In a couple of days I’m participating in a panel to help young faculty be ready for their 3rd year review (the halfway step to tenure, which is kind of a big deal at my institution). This is the sort of thing that I normally say no to, but I’ve been to a couple of these things and I just couldn’t bear the thought of another group of young faculty being told that what they really needed to do to get tenure is to have a really spiffy tenure binder… so I’m going to talk about what they actually need to do to get tenure – get stuff done – and I thought it would be worth posting my thoughts on this here for broader consumption. This advice is targeted at assistant professors at research universities, but folks in other situations may be able to adapt it to their individual circumstances (e.g., if you’re at a small liberal arts college or other teaching centered school try swapping research and teaching below). Since the goal of the workshop is getting through the first phase of tenure, this is about what you need to do to accomplish that goal, not what you should be doing in any sort of broader philosophical sense. This advice is built on the lessons that Morgan (my wife and co-blogger for those of you new to JE; in fact she was so instrumental in developing these ideas that even though I’m using the first person singular this will be listed as a co-authored post) and I have learned during our time as assistant professors.
You could easily spend your entire life as an assistant professor doing some combination of serving on departmental committees and student committees, going to seminars and workshops, checking email, sending email, meeting with students outside your group to “talk about their research”, reviewing for journals, etc. While much of this is technically within your job description no one really cares if you do any of these things. Seriously, they don’t. They will say that they do, they may ask you why you weren’t at the meeting on such and such, but when push comes to shove at the vast majority of research universities none of this matters. So learn to say No. This is hard for a lot of people, but it is critical to your success (and for me at least, happiness).
My approach to this challenge is that my default response to any request for me to spend time on anything other than research and teaching is No. This means that the activity has to be important enough to me to overcome the default response. A lot of professors that I know have the opposite default – they say yes unless there is a particular reason that they can’t participate. This typically ends up meaning that the only reason they don’t do something is because they already have something scheduled when it would occur. This is a great way to end up with a calendar that is chock full of things that having nothing to do with succeeding in the tenure process. A very successful senior colleague of mine once told me that every time someone asks him to be involved in something new he thinks about what he isn’t going do if he chooses to participate in this new activity. So, when someone asks me to do something my default response is no and if I then bypass the default because this new thing sounds worthwhile I then ask myself if I’d rather do it than the things that are already on my list.
Schedule time for your actual work
Most people will agree to schedule something as long as they don’t have a direct conflict on their calendar. The problem with this approach is two fold. First, it means that the only time you have to work on what really matters – conducting research, writing papers, and, to a lesser degree, preparing high quality classroom experiences (lectures, exercises, etc.) – is whatever’s left over after everything that doesn’t matter is scheduled. This is obviously a bit… backwards.
The second problem is that even if you have enough total time left over to dedicate to your primary interests/responsibilities that time will be chopped up into little blocks. The vast majority of scientists and other knowledge workers that I know do not work well with short chunks of time. That is because the real work of science and other intellectual pursuits requires serious thought and that often cannot be accomplished in thirty minute chunks.
My answer to this is to schedule large blocks of time on my calendar for research and teaching. I do all of my teaching during the spring semester so this means that in the fall I typically block out Tue-Thur mornings from 8-12 and all day Friday for research. In the spring I block out those same three mornings for class preparation and keep Friday reserved for research. When someone wants to schedule a meeting with me I give them a list of available times that does not include these reserved periods. It can be hard to stick to this system when someone is having a hard time scheduling a meeting, but I rarely make an exception and then only when the person who is trying to schedule the meeting has completely run out of options and isn’t trying to schedule things at the last minute (and frankly this combination is quite rare).
Even if you follow all of these suggestions, life will find a way to interrupt your efforts. Other faculty will stop by your office for a few minutes to chat, your graduate students or the staff or your department head will have a quick question or need a signature on something, a valued colleague will send you an email that you’d like to respond to quickly, a book vendor will stop by to tell you about their latest and greatest text book, and the next thing you know you’ve spent an entire day dealing with little things that have almost nothing to do with getting tenure. The only method that I have found for dealing with this is to hide. That can mean closing (and locking; seriously) your office door and not answering it under any circumstances, it can mean working in a remote corner of the library or some other hidden nook on campus, or it can mean working at home if the distractions there aren’t worse than those at the office. I aim for eight hidden hours a week, typically by working at home one day.
Prioritize your efforts (by focusing on your CV)
Of course in order any of this to work you need to know what is important when it comes to getting tenure. This can be difficult to determine because most institutions will basically tell you that everything is important. Research is important, teaching is important (and not just actually teaching well, but going to workshops on teaching, having a teaching philosophy grounded in cutting edge pedagogy, documenting your teaching, and your efforts to improve it, and your efforts to improve your documentation of it), service is important (and not just on committees, but educating the general public, visiting K-12 classrooms, helping the department recruit students at job fairs, and helping put together departmental packets for university awards). So, basically everything you can imagine is important… Except, of course, it really isn’t. If you are in position with a research role that is greater than or equal to your other roles (faculty positions have role statements associated with them that are typically broken out as percentages of research, teaching and service; e.g., 50% research, 40% teaching, 10% service) then what matters most is your research (and by a greater margin than your role statement indicates). I have a simple rule for prioritizing things when it comes to promotion and tenure considerations:
Things only matter if you put them on your CV and their importance is in proportion to the amount of space you dedicated to them on your CV.
Your CV is the document that you use to characterize your accomplishments in your job. As such, things that you include on it are the things that really matter – publications, grants, some (generally brief) indication that you have taught classes and perhaps that your students didn’t totally hate you. You probably have a small section on service, but that probably has more to do with service outside the university than within it. From what I’ve seen promotion and tenure hinges almost exclusively on your CV so this is the right strategy. If you don’t believe me try asking your department head when the last time someone didn’t get tenure primarly due to their teaching or service. This strategy also has the nice ancillary benefit that if your university really is more interested in how many committee meetings you’ve gone to than how many papers you’ve published, then you’ll be able to use your spiffy new vitae to get a job someplace that’s a little more serious about research, or teaching, or whatever it is that you actually got into academia to do.
UPDATE: I forgot to add the credit for the title of this post that is of course due to Mike Kaspari’s excellent blog on the topic and that there is some other excellent related advice on this subject over at The EEB & Flow.