-you notes people send you after service activities and similar materials.
Also, if you’ve done a lot of service for a professional organization, ask the leader to write a letter about your service. If you do an event for your or another university, ask the coordinator to write a letter about what you did and why you were amazing.
Get an outside perspective
A friend who had already gone through the process and then served on our college-level tenure and promotion committee gave me what was perhaps the singularly most useful tenure prep advice I received: have someone who is not in your field or even in academia read your career narrative.
At my university, there are eight stages of review between the department and board of trustees. That translates to a lot of people outside of my research areas and disciplines trying to make sense of my work. My gracious ice hockey teammates read my career narrative and told me which things did or did not make sense to them and my tenure packet was much the better for it.
But, do I have to…?
Some tenure committee members only read the prior decision letters, external reviewer letters, teaching evaluations, CV, and career narrative. However, every piece of information you pull together supports those documents.
Each internal and external review letter should reference material in your career narrative, teaching evaluations, service statement, and other materials. My career narrative was only really possible to write once I had all of the supporting information together. That career narrative is also where you can tell a story with impact metrics.
Also, at least at many universities, you are given an opportunity to challenge every decision letter in the process before your case moves to the next stage. If you have provided information that counters something said in one of those decision letters, that challenge is easy to make.
It might feel like a futile process pulling together documents that may never be read. But, for the same reason it is important to be meticulous in tax preparation, if you ever face an audit you want to have all your ducks in a row.
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