Careers: Getting tenure

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It's now been about six weeks since the beginning of classes at Yale and I've never worked harder in my life. My entire week is crammed with meetings, colloquia, seminars, and teaching. It's absolutely exhilarating and exhausting, and I wouldn't want anything else. I'm finding that the main difference in teaching at a small liberal arts college and a major research university isn't the much better library system or the presence of graduate students, but the sheer amount of intellectual stimulation that goes on.

The question that looms over every junior faculty member's head is tenure -- and how to obtain it. Officially, I am "ladder faculty" at Yale, which means that I can stay at Yale for up to ten years as a junior faculty member.* I can make a tenure bid, but if I fail (or if my ten years are up), then I will be asked to leave. Many Yale junior faculty members decide to take offers-with-tenure at other colleges and universities in their eighth or ninth year rather than taking the risk of making a tenure bid and failing. There's a perception that no one wants to hire damaged goods.

*Although I've been teaching for the past five years at other institutions, I requested that my "tenure clock" be reset to zero rather than starting out at year six. This gives me the maximum amount of time here. It's relatively easy to accelerate a bid for tenure, but impossible to ask for more time.

Of course, I want to succeed - either at becoming tenured at Yale or attracting an offer-with-tenure at another institution. In that context, I wanted to sketch out some of what I think I will need to do get there.

Who is an attractive candidate for tenure at a Research I univeristy? There seems to be many variations, but the ideal type is:

  1. A leading scholar in their field: this is extremely fuzzy and I do not know how it is determined
  2. A history of productive research and scholarship
    • Published book based on dissertation work
    • Second book based on research started after the dissertation - in process
    • Journal articles: Peer-reviewed articles in leading journals in the discipline
    • Grants, etc.
  3. Teaching: relatively fuzzy - teaching evaluations, awards, etc.
  4. Service: fuzzier - service on local university and national committees
  5. Collegiality: very fuzzy

As you can see, for better or for worse, there is an incredible amount of fuzziness in the criteria. About the only item that is objectively quantifiable is your publishing record. The rest you can only do your best and hope for the best.

It seems a cruel system, but the perspective is most likely different from the top. Woe to the provost or department chair who tells a new candidate that all they need to do to get tenure is A-B-C-D, since a lawsuit following a failed tenure bid is par for the course if there is any hint that the criteria were not fairly applied. Some fuzziness is a necessary component of the decision making (and legal defense) process.

[Read other articles on Careers in Anthropology on]

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This page contains a single entry by Karen Nakamura published on October 2, 2005 10:04 AM.

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