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THREAD on jr faculty & the tenure process

Over the years & esp in the last 4 as @mitsloan’s deputy dean, I've developed some advice for how junior faculty should think about the tenure process. Here it is, boiled down.

(Followed by a few caveats & notes)
The main idea is that you , as new assistant prof, should develop your *own standard for granting tenure,* a standard that meets two criteria:

(a) It should be a standard you personally think is a fair & useful basis by which schools of your desired rank should grant lifetime..
... job security to faculty in your field.

(b) The standard should explain meaningful variance in observable tenure outcomes for faculty in that field & school rank
The advantage of developing your own standard is twofold.

First, you will be working toward your own personal standard rather than an arbitrary standard(s) imposed upon you. It is intuitive why this this is much healthier & facilitates productivity. Indeed, much research...
... indicates this should lead to identification with one’s work rather than alienation from it (see e.g., self-determination theory and see Marxian ideas about alienation).

Imagine being jr faculty & instead of obsessing over what sr faculty think about you, you figure out..
... for yourself what you should be work on, how many papers you should write, which methods to use, etc etc. Sounds good, no?!

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that you ignore senior faculty. To the contrary: they can be excellent sources of advice, as with your contemporaries &
sr faculty at other schools. Seek them out for advice. But use them to inform *your* standards, and make sure to protect your freedom to politely disregard their feedback if you think they're wrong.

You also need to seek them out because they can help you meet the second...
criterion: your standard must explain who gets tenure and who doesn't. It’s key to develop a standard that you believe in. But it also must be shared by others—in particular, by a sufficient number of scholars in your field at the desired rank so that you can get tenure...
... at one of those schools
Yes there's a tension here. It’s central to the question of fit in any job. If the people who control the job don't agree with you about the meaning of good job performance, you might end up unemployed even if you're right. I mean...
this seriously. Every academic field struggles to distinguishing the few unconventional ideas & methods that are improvements from the many that are not (see my 2017 essay “Categorical Imperative Revisited”). And some fields are dominated by dead paradigms for a long time.
So it’s important to figure out as soon as possible whether you will be unemployed even if you are right. Gossip is key to this. It’s important to monitor tenure cases in your field and try to figure out what standards are being employed.
To be clear, you will never be able to have a standard that explains *all* the variance in tenure outcomes (in your field at the desired rank). After all, the tenure process is a very human one. Moreover, you have limited info about what really goes down in any given case.
(Insiders are bound by confidentiality & everyone's report on their own experience will be biased). But you'll need to develop some ability to derive material info from conflicted, nontransparent info systems your entire life, so you have no choice but do your best.
To clarify: the second advantage of my suggested approach (the first was that you will have the pleasure and productivity that comes from strong identification with your work, rather than alienation from it) is that you are more likely to be employed. In particular, since...
... your standard explains variance at schools of the desired rank, this means that if you work towards that standard & meet it but your employer doesn’t agree, you simply move to another school in your desired rank. If they can't figure out you deserve tenure, screw 'em!
I'll close with four notes and three caveats.

Note 1: There's another very good reason to develop your own standard for tenure sooner than later: Because you will need it when you have tenure and have to decide on cases for yourself. How else will you decide?
Note 2: You might think that the tenure system is broken, corrupt, etc, & that we should just get rid of it. Sorry, but that's not going to happen in your lifetime. When you signed up for and academic career, you implicitly signed up to support the tenure system. If you...
... can’t get comfortable with that and what it obviously entails (that your employment will depend on meeting certain performance standards and that you will hold others to such standards), you should exit academia.

Note 3: I’m not really recommending anything different...
... from what we do in the case of journal refereeing. The key question that lurks behind the acceptance/rejection of any paper is: What is the standard for acceptance? If you can’t articulate such a standard for a given journal, (again, that standard should be one you...
... believe in & explains meaningful variance), you shouldn’t referee papers there (indeed ,this is what separates high quality from low quality referee reports: a clear articulation of the standard for acceptance), nor does it makes sense to submit there—you might get lucky...
... but you will mostly be frustrated.

Note 4: An important premise in my advice is that you never want to commit too heavily to your pre-tenure employer. This makes sense bc they haven't committed to you, have they? A related idea is that you should be wary of schools...
... that ask that you invest a lot of your time & energy in local service. The primary role of the school is to give you a *good developmental experience* such that after ~7 years, you're more valuable to *any university* (in a given rank), not just your first employer. This...
... doesn't mean you should do zero service. Rather, you should look for opportunities to signal your sr colleagues that you'll be a good citizen once you're granted tenure, while focusing on your main job-- doing the things that make you valuable anywhere.

Now the 3 caveats.
Caveat 1:.However sensible my advice may be (that’s for you to judge), it certainly hasn't been empirically tested in any systematic way. Alas, that's true for almost every difficult decision we have to make. Did you run a randomized control trial on your choice of spouse?
Caveat 2: I've lived my entire academic career at top-ranked institutions: Columbia, Chicago, Stanford, MIT. And even though I was trained in a sociology dept, my direct experience with the tenure process is all in two business schools: Stanford (and only as jr faculty there)...
and MIT. I’m sure some aspect of my advice does not travel well to other contexts. (I'll be curious about any reactions that point out how and why my advice is limited)

Caveat 3: Another reason what makes sense for me might not make sense for you has to do with my background..
I'm a quintessential faculty brat. My late father was a professor at Brown, and I began hearing about the tenure process (warts and all) from a very young age. The process worked for my dad and it has worked for me (in part bc it worked for my dad). I’m sure...
... I’d think (and feel!) differently about the process if either of those things weren’t true.

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