I have attended a series of seminars at Penn about receiving tenure (i.e. transitioning from Assistant to Associate Professor) and what follows is a summary of notes from such seminars. Speakers have included promotions committee chairs of four schools and members of the Provost’s Office. I won’t attribute quotes to anyone in case I relay incorrect information, as I am certainly not an official source. I focus on the School of Medicine, of which I am a member. The School of Medicine’s intention is to be as transparent as possible about the promotion process and requirements. Peruse the Faculty Affairs and Professional Development (FAPD) website to learn more and view a list of current School of Medicine Committee on Appointments and Promotions (COAP) members. For more general advice on succeeding in academia, rather than nuts-and-bolts, read this post.
The Big Picture
Know the components of a strong dossier. Peer-reviewed publications are the number one factor in every school, you must have at least one major grant, and service doesn’t count at all. Teaching matters less than research, but is still very important: a strong record can tip the balance in favor of a case in which research is not stellar. Committees like to see consistency in productivity over time. Find out what is expected as early as possible. Mentoring by a senior faculty member (but not so senior they are unaware of process) is important to understand how to succeed with promotion. Such a relationship should start early. Meet regularly with your Dean, Chair, mentors, and members of your promotions committee to find out where you stand. Do your own homework to find out as much as you can about the promotion process from official documents. Do not solely rely on the advice received from others.
Over 95% of cases that make it to the Provost’s office are granted tenure. That is, if you get through the department and school committees, the Provost will likely agree with your case. It is unclear how many individuals who begin as assistant professors and leave wouldn’t be granted tenure, but about 55% of those who start tenure-track assistant professor positions leave before applying for tenure (i.e. there is a retention rate of ~45%). The clinician educator (CE) track retention rate is ~35%.
A key document for letter writers, and the department/school promotions committees. Don’t be personal. Write it for a scholar who wants to hear the trajectory of your work and importance of your contribution, and not for people you’d want to have coffee with. Put a personal frame on what you have contributed. Some letter writers will use the statement almost verbatim.
Get to know people. Go out and speak so others know who you are. Make the invited talks happen. Your mentors should be getting you out to speak. Those who organize seminars emphasized that they get tons of personal and mentor requests for junior faculty to give talks. Therefore, don’t feel bad about asking too since “everyone else” is doing it. Make sure you give a good talk. Beside engaging formally with others in your area, do so informally: send emails about work you find interesting/exciting, ask questions, talk to others during conferences, etc.
Receiving great letters is extremely important. When you provide the list of 3 individuals to write letters on your behalf, include names, a brief explanation of why each person is qualified to evaluate you, and your relationship to the person (e.g., thesis adviser, close collaborator). Pick people who wouldn’t be picked as one of the impartial writers due to their proximity to you, and be sure they write good letters. Up to two associate professors can write letters for you. For the remaining letters, you should be fine as long as you have built a strong national reputation (i.e., you are doing good work and giving talks as mentioned above).
Unlike publications, grants and talks, which will be part of the dossier for the entire period of evaluation, course evaluations only count if they are from the three years preceding tenure evaluation. Obtain written evaluations any time you give a talk that qualifies as teaching for it to count. Some faculty carry their own blank evaluation forms with them whenever they give a “teaching” talk, and some departments have a template their faculty can use.
- Enumerate publications and talks on CV
- Don’t list impact factors, citation count, etc. It is OK to bring these up in letters within an appropriate context, but not as the main focus
- Take an extension if you qualify. It will not impact your case and can only help you
- Talk to the Vice Provost for Faculty about whether a tenure extension is warranted if you aren’t sure whether your situation qualifies
- Do not write papers with PhD or postdoc advisors (or at least not at the expense of independent ones)
- There is no preference between first and last authors papers. If you are a middle author of an important paper where you contributed significantly, explain so in your statement
- Be sure you have good working relations with people in your department. This will matter most for promotion to full professor
- Outside offers can help accelerate move to tenure, but only play that card if you are really willing to go
- What is the definition of “tenure” in a soft money school? Every Dean has had a different definition, but the current idea is that you will be supported if you have tenure to the extent possible
- No book chapters unless you are a historian
- Reviews and editorials can play a role in making you well known, especially if highly cited, but do not make them a main focus
- The period for which you will be reviewed is that while at Penn: “What have you done for me lately?” “What have you done to make your current institution famous?”
- Administration or service doesn’t count much (or at all). If you do something that qualifies as service, make it relate to your overall goals
- Don’t go up for tenure early
- Stay focused in your research area
- CE track: Can have funding as collaborator; no need to have own R01s