How To Succeed in a Tenure-Track Faculty Job - Higher Education

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How To Succeed in a Tenure-Track Faculty Job



I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of third-year doctoral students of color this past week at Howard University’s Preparing Future Faculty Institute. Standing up in front of these future leaders made me incredibly happy. The faculty pipeline seems to be bright and talented. My talk to them focused on success and how to achieve it as a faculty member. Here is what I told the future faculty members:


  • Immediately upon securing a tenure-track faculty position, inquire about the expectations for tenure at the institution. If your chairman, dean and other faculty members talk “around” the expectations, gently push for more specificity. It is vitally important to get as much information as possible about institutional and departmental norms to ensure your success.


  • If at a research institution, don’t get lulled into thinking that you’ll get tenure on teaching and service. You can be the best teacher and academic citizen in the world, but it won’t secure you tenure. Research institutions award tenure based on research productivity—both quality and quantity. They care about teaching and service but, without strong research productivity, you won’t get tenure. If you are at a liberal arts institution, you need to focus on teaching and research. Teaching will play a more substantial role at a liberal arts college but research will still be valued and expected.


  • Learn to be efficient about your teaching. Prepare your individual classes ahead of time—during the summer and winter breaks if possible. Advanced planning will ensure that you have more time to focus on your research. And, if you have a teaching assistant, learn to use his or her talents productively. Have the teaching assistant field questions from students. You’ll save an immense amount of time.
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  • Don’t isolate yourself. Reach out to other faculty members—this is especially important for faculty of color. Find mentors of all types, including those of different genders, races, ethnicities and ages. Attend school-wide and university-wide events. You want to demonstrate your investment in the institution and give people an opportunity to get to know you.


  • Find mentors outside your institution as well as inside. You’ll need someone to talk to about research, teaching, academic politics and many other issues, and that someone should not be involved directly in the happenings of your institution. You need an outside confidant.


  • Work as hard as you can during the first four years of your tenure-track period. Given the turnaround time at journals and academic presses, you have to produce a lot during your early years in order to have enough published by the year you go up for tenure. Tap your dissertation for material and start a new project. You want to show colleagues that you are worth the investment. And, make sure you feel passionate about the work you are doing. Passion will sustain your energy.


  • Speak out on issues about which you care deeply, but not on everything. Pick your battles. You don’t want to be known as the person who has a beef with everything. Be judicious.


  • Ask for feedback in writing about your performance. If you have an in-person meeting, follow up with an e-mail to your chairman or dean confirming what you heard in terms of critique and suggestions. You want to make sure to gain clarity about your performance so you can improve.
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  • Be a good citizen to others. Be generous and share your success. Share success with colleagues and students. Don’t hoard it for yourself. Generosity is admired.


  • Strive for balance. Work hard but also take “brain breaks.” Your brain needs time to rejuvenate and generate new ideas. Reward yourself with mini-vacations and breaks each week. 


  • When you achieve tenure, use it. Be brave. Don’t waste your power. You earned it. Use it to make positive change and to empower others.


In addition to these steps, which are directed toward new faculty members, current faculty members need to be supportive of new faculty of color. We need to ensure their success. It is the right thing to do. 


A professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Marybeth Gasman is the author of “Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of “Understanding Minority Serving Institutions” (SUNY Press, 2008).

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