How I write tenure and promotion letters

In the comments the other day, Meghan and I were remarking on the dearth of blog posts providing advice for post-tenure faculty. So I guess we’ll have to rectify that ourselves! Hence this post, in which I talk about how I write tenure and promotion letters, for North American colleges and universities (not sure if my advice generalizes to other continents…). I have general advice, plus some illustrative made-up examples.

Caveat: I’ve only ever written a handful of tenure and promotion letters, and have never sat on a tenure and promotion committee myself. I think my letters were fine, or at least non-terrible, because the folks for whom I was writing them got tenured/promoted, as I recommended. But it’s hard to say because I’m sure those folks would’ve gotten tenured/promoted no matter what my letters said. Well, so long as my letters weren’t, like, bizarre. 🙂

Which leads to my first piece of advice: remember that most tenure and promotion cases are not borderline cases. So if you’re not sure exactly what to say in your letter, just say whatever seems reasonable, confident that it will almost certainly be fine, and not be the thing that decides the outcome of the case.

Second, if you feel like an imposter the first time you’re asked to write a tenure or promotion letter, remember: whoever invited you to do it is an experienced professional who wouldn’t have invited you if you weren’t yourself an appropriately-experienced professional. The fact that you’ve been invited to write the letter shows that you are in fact well-qualified to write it, even if you feel a little nervous about doing it, or still think of yourself as a “junior” prof, or whatever. You’ve got this!

Third, it’s totally fine to ask a colleague for general advice on how to write a tenure or promotion letter. Asking for advice isn’t a sign that you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s a sign that you do. I regularly ask trusted colleagues for advice on all sorts of things, and they regularly ask me for advice.

Fourth (and this is super-obvious…), you’ll probably be given some instructions, such as a link to the institution’s official tenure standards, or instructions to only consider the applicant’s performance over a specified time period. And you’ll be provided with information, in particular the applicant’s tenure/promotion application packet. Read the provided information and follow the instructions.

Fifth, don’t gush. Ok, if it’s a letter for an “elite” place like Harvard or Stanford, a positive letter needs to say that the applicant is one of the best people in the world in their field and at their career stage. But in general, your letter should not contain any exclamation marks, and should omit adjectives like “amazing”, “awesome”, “astonishing”, etc. Even if it’s for Harvard, and even if you really do think that the applicant is “amazingly awesomely astonishing!!!!!11!”. Gushing does not make your letter stronger; if anything, it undermines your credibility. Good letter writers convey why the applicant is amazingly awesomely astonishing, rather than asserting it with a bunch of adjectives and adverbs. See here for more on this.

Sixth, avoid gendered descriptions. A simple test: reread your letter, imagining it was for someone of a different gender. If it sounds odd to you, you need to rewrite it in a non-gendered way. There are non-gendered ways to praise someone as (say) collegial.

Seventh, see this old post from Brian, Meghan, and I on writing reference letters; much of the advice applies to tenure and promotion letters too. Includes advice for how to write letters that are less than fully positive.

Ok, preliminaries are over! Here’s how I structure my letters, with a bunch of illustrative made-up quotes.

First paragraph: Something like “To Whom It May Concern: I’m writing in support of Dr. Jane Doe’s application for tenure. I am familiar with Dr. Doe’s work through our shared research interests in unicorn conservation, and as a participant in the ‘New Directions in Unicornology’ symposium she organized at the 2012 Unicorn Society of America Annual Meeting.” If you like, you can conclude this paragraph with a summary of your recommendation (e.g., “For the reasons described below, I strongly recommend granting the application.”) Or, you can save your recommendation for the end of the letter.

Next 1-3 paragraphs (as needed): Summary and evaluation of the applicant’s research, written for an audience of intelligent non-scientists. (I’m assuming here that the applicant has research duties and so the letter requires an evaluation of the applicant’s research. That’s the only sort of tenure/promotion letter with which I have experience.) Do not just summarize the applicant’s cv and application packet. Instead, interpret the information in the cv and application packet, evaluate it, and place it in context. This is where your letter adds value for the people who will be reading it. The readers probably don’t work in the applicant’s field. They therefore have only a very limited ability to interpret the “latent” information in the applicant’s cv and application packet, and no ability at all to read the applicant’s papers. For instance, the people reading your letter probably have no idea what the good journals in the applicant’s field are, or the typical size of federal research grants in the applicant’s field, or etc. So make that latent information explicit. You might write things like:

  • “Dr. Doe publishes regularly in leading international journals, and has exceeded the department’s requirement of at least two peer-reviewed papers per year.”
  • “Dr. Doe’s research addresses various questions about unicorn behavior, but all her lines of research share an emphasis on directly linking theoretical models to empirical data. This approach takes full advantage of recent advances in computing power and and the new technology of remotely sensing unicorns using crystal balls. Her methods place her at the leading edge of the field.”
  • “Of the papers provided in support of Dr. Doe’s tenure application, I am most impressed with her work on how unicorns choose their time and place of breeding so as to maximize the odds of foal survival in the face of unpredictable dragon attacks (Doe et al. 2017). Biologists all believe that organisms behave so as to maximize their fitness, but they rarely demonstrate it quantitatively because doing so is very difficult. Doe et al. (2017) is a fine example of testing general theory with a system-specific quantitative model parameterized from empirical data. I anticipate that it will become a textbook example in future. I’m a bit surprised the paper was published in a specialized journal like Podunk Journal of Unicorn-Related Obscurities; it’s of much broader interest than the typical PJURO paper. But I can imagine various good reasons for this.”
  • “Dr. Doe’s research program is well-established and robust; I have no doubt that she will continue to be a productive researcher in the future. In today’s challenging federal funding environment, she is wise to pursue multiple lines of research based on different approaches. She is well-hedged against unforeseen setbacks with any one project. That she currently holds grants from three different agencies reflects the robustness of her research program.”
  • “Dr. Doe recently began a new line of theoretical work on phoenix reproduction. Her hypotheses about the evolutionary origins of reproduction via spontaneous combustion are novel and provocative, but in my view are too speculative to be testable. I do not anticipate that these hypotheses will become influential, but it is early days.”

Next 2-3 paragraphs (as needed): evaluations of teaching and service contributions. Again, don’t just summarize what’s in the application packet. Evaluate it and place it in context, bringing out latent information that those reading your letter might not spot on their own. For instance, you might say things like:

  • “Dr. Doe appears not yet to have developed any new courses of her own, which in my experience is somewhat unusual for professors at her career stage. But there may be good reasons for this that would be invisible to an external evaluator, such as the department’s existing teaching needs.”
  • “In switching her unicorn physiology course to a ‘flipped learning’ format, Dr. Doe was acting on the consensus of the pedagogical literature in favor of active learning approaches over lecturing. I know from experience that flipped courses are more work for the instructor than conventional lectures. It is very much to Dr. Doe’s credit that she was willing to invest extra effort for the benefit of her students, based on the best current pedagogical research. That her student evaluations for this course were somewhat mixed is only to be expected and not a concern, given that this was her first time teaching the new format. Her evaluations for this course likely will improve in future as she irons out the kinks. Further, pedagogical research also shows that student opinions of their courses correlate only weakly or even negatively with their own learning.”
  • “Dr. Doe should be commended for overhauling the department’s graduate program to place it on a sustainable financial footing.”
  • “Dr. Doe has been active as a graduate student committee member; I’m sure that there is high demand among graduate students for her statistical expertise. Dr. Doe has only recently started to supervise her own graduate students, but this is understandable given that she only recently received her first major research grants.”
  • “Dr. Doe recently became Editor-in-Chief of American Naturalist, a measure of her international standing in ecology and evolution and a major service to those fields. American Naturalist is one of the world’s top journals in ecology and evolution.”

End with a paragraph summarizing your overall view of the application, and giving (or reiterating) your recommendation. The whole thing should add up to more than a page, but less than three full pages.

What do you think? Any good advice I missed? Any bad advice I shouldn’t have given in the first place? Looking forward to learning from your comments, as always.

8 thoughts on “How I write tenure and promotion letters

  1. Jeremy, I’ve read quite a few of these letters in my time as Chair and Dean, and I think your advice is spot-on. The absolutely critical bit is your point about “latent information”. You should expect your letter to be read by other scientists in the same department, but not the same field (the P&T committee and the Chair), quite likely scientists in *other* science departments (a Faculty-wide P&T committee and a Dean), and then (although with less impact except in marginal cases) by a VP or higher who may not be a scientist at all. So it’s absolutely critical to explain that the “American Naturalist” is a premier journal (which will NOT be the first assumption of a chemist or molecular biologist, sadly); or that a lag of several years before the first publication based on work conducted at the hiring university is NOT a red flag for a field ecologist, etc etc.

    It’s hard to overemphasize the need of P&T committee members to have this latent stuff explained. They should know better, but they will make assumptions. I was once told that Bob Holt couldn’t be one of my tenure letter-writers because “he doesn’t publish much” – this by a molecular biologist who, in the year ca 2000, had merely looked Bob up in Pub Med (at the time, it had almost no coverage in eco/evo and missed all of Bob’s many, many publications in Ecology, Am Nat, etc….) Similar dumb assumptions will get made, and the most important function of the tenure letter is, I think, to correct them!

    • Simon Leather thinks I’m doing it right too:

      Which is reassuring!

      That is a hilarious story about Bob Holt, I’ll have to tell him that one next time we chat. Fortunately, that particular misunderstanding is less likely to happen these days because of Google Scholar (Bob’s h-index is almost 100 at this point).

    • In seriousness, your story about someone searching for Bob Holt’s papers on PubMed makes me wonder about the distribution of naivete about other fields. Like, I’m well aware that computer scientists put a lot of weight on presenting at prestigious conferences, that in many social science and humanities fields books carry much more weight than papers, that mathematicians often have no or only very small grants, etc. And so I tend to assume that most people are aware of this among-field heterogeneity. Further, I assume that anything I don’t know about field X might well be different than in ecology, rather than assuming it must be the same. Am I unusual in knowing as much as I do about how other fields work? (because I don’t feel like I know very much!) And am I unusual in recognizing among-field heterogeneity and my own ignorance about its nature and extent?

      tl;dr: how many people would do something as silly as trying and failing to find Bob Holt’s papers on PubMed?

      • Sadly, my administrative experience suggests that “naivete about other fields” is remarkably common. (Every now and again Alex Bond catches *me* doing it, usually about science in universities vs in governments or museums, so my little piece of the moral high ground is indeed “little”.)

  2. It’s amazing how similar our approaches are, even though we’ve never discussed the specifics of what we write!

    One thing that recently occurred to me, based on reading the summary of my own promotion case that went to the Board of Regents, is that it can help to have one sentence that is an obvious thing for the people summarizing letters to quote.

    The letter I struggled with the most was for someone who seemed like probably a borderline case. But that was because I was initially feeling like I needed to make a recommendation on whether the person should be promoted or not. I spoke with a senior colleague who has written and read tons of these letters. His advice was to focus on the latent information, providing the context that the people at that person’s institution would need in order to make their own judgment about whether the person had met their institutions norms for tenure. That was really helpful advice.

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