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Careers Café

The Big T: Tenure


I am a young prof, currently in the same position that many UA readers might hope to be in a few years. I recently passed that key milestone of academic life: being awarded tenure. The experience of developing my 8” thick tenure application package has caused me to reflect on my first few years as a faculty member, and to compare my experience with my expectations. I hope that by sharing these thoughts with other young academics, I might give some of you just a bit more insight to how your life might change over the next few years.

My first surprise, as a young prof, was that I was not flooded with relief that I had finally landed a coveted tenure-track position. Instead, my anxiety about finding a Real Job was immediately replaced with anxiety regarding the great, distant but overwhelming dark cloud of Tenure. Learning more about how tenure really functions in academia did nothing but enhance these fears.

Before I was hired, my understanding of tenure was so flawed that I became deeply but privately embarrassed to discover my errors. Somehow, despite all my organizing, strategizing and planning, I had landed a job without understanding this fundamental characteristic that would define success in my career. I admit it now only because I think that surely I am not the only young academic to have these misunderstandings.

Amusingly, the definition of tenure at my university is “the right granted to some faculty members which results in the continuation of the faculty member’s academic appointment until retirement or until otherwise terminated.”

Tenure doesn’t mean that you cannot be fired, or that you have a permanent job with a university; positions can be terminated due to cost-cutting, deletion of a department, or other reasons deemed in the interests of the university. Of course, this happens rarely, but it undermines its apparent security benefits.

More importantly, the rules around tenure are practically Draconian; of course, these vary by university but are relatively consistent:

  • you must apply for tenure within (approximately) 6 years of starting your tenure-track position
  • at many universities (including mine) you can only apply once, and
  • if you aren’t awarded tenure, your position is terminated and you cannot be rehired at that university

While I had not previously understood the seriousness of the consequences of being denied tenure, I also had not understood the strong desire of all my colleagues that I, and other new hires, be awarded tenure. The failure of a young academic to achieve tenure is seen as a great loss to a department, which at best has to start all over with another inexperienced faculty member, and at worst will lose the position entirely, and therefore the teaching, research and administration contributions that come with it. As such, I have experienced nothing but support towards the development of my career.

Beyond doing a good job in your new faculty position, which presumably most of us would strive for even without the “stick” of tenure held over our heads, there is not much new faculty members really need to do to prepare for their tenure application.

The most helpful trick is a simple one: right from the beginning of your new faculty position, take three file folders marked Research, Teaching, and Administration, and stuff anything related to each category, from student evaluations to thank-you’s for manuscript reviews, into these folders. This will help you organize for your tenure application down the road, but more importantly, you’ll feel better as you see the folders get fuller over the years.

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