Navigating the Tenure Track

This post is for the pre-tenure survival blog carnival that proflikesubstance is hosting. It has some of my general thoughts on navigating the tenure track. These are things that worked for me or that I wish I’d known/thought about while an assistant professor at research-intensive universities. As with all internet advice, your mileage may vary.

But first, a more general note: I initially was going to title this “surviving the tenure track”, but then realized that sends the wrong message. I don’t think the tenure track is something simply to survive, even though that tends to be a dominant message. While I’m certainly happy to be moving on to the ranks of associate professor, being an assistant professor wasn’t a bad job that had to be endured. I enjoyed my time as an assistant professor, and think that, on the whole, this academia thing is a pretty nice job. (I’m not alone.)

General advice

1. Read the 7 year postdoc. Think about what you want your life to be like when you get tenure, and make sure you don’t neglect the non-work aspects of that life as you are on the tenure track. Will there be times where work takes over? Yes, but having your long term goal in mind will hopefully help you steer towards where you want to be over the long run.

2. Read Section 8 (“How to get tenure”) from this piece by Phil Agre. (More on this piece below.)

3. Time is your most valuable resource. Protect it. Be careful about how you spend your time, just as you are careful about how you spend your money. I found that I initially had a hard time saying no to some things if I didn’t have something scheduled at that exact time. But not having something scheduled at that exact time is different from actually having enough time for that task. One way I countered this was to start blocking off big chunks of my day for research, writing, lecture prep, etc.

4. Learn how to work in small chunks of time. I have a small, lightweight laptop and carry it with me most places. If I get to a meeting early, I pull out my laptop and reply to a couple of emails, rather than just sitting there doing nothing.

5. You do not need to work 80 hours a week to succeed in academia. Track the hours you work and look for ways to become more efficient. Figure out what times are your most productive and use those for writing manuscripts and grant proposals. I tend to email first thing in the morning and in the evening, times when I am not very productive at other tasks.

6. Seek advice, but consider the biases of the person giving you the advice. Remember that people wear different hats, and try to evaluate whether they have a mentoring hat on when giving you advice, or whether they are wearing a different hat (say, the hat of an undergrad coordinator who really needs to find someone to teach that huge, new, interdisciplinary course).

7. Related to the previous: when it comes to things related to tenure, always ask people at your current institution what is or is not required. You’ll probably get vague answers, and, in many cases, the answer will be “more”. So, more importantly, pay attention to what actually happens. Pay attention as people come up for tenure, noting what their CV looks like, what their teaching was like, etc. This will help you figure out where the bar is.

8. On the other hand, don’t necessarily focus just on what it takes to get tenure at your particular institution. You might find yourself in a situation where you want to move. There is a concept known as “deep tenure”, which is described in the Agre piece (also linked above) this way:

Once you obtain deep tenure, your university would be foolish to lose you. And if your university does in fact fumble your tenure case, deep tenure means that you are nearly certain to have another good job waiting for you somewhere else. If you put enough effort into networking, and if you shift your psychology away from your department and toward your field as a whole, then the process of getting tenure will be much less distressing. You will be less likely to waste valuable time in excess politicking of your immediate colleagues. And you will be able to relate to your colleagues as fellow movers and shakers rather than as neighbors in an idealized village. In particular, your independent standing in the field, because of your widespread network, will increase your autonomy and make you less open to manipulation by others.

9. On the third hand, you can drive yourself crazy trying to figure out if things might be better at another institution and if you should switch. I remember reading early on that the people who are happiest are the people who decide to make things work at their current institution. So, in the end, there’s some balance to strike between figuring out what you need to do at your current institution, integrating yourself at your current institution, but being aware of potential opportunities and being competitive for those. Obviously this is a balancing act.

10. Once you’re at a place, it’s hard to negotiate for much in the way of raises, space, equipment, etc. without an outside offer. I attended a networking event at a major meeting and was really surprised at the number of people with tenure track positions who didn’t realize this.

11. Find a support network. Twitter is great for this.

12. Invite senior people in your field to give seminars at your institution. This is a good way to make connections, especially with people who might be tenure letter writers.



1. Establishing yourself as independent is clearly important but, at the same time, your grant proposals will need to demonstrate that you have the skills and expertise needed to get the project done. Hopefully you have good relationships with your postdoc and PhD mentors, and can make sure that you have your own area to work in, without overlapping too much with work in their labs.

2. You’ll also want to try to find out what others are working on. Meetings are good for this, as is networking. If a big, powerful lab is working on something that is very similar to something you were planning, you’ll have to decide if you want to try to compete with that lab. Given that your new lab will be smaller, there’s a good chance the other lab would be the competitive dominant.

3. Another tricky thing to figure out is how much time to spend writing grant proposals vs. writing papers vs. collecting new data. I’m sure the right balance differs for everyone, and changes over time. I think the most important thing is to make sure you routinely evaluate how much time you’re devoting to each, what your output has been, and whether you should shift the balance. Get advice on this from your mentors, too.

4. Make sure you have some relatively safe projects going as well as some more exciting but riskier ones. Develop side projects. And try to have projects at all stages – some that you’re writing up, some where you’re collecting data, some where you’re piloting methods, and some that you haven’t started yet. Keep the research conveyor belt moving along. I kept a list of projects on a whiteboard in my office so I wouldn’t forget about any, and also have a word file where I keep track of things.

6. Don’t count on students to do your research for you. I made sure I was in the lab enough to collect the data I would need to get tenure. Even if you are fortunate to have an extremely good first grad student (as I was), you will need to be collecting your own data and writing things up yourself in order to have a competitive tenure dossier. My thoughts on how much time to spend in the lab are here. (Obviously you want your grad students doing research, and I’ve had good success with having undergrads do publishable research, too. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t have all your eggs in the student basket. Those eggs can take a while to hatch, even with good students.)

7. I often get asked about CAREER proposals. My thoughts on the education component of CAREER proposals are here. If you’re planning on submitting a CAREER proposal, start developing the education component early. Just like with the research portion of the proposal, you will be evaluated on feasibility, and the best way to judge that is by showing that you’ve already done parts of it.

8. If you’re unsure of whether an idea you have stands a chance of being funded, or if you’re unsure of which panel might make the most sense for it, email a program officer and ask to set up a time to talk with him/her. You want to have a good idea of what panel your proposal will go to when you’re writing it. If you aren’t sure of how to interpret reviews of your proposal, or are unsure of whether it’s worth revising and resubmitting that proposal, again, write your program officer and ask if you can set up a meeting. You don’t want to waste time and effort continuing to resubmit something that is unlikely to be competitive.

9. Related to points 4&8: make sure that you are working on different projects that have the potential to turn into full grant proposals. Again, you don’t want all your eggs in one basket.

10. Ask about whether your institution has a requirement for current funding when you come up for tenure. Consider whether it makes sense to spread the same amount of funding over 4-5 years instead of the typical 3 for an NSF grant.



1. Be picky in who you take on in your lab. A student who is “free” (say, because she/he has a fellowship) still takes up your time, your lab’s resources, and affects the culture and camaraderie in your lab.

2. Keep a list of the undergrads who’ve worked in your lab. I have a list arranged by semester (with a list of all the students in my lab in a given semester) as well as by project (listing all the students who’ve worked on a particular project), plus a big overall list of all the students. I refer to this list every time I write an annual report for a grant. It also is useful when I’m writing letters of recommendation (because, at this point, I can’t remember if someone started in the lab in Fall 2010 or Spring 2011), and was also helpful when working on my tenure dossier.

3. Find mentors for yourself. This is likely to be a set of people – perhaps one for research-related topics, one for teaching, one person who helps you navigate department/institution politics, etc. Some of these people may be formally assigned, but you’re likely to develop additional mentor-mentee relationships informally. If there’s someone you’d like to get to know better, send an email asking if they’d like to go for coffee. Don’t send an email asking if they’ll be your mentor; let it develop organically if it works.



1. Try to the same course repeatedly while pre-tenure. (I did not follow this advice. As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time prepping courses.)

2. If you have been offered a teaching release as part of your startup, see if you can defer using it. Your first semester is not going to be especially productive, research-wise. You’ll spend more time than you can imagine making little decisions like which kind of beaker to order. You’ll need a break from that (see post linked to in previous sentence), plus won’t be able to get any new research done before your supplies arrive. In my opinion, it’s more useful to save your teaching release for a time when you can get more research use out of it.

3. Before teaching a course for the first time, come up with a list of the concepts you want students to learn. Come up with a set of learning goals for your students for each lecture. Design your course and lectures around those concepts and learning goals. It’s common to start by choosing the reading and then going through and writing a lecture around the reading. This often loses the forest for the trees, and generally results in a lecture with way too much in it.

4. Consider using active learning. There’s lots of evidence for its effectiveness, and it’s probably more efficient to start out with a more active classroom, rather than needing to overhaul your class later.



1. Say “no”, but not all the time. Think about what you might gain from a particular kind of service. Service to a scientific society is often good because it raises your profile within the community and looks good in a tenure dossier, without being a huge amount of work in many cases.

2. Pay attention to the amount of service others are doing in your department. Make sure you aren’t doing substantially more service than other pre-tenure folks. If you think you are, the next time you’re asked, list all the service you’re currently doing, and ask if they can find someone else with a lighter service load who can fill that role.



1. Since I am a soon-to-be tenured woman with kids, I get asked a lot about having kids and being a woman in science/academia. Obviously whether and when to have kids is an incredibly personal decision, so it’s hard to say much general stuff about it. Of all the advice I was given on this topic (some of it even solicited!), the “when you feel ready in your personal life, go for it” approach resonated the most with me. And that’s even though I tend to be an overplanner who normally wants everything to line up perfectly. A thing that really struck me was when someone said that, when she stepped back and imagined what she wanted life to be like in 6 years, she knew she’d be okay with it if she had kids and not tenure, but not vice versa. When she said that, I thought “BUT I WANT BOTH!!!” But, after thinking about it (over the span of several years), I realized I agreed with her.

2. Take any teaching releases that are offered for having or adopting a child. Ideally, your school will have a mechanism for releasing you from teaching for one semester.

3. When considering whether to stop the tenure clock, ask (and observe) about how things have worked where you are. I’ve heard of places where, unofficially, tenure committees seem to still divide by the total number of years since you were hired, rather than ignoring the year that the clock was stopped. Knowing that sort of thing is important in terms of making a decision about whether to stop the clock.

4. Find role models. As I’ve written before, I find the data on women in science and especially moms in science depressing; instead, I focus on women I know who have children and who do good, interesting science.


That’s all I can think of for now. Good luck!

8 thoughts on “Navigating the Tenure Track

  1. This is a great post chock-full of useful advice from a sensible perspective. One resource I’ve found helpful that relates to your first-time course design comment is the Cutting Edge Course Design tutorial: Even if you don’t explicitly work through the whole thing, reading it through will help focus your thinking. Also, borrowing as much material from colleagues and professors you liked, as well as using resources like the SERC website will save you time and keep you from completely reinventing the wheel. Of course, only use what works for you and your students. Just because Dr. Greybeard taught the course that way doesn’t mean you need to.

  2. This is all excellent advice!

    One small suggestion re: service. When I was pre-tenure, I really liked serving as the coordinator for our EEB seminar series. I guess it was probably more work than, say, serving on a committee that rarely meets or doing some undemanding service for a scientific society. But it was work I liked doing that I could do when I wanted, as opposed to obliging me to attend crushingly boring meetings on someone else’s schedule. And everyone appreciated it, because everybody likes having an active seminar series with good speakers. And I was able to use it strategically, both for my own benefit and to the benefit of the EEB group within my department. For instance, every year I made sure to invite 1-2 people working in areas in which my students and I were working, so that we could pick their brains. (And nobody minded this, because the people I brought in for my own selfish reasons also were just good people doing work of broad interest to lots of people in the EEB group). And one year, when the department was planning to grow, I tried to use the EEB seminar series to bring in some people whom I hoped would shape the department’s collective “search image” as to what sort of evolutionary biologists we ought to look to hire.

  3. Fantastic post – lots of great advice here.

    For me, learning to work in small chunks of time means having a list of things I can do when I have this kind of time so I don’t waste any time figuring out what to do. In addition to that, I think learning what counts as a big chunk for you (for me its about 3 hours) and learning how you can best protect big chunks is worthwhile. (I actually start my week by scheduling in things like writing & reading so that time doesn’t appear ‘open’ on my calendar. When I’m really on the ball, I schedule in my exercise this way, too!)

    For tenure application purposes, I wish I had also kept a list of all the student committees I served on, or defenses for which I was internal or external examiner. It is a great idea to get a hold of a few successful tenure applications from your university or department at the very start of your time so you can know what you should be recording from the start.

    And finally, I’m curious about Research tip #6. Once I became a prof, I fairly quickly threw my time into mentoring rather than personally being in the lab/in the field/at the computer. I do try to spend a small amount of time working with students in the lab/field each year, but I don’t do that much myself (besides a small amount of modeling/code writing). Personally, I am happy with that. I find it rewarding, more so than being in the lab/field. I initially chose that route because I knew other professors who were always trying to piece together enough time for “their own research” (meaning time in the lab/field/computer), and couldn’t do it because of other demands on their time, and were constantly stressed or unhappy as a result. As with all advice, I’m sure everyone’s experience is at least somewhat unique; I’d be curious to hear other folks’ experience with this.

    Thanks for posting this. I’m sending my first students/postdocs (now new profs) here in 5, 4, 3, 2 …

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