How To Get Tenure at a Major Research University

[Update: added a couple of useful points.]

This is the time of year when prospective graduate students are visiting different universities, deciding where they will spend the most formative years of their scientific lives. Amidst the enthusiastic sales pitches, I try to make sure to remind everyone that the odds of success are long — there is a bottleneck that shrinks as you go from grad school to postdoc to junior faculty to tenure. Probably the biggest hurdle is the leap from postdoc to junior faculty; it’s easier to get tenure once you’re a professor (statistically speaking) than to become a professor in the first place.

But it’s not guaranteed! As many of you know, I was denied tenure myself. This actually puts me in a pretty strong position to talk about the ins and outs of what it takes to succeed, having seen lack-of-success (is there a word for that?) up close and personal. I’ve avoided talking too much about this topic, partly because armchair psychologists have trouble resisting the temptation to take anything general I would say and attempting to match it to specific people and aspects in my own case, despite a pretty thorough lack of familiarity with the facts. On the other hand, maybe I can offer some actually useful guidance to people who are trying to do something difficult and important for their future lives.

So here goes: how to get tenure. But first, caveats. My own experience from grad school on has been at top research places, so those are the only ones I can speak usefully about; the situation will generally be very different at places that put more of an emphasis on teaching, for example. So really I’m talking about places that think of themselves as being in the top 10 or so in their research fields. And of course, to every set of rules there are exceptions; it’s not hard to find people who violated one or more of these guidelines, so don’t take them as written in stone. Every case, and every department, is different. Finally, don’t think of these as too bitter or cynical; I’m simply trying to be honest, with perhaps a small slant to counteract some of the misinformation that is out there. (This misinformation doesn’t usually arise from willful lying, but from the slightly schizophrenic nature of the mission of research universities; see The Purpose of Harvard is Not to Educate People.) I’m generally in favor of the tenure system; like democracy, it’s the worst system out there, except for all the other ones that have ever been invented.

With all that throat-clearing out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks. Here is the Overriding Principle: what major research universities care about is research. That’s all. Nothing else. But even once you recognize that, there is still some craft involved in shaping your research career in the right way. This isn’t the place for me to pass judgment on this principle; I’m just elucidating its consequences. This is a how-to manual for the real world, not a roadmap for Utopia.

You’ll be pleased to learn that there are actually two different routes to getting tenure, so you can choose which one works better for you. The first one is simple to describe, and comes down to a single suggestion:

  • Be a productive genius. This deserves to be classified as a separate technique because, for the small number of easily-recognized true geniuses out there, the rest of the suggestions below are beside the point. Do whatever else you like, as long as you are revolutionizing the field on a regular basis. It’s worth stressing the word “productive,” though. The trash heap of history is littered with geniuses who thought it was beneath their dignity to actually produce anything; that won’t fly, generally speaking, in this game. So if the genius thing is working out for you, great; just be sure to put it to productive use, and you’ll be fine.

The rest of us schlubs, on the other hand, need a more explicit checklist. So here’s what ordinary people should try to do if they have a junior faculty job at a major research university, and would like to get tenure.

  • Do good research. This is obvious, right? So I’m not going to belabor it.
  • Be prolific and reliable. No, tenure is not given or denied simply on the basis of how many papers you write. But… it doesn’t hurt. More importantly, if there is some standard of productivity in your field, try to maintain it all the time. Don’t have “a bad year.” Because if you have one bad year, who knows how many bad years you’ll have in the future?
  • Be technically sound. Quality is sometimes hard to judge. But among different types of quality, it’s a bit easier to recognize “technical” ability — whether it’s doing fearsomely complicated calculations, or huge computer simulations, or what have you — than more “creative” or “imaginative” contributions. (To be clear: creativity is good, not bad. It’s just hard to quantify.) George Gamow, a very creative guy, had trouble getting a job at a top place because there were worries about his technical ability. And he practically invented the early universe as we know it.
  • Make an impact in the field. It’s not enough to do good work; your work has to be recognized as good. The single most important part of your tenure file is the letters from experts at other universities, comparing you to the best young people in your area. If any of them come back saying “I’ve never heard of this person,” it’s the kiss of death.
  • Get your name on something. A slight exaggeration, but if you have something named after you — a theorem, an experiment, a model — it’s a big help. The larger principle is that your contributions should be specific, not vague. Good: “she invented model A.” Bad: “she did major work in B, and was one of the first to think about C.” In Hollywood terms, have an elevator pitch. It’s easier for people to think about what you’ve done if it can be summed up in a sentence. When people ask “what was your major contribution?” have an answer ready.
  • Don’t be too well known outside the field. I hate to say this, but the evidence is there: if you have too high of a public profile, people look at you suspiciously. Actual quote: “I’m glad we didn’t hire Dr. X; he spends too much time in the New York Times and not enough time in the lab.” And that’s the point — it’s not that people are jealous that you are popular, it’s that they are suspicious you care about publicity more than you do about research. Remember the Overriding Principle.
  • Don’t write a book. This follows partly from the above; if you’re contemplating writing a popular book, and aren’t sure whether it will negatively impact your chance of getting tenure, you’re probably too far gone for this list to even help you. But it’s worth a separate bullet point because even textbooks are beyond the pale. (Probably the worst thing I personally did was to write Spacetime and Geometry.) You might think that a long volume filled with equations that provides a real service to the community would help your case. It won’t; it will hurt it. Why? Because while you were writing that book, you weren’t doing research. Catching on? (Obviously I’m writing from a field where research is conveyed solely through papers, not books; if you’re in a field where the serious research is contained within scholarly books, then by all means write all the scholarly books you can.)
  • Bring in grant money. Thanks to Steinn in comments for mentioning this one. Getting grants is a big help, because (1) money is good, and (2) it’s extremely quantifiable.
  • Take outside offers seriously. If another top place is interested in you, don’t just jump on it, but don’t blow them off, either; pursue the possibility, and let it be known that you are pursuing it. If you would really like to stay where you are and worry that they will let you go without a fight, squelch that worry. Maybe they will let you go, but if so, there is a strong possibility that they weren’t that interested in keeping you. (Duh.) Also, it always helps to be popular; professors are people too, and can be influenced by the opinions of others.
  • Don’t worry about teaching, leadership, organizing, etc. I don’t think being good at these things actively hurts you, although I did once hear a senior faculty member say that he was negatively predisposed to candidates who had good teaching evaluations. (He was joking, I think.) Why? Because you’re spending time on something that isn’t research. But generally it won’t hurt, it just won’t help. You will typically be told (as I was) something like “teaching isn’t really important, but if your case is very close, it can help put you over the top.” Everyone agreed my case was very close, and my teaching was among the best in the department; it didn’t help. The point is simple: this stuff is not research.
  • Choose your hobbies wisely. This is a bit more subjective, but I think there is some truth here. Even the highest-pressure departments in the world don’t think that faculty members can’t have any hobbies outside their work. But here is the paradox: you are better off if your hobbies are nothing like your work. Permissible hobbies include skydiving, playing guitar, or cooking. Suspicious hobbies include writing of any sort (novels, magazine articles, blogs), programming or web stuff, starting a business, etc. Why? Because there’s a feeling that this kind of activity represents time that could be spent on research. I don’t think blogging has quite the stigma it once did, although I have heard senior faculty members say they would never hire someone with a blog. But it’s a symptom of a willingness to spend your intellectual energies on something other than doing research.
  • Friends are good; enemies are bad; indifference is fine. There can be an element of personal politics involved in tenure decisions, although this is usually exaggerated by outsiders who don’t know much about the substantive issues. It is important to have people within the department who are respected and will make a strong affirmative case for you. It is also bad to have people within the department, especially respected ones, who are against you. (Tenure usually doesn’t just require a majority vote, it requires a strong consensus within your department.) But interestingly, it doesn’t matter that much if many people in the department don’t care one way or the other. They are usually happy to go along with the respected people closest to you academically, especially if they indicate strong support. You don’t need to be friends with everyone, just the right people.
  • Don’t dabble. Another slightly counter-intuitive one. You might think that, while most of your research work is in area A, the fact that you wrote a couple of papers in area B will be taken as positive evidence of your breadth and intellectual strength. Very wrong. What will actually happen is that your work in area B will be compared to the best people in the world who spend all their time thinking about area B, and you will probably come up wanting. Even worse, it will be taken as evidence that your interests may wander over time — so that, whereas you were hired to be an expert in area A, maybe in a few years you won’t be doing that at all. Kiss of death. Deep down, there is a strongly anti-intellectual strain within academia; you were hired to work in a specialty and that’s what they expect you to do. Once you get tenure, of course, you can do whatever you want; so it’s important that the department be reassured that you don’t want to do anything else.

Again, some of this may seem a bit cynical, but I’m trying to put things as strongly as possible so the message isn’t garbled by well-intentioned pieties. It’s certainly possible to get tenure while violating some of the above rules, but the trend should be clear. Let’s put it this way:

Places hire on hope, and fire on fear.

When you get hired, the facts that you are interdisciplinary and a good teacher and a strong leader all work to your advantage, because these really are good things. The people who hire you are sincere when they give you compliments for these qualities. What you don’t know is that, at the faculty meeting where they voted to hire you, inevitably someone said “Why are we thinking so hard about this? It’s a junior faculty job. Let’s just take the risk, and if they don’t work out they won’t get tenure.”

The tenure decision is very different than the hiring decision. When you get hired, everyone can afford to be optimistic; you are an experiment and you might just hit paydirt. When you come up for tenure, the prevailing emotion is one of worry. Even the biggest departments don’t get to hire that many people; tenured slots are extremely valuable and rare commodities. They are committing to you for the next three decades. And what scares them to death is that you will stop being a productive researcher. And any evidence that you enjoy doing things other than research within the field in which you were originally hired is, like it or not, possible evidence that you will drift away from your core mission once you achieve tenure. We all know senior people in good departments who are no longer productive; don’t give your department any reason to suspect that you will become one of those people.

Of course, there are things in life that you might judge to be more important. These aren’t guidelines about how to live your life, only about how to get tenure. It’s up to you to decide whether following them represents a sacrifice you are not willing to make. Nobody gets into this job for the money or the glory; career considerations aside, you have to make sure you’re having fun and chasing your passions. Good luck!

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78 Responses to How To Get Tenure at a Major Research University

  1. Andrew Dalby says:

    Seeing this my chances of tenure are zero. Unless I suddenly win a Nobel prize.

    The reality is also that you need to be a follower of the current fad. There is no point being in a field which is poorly looked upon or poorly funded. Your chances are even better if you are part of a powerful clique within a significant field. Then you will get tenure no matter how incapable you are. So this applies for choosing a graduate advisor. Pick a big name and ride their coat-tails to tenure.

  2. Bit cynical, but good.
    Though you left out a big component that universities care about: grant money.

    Most fields in science expect their research faculty to bring in serious $$$.
    Now it may not be literally: $1M before tenure or you’re out; or “one big grant and two medium”; or even “at least two grants every three years”, but… there is some truth to the desire to see “overhead should be large than your total salary…”
    Of course real universities don’t commit to any such actual hard guidance, it is all anecdotal.

  3. Angela says:

    Up until recently I would have agreed with everything written here. However, I am not convinced this is true for big state-funded research universities (and I have tenure at one of those). We aren’t Harvard and never will be, but we did until recently we did follow these “guidelines” in judging people up for tenure. But now that most states are in financial difficulties, and the right wing rhetoric is loud – we have to be able to justify ourselves to taxpayers and suddenly the other stuff that’s not research matters. Research IS still the most important thing, but now the other stuff (teaching, outreach, mentoring, service) can hurt you because we don’t want to be stuck with people who will put us in jeopardy from a funding perspective. You need to demonstrate adequacy in those other skills.

    I personally think this is a move in the right direction. In fact I would argue that developing my teaching, mentoring and outreach has improved my research. But that’s a conversation for another day

  4. Sean says:

    Andrew: that is false.

    Steinn: that is true, and I should have said something about it, but I’ve always been lucky enough to be protected by big umbrella grants.

  5. Joseph Smidt says:

    Well, this is all nice to know. I hope the day comes where I can at least give the tenure thing a chance. 🙂

  6. Jonathan says:

    Glad I left academia.

  7. Wow, how did you know that “George Gamow, a very creative guy, had trouble getting a job at a top place because there were worries about his technical ability”? Was it somehow related to the inclusion of Bethe on the Alpher-Bethe-Gamow paper?


    Also, wow, the incentives given by the tenure system don’t seem to match the types of incentives that would maximize the output of scientific genius. If you read Dean Simonton’s books “Scientific Genius” and “Origins of Genius”, you’ll actually find that people who have dabble and have multiple interests do tend to be more creative than non-dabblers w/o multiple interests. Not that I’m complaining about it – just something interesting that I’m pointing out

    As for the role of blogging among scientists, here’s an interesting article that just came out:

  8. a postdoc says:

    I don’t always agree with everything you say, but this is one of the most valuable things I think I’ve ever seen on this blog. IMO, a lot of this applies to getting that faculty position in the first place (though, as you say, non-research endeavors hurt you less there). Every physics grad student should read this post.

  9. Ryan says:

    I believe there is a word for “lack of success” – “failure”.

    (Just kidding)

    Some valuable insights here, and a great complement to the earlier post re: Harvard.

  10. Pingback: How to get tenure | cackleofradness

  11. Recently Tenured Prof says:

    At my large state medical university, the tenure formula is simple for research-intensive faculty (in order of importance):
    1. Unequivocal support of chair and departmental APT committee. This requires a good relationship has been fostered with all involved.
    2. Two R01s or an R01 and other significant extramural funds.
    3. Sit on one or several grant review committees (preferably NIH; ad hoc is fine).
    4. Quality, not necessarily quantity, of papers as determined by citations and impact factor.
    5. Teaching is required. Competence is determined by student reviews.
    6. Service on major department/university/grad program committees.

  12. Great list. I would also add that it helps to have worked with a big name for your PhD or postdoc. At the same time you need to display a streak of independence and cannot just continue your graduate and postdoc research in your new position. Even after you start, having some kind of a well-known mentor on your side helps. In her article on why she left academia, Kathy Weston mentioned not seeking out such a mentor as one of her failings.

  13. TickingClock says:

    When I was interviewing for jobs I was explicitly told at a smaller place that getting outside grant money was a necessary and often sufficient condition for tenure. In the sciences, I don’t think the importance of this can be overstated. Serving on grant review committees may be less important in the physical sciences — I have done it, but did not get the impression that anyone at my institution actually cared about it.

    Another bullet point on the check list is graduating a PhD student (or students) and having them do well (ie get a postdoc) — or at least having them close to graduation. This may be a bit subfield dependent but given that students probably spend something like 3-4 years on the research phase, you should typically have at least one close to graduation (or graduated) before your review. A keen young assistant prof. who had gone four or five years without starting a grad student (or had grad students that did not flourish) would be seen as a cause for worry, I think.

  14. I go up for tenure this fall, and the list from my department is similar to RTP’s above in #11. However, they’re pretty specific about publications (it should average 5-6/year, minimum) and less so about grants (“significant extramural support” is all they say). It’s the unknowns that are more scary to me–things like “personality” and “fit” still can make a big difference in tenure/promotion, just like they can in the initial hire. I’ve been working my ass of and on paper, I look great (pubs are rolling out nicely, 3 big federal grants + a half-dozen or so smaller pilot ones, a small army of students trained, service up the wazoo, great teaching evals etc.) but I do worry about my blog and other things that may hurt me in the more squishy areas of evaluation.

    One other thing–from talking to colleagues, it seems like almost *every* research institution has a bit of an inflated picture of itself, and likes to think they’re “top 10.” Perhaps Angela is correct and some of the public institutions will come to realize “they’re not Harvard” and judge accordingly, but I don’t think many senior faculty have yet gotten the message.

  15. Landru says:

    Sean: All sad but true; now let me add an important point.

    You seem — not surprisingly — to be focussed on what to do to get tenure as a theorist specifically. For an experimentalist, the list has some overlap but is definitely re-ordered with “get funding” towering over everything else. Theorists may be where the genius and fame are found; experimental programs are primarily cash cows for the department, and what the department wants to be reassured about is that you can keep the milk flowing.

    Your remark about funding being quantifiable is especially true for work that takes place in large collaborations. It may take days to explain to your department chair exactly what your part was in the analysis of B-meson decay branching ratios and why it was so original and important; but it will only take him/her a few seconds to read how much overhead your part of the experiment brought in for the university.

    On the planes of theory, it is time and attention that are the globally limited resource; the answer to “Who is the best?” is given by “Whose are the papers that the most people take the time and effort to read and understand?” In experiment, the globally limited resource is money; the funding agencies only have so much of it, and so the question of which of two ideas — and their proponents — is better can be decided cleanly by asking which one got funded and which one didn’t. Our peer review is now registered through money.

    This leads to one bit of additional advice for experimentalists, that is not on your list: trot the globe, make connections, and get known. Give talks wherever and whenever you can when the right people will be in the audience. Get on organizing committees. Be known as the person who can always give a good talk on request for your topic. Make sure that the barons and heavyweights in the field hear your name as often as possible. I’m not sure how it works for theorists, but for experimentalists the opinion within one’s own department is almost irrelevant compared to the opinion of the community in your sub-field. When the chair sends out letters asking people to rate the candidate, and to compare him/her against similarly-aged peers, what’s really being asked is “Will this person improve the standing of our department in your eyes?”, and “Will he/she do so more than anyone else who might be available?”

    Visibility in the community is important because it’s directly related to funding in the future. Among theorists it may be true that the prime quality for a candidate to have will be genius, or at least productivity and correctness, just as you say; because this is what will be needed to generate the intellectual prestige the department wants in the future. The main quality that makes the experimentalist candidate promising, by contrast, is not genius but connections, and the political savvy that goes along with making them, since that’s what how the tenured professor will later massage the flow of money in a favorable direction.

    I know you sometimes unconsciously equate “physics” with “theory,” so for the benefit of your wider readership I just wanted to fill in the other hemisphere a bit.

  16. spyder says:

    Be Jacob Barnett (an almost 13 years old astrophysicist) and have Purdue recruit you for a permanent research post?

  17. Dave says:

    Thanks for the list, Sean. Two questions:

    1) Does not getting tenure in one place pretty much rule out tenure anywhere else?
    2) If you wouldn’t mind, which piece do you think held you back?

    Thanks very much again.

  18. Tony says:

    “Deep down, there is a strongly anti-intellectual strain within academia; you were hired to work in a specialty and that’s what they expect you to do. Once you get tenure, of course, you can do whatever you want; so it’s important that the department be reassured that you don’t want to do anything else.”

    – Maybe this problem is more prevalent in the natural sciences? Isn’t it much more common in computer science / electrical engineering / law / economics / business etc. for faculty to have outside interests (e.g. advising or starting companies ) as well?

    It’s not surprisingly that a lot of the most talented students are leaving the academia track. Creativity and risk-taking is valued more in many other professions. But enough talented people stay too, there’s no shortage of amazing candidates vying for faculty positions. So maybe the current tenure system is efficient enough, there’s not much to fix.

  19. Sean says:

    Dave, getting denied tenure certainly doesn’t help you get tenure somewhere else, and it can hurt. But it certainly doesn’t prevent it from happening, as countless examples prove.

    I don’t want to focus on my own case, since I’m trying to give suggestions of more general applicability here.

  20. Not a Postdoc Yet says:

    The basic point that is hammered home should really be told to people considering research/academic careers from undergrad on up and repeated until people realize folks aren’t just glossing over the truth.

    Research is most important. Anything that appears to detract from your research can hurt you. But it might not depending on the department (but it probably will).

    I usually have a couple of questions to follow up discussions or pronouncements like this:

    a) How ’bout them tenured profs. that HAVE stopped producing? I know statistics from my department, but it would be an interesting quantifiable field to field and dept. to dept.

    2) What can/will people do to change anything about this and do they want to?

    Both outside the scope of this guide to be sure, but the second question is always a good followup to any discussion about these sorts of things (granting of funding, positions, resources, etc.)

  21. Ryan Scranton says:

    Maybe I don’t have the proper perspective since I’m kinda sorta out of academia these days, but I don’t think I agree with your notion that the aversion to dabbling is a symptom of anti-intellectualism. In large part, dabblers don’t really add substantively to a given field (e.g. a depressingly large fraction of the physicists who dip their toes into biology or other fields). If one of the questions that the tenure committee is supposed to ask is, “Has this person made a significant contribution to the field?”, then the odds are that someone who dabbles a lot probably hasn’t.

  22. martin smith says:

    I want to note the candor and personal courage you show in this, and other, blog posts. It’s often seemed to me that you have personal qualities that are rare in any profession.

  23. Neil says:

    All good advice. I would add–diversify your portfolio. Home runs are great, but they have lower probability, so don’t try for all home runs. Get some slap hits on your CV as well. Sometimes, tenure can depend on the number of lines.

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  25. A small, but significant caveat to your “don’t dabble” injunction: “Don’t work on just one thing.”

    You may make major contributions to one particular topic, but if that’s all you’ve ever done, people will wonder about your versatility, and whether you will be able to adapt if, as will surely happen, that particular well eventually runs dry.