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Tips for Getting Tenure

​Tim Murray, Washington State University​

The tenure process can be an overwhelming for a newly hired assistant professor, as so much needs to be done in a seemingly short period of time. But what is most important and what is less so, and what exactly does a tenure committee look for? I talked with Dr. Tim Murray, a plant pathologist and former department chair at Washington State University, for his insight and top tips on achieving tenure in today’s university climate.

The Basics

  • Expectations given when hired- those are what must be fulfilled for tenure.
  • Most universities have mentoring committees so that new faculty get to pick through an established process to help them on their way to achieving tenure. So as a newly hired professor you are not on your own!
  • At least once a year this mentoring committee meets to review the progress of the new faculty member, and a package comes together each year to state strengths and areas for improvement to work on as summarized by the mentoring chair. An in-depth review occurs at three years, albeit this is not an external review. The final tenure review is at six years- so it will be over one way or the other by then!
  • The focus of the tenure process is dependent on the type of appointment, and likely the "split." This includes research, teaching, and/or extension. Each of these areas has different priorities. If one’s appointment lacks a particular area, then the relevant section below can be ignored. Regardless of split, usually “service” is also considered.

Evaluation of Research

  • The priority of a research appointment for a tenure committee is publications.
  • Initially number of publications is not as important as program development and consistency of activities. Two or so per year for a 100% appointment is a rule of thumb, with one or so per year for a 50% appointment.
  • For the most part, impact factor could drive things but it is not too important. Quality of publications, as evaluated by those in the same field, is much more important.
  • Author order is also not as important, as corresponding authorship and first authorship are considered equivalent.
  • Writing and obtaining grants are important for a successful research program that leads to multiple publications, but whether or not these are a priority depends on the particular university. Some universities with high overhead greatly value grants whereas others do not. The mentoring committee can help with getting initial grants to bring in funds, and workshops can help with writing better grants to improve odds.

Evaluation of Teaching

  • The development of a class, whether an existing or newly formed class, is very important.
  • Development consists of year-to-year improvement in how the class is implemented and the quality of the class.
  • Student feedback also is considered.

Evaluation of Extension

  • The priority of extension is program development.
  • The number of extension publications, workshops, field visits, and other activities plays a large role.
  • Stakeholder feedback is very important to demonstrate a successful program.
  • Extension program recognition, and subsequent value, from stakeholders and beyond is key.

Evaluation of Service

  • Service to the department and university includes a variety of activities required of faculty members.
  • Focus on getting one’s lab running first, and then do more service. Often new faculty members have trouble turning down service opportunities to the detriment of other priorities.
  • In terms of editorships, in the early years of a faculty position focus on doing ad hoc reviews. Wait until much later before pursuing an associate editorship. And it is best to wait until after tenure for a senior editorship.

Final Tips

  • Know what your institution values. For example, whether grants or publications are prioritized.
  • Think twice about taking job that puts unreasonable expectations on new faculty. It is not realistic to expect new faculty to have Science or Nature journal articles in six years, or to produce similar grant and publication success as fully tenured faculty.
  • Most universities have a list of expectations, usually a context statement is included to help sort things out and provide goals to obtain.
  • Reviewers have the option to apply their own standards- get to know who might evaluate you and act accordingly.