Review, rinse, repeat

Last week, I had a meeting with the Dean and Assistant Dean of Faculty, my department chair, and two of my tenure-track cohort and their respective department chairs. We were there to talk about our upcoming 4th year review. It seems hard to believe that it’s already coming up, especially since we just did a 2nd year review last Spring. Since this is something that all new faculty have to face, with myriad variations, I thought it would be a good topic for discussion.As I said, different institutions have different processes for tenure and pre-tenure review. But for tenure, three basic areas will be evaluated: research, teaching, and service. Of course, the degree to which each of these counts is one thing that varies a lot. For example, a Research I university will value research much more than the other two, whereas a small liberal arts school might value it equally, or maybe mainly focus on teaching (I have found that even within liberal arts schools these weights very wildly).

In between getting hired and the tenure review, though, there are other reviews. This, again, changes a lot from place to place. Some institutions evaluate their faculty every year. At Bates, we have a review on the second and fourth years before going up for tenure on the sixth. We actually get a contract for 4 years, and may or may not get reappointed after the fourth year review. In many cases, this review helps the candidate prepare for the tenure review. You get feedback on the three key areas and are informed on whether any of those need more attention. The idea is that everyone wants you to get tenure, but you have to deserve it. In some cases (I hear it’s only a few, but I still get stressed out when I hear it),  this is the moment were both academic institution and candidate may decide they are not right for each other (or as in my nightmares, I get booted for not being awesome enough).

One thing I really like is that our colleagues observe us teach, and write letters describing what they liked and what could be improved. Every semester we get feedback from our students, but it’s not always that useful. Sometimes their perception of your teaching is so linked with whether they like math or not, it’s hard to say if you did a decent job or not (very rarely do evaluations have to do with how much they learned, mostly because it’s really hard to know how much you’ve learned before a significant amount of time has passed and you have been able to apply your knowledge somewhere else). Not that your colleagues know that much more about how much your students are learning, but having more experience with teaching they have a better idea of what works, what doesn’t, and whether you’re doing the “right things” or not. Of course, what constitutes the “right things” changes a lot from person to person, which is why it’s good to get many different perspectives.

We have to prepare a dossier, with all of our published papers, maybe some syllabi for courses, and teaching, research, and service statements. The best advice I’ve heard here at Bates is that your dossier should “tell your story”. How do your research, teaching and service fit together? There are good reasons for everything that you are doing, and how you frame your work in these three areas could make the difference. Basically, the intended audience is not a math colleague. The review board has people from all areas (at least in liberal arts schools like Bates), and you need to explain to them what you are doing and why you are doing it. I really like the idea of submitting a dossier that tells them about me as a whole person, and going beyond just talking about these three different aspects of what I do.

Bates does not have clear formulas for how many papers you should write, or how good your teaching evaluations have to be, or how many committees you have to serve on or journals you have to referee for. But in general, they are looking for good contributions in all of these areas, and they expect some variation from person to person. Other places, though, have clearer guides for what they want, and you should make sure it is very clear to you from the beginning. Ideally, you are or will be working at a place whose ideas of what’s important in a “teacher-scholar” coincide with yours.

I was thinking after our meeting last week that it seems like we are always being evaluated in academia. For a second, I thought “how unfair!”, but the next second I remembered the stories from all my friends in consulting and other “real-life” jobs. I think people with industry jobs get evaluated much more frequently than we do, and they never get “tenure” or anything like it. A friend of mine who works in consulting was telling me about Harvey balls, which are used to indicate how proficient an employee is in a particular area. When all of the Harvey balls are filled, the employee gets a promotion. But the flip side is, if someone doesn’t get promoted after a certain amount of time, they are asked to leave the job. So the idea is you are always trying to get promoted, or you go home. I guess that’s kind of like trying to get tenure. By the way, I don’t mean to say that we have it easier than people in industry, I’m just saying that even though I used quotation marks before, being a math professor is in many ways just like a real-life job.

There are lots of good reads about the process of pre-tenure and tenure reviews, but my favorite (as a cautionary tale, and also because it is brilliantly written) is the Tenure Chase Papers by Dana Mackenzie. Any other suggestions?

This is as much as I have thought about these things, although I expect many more blog posts to come when it comes down to the wire. I have mainly been alternating between being unreasonably nervous about the whole thing (my dossier is due next Fall, which seems like tomorrow sometimes) and forgetting all about it (even though I have to submit some papers for publication, like last month, I wind up grading homework instead). I am interested in what advice people out there have for all of us new professors, and even for people applying for jobs (interviews at the Joint Math Meetings are just around the corner). What good advice have you been given? What do you wish you had known before you started this review process? How different is it at other institutions?


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1 Response to Review, rinse, repeat

  1. Avatar Matilde 127 says:

    In my university, there are four categories for tenure instead of three. “Service within the university” is evaluated independently of “projection within the community” which includes referee work, talks, conference organization, etc.

    One peculiar point is that anything that has to do with graduate students is part of “teaching”.

    What I wished I knew from the beginning is that only the stuff I did as a tenure track would be counted towards tenure. The papers and the teaching I did as a postdoc are not part of my tenure file. The only stuff that I was able to count twice are the papers that appear the year I started the position, since there is no precision in which date they were published, other than the year.

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