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The Academics' Forum: How I Stayed Sane During the Tenure Process

Sylvia G. Roch
University at Albany

Last April I served on a panel titled “How I Managed the Tenure Process and Remained Reasonably Sane: Dos and Don’ts as a Junior Faculty” at SIOP’s Fourth Annual Junior Faculty Consortium organized by Mark Frame. My fellow panelists were Adrian Thomas from Auburn University and Stephanie Payne from Texas A&M University, both also in psychology departments. Given that the tenure process is a topic of utmost concern to any untenured faculty, I thought that the discussion might be relevant to many. Thus, to summarize our discussion on the panel, I asked my fellow panelists to answer four questions (see below) regarding their experience during the tenure process, and I thank them for their responses. I am also including my own responses. I should qualify our responses, however, by saying that our responses are colored by the institutions at which we sought tenure and are more reflective of research institutions than teaching institutions. That is not to say that much of the advice is not universal (it is) but that some of the advice is colored by the criteria at our respective institutions. Below are the questions and our responses.

Top 5 List of “Dos” for Tenure

Adrian Thomas:
1.  You have heard it before, publish (and get grants) or perish. Publications are the academics version of idiosyncrasy credits. Build up your quality and quantity of pubs, and you are probably in pretty good shape. If you don’t build up your publication record, then not much else matters. 

2.  Keep good records. Everything counts for something. This seems to especially be the case once your dossier is in front of someone not from your area of specialization. Keeping good records also helps you keep your research plan in mind and keeps you well organized. Finally, it will greatly ease the stress experienced in putting your dossier together that last semester.

3.  Control the “controllables.” We all have issues with colleagues, chairs, disgruntled undergrads, and pampered graduate students. The more time you worry about departmental policies and interoffice politics, the less time you spend doing research. Same goes with “unfair” reviewers or editors. All you can control is doing quality work and submitting manuscripts. So submit manuscripts and revise manuscripts when given the opportunity.

4.  Make contacts with individuals who can write your letters for tenure. Do not underestimate the importance of the letter writers. Review for journals, meet and greet at SIOP, network. Do whatever you have to do to make contacts with individuals who can write you impressive letters.

5.  Always remember it is an election of sorts. Not all people voting on your tenure will be I-Os with a background in performance appraisal. They may very well base their vote on how nice you are, how you get along with others, or who you eat lunch with. Be nice and play well with others.

Stephanie Payne:
1.  Prioritize based on what you think has the best chance of publication in a top-tier journal. In other words, spend your time on your best, most rigorous studies and papers. This may mean that some other projects that may have a home in lower tier journals will have to be put on the back burner for a while.

2.  Align yourself with good people. This includes informal mentors that you can bounce questions off of and ask to read your papers before you submit them, collaborators/coauthors who are motivated to publish (maybe seeking tenure themselves), and students who are smart, talented, and motivated.

3.  Don’t jeopardize your health. You’ll never be productive if you are sick. Eat well, exercise regularly, and get some sleep.

4.  Seek and foster supportive relationships. I was fortunate to have a very supportive husband who was very understanding during those peak times and looming deadlines. He helped tremendously by cooking dinner, taking care of our children, and listening to me gripe.

5.  Protect your time. I heard this a lot and didn’t really understand or appreciate it until I had a few years under my belt and more and more people were demanding of my time. It’s okay to be selfish and say no to service requests or other things that are not going to help you get tenure. Block out time in your calendar for you to write and do what you need to do and “protect that time.”

Sylvia Roch: 
1.  Familiarize yourself with the promotion criteria at your university.  It is essential that you understand the criteria for tenure at your university. Take every opportunity to familiarize yourself with the criteria; read any available documents, attend informational sessions, and talk to senior colleagues.

2.  Have a mentor who is willing to be your advocate.  It does not matter if the person is a formal or informal mentor, but it is important to have someone in your corner who can not only guide you through the process but also serve as your advocate.

3.  Maintain your research pipeline. If you are at an institution that values research, it is important that you keep your research pipeline flowing. It helps to have projects at every stage at any given time. 

4.  Schedule research time and protect it. It is too easy for the day-to-day teaching and administrative demands to “eat away” at research time. Put research time on your weekly schedule and treat it as you would any other time commitment (don’t schedule anything during that time, etc).

5.  Have your own stream of research.  When advising graduate students on their theses and dissertations, it is easy to put your own personal line of research aside for the graduate student-driven projects. However, often graduate student projects are not as successful as the ones that you personally design and direct (after all, theses and dissertations are supposed to be learning experiences).

What Not to Do (“Don’ts”)

Adrian Thomas:
1.  Don’t go through it alone. Find a mentor. There are people on any campus that have a vested interest in your success. They might include your chair, your program director, the chair of the search committee, or some random faculty member from a different discipline.

2.  Don’t take work home. Well, don’t take work out on the people at home. Have some stress reducers away from work and occasionally go on vacation without that laptop. See the spillover model of stress, the burnout literature, or simply watch how many of your colleagues get divorced during the tenure process.

3.  Don’t continue to live the lifestyle of a graduate student. Sleep right, eat right, and take care of yourself physically. You will need that extra energy.

Stephanie Payne: I tended to stay out of the department politics and kept my nose to the grind. I didn’t feel I had time for gossip or rumors and tried to remain neutral on any controversial issues.

Sylvia Roch: If your first position is not a good fit, do not stay in the position. Do not be afraid to move. It is important that you have the resources and environment that you need to succeed.  If after a few years, you realize that this is not the case, it is time to change positions. Second, do not underestimate the importance of the goodwill of your colleagues. It is important that your fellow colleagues like you and see you as an asset to your department.

How I Stayed Sane During the Tenure Process?

Adrian Thomas: I am probably not the appropriate person to answer this question. Fact is due to losing this battle early in my career, I considered leaving academics at one point. I discussed my career options with Nam Raju, my graduate advisor. In typical Nam fashion he advised me to “do good work that matters” and to “remove tenure as a goal.” He correctly pointed out that I did not choose an academic life to “get tenure.” I went academic because I wanted to be around eager young people, mentor students, and conduct research on questions in which I had a burning interest. Nam’s advice was that if I do that then tenure should take care of itself. And, he was absolutely right. Once I removed tenure as a goal, I actually enjoyed being a college professor again.

Stephanie Payne: I worked as hard as I could so that in the end I could say that I gave it my all. If that turned out to not be good enough, at least I wouldn’t find myself regretting that I didn’t put in enough effort. I also reminded myself I could likely find another job in academia, research, or practice, so if I didn’t get tenure, it would not be the end of the world.

Sylvia Roch: Two years before my tenure material was due I married someone who not only had two children (ages 6 and 8 at the time) but they lived with him full time. So, my life changed almost instantly from unlimited work time to one balancing the fulltime demands of a family with two children. Needless to say, work time became a scarce resource. I do not regret my decision, and looking back, I think that the need to balance work and family helped keep me sane. As my husband likes to point out, my publications greatly increased after marrying him (of course, quite a few of the projects were in the pipeline before my marriage). However, I do think that after my marriage, I became much more focused and efficient during my work time and, in general, used my time better. And, having another aspect to my life helped to keep the importance of tenure in perspective; my life would not end if I did not receive tenure. So, my advice is to have a life outside of work, regardless of whether it is establishing a family, pursuing a hobby, and so on.  It will give you balance and perspective. 

Any Other Advice or Concluding Words?

Adrian Thomas: When administrative things start getting us down, Dan Svyantek and I are quick to drive around town in Auburn until we find someone out laying brick in the 100 degree Alabama heat. That helps us realize how much we really do love our jobs. Keep in mind as you go through the process that we have the best job in the world, and enjoy every day that you are fortunate enough to be a professor.

Stephanie Payne: As one of my mentors told me, “Work hard and play hard!” Also, be efficient. Submit a paper to a journal just before you go on vacation. That way, work will still be getting done on your research while you are getting some much needed R&R!

Sylvia Roch:  If you do not receive tenure, it does not mean the end of your academic career. There are quite a few successful academics who did not receive tenure at their first institution. 

As a last word, I would like to add that tenure does not need to be a painful process (aside from writing the statements and collecting the needed material). We have all heard the horror stories, but for every horror story, there are many academics that successfully go through the process without problems. Personally, I was surprised how relatively painless the process was (aside from the anxiety) and after talking to others, I have the impression that this may be the norm. However, a painless tenure process does not make for a good “story,” so we are less apt to hear about these cases. So, do not panic—just try to meet and, if possible, exceed your university’s criteria, and you should be fine.