September 30, 2004 6:38 AM   Subscribe

US academia: When a position is described as 'tenure-track', what would the holder have to do to actually make it to tenure?

While we're about it, are there any standards for pay and for days of paid vacation in US academia, or are these all subject to negotiation between employee and institution?
posted by biffa to Education (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: A tenure-track job is one with the possibility of tenure, as opposed to a temporary job. Having tenure means that you cannot be fired without cause, so even if enrollment drops and the university is short of cash, you've got a paycheck. Typically one must have 5-7 "years in rank", that is, years working at a tenure-track job, to "go up" for tenure. Sometimes one can negotiate time "on the clock", if you've put in a few years at other institutions, to shorten the waiting period. "Going up" is a year-long application process, involving putting together portfolios of everything you've ever done academically, and having them evaluated by the department, a college committee, the dean, the vice-chancellor, and finally the Board of Trustees.

For the distinction between the two kinds of jobs, maybe it would help to look at examples of job advertisements. Here are two from Cornell (more-or-less randomly chosen): Tenure-track assistant professor, and non-renewable, three-year term appointments.

There are a few different kinds of non-tenure-track jobs: leave replacements (when a department hires someone off the street for a year to replace a faculty member who's on sabbatical or leave), postdocs (1- to 3-year appointments, usually for recent PhDs, to get their research jump-started by working with a senior person), and a kind of nebulous third category that arises when a department or university only has enough money to hire for a year at a time.

Here's a distinction I just learned recently in conversation with the head of last year's Promotion & Tenure Committee at my institution. Promotion (from Assistant to Associate to Full Professor) is typically awarded based on accomplishment -- papers written, good teaching, grants gotten, etc., etc. Tenure, on the other hand, is awarded based on future expectations. The department (and college, and university) is making a huge commitment -- that they're willing to have you as a colleague for the next thirty-odd years, barring malfeasance -- they want to make sure that you're going to be a good colleague, not so much that you have already been one. Of course, the future and the past are inextricable, but that's the rule of thumb as it was explained to me.

P&T generally rests on the "three columns of academic achievement": research, teaching, and service. (Some places also include "contribution to the mission of the college/university", particularly schools with a religious affiliation.) Expectations in each of these vary wildly by department and even more wildly by institution. (For example, a research paper a year is considered pretty darn decent in pure mathematics, while it won't get you a cup of coffee in chemistry.) Research and teaching are relatively self-explanatory (though incredibly hard to measure on any kind of objective scale). Service means committee work (departmentally and in the larger institution, as well as in the community), being chair, etc.

For your followup question, as far as I know salary etc. are all open to negotiation. There are, however, various ways to find out what the "going rate" is. For example, the Notices of the American Mathematical Society publishes yearly data on starting salary for new hires (broken down along dozens of lines, like geography, sex, age, etc. -- number geeks loves them some data).

Finally, it's a little tricky to talk about "paid vacation" in academics, where one of the biggest draws is that we get whole months of the year off from teaching. There is often an option to sign a 9-month contract (and fend for yourself over the summer, with grant support, etc) or a 12-month contract (in which case I suppose you could see the summers as paid vacations). Apart from that (and various academic breaks), I don't think there are usually any allowances for vacation. Also, even over summer and winter breaks, when we may not be teaching, we're often trying to catch up on research and other things that are harder to do with students in your office, but are still definitely part of our jobs.

caveat: all this is for mathematics at universities, which is what I know. In particular, I've been told that postdocs in other sciences and in the humanities work differently, and I'm sure that things are different at liberal-arts colleges..
posted by gleuschk at 7:22 AM on September 30, 2004

Wow, I do like my parentheses.
posted by gleuschk at 7:24 AM on September 30, 2004

what would the holder have to do to actually make it to tenure?

Publish whatever is a reasonable amount for the discipline -- this varies a lot -- and be a not-awful teacher and don't obviously shirk administrative / service work (ie, your department's various committees, etc).

While we're about it, are there any standards for pay and for days of paid vacation in US academia, or are these all subject to negotiation between employee and institution?

Normally pay is subject to negotiation within the norms of the discipline, which again varies a lot.

There's essentially no such beast as paid vacation for teaching-line professors. Theoretically, you're only paid while the school is in session (usually a 9-month contract), and the rest of the time is yours to do with as you please, but most schools will break up your "9-months" pay over 12 pay periods.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:32 AM on September 30, 2004

You can be fasttracked for tenure if you're especially well-known in the field and/or will draw top students, top donors/grants, or beneficial media attention, too. And don't underestimate the personal--people that butt heads too much with administration, or don't have any champions on the tenure committee, etc, often get passed over.
posted by amberglow at 7:48 AM on September 30, 2004

in my experience, americans in general take very little holiday. that's certainly true of the american astronomers i know - they don't generally don't take their full allowance (my boss has passed the maximum amount he can "carry over" and so loses holiday regularly).
posted by andrew cooke at 8:08 AM on September 30, 2004

In engineering, promotion is primarily based on research, which is made up of two things: dollars brought in and papers published. Institutional service and teaching evaluations are considered, but in general, they can only hurt you. Generally a newly minted PhD would do a two year postdoc with an established researcher and then take an assistant professorship. They then have about six years to work their ass off, at which point they go through an extensive evaluation process and become an associate professor. Then about six more years, and they are evaluated again for a full professorship. Again, generally, this second promotion also results in tenure.

As to paid vacation.....well, since engineering professors essentially pay themselves off the grant money they bring in, there's no one really keeping track of whether they're in the office/lab/classroom. Obviously when they are teaching, there's little time to take off. When they aren't teaching, they are busy running the research in the lab. You can take sabbaticals, and that is arranged with the hierarchy. The race for tenure is intense - it's not common for tenure track professors to take week long breaks for travel and leisure. One or two days here and there, tacked on to a conference trip is more usual.

I'll second what amerglow said as well.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 8:22 AM on September 30, 2004

gleuschk hits all the high spots. Or low spots--I'm submitting my tenure materials next week. I'd add that most tenure-track appointments are broken down into multiple contract periods, normally three years-three years-one year. Thus, I went through contract renewal evaluations during my second and fifth years; were I not to get tenure (whimper) this year, the seventh year would give me a breathing space to find another position. It is possible, in some rare cases, to have an untenured associate professor or a tenured assistant professor (the latter is a phenomenon largely confined to a previous generation of faculty--usually, people hired ABD who never finished their degrees).

Vacations: some research universities offer summer stipends, but otherwise, it's just our nine-month pay divided up over twelve months.

Tenure requirements: I wrote a book and several articles, which exceeds my own department's tenure requirements--we're in a SUNY college and therefore teaching-oriented--but would be about right for a larger school. Schools with extremely heavy teaching loads (5-5, for example) require little in the way of serious publication records; schools with almost no teaching whatsoever (like the University of Chicago, which asks faculty to teach 4 classes over three quarters) require quite a lot.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:42 AM on September 30, 2004

Good luck, tjw!
posted by gleuschk at 8:50 AM on September 30, 2004

Yeah, good luck! -- Love your blog btw.
posted by josh at 8:57 AM on September 30, 2004

Good luck TJW. I didn't know you were the little professor!
posted by kenko at 9:24 AM on September 30, 2004

Thanks for the good wishes (and the compliments on the blog)!
posted by thomas j wise at 9:35 AM on September 30, 2004

Let us not forget the ass-kissing, department politics and luck involved with making a tenure-track position in the US. A good portion of what is required in getting tenure is being liked by your peers.
posted by batboy at 10:25 AM on September 30, 2004

Response by poster: Many thanks all, that's all really useful advice.

Good luck tjw!
posted by biffa at 10:27 AM on September 30, 2004

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