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Career Advice

Book review: Promotion and Tenure Confidential

This is a book that presents real, practical, detailed advice drawn from personal experience, serious research, and candid interviews.


Flawless is a dangerous word to use in a book review intended for a scholarly audience. Academics are trained to be critical, and few believe that any publication cannot be improved. Nonetheless, David D. Perlmutter’s new guide for American graduate students and newly-hired U.S. tenure-stream professors, Promotion and Tenure Confidential, comes perilously close to meriting such a description. In six crisp chapters, it provides young (be that in age or experience) American academics with virtually everything they need to know about what Perlmutter calls the three Ps of promotion and tenure: people, politics, and personal conundrums.

What makes this book so impressive is its clarity. As a director of a school of journalism and mass communication, Perlmutter understands the importance of speaking directly to an audience. Moreover, his sincere purpose in writing this book – “because I have seen too many great minds and souls sabotage their own careers, most likely without conscious knowledge of their mistakes” – comes through consistently.

This is a book that presents real, practical, detailed advice drawn from personal experience, serious research, and candid interviews. When Perlmutter argues, for example, that “A PhD program that does not end, in a reasonable period, with your getting a doctorate is a waste of your time,” his emphasis on the practical is obvious. His call for graduate students who are struggling with their relationship with their supervisors, or their department, to keep in mind that “It’s not all about me!” is refreshing. And his rather blunt, “If you are consistently getting turned down in a particular subfield, it may be an indication to give up on it,” may not resonate with still-naïve junior members of the academy, but if accepted as advice, it will certainly make their lives less stressful in the long run.

The book is comprehensive. It covers supervisory relationships, mentorships, job applications from start to finish, survival on the tenure track at the personal level, the use and misuse of social media, work-life balance, relationships with students (including advice on letters of reference, a rarely covered yet critical aspect of the professional academic experience), and the development and presentation of a tenure file.

A few words on whether senior graduate students should take time away from their research and writing to participate on hiring committees would have been helpful, but beyond this minor omission, Promotion and Tenure Confidential covers just about everything that one might ask about the personal and political elements of navigating the academic world as a junior member. Moreover, it does so through a combination of straight talk, clear reasoning, and helpful anecdotes. The breadth and depth of this book make it difficult to imagine a new academic who would not benefit from reading it.

While Promotion and Tenure Confidential should therefore be read seriously by any graduate student who seeks to pursue an academic career in North America, Canadian readers might be wise to gain a basic awareness of the differences between the post-secondary systems in Canada and the United States before they begin. The pre-tenure period in Canada is five years, not seven, for example. As a result, the research expectations planed on Canadian tenure-stream professors in anticipation of their tenure and promotion review are generally less rigorous than they are across the border.

It is far common for tenure to be denied in the United States than it is in Canada; tenure-stream and tenured professors are more likely to change institutions and move in and out of government in the United States; and faculty unions are more prevalent in Canada. In spite of these, and other, differences between the systems, the majority of the lessons to be learned from this book are applicable throughout the Western world, and those who plan to spend their lives in the academy would be remiss if they waited beyond their first year as PhD candidates to read it.

David D. Perlmutter, Promotion and Tenure Confidential. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. 209pp. ISBN978-0-674-04878-2

Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College and an associate professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.

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