Monday, August 12, 2013

Going up for Tenure

So I’m like going up for tenure and stuff.
I just submitted my tenure package this morning and thought I’d share some thoughts and experiences. It all feels so odd, like I’m getting tested for a deadly disease. I obviously knew this was coming, I don’t really feel nervous, maybe anxious, it’s all a little strange. Not unlike gearing up to defend your Ph.D. thesis actually. I’ve never really liked the idea of people scrutinizing my scientific output - but that’s the process. In fact you can’t advance to any stage in academia without that happening. I have noticed that I’ve been a lot more forgiving when judging other people’s CVs in the last year. Perhaps I’m hoping people don’t look so harshly at mine. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I feel confident. I’ve done what I needed to do to earn tenure – but, you never know. People a lot smarter than me have failed the tenure process and the academic landscape is littered with the bones of more failed academics than successful ones. (Not that you can only be a successful academic if you get tenure.)
My actual hardcopy tenure package.
            So what’s the big deal about tenure. Well for one, if I don’t get it, I don’t get to keep my job, i.e., I’m fired. If I do get it, I get to keep my job, potentially for as long as I want. The academic freedom of tenure is something worth coveting. I’ll give you an example of its power. If a paper company caused a forest fire I could write a scientific paper about that event that proved the company was at fault without having to worry about being fired by the university. Why would the university fire me? Well let’s say that paper company had promised to give ten-million dollars to help fund a new geology building at the university, they could pull that money if I published that paper. The university would want that money more than it wanted me, so I could be offed; unless that is, I had tenure. Tenure is academic freedom, it is permanent job security. Unlike any old employee at a business, a tenured professor can’t be fired just because they disagree with the administration or because they are publishing papers the Vice Chancellor disagrees with. Tenure is why you should listen to academics when they are being interviewed on the news. They speak from the evidence (so you hope) without being swayed by forces that might cost them their job (so you hope).
            So back to me for a bit. My hope is this little post will help anyone else on the tenure-track, to demystify the process. Applying for tenure is very much like reapplying for your job. You hand in an application (with research and teaching statements, a CV), you give a departmental seminar and then you wait for people to give you a thumbs-up or down. (Every institution is obviously a little different, but tenure is generally the same at most Research 1’s. Harvard and Yale are special.) There are also big differences between applying for tenure and applying for a job, namely that you are already employed by the institution. Also you have five (seven in some places) years of being an Assistant Professor under your belt to prove your track record.
I’ve had a lot of support pre-tenure, I was assigned a mentoring committee made up of three colleagues in my department. These folks are there to give it to me straight. Once a year they tell me how I’m doing and if I’m on course for getting tenure. They submit a recommendation to the head of the department, and along with an annual report that I submit, an evaluation on my progress is made which I get to inspect and ponder. This is all set up to let me know if I am keeping up to speed with expectations. There was also a third-year review that basically is a intra-departmental review where the tenured faculty vote on your progress, a sort of mini-(in house) tenure review.
So what did the university expect from me pre-tenure. I was told basically that at LSU, like other R1 institutions I was expected to publish at least two papers a year in quality journals, get a grant of a sum that should be around my start-up package size, and have good teaching evaluations for the courses I teach. I’ve met all of these targets, but I still need to be fully vetted by both those at my institution and by my peers at other places. So I submit a tenure package.

What’s in My Tenure Package:
(1) Regular CV
(2) “LSU” Promotion and Tenure CV
(3) Research Statement
(4) Teaching Statement
(5) Curation Statement
(6) Syallabi from most recent courses (Evolution, Ichthyology)
(7) All Pubs as pdfs (Before and After LSU)
(8) Annual Reports/Teaching Evaluations
(9) Support Letters from Full Professors outside of LSU (between 5-10)
(10) Support Letter for LSUs fish collection from local government agent who uses collection regularly
(11)  PDFs of a poster that we presented talking about the improvements to the collection
(12)  Selected Press (BBC Radio, NPR radio link; Science, CNN links to articles, etc.)
(13)  Support Letters (Editorial Service), Award Letters (LSU Rainmaker, McGill Alumni)
(14)  Example lab and lecture slides as PDFs from classes
(15)  Links to “A Guide to Academia,” including link to the review in Science
(16)  Certificate from an NSF sponsored teaching workshop.

The items in red (1-7) are things I was asked to supply. Items in blue (8 & 9) are things supplied on my behalf by the department, and the remaining items (10-16) are things I’m throwing in there that I think will enhance my case.
            There are two versions of my CV (items 1 & 2), the one with the layout I made myself and the LSU CV that has standard sections that I fill in. The LSU CV probably is the best one for upper administrators to look at and compare faculty from disparate backgrounds. Never-the-less most of the items in the different CVs are largely the same, just organized differently.
           The research, teaching, and curation statements (items 3-5) are all similar to what I would put into a job application. Most people don’t have to do a curation statement, but as a fish curator at the Museum of Natural Science it is part of my job (My appointment is 50% research, 25% curation and 25% teaching). The teaching syllabi (item 6) for the courses I taught provide an overview of the topics I teach, and I’ve supplemented this with an example lab handout and powerpoint slides from a lecture (item 14). The pubs (item 7) are perhaps the most important part of the package. I have a total of 35 peer-reviewed publications in journals, 20 since joining LSU. All of them are included in the package, numbered as they are in my CV, clearly showing which were published at LSU and which don’t have an LSU address. I also have to make clear which ones I am the corresponding author on. Along with the grant money generated, the quality and quantity of the publications can really make or break your tenure application.     
   The annual reports and evaluations I spoke of before are again supplied by the department, as are outside letters. To get a good non-biased look at a candidate the department asks about ten people not affiliated with the university to review a tenure package. These folks are established and well respected people in the candidates field. A few months ago I was asked to supply a list of five names of potential letter writers and short blurbs about each person’s credentials (e.g., H-index, # of pubs, area of expertise, awards). They had to be full professors (no associate and no pre-tenure folks), and they could not be my colleagues strictly at stand-alone museums. That last bit was a bummer for me, because as a curator I look up to people at the Smithsonian, Field Museum, American Museum of Natural History, etc. But they don’t have the same academic system as a university in terms of teaching and service so these institutions are not deemed peer academic institutions. The five full professors I named need to be at places like LSU or “better” (i.e., higher ranked, bigger reputation). The folks I picked also can’t have overlapped with me at any previous institution, even if they were in a different department. Obviously I couldn’t list anyone that would have a conflict of interest like my former advisors or co-authors. I can pick people I know, as long as they could still be trusted to be objective. The chair of my mentoring committee also had to come up with five to ten people to ask for evaluations, again all full professors that could independently evaluate my work. The chair of the department then picks between seven and ten of these people to formally ask. The department hopes to get at least five letters of evaluation to be included in my review. These letters are part of the reason it takes about a year to find out about your tenure decision.
            I also included some extra items (#10-16) that I thought would help complement the core items (#1-9) of my package. For instance, I didn’t know if everyone reading my tenure package would understand what I had to do as a curator. I inherited a collection in disrepair and made it into something better and so I included a PDF of a poster that explains the renovations and changes to the collections over the last five years (#10). I also added a letter from a local Fish and Wildlife agent that regularly uses our collection to verify and compare his identifications (#11).
            I wanted to strengthen the teaching section of the package as well by showing that I wrote a book about academia, so I included a link to the Amazon and Wiley pages that sell and discuss the book (#15). I also included links to the reviews of that book including one that was in Science. I also had some training through a teaching workshop so I included the certificate I got there because I figured it couldn’t hurt to include it (#16).
            I’ve been lucky to get my share of press and research awards so I tried to put some links to letters and example press. These I think show that I’m a good communicator of my research and that some people think highly enough of my research to give me an award or to call me to discuss a topic for a newspaper or radio story. I also threw in some of the acknowledgments I got from my editorial work. You don’t generally end up with much tangible to show for your efforts with service; which is unfortunate because service is an important part of your academic life.
            After I put in this package I will give a research talk to the department. Then in a few months someone will present a summary of my package in powerpoint form at a department faculty meeting (it will also be available in full for anyone to see) and then the tenured professors will vote in favor (or against) me becoming a tenured professor. The tally from this vote and my package will be sent up through different levels of university administration all the way up to the very top. Then, hopefully around this time next year, I will get a little letter in my mailbox that tells me I get to keep my job - or so I hope! Wish me luck.             

I highly recommend you also read: 

You can find examples of research, teaching, and curation statements in my book along with other items related to going up for tenure.

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