The quest for tenure—also known as “the six-year interview” —can be daunting. But you can learn a lot about how to get tenure from those who have gone through the process, and keeping your eye on the finish line can help ease some of the anxiety.
Applying for academic tenure is similar to applying for a job, but you are being judged on your accomplishments rather than at least partly on your promise,1 says Karen Kelsky, a former tenured professor at two universities and founder and president of The Professor Is In, an advice and consulting firm for academics. Hence the importance of organization and foresight beginning early in the tenure track.
Know your institution’s expectations for teaching, research and service, and strive to exceed them by 25 percent or more.
Here are five lessons from those who have been through tenure review and landed successfully on the other side.
1 Keep records from the get-go
Tenure review is much easier if you keep things organized as you go.2 Most universities will have a process for faculty to organize documentation as they seek tenure and promotion. Don’t be afraid to ask for letters documenting your research, and save emails, certificates and other supporting documents,3 says Rodney E. Rohde, chair and professor of the Clinical Laboratory Science Program at Texas State University.
2 Learn the expectations up front— and strive to beat them
Know your institution’s expectations for teaching, research and service, and strive to exceed them by 25 percent or more. In the competitive landscape of higher education, simply meeting the standards is not enough—you’ll need to stand out in a positive way,4 says Manya Whitaker, associate professor of education at Colorado College.
Keep a reminder of these policies and standards, which can be vague and a moving target with changes in the administration, handy, says Rohde. Consider having a binder at your fingertips to refer to regularly.
3 Reflect where you are
Mirror the values of your particular institution with regard to research, teaching and service in the narrative making your case for tenure.
Read between the lines in the messaging and branding of your institution with respect to where it is heading, and make the case in your narrative as to how you have furthered these goals. For example, if the provost is continually emphasizing the importance of research, you should be able to say how you’ve collaborated with grant-getting individuals and published in high-impact journals. Mentors can help provide insight into the culture of your institution and how it recognizes faculty and staff.
4 Show that you’ve internalized the culture
You will be assessed on how well you have assimilated into it in your six years on the campus. Being collegial and a good citizen can take you far on the road to academic tenure, says Rohde. Practice good institutional manners and do your fair share of service—if there are only five people in your department, you should be doing one-fifth of service. Express your appreciation to those who help you along the way. The kiss of death on the tenure track is to be someone no one sees or know.
5 Learn from a master
Find a mentor (or several) at your university who knows how to navigate academic tenure and promotion.
Seek out multiple research and teaching mentors who will be your champions, who will challenge you to do something you couldn’t do, whose shoulder you can cry on. Attracting the attention of a sponsor can also help take your career to the next level. Talk to people in the same boat as you but also those who just got over the hurdle of making tenure who can offer insight into culture and standards. Your chair and dean, even if not official mentors, can help navigate institutional policies and standards.
Devoting yourself to teaching, research and service in ways that they overlap can help. “Find ways to amplify one area that amplifies the other,” says Rohde. This can propel you forward and keep you focused.
Keeping good records, striving to beat expectations, reflecting the needs of your institution, showing you are a match for the culture, and seeking out advocates will take you far in your quest for tenure. Parting words: keep busy, believe in yourself and persevere.