Pursuing a tenure track position, or ‘chasing the brass ring,’ is a lengthy, time-consuming, highly competitive process — with no guarantee you’ll ultimately reach your goal. Yet, achieving tenure is the holy grail for many pursuing a career in higher education.
Tenure guarantees permanent employment — but it’s more than a lifetime of job security and a steady paycheck. It comes with another big perk: academic freedom. You can’t be fired without cause, providing the freedom to teach and research what you choose without reprisal for stirring controversy or challenging the status quo. Tenured faculty also teach fewer courses and have more time to spend on their research.
Finding a tenured position with an employer requires first finding a tenure track position, typically a fixed-term contract that offers the possibility of tenure after evaluation. Tenure track exists at most U.S. and Canadian universities — and, increasingly, at some European universities. It typically requires a doctoral degree or ‘terminal’ degree (the highest possible in your field).
But not every position is on the tenure track (though you may need to take one of these positions when starting out to pay the bills). A visiting or adjunct professor has a part-time or fixed-term contract, but that doesn’t count toward tenure; lecturers are also non-tenured. In both cases, you’ll have a higher teaching load — and make significantly less money — than tenured faculty.
The tenure track process: steps and review
Getting on the tenure track requires working your way up the ranks, typically starting as an assistant professor. After about six years, you go through a tenure review; if successful, you’re promoted to associate professor, which usually comes with a salary bump. Aside from instructing students, you’ll work on research projects and publish your findings in scholarly journals. Then, five to seven years later, you go through the review process again and, if all goes well, are promoted to professor.
A tenure review evaluates three areas: research excellence, teaching and administrative service, based on your tenure dossier.
“The review process is one of the most demanding and nerve-wracking experiences you will ever have to go through — with good reason. You are asking your department and institution to allocate a significant share of their resources to you for the next thirty to forty years,” the career center at University of California, Berkeley, warns1. Potential candidates should “start thinking about what you want to have in your tenure file from the minute you accept their offer.”
At larger universities, your scholarship and ability to publish research — and attract funding — will be a critical factor in achieving tenure, while smaller universities may rank teaching ability above research. Service to the university or academic community is another factor, such as serving on a faculty committee, organizing a conference or advising a student organization.
A tenure dossier includes your teaching record, as well as supporting documentation: copies of published papers, a list of awards and grants, your record of service, as well as external letters of recommendation — ideally from recognized leaders in your field or discipline across a range of institutions.
Don’t just list achievements; emphasize the impact of those achievements. If you wrote a paper, for example, was it cited anywhere, or did it win any awards?
Your tenure dossier will be reviewed by a departmental tenure committee and external reviewers, as well as a host of other people, from the dean of the faculty to the provost (who makes the ultimate decision).
Academic appointment decisions are also based on ‘fit,’ according to Johanna Greeson, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, in an article for The Muse2. She notes that “if you’re not the right fit, for whatever reason, you won’t receive the offer no matter how impressive your CV is.” Fit could refer to your area of research, to “what a given school may need with respect to faculty demographics and diversity to such mercurial things as faculty personality.”
The future of the tenure track
Some universities, however, are moving away from tenure as they face financial pressures, creating more adjunct and part-time candidate positions — a lower-priced alternative to tenure track faculty. Indeed, only 30 per cent of faculty are now on the tenure track while 70 per cent are ‘contingent,’ according to research by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)3. And the number of tenure track positions is shrinking.4
While it remains a hot-button issue, many argue tenure is still important, and “on most campuses the tenured faculty drive curricular decisions and the research agendas that define the institutional mission,” according to Richard Vedder, Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University.5
For some, tenure may never be a possibility — or even a desire. But for those willing to chase that brass ring, it could be a dream job that comes with academic freedom and marks a significant achievement in one’s academic career.
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- The Transition from Graduate Student to Assistant Professor. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://career.berkeley.edu/PhDs/PhDtransition
- Greeson, J. (n.d.). From PhD to Professor: Advice for Landing Your First Academic Position. [Blog post] Retrieved from https://www.themuse.com/advice/from-phd-to-professor-advice-for-landing-your-first-academic-position
- Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession. (n.d.). [White paper] Retrieved from https://www.aaup.org/file/Contingent%20Appointment.pdf
- Gould, J. (2015, December 3). How to Build a Better PhD. Nature 528. pp. 22-25.
- Vedder, R. (2018, May 3). Is Tenure Dying? Does it Matter? [Blog post] Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/richardvedder/2018/05/03/is-tenure-dying-does-it-matter/