Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Tenure Process

A reader asks how the tenure process works in US universities. I will describe a typical case but the system works differently depending on the particular school, department or candidate.

Junior faculty are hired as assistant professors for a four-year term. After which they are usually renewed for an additional three-year term. At the of that second term either they are promoted to associate professor with tenure or their contract is not renewed and they need to find another position.

An assistant professor is hired based on potential and promoted to tenure based on accomplishment.

It is rare to not renew a candidate after the first term, happening only if the department feels there is little chance that the faculty member will received tenure after second term.

Since tenure requires a long-term commitment from the university, the department, the dean and the university put considerable effort in vetting the case. The candidate first puts together a tenure packet, with CV, detailed research and teaching statements, a collection of publications and list of potential letter writers. The department sends the packets to senior people in the field both on and off the list given by the candidate. Ten or more review letters are not uncommon for a tenure case. The tenure case works its way through the system from the senior members of the department through the dean, provost and so on. Many universities have a tenure committee that reviews all cases for the provost or president.

The final decision is based on several parameters including the letters, publications, teaching, grants, service to the university and academic community and how well the faculty member fits in the department. The weights given to each item as well as how high the tenure bar is held differs greatly between universities. You can get a good feeling by how recent tenure cases went in the department.

Can one come up for early tenure? Can one get credit for years as a postdoc, research scientist or an assistant professor elsewhere? Or can one "stop the tenure clock" for illness, a new child or other leaves of absences? Can one be promoted to associate professor without immediate tenure if needed? Can one get an extra year to search for a new job if not promoted? Will the candidate have access to the review letters? If the answers to these or other questions concern you, best to bring them up before you accept the job.


  1. I think that a tenure clock of 6 years, 3 each for the first and second appointments, is a bit more common in the U.S. than the 7 year, 4+3 version Lance mentions, though there are places where the clock has as many as 8 or 9 years. (The latter often includes the possibility of a pre-tenure promotion.)

    In Canada, the standard is 5 years and involves a single pre-tenure appointment.

    Independent of the length of the clock, splitting the pre-tenure appointment rarely makes a difference. The second appointment is usually decided on more than a year before the appointment comes due (to give a chance for a job search the following year in case it is declined) which is very early and so is made with relatively little data. The reappointment decision becomes primarily a chance for a department to recover from a truly disastrous choice. (Someone who is abysmal in the classroom, doesn't carry out their duties, or doesn't get along with anyone.) This is extremely rare.

  2. Paul is right -- there is a US standard that the evaluation occurs in the sixth year, so that the seventh year is a chance to look for another job if the decision is negative or (often) a sabbatical if it is positive. But a rather small set of the best universities in the US (most or all of the Ivies, Johns Hopkins, Chicago unless Lance is mixed up) have their own procedures that vary slightly, usually by having a longer clock before the tenure decision.

    At UMass the last really technical review occurs at the college level, with a faculty committee that advises the Dean of the college. The Dean and Provost then also rule, usually on more programmatic than technical grounds. Tenure decisions, unlike other major personnel decisions, have to also be approved by the Board of Trustees but this is generally pro forma.

    We also have a pre-tenure review, now usually done in the third year, to give the candidate feedback on tenure prospects. This is tied to the first reappointment and, as Paul says, is the place where an obviously nonperforming candidate gets identified and not renewed.

  3. and if someone does not make tenure?

    Do they usually look for jobs at other universities? Is there some industry that looks to scoop people like that up?

  4. Unfortunately, the general rule is that if you do not get tenure at your current university but decide to stay in academia, you will only get an offer at a place that is much lower ranked (if you can get an offer at all).

  5. Would you say that UC is a place where pretty much every new hire will get tenure if they don't F it up?

    Or is it the kind of place that will they let political pressures and capricious fads send otherwise good people winging it into the market of Great Lakes regional teaching colleges, and whatever industrial positions are available to a flopped professor from a school that doesn't even have an engineering college?

  6. to anon 5:

    What new hires?

  7. In general, in CS schools in the US, if your productivity stays at the level it was upon your hire, you get decent teaching ratings, bring in a moderate amount of grant money, and advise a few students, you will likely get tenure. If you don't do these things, you've just ended up wasting a lot of the department's resources.

  8. As usual, there is a lot of variety among universities.

    1)As pointed out in the comments, there is another set of university rules (Harvard, Yale, Hopkins, MIT, and a couple of others) where the clock cycle is different. The initial appointment as Assistant Professor is for 5 years, followed by promotion to Associate Professor without tenure for another 3-5 years. Tenure and promotion to full prof are usually simultaneous, at the end of the period. The hurdle for the final step is very high, and many superb researchers do not get it -- the criterion for being a full prof at an elite institution is that the person is one of the best people in the area in the world, and universities often measure not only how well the person did, but whether they could get someone even better for the position.

    Chicago follows more or less the other model (tenure upon promotion to Associate, decision in the 6th year), except it is possible to get promoted to untenured Associate Professor for up to a 5 year period. This is unusual, and has to be argued vigorously--for example on the basis that the candidate is about to finish a major project that will have great impact, or that special circumstances prevented the candidate from fulfilling its initial promise.

    2) Criteria for promotion vary widely among departments. In many top research departments even almost catastrophically bad teaching may be excused given truly spectacular research. Conversely, there are departments where teaching is very much valued, and relatively modest research will be tolerated.

    Similarly, the need to generate external grant money is valued differently. In Biological Sciences, and in many Engineering Schools, the ability to get funding is essential. Other departments, intellectually or organizationally closer to Math or Linguistics, or simply very rich departments, may consider it a plus, rather than a necessity.

    3) Getting a job after not getting tenure may be hard -- especially if the decision seems justified to an outsider. If P did not get tenure at Dept A, and dept B hires him, it may be viewed as dept B publicly accepting an inferior status relative to A. Departments do not like to do this.

    4) Contrary to popular wisdom, tenured positions can be lost -- not only by committing crimes, but also for eliminating the position. This is rare ,but it happens. At Chicago, during the years I was here, the University eliminated a School of Library Science, and a Department of Education. Earlier, the Department of Geography got the ax, and I am sure I am forgetting some others. In each case, tenured faculty eventually found homes in other departments and other universities, but this was widely seen as a very generous behavior on part of the University.

    The UofC tries to hire people that will be able to get tenure. We try to be fair, even though the bar is high. Some people made it, some didn't--in at least one case we made a mistake by not tenuring an excellent candidate. Politics did not play a role in the decisions.

  9. How common is it that a department
    votes and recommends tenure but the university decides otherwise ?

  10. Lance said: "An assistant professor is hired based on potential and promoted to tenure based on accomplishment."

    This is wrong. The correct statement is that an assistant professor is hired based on potential, and is tenured based on promise of continued high-quality career. Acomplishments are used to evalue the promise.

  11. Just to follow up on one of Janos's comments, tenure also does not guarantee a good job: the classic example of which is that the department may simply freeze your salary for many years. More extreme (and less common), the department could make your life so unpleasant you prefer to leave.