how long is the optimal tenure clock?

I have heard that several schools have recently moved their tenure clocks back (from six to eight years).   Tenure clocks do vary significantly from university to university, from five-six years to ten or so years.

So, what is the “optimal” tenure clock?

A short clock seems to have some advantages.  Scholarly productivity can be evident early on, so a short clock perhaps makes sense. Perhaps a short clock instills an appropriate sense of urgency about publishing.   Though, I have seen several people not get tenure somewhere, move to a “higher-ranked” school and then get tenure shortly thereafter.  A longer clock gives scholars time to establish themselves further, to develop a reputation (citations are often used as a measure – and this takes time), etc. And, certain types of work (ethnographies) and certain types of publishing (books) can take quite long.

Of course, tenure clocks are used in different ways at different schools.  Some schools pride themselves on rejecting tenure candidates – so perhaps a short clock makes sense there.

Anyways – any thoughts, is there an optimal tenure clock?


Written by teppo

November 9, 2011 at 8:33 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Short answer: there is no optimum.

    I have just shuffled back from the College P&T Committee meeting that happens each year at this time: every candidate who did not get unanimous support lines up with their Chair and another senior person to testify as to the subtleties of the dossiers that the Committee failed to apprehend. I have filled one of the supporting roles about 7 times over the years (since my hair turned white). What I observe is that most of the questions arise from the fact that the Committee is chosen from several different departments that have different norms. I have the dubious benefit of working in a college with engineers, biological scientists, social scientists, and others less easily classified — a microcosm of what happens at the campus level.

    What happens when there is a common clock – say, seven years — is that each department defines what success looks like according to that fixed point. For biologists, one sees a successful publication trajectory that is predicated on a delay in “setting up the lab”, getting NIH or NSF funding, hiring RAs and post-docs, then publishing a pile of short, multi-authored pieces in journals. No one expects a Nature piece until after tenure. For engineers, the run-up is shorter. We social scientists expect a different trajectory, based on availability of secondary data and the fact that we have no labs. So the negotiation occurs over whether the Department’s evaluation, supported by letters from senior people in the profession, is strong or weak. Questions are raised about norms for citation counts, journal ratings, and multiple authors. Clarification is sought over proceedings issues, invited papers, and “translational” outputs. One hopes that careful, reasoned responses wins the day. If so, strong Department and College votes, with suitably laudatory internal and external letters should suffice at the Campus level.

    I cannot see how this process changes if the fixed point changes.



    November 9, 2011 at 9:22 pm

  2. Wow, 8-10 years. So, someone might be pushing 40 by the time they get rejected for tenure? *Shudder*



    November 9, 2011 at 10:46 pm

  3. What problem is pushing the tenure clock back ostensibly solving?
    a) slower journal review and publication times
    b) new budget realities at external granting agencies and higher failure rates in obtaining the grants that will allow young bench scientists to get their labs going
    c) university need / desire for greater flexibility in hiring/firing faculty within departments, and in reallocating lines across departments
    d) budget constraints, assuming untenured faculty are cheaper than tenured faculty even adjusting for time since PhD
    e) external claims, whether legitimate or not, of tenure creating early-onset retirement
    f) external claims, whether legitimate or not, that universities make errors due to “hasty” judgment
    g) the changing demography of the professoriate, coupled with the near-perfect correspondence between the timing of the apprenticeship period and women’s peak fertility (nah, that can’t be it)

    I’m not saying that pushing the tenure clock back will solve these problems, or even that the problems are real. I’m more just curious what the argument would be and has been for the schools that have extended the tenure clock.



    November 9, 2011 at 11:37 pm

  4. @krippendorf: nice framing of the potential arguments!



    November 10, 2011 at 8:33 am

  5. cornell’s business school just pushed its clock back (2 years I believe) because of its claims to the university that its faculty (a) had an unusually heavy teaching burden compared to other professors on campus and (b) other business schools had done so already, making it harder to recruit assistant professors. curious if (b) is true and whether similar arguments were used elsewhere.


    friend of krippendorf

    November 10, 2011 at 1:55 pm

  6. ah, I forgot
    (h) everyone else is doing it, and we need to in order to compete



    November 10, 2011 at 5:25 pm

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