A free template for keeping track of your pre-tenure achievements
I'm a certified coach and associate professor of philosophy at the
University of San Francisco
The ultimate guide to service for pre-tenure faculty
12 minute read
When I tell my non-academic friends that the consequence of not being awarded tenure and promotion is that you lose your job, they often recoil in shock. It might seem normal to us, but this is not how promotion works outside of the professoriate! In most jobs, if you apply for a promotion and don’t get it, you get to keep the job you have. Not in academia!
You work for many, many years to be where you are. You spent more than a decade in school, earning poverty wages as a masters and PhD student. You have at least two degrees (a bachelor’s degree and a doctoral degree and maybe a masters), and you have probably worked for several more years as a postdoc or adjunct before landing your full time gig. Even one year on the academic job market is grueling, but you might have gone on the market multiple times before securing a coveted tenure-track position.
Your prize? The possibility of being fired six years after working your butt off to keep the job that you already worked your butt off to get. Can we all agree that this system is completely ‘effing ridiculous?
Criticisms of academia aside, what I am trying to convey here is that the sacrifices you have made to even have the opportunity to apply for tenure are significant. In this context, your fear of being unable to jump this ultimate hurdle is completely understandable.
But let me tell you something: fear is a terrible decision maker.
When we make decisions from a position of fear (e.g., fear of failure, fear of missing out, fear of disappointing others), we often make decisions (or fail to make decisions) that leave us worse off. Fear of failure contributes to procrastination and perfectionism, which undermine your ability to achieve your goals, making it more likely that your fears will be realized. Fear of missing out and fear of disappointing others can cause you to pursue professional opportunities that don’t align with your priorities, consuming time and energy that would be better spent elsewhere.
One of the best things you can do for your professional career and your chances of getting tenure is to accept fear as a part of life on the tenure track, but eject it from the driver’s seat.
Let’s talk about how you can do that!
For most tenure-track faculty, the primary factor in tenure decisions is research productivity. So fear of being denied tenure boils down to fear of failing to be sufficiently productive researcher.
The problem is that research productivity is measured not by how many books or articles you write, but by how many you publish, and whether or not your research is accepted for publication is something that is not entirely within your control. Sure, there are things you can do to increase the likelihood that your research will be published, but that’s about it. Beyond doing those things, it’s out of your hands.
My field—philosophy—has astonishing low acceptance rates. Some of our top disciplinary journals have acceptance rates below two percent (seriously!), and many have acceptance rates in the range of 4-7 percent. What this means is that a lot of very good research isn’t being published (or takes a very long time to be published, often years).
Even if your field doesn’t have such unreasonably high standards, having your work accepted for publication in good journals (or landing a book contract with a prestigious university press) cannot be accomplished through hard work alone, even if your research is (from a God’s-eye view) top notch. Referees and editors have to agree to publish it. Often they don’t, and often for bad reasons (I’m looking at you reviewer 2!).
The thing is, humans really, really don’t like uncertainty. One study found that subjects were much more stressed about a small chance of receiving an electric shock than they were about a 100 percent chance of receiving an electric shock. In fact, subjects were most stressed when their chances of being shocked were about 50/50.
On the tenure track, the possibility that you might fail—fail to get published, and therefore fail to get tenure—is analogous to the electric shock. Like receiving an electric shock, failing to get tenure is undesirable, and your brain experiences the uncertainty about an undesireable outcome as danger, which activates your fight-or-flight response and compels you to find safety.
Faculty typically try to find safety in one of two ways: avoidance (pretending the uncertainty away) and overcommitment (an attempt to eliminate uncertainty by hedging your bets). Although these strategies promise to make you feel safer (at least in the short term), neither helps you to avoid the dangerous outcome you fear.
The Ostrich manages her fear by sticking her head in the sand, and pretending away uncertainty. She accomplishes this by avoiding research and writing and performing non-research tasks that give her the illusion of safety.
She plunges herself into learning about pedagogy, preparing new courses, and lesson planning. She provides extensive feedback on her students’ assignments, and always finds time to meet with them one-on-one.
The Ostrich is eager to be helpful outside of the classroom, too. Maybe she volunteers to join a faculty hiring committee, or the program committee for her professional association’s national conference. Maybe she does both of these things, and a few others.
She referees more than her fair share of journal articles, and attends every colloquium, conference, reading group, or workshop that might be useful (fear of missing out).
Her inbox is overflowing with emails, and of course she needs to get back to everyone right away.
If she doesn’t have time to do research and writing, then she can avoid thinking about whether her work will be published, and therefore whether her application for tenure and promotion will be successful. If she doesn’t think about the possibility that she might fail, she doesn’t have to confront uncertainty, and if she doesn’t confront uncertainty, then she feels safe.
Now, the avatar I’ve just described is a bit of a caricature. But I know a version of her very well, and maybe you do too.
Unfortunately, avoiding doing research and writing because it triggers your fear of failure makes it more likely that your fears will be realized. The trick is finding ways to do research and writing that don’t send danger signals to your lizard brain.
For that, you’ve got to focus on systems, not goals.
A system is a process or procedure for achieving a goal. Establishing a system for achieving a goal means constructing a series of actions or steps, and deciding how you will carry them out.
A prerequisite to getting tenure (goal), is getting published (goal), and a prerequisite to getting published is doing research and writing on a regular basis. But rather than focusing on those goals—Uncertainty! Danger! Panic!—create a system for doing research and writing, and focus on the system instead.
One of my favorite ways of creating a system to do research and writing is by time blocking (you can get my step-by-step instructions on how to do it here). Time blocking is a way of intentionally structuring your daily and weekly schedule so that specific “blocks” of time are dedicated to completing a specific task or group of tasks.
Blocks for research and writing can be as short as 30 minutes, but shouldn’t be longer than four hours (this is about how much time experts can spend in a state of deep concentration). To make them real, put these times in your calendar or planner every week.
I like to schedule research and writing blocks for the whole semester at the very beginning of the semester (for example, 8:00-10:00am every Monday-Wednesday-Friday) so that I know that I have protected this time for doing research and writing before my calendar starts to fill up with meetings and other commitments.
Next, make some decisions about where and how you’re going to use your research and writing blocks. Think routines and rituals:
Will you work from home? Your campus office? A study carrel in the library?
Will this time be used exclusively for writing? Will half of it be devoted to reading and the other half writing?
Will you print off articles to be read in advance or will you read from your laptop or tablet?
Will you buy a fancy coffee to enjoy while you start your work? Will you have some of your favorite snacks on hand?
Will you use some version of the Pomodoro Technique to structure your time? How will you use your breaks?
What will you do if you encounter writer’s block? What other obstacles should you anticipate (for example, how will you deal with frequent urges to check email or Twitter?).
By focusing on the routines and rituals that comprise your system, you can make progress toward your goals without the goals themselves (and therefore your fear of failing to achieve them) being the center of attention. Instead, you are focusing on the routines and rituals you’ve created.
It feels good to create a plan and do the things you planned to do. At your desk by 8:00am? Check! Read an article? Check! Complete four Pomodoros? Check! Write 200 words? Check!
The cool thing about using a system is that it gives you a sense of accomplishment that isn’t tied to your goals. The extra-cool thing is that well-designed systems will help you to achieve your goals, too.
Will having a system make your fears disappear? No. But when those fearful thoughts demand your attention, you’ll know what to do: focus on the system instead.
Like the Ostrich, the Overachiever is likewise haunted by fears of failure, but instead of avoiding research and writing, she hedges her bets by taking on far too many projects.
At any given time, she’s writing multiple single-author papers, and co-authoring several others. She never turns down requests to collaborate (what if she misses out on this opportunity forever?) even if they are a bad fit and she already has more work than she has time to do. She’s writing a book proposal (just in case those articles fall through) and also agreed to co-edit a volume with her PhD advisor and mentor (fear of disappointing others).
Although the Overachiever isn’t avoiding doing research, she’s not getting much done either. Well, she’s getting a lot done but she’s not getting much of any one thing done. Instead, she’s “making a millimeter of progress in a million directions.”
The result is that she’s overwhelmed and exhausted, but doesn’t still doesn’t feel like she’s done enough to quell her fears. Thus, she gets stuck in a cycle of overcommitment and exhaustion that is more likely to lead to burnout than tenure.
Instead of saying “yes” to everything, the Overachiever needs to find a way to say “yes” to the right things, and “no” to everything else. She needs to make significant progress on a few key things.
Rather than frantically hedging her bets, the Overachiever can manage her fear by establishing strategic priorities, and then creating a system that supports those priorities (see above).
Establishing priorities on the tenure track requires that you face your fear, at least for a little while. (The good news is that facing your fears can actually reduce your anxiety about them.)
Facing your fears is necessary because to avoid overcommitment you need to establish strategic priorities, and in order to establish strategic priorities, you need to think very carefully about what it takes to get tenure in your discipline, at your institution, and the best way that you—as a unique person with unique talents and a unique perspective—can do that.
Pursuing strategic priorities is effective because it focuses your attention on carefully chosen tasks, projects, and activities to ensure that you are making significant progress in the right directions rather than insignificant progress in randomly chosen and disparate directions. Having strategic priorities ensures that you are spending your limited time and energy on those projects and opportunities that matter most for tenure and promotion rather diffusing your time and energy across so many projects and opportunities that you end up neglecting those that matter most for tenure and promotion.
Instead of trying to minimize uncertainty by pursuing every research project and opportunity, you can allay your fears by reminding yourself that you are pursuing carefully-selected, strategic opportunities that maximize your chances of success by aligning your interests, values, and talents as a researcher with your institutional and disciplinary tenure and promotion criteria. Your strategic priorities are your safety net.
Here are a few strategies you can use to zero-in on your priorities (from Essentialism by Greg McKeown).
Make a list of your projects and collaborations and imagine that they don’t belong to you yet. For each project or opportunity, ask yourself two questions: “If I didn’t already have this research or writing opportunity, what would I be willing to do to acquire it?” and “If I wasn’t already involved in this collaboration, what would I be willing to do to get in on it?”
These questions will help you get clear on which projects really matter (to you and for tenure), and which ones you’re doing for the wrong reasons (e.g., because you’re afraid of what might happen if you don’t do them).
They also help you to overcome the endowment effect, which is an emotional bias that causes us to overvalue things (including projects, tasks, and activities) that we already have simply because they belong to us.
We are susceptible to the endowment effect because humans are loss averse: we dislike losses more than we enjoy gains. What this means is that we end up retaining projects, tasks, and activities not because they are truly important, but because giving them up is emotionally difficult. Pretending that a project or collaboration is not yours diminishes the feeling of psychological ownership that is preventing you from abandoning those that are out of alignment with your values, interests, and goals.
Think of the single most important criterion for whether some project or opportunity ought to be a priority. For example, your criterion might be “Is aligned with tenure and promotion criteria for my discipline and institution” or “Is the topic I can be truly excellent at researching.”
Using your criterion, give each project or opportunity a score between 0 and 100. For any project that receives a score less than 90 percent, change the score to 0 and eliminate it from your priorities.
Select three minimum criteria that a project must satisfy in order to be a priority. “Is aligned with tenure and promotion criteria for my discipline and institution” is an example of a good minimum criterion. Any project that doesn’t meet all three criteria is automatically disqualified; it is not a priority.
If a project doesn’t pass the minimum bar, but is an opportunity or collaboration you’ve already accepted, then you need to think hard about how you can uncommit yourself. (I’ve done it, and I promise the sky won’t fall!)
Next, select three ideal or extreme criteria. These more stringent criteria can help you to narrow down your project list to those that will make the highest possible contribution to your goals. Some examples of ideal criteria are:
Is the research topic about which I have unique expertise.
Makes the highest possible contribution to my goal.
Is the most significant contribution I can make to my field of research.
Is exactly what I want to be working on right now.
To make the cut, a project or opportunity must satisfy two out of three of your ideal criteria. Again, if a project doesn’t pass the ideal bar, but is an opportunity or collaboration you’ve already accepted, then you need to think hard about how you can uncommit yourself.
Fear of failure is a predictable and probably inevitable part of being on the tenure track. But you can experience fear without letting it guide your decision making.
Two common responses to fear on the tenure track—avoiding research and writing, and overcommitting to research and writing—can make it more likely that your fear of failure will be realized. Instead, manage your fears by establishing strategic priorities and creating systems to achieve them.