Tenure Expectations

Q:  What types of research requirements are there at different types of colleges (teaching, research I, etc.)? 

Author: Rory McVeigh

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Standards and expectations for research vary wildly across institutions.  Before accepting a job it is important to figure out what those expectations are so that you can make an informed decision about whether the type of work that you do lines up well with the institution’s expectations.  I can recall an interview I had at a research 1 university when I was coming out of graduate school (a good department, but not a highly ranked department).  The chair told me that for tenure they would expect to see me publish about five articles per year, but they didn’t care where I published them.  Right off the bat I recognized a mismatch between departmental expectations and what I anticipated my research record would look like six years down the road.  Thankfully, I had other offers from which to choose because I would have failed in that context.  Other departments place more emphasis on the quality of publications and less on the quantity (with prestige of the publishing outlet often used as a strong indicator of quality).  Some departments will be more oriented toward book writing, while others toward articles.  Some expect to see you bringing in external grant money, while others do not prioritize grants or at least don’t expect it of their assistant professors.  Since you will be evaluated by your tenured colleagues, it is worth thinking about how well your anticipated record will compare to the records of the people who will be evaluating you.  Give particular attention to the CVs of members of the department who have recently been promoted to associate professor.  That should give you a sense of what the typical successful record looks like within the department.

Expectations for research also vary sharply among liberal arts colleges.  Candidates for these positions often make the mistake of underestimating the importance of research (even referring to them as “teaching colleges”).  The better liberal arts colleges attract their students (who typically pay a lot of money in tuition) by telling them that they will be taught by faculty members who are passionate and dedicated teachers, but who are also leading scholars in their fields of study.  A sure way of insulting potential colleagues at top liberal arts colleges is to give them the impression that you think that all they do is teach.  Expectations for research productivity, of course, will be different from those at a leading Research 1 institution because teaching is, in fact, prioritized in the liberal arts setting.  But you should be shooting for steady levels of research productivity and quality placements (whether articles or a book) so that your profile fits the teacher/scholar model that is presented to prospective students.  Of course, there is variation among liberal arts colleges.  In some schools your teaching load may be so heavy that it would be hard to maintain steady research productivity and in those settings research may be given little weight in the tenure evaluation.  So again, it is important for you to assess standards and expectations on a school-by-school basis.

As the chair of my department, I always make a point of directly discussing expectations for tenure with each job candidate.  I do this because I know that many candidates are reluctant to ask the question because they are afraid it will signal a lack of self-confidence.  If I introduce the topic, then the candidate can get the important information without having to worry about appearing insecure.  I suspect that the vast majority of department chairs would see questions about tenure expectations as perfectly reasonable and would not hold it against you if you were to raise the topic.  But if you are concerned about that, you could always wait until receiving an offer before asking the question.  Once you receive a job offer from a school, the bargaining leverage flips.  At first, you were the one being evaluated and compared to other candidates for the position.  With the offer in hand, you can put the school on trial, getting as much information as you can before making the decision about accepting the offer.  Given the importance of tenure, you should find out as much as you can about how the school’s expectations match up with your own expectations for the type of research record you will develop in the early stages of your career.  Keep in mind, as discussed above, that it is not simply a matter of some standards being “tougher” than others.  I didn’t view the five articles per year expectation as being exceptional in terms of toughness or rigor.  Instead, I viewed it as a research profile that was inconsistent with what I was likely to produce.

Finally, even though the question asked specifically about research, it is also important to get a sense of how much weight is given to research as opposed to teaching.  If you have teaching experience and you have been successful in the classroom you may want to place yourself into a situation where your teaching will be appreciated and rewarded (and that includes many research 1 universities).  If you have little teaching experience or if you have struggled in the classroom, you may want to think about placing yourself in a setting where you can work steadily to develop as a good teacher, but at a pace that won’t impact your research productivity.

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