junior faculty jam session #2: relax, you’ll probably get tenure

Junior faculty jam session #1.

Getting a tenure track job means that you have become an autonomous professional. You’re in charge of your career and the the stakes are high. At the same time, you need perspective. You need a bigger picture to help you maintain balance.

It helps to remember some basic facts about higher education. The starting point is that most people who apply for tenure get it. In other words, if you just started the tenure track, there’s a good chance that you will become an associate professor with tenure in about 5-8 years.

How can that be? It works this way. The overall tenuring rate in higher education is actually very high. This old blog post at Dynamic Ecology, which has the same message as this post, draws together a lot of data. Basically, around 66% of people in the sciences will get tenure where they were hired. Even very competitive places, like the Ivy League, will tenure most people who apply.

There are two reasons for this: self-selection and inertia. First, departments only hire people they feel confident about. If you’ve published before, then you’ll publish again. If you taught a few classes in graduate school, you can surely do it again. Self-selection also plays a role during the tenure track. Most people come to understand the odds. If tenure is a long shot, they have about 6 years to move to a place that will tenure them or move to non academic work.

Second, tenure denial is a long and painful process for everyone. Obviously, it is a humiliating experience for the junior faculty member. But deans and chairs who deliver a negative decision must invest a lot of time in a process that results in conflict and anxiety. Faculty members who have to vote “no” on a friendly colleague would prefer not to. It is a lot harder to have painful discussions after a negative decision than to attend a wine and cheese reception after a successful case. Thus, it is easier to tenure people than to put up a fight.

You may ask, “I heard about all these crazy tenure denial stories – aren’t they real?” Of course they are, but they tend to come in three flavors and you need to understand them:

  1. Some departments have extremely high standards. They want multiple top journal hits, prizes, and disciplinary fame. Luckily, you probably aren’t in one of these programs. A related issue is that some schools change standards. If you are teaching intensive, but the dean wants more research, you may get denied tenure. Fortunately, this is rare but watch out.
  2. Some departments are toxic. If you are in such a department, you will learn about it pretty quick. There will be a lack of communication, other tenure denials, law suits, angry faculty meetings, people joining factions, and abandoned graduate students. It’s pretty easy to spot. Maybe they will vote for you, maybe not. You can never tell with the asylum residents. Stay if you need to, but don’t be surprised if they bite.
  3. Some people are slacking. Occasionally, you’ll see a student uprising on behalf of a popular professor. Usually, when you look at the person’s CV, you will see a publication record that does not match the department or university standards. Sometimes, they simply haven’t published at all or they haven’t published in the field’s peer reviewed outlets.

As you will notice, these cases are rare (1,2) or you have a lot of control over them (3). The only other case worth mentioning are “outrageous” professors. This is tricky. Yes, once in a while a university will punish an outspoken professor with a tenure denial. On the other hand, some faculty do say genuinely antagonistic things. University administrators should not punish people with tenure denials. But at the same time, one must be prudent – administrators aren’t angels, they’re human beings.

I think this is what you should take away from this. Tenure is common and you will probably get it. It’s actually the most likely outcome for most. Therefore, you should try to adopt a position of “confident stress” – understand that you need to perform but you don’t need to labor under the shadow of anxiety.


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Written by fabiorojas

April 22, 2019 at 4:20 pm

Posted in uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. The link to jam session #1 is to this post.

    Liked by 1 person


    April 25, 2019 at 5:28 pm

  2. Done!



    May 1, 2019 at 8:28 pm

  3. […] Junior faculty jam session #1, #2. […]


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