Don’t worry (too much) about whether you’ll get tenure, because you probably will

A while back, Terry McGlynn came out of the tenure denial closet, revealing that he was denied tenure at his previous job (he’s now tenured). Terry’s far from alone. I know, or know of, several people who were denied tenure, or who left tenure-track jobs in anticipation of being denied. I’m sure anyone who’s been around academia for a while could say the same. And while some of those denials were for good reasons, some were for debatable reasons, and some were for bad reasons.

If you’re a new assistant prof, or hoping to become one, stories of tenure denial can be scary. It’s only natural to worry that the same might happen to you.

Here’s my advice: don’t worry, at least not too much, unless you have some reason to worry that’s specific to your own situation. Because the data show that most people do get tenure.

Data on tenure rates aren’t routinely collected and compiled. They’re much harder to come by than, say, data on grant application success rates at national funding agencies. But I did some googling, and asked around a bit, and came up with some numbers. The numbers should reassure those of you who are worried in a generalized, abstract way about your prospects for tenure.*

It’s not randomly-sampled or census data, of course. For instance, it’s my impression that tenure denial is somewhat more common at Ivy League universities and elite liberal arts colleges than at other types of institutions–but I don’t have much data to back that up (and anecdotally, that may be changing a bit). I didn’t find data for anywhere except North America. Etc. Perhaps commenters can provide links to other data sources. In the meantime, I do think some data is better than no data.

  • Every year, the California State University system publishes data on faculty recruitment and career progress (ht Terry McGlynn). In the most recent report (covering the 2010-11 academic year), over 90% of tenure applications were successful (455 faculty tenured, 42 denied). That’s across all fields at all campuses; the linked reports also break the annual numbers down by campus and field.
  • Over the last five years, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard has tenured 66-75% of candidates (Note: The success rate was slightly higher for men than women in this dataset. Issues of bias are very important, but they’re a topic for another post. I just set out to find whatever data I could on rates of tenure denial, whether or not the data were broken down by gender, race, or other factors. And I have no contextual data that would let you interpret the causes of any biases, and you really need to look at contextual data. So I’ll note in passing where the data are broken down by race or gender, but can’t really comment further.)
  • At the University of Ottawa, the success rate for tenure and promotion applications in recent years has been over 90%, although with a drop to 67% in 2013 (note that those data don’t break out tenure applications separately).
  • As of 2001, the University of British Columbia was hiring with the expectation that 90% of those who apply for tenure in the sciences will be successful.
  • At DePaul University, since 1985-86, tenure applications have had a success rate of 79-93% depending on the race of the applicant (the linked article is a story about possible racial bias in tenure denials at DePaul)
  • A plaintiff in a lawsuit against USC claimed in court documents that, from 1998-2012, USC departments of humanities and social sciences tenured 92% of white men, but only 55% of women and minorities.
  • Some data from my alma mater: as of the mid-2000s, 74-78% of Williams College faculty coming up for tenure got approved.
  • Some of you may wonder whether data on tenure applications success rates tell the whole story. After all, pre-tenure faculty may decide to leave before applying for tenure if they have reason to think they’ll be denied. It’s especially hard to find data addressing this concern, but what I could find is reassuring, I think. This report shows that approximately 55% of profs hired at 10 US research universities from 1990-2002 eventually attained tenure at the universities where they were hired (note: gender and racial biases seem small to nonexistent in this dataset). That 55% number is the same as at Williams College, by the way. Now, on their own those data are hard to interpret, because don’t split out reasons why people didn’t attain tenure where they were hired. But data from the California State system (link above), my own anecdotal experience, and the anecdotal experience of others I’ve spoken to indicate that by far the most common reason why people don’t get tenure at the university that originally hired them is because they left to take a tenure-track job at another university. “Took another job” accounts for almost 50% of all resignations from the Cal State system in the most recent year’s report (see link above; the bulk of the other 50% are for reasons like medical issues, spousal employment, etc.). Meg and Brian are good examples here. Meg was first hired at Georgia Tech, but chose to go to Michigan and is now tenured there. Brian chose to move twice before settling at Maine and getting tenured there. So it’s not that tenure denial rates are low because lots of people read the writing on the wall and leave the tenure track before they can be denied tenure.
  • Along the same lines, this 2012 Science paper reported that, of 2966 science and engineering faculty hired since 1990 at 14 US universities, 64% were promoted to associate professor at the same institution that originally hired them. At most places, promotion to associate professor either accompanies tenure or (much less commonly) precedes eventual granting of tenure. Some unknown but probably substantial fraction of the others left for another tenure-track job. Further discussion of the results here (note that this paper looked for and failed to find gender differences in the data considered).

And for what it’s worth, these data line up with my own anecdotal impressions. As I said, I do know of several people who failed to get tenure, or who left in anticipation of being denied tenure. But I know of many more people who got it. In the 10 years since I joined the Dept. of Biological Sciences at Calgary, for instance, I think everyone has either gotten tenure, or left to take another tenure-track job (and no, that’s not a tiny sample size–we’ve had people come up for tenure every year, I think).

None of this means that tenure is easy to get. It’s not as if you can just slack off once you’re hired, figuring tenure is already in the bag! All it means is that colleges and universities mostly do a good job of hiring people who are capable of meeting the expectations for tenure, and that those people do mostly end up meeting those expectations. Which makes sense, I think. Colleges and universities have strong incentives to hire good people and give them the support they need to succeed, since to do otherwise is very costly and inefficient for them (financially and otherwise). And there’s a lot of competition for tenure-track jobs, which means that there are lots of good candidates available.

Of course, these data don’t tell you anything specific to your own situation, nor do they imply anything about how to maximize your own chances of getting tenure. Meg just posted good advice on how to navigate the tenure track, including how to find out what the expectations are and make sure you’re meeting them. And here’s a good post from Tenure, She Wrote on making adjustments to deal with a bad pre-tenure performance review.

And I definitely don’t mean to downplay or dismiss the experiences of those who haven’t gotten tenure. Everybody’s personal experience with the tenure process is valuable, and has something to teach others. As I say, the point of these data is purely to provide some larger context–a (necessarily coarse) summary of the experiences of many people.

p.s. This post applies to candidacy exams and thesis defenses too. Those too can be stressful, and passing them isn’t easy. And probably everyone knows or has heard about people who failed. But most people pass their candidacy exams and thesis defenses. Here’s advice from Brian on how to prepare for your candidacy exam.

*Which is totally different than being worried for some concrete reason that’s specific to your own situation. For instance, if you’ve been told by your head of department that you’re not meeting the standards expected of you, you should worry. If you’re about to come up for tenure and know that your tenure packet is clearly inferior to the packets of other people who’ve recently been tenured in your department, you should worry. If your department has a history of denying tenure to most candidates, you should worry. Etc. Think of this post as telling you what your “priors” should be in the absence of additional information specific to your own situation.

18 thoughts on “Don’t worry (too much) about whether you’ll get tenure, because you probably will

  1. I think I’d be writing a very different post using the same exact numbers! Great post, Jeremy.

    I was rather surprised to find here that tenure denial rates seem to be at or above 10% (and often not including people who know they’re going to be denied and quite reasonably leave before it happens). That rate is far above the customary alpha that we use in science.

    Another way to put this is, how would you feel if your future in academia hinged on a single roll of a 10-sided die, that could not land on 10? I’d be mighty nervous about rolling that die.

    Of course, tenure decisions are not random. However, many of the factors are truly outside the control of the person submitting the tenure file. I didn’t think of it as a dice roll when I submitted my first tenure file. Tenure is merit based, but also based on risk factors unrelated to tenure. There are lots of things that faculty members can do to minimize that risk. By being aware of these risks — and maybe even worried about them — they can increase their odds.

    Someone who isn’t worried about the tenure decision might act in a way that could put a positive decision at risk. That’s another side of the coin (flip) using the same data in this post.

    • Hi Terry,

      As to whether 75-90% odds should make one nervous or not, well, at some level that’s obviously a purely personal thing. I do suspect that the odds of a positive tenure decision probably would look quite good to a lot of people outside academia. Many people, even with advanced degrees, hold jobs that offer less security, pay, and tangible and intangible benefits than even a pre-tenure faculty member has. So I don’t know that there’s an answer to the question of whether 75-90% odds of tenure constitute “good” odds. It depends what you mean by “good”. Glass half full vs. glass half empty and all that.

      As you say, the outcomes of individual tenure decisions aren’t random. If I were able to go back in time and submit my tenure application packet to Calgary, I’m *sure* I’d be approved again, and the same is true for the vast majority of tenure decisions with which I’m sufficiently familiar to have an opinion. Individual tenure decisions in my experience are mostly a pretty predictable reflection of various factors, many of which are only somewhat under the applicant’s control. You can apply for lots of grants and do everything possible to polish those applications–but you can’t actually *control* if you’ll get funded or not. You can write and revise lots of papers–but you can’t actually control if they’ll be accepted by selective journals or not. You can do a lot of teaching prep–but you can’t actually control how students will evaluate your teaching. You can make a reasonable, well-informed decision to pursue a line of research–but you can’t actually control if it will pan out or not. Etc. I’m sure you’re right that this is what a lot of academic anxiety (and anxiety in general) comes down to. It’s anxiety about things that are out of one’s control. Kind of like how people tend to be more nervous about flying on planes than about driving cars (or so I’ve heard), even though statistically driving a car is much more dangerous (or so I’ve heard). You have more ability to affect your own fate when driving in a car than when flying on a plane, and so driving a car feels safer.

      I do wonder how much of our careers as academics truly are out of our control, vs. merely feeling like they’re out of our control. For instance, I’ve sometimes heard people worry that tenure letters are a crapshoot because they’re totally out of your control. But there actually are a lot of things you can and should do to help ensure that your tenure letter writers will say good things about you. As you say, as a TT academic you need to be aware of risks and how to mitigate them–and there’s often a lot you can do to mitigate risk.

      As for whether being worried about risks can help you mitigate them and so increase your odds, well, probably there are some people who only run fast when chased. 🙂 But for me, feeling anxious reduces my subjective well-being, and feeling *really* anxious reduces my objective performance (e.g., by causing sleeplessness). Not that I never feel anxious at all, of course, and sometimes a bit of anxiousness can function as a useful motivator for me. I dunno, maybe everyone has their own optimal level of fear…But even there, I’m not sure that even a bit of “general anxiousness about one’s odds of tenure” is a very good motivator. Far better to know what’s expected of you and (if necessary) be a bit anxious about *specific* things that you know you need to do and aren’t sure you can do–yet. Anxious about whether a risky line of research will pan out? Deal with that anxiety by starting some less-risky projects. Anxious about whether Nature will accept your paper? Make sure to submit some things to less-selective journals. Anxious about teaching a whole class for the first time? Take some teacher training workshops, and ask for advice and materials from whoever taught the class before (or from someone who teaches a similar class elsewhere). Etc. That’s why I wrote the post, and wrote it as I did–I don’t see any point to just feeling generally anxious about one’s odds of getting tenure, it just seems to me like a purely counterproductive feeling.

      As to whether one could write a very different post using the exact same numbers, I think that would be an interesting exercise. I’ve occasionally thought about writing a post two very different ways and then posting both side-by-side. And I’ve sometimes thought of trying to write a post arguing for the opposite of what I believe on some issue, just an an exercise to see how convincingly I could do it.

      • Just to clarify: I don’t think worry about tenure decisions can or should drive people to work harder. Most of us academics don’t have that problem at all.

        However, if someone is going to worry, the biggest source of worry should be tied to the biggest source of risk. And that is whether the right people are pleased and the right people are not unpleased. And that typically has nothing to do with productivity, success, quality, effort or performance. It’s about having good judgment and a sense of institutional politics.

  2. I don’t know about other places, but in the UK, “tenure” doesn’t exist in the way it does in the US. Jeremy, you probably know more about than me, having spent time there. I’d be curious about whether other non North American countries do tenure.

    • Jeff Ollerton or another British commenter could speak better to this. My *very* rough understanding is that British appointments typically have an “initial term” of a couple of years. Most people get renewed after their initial term. And while post-initial-term appointments aren’t “tenured”, it’s rare for people to lose them involuntarily. It’s also my impression that, at least at some British universities, people who aren’t active at research and bringing in grants get saddled with a lot of teaching (a practice that’s fairly rare in N. America, I think) But it’s been a long time since I was in the UK, so take all of that with a really large grain of salt.

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