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
5 min read
Failing to achieve tenure, and therefore losing your job, is—if not a catastrophe—a significant hardship. Given the state of the academic job market (it’s not as though tenure-line positions are easy to come by), and how much time and energy you’ve invested in preparing to achieve this ultimate goal, the possibility that you will be unable to do so is, shall we say, deeply uninviting.
Though tenure denials loom large in the academic imagination, the fact is that most tenure-track faculty get tenure. Really. That probably won’t stop you from worrying, but I hope that you will be encouraged to worry less.
Hard data on tenure success rates is hard to come by, but it does exist and it’s possible to extrapolate trends.
First, Penn State, a public doctoral university with “very high research activity” (these so-called “R1s” are the pinnacle of the Carnegie Classification system), publishes tenure success rates annually. Over the past two years (2021 and 2022), 59 percent of Penn State tenure-track faculty included in their data set earned tenure and promotion. Moreover, as their 2021 report notes, these results underestimate the likelihood that faculty will recieve tenure. This is because some of the faculty who did not receive tenure were not denied tenure (for example, because they extended their tenure clock or accepted faculty positions elsewhere). Actual tenure success rates are more likely to be above 60 percent annually.
At the California State University (e.g., Cal State San Diego, San Francisco State, Cal State Sacramento, etc.), many of which are classified as R2s with “high research activity,” recent data show that less than 1 percent of all probationary faculty are denied reappointment or tenure in a given year. That means over 99 percent of faculty who apply for tenure are successful. 99 percent!
And at my institution, the University of San Francisco, which is a doctoral/professional university according to the Carnegie Classification (it’s research active, but neither an R1 or an R2), the tenure success rate is well over 95 percent (I was privy to this information as the Vice President of the faculty union).
Finally, according to Cornell University Deputy Provost, Avery August, “roughly two-thirds of early career pre tenure faculty hired in a given year will ultimately receive tenure at the end of their probationary period.” Notably, the remaining one third of faculty who do not receive tenure at Cornell includes those faculty who leave the University prior to applying for tenure and promotion (including those who ultimately receive tenure at a different institution).
Assuming that tenure success rates at the above institutions are similar to other institutions belonging to the same Carnegie classifications, at the majority of institutions, over 50 percent of probationary faculty who apply for tenure are successful, and at many institutions, well over 50 percent of applicants are successful (60-99 percent).
These generalizations are further supported by a study in Science which tracked 2966 individual science and engineering faculty across 14 institutions in the United States. The researchers found that 64.2 percent of assistant professors were promoted to associate professor at the same institution at which they were initially hired. Another study found that 95 percent of tenure-track faculty hired at top 14 law schools between 2000 and 2012 received tenure.
The upshot is that, all else being equal, you are much more likely to get tenure than not. Given the tenure success rates I’ve presented here, the percentage of tenure-track faculty who are tenured and promoted to associate professor may be, on average, over 80 percent. That means, even factoring in elite, private research institutions like Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford, which have, anecdotally, much lower average tenure success rates (though it’s worth noting that Cornell University is among these), over 70 percent of faculty who apply for tenure and promotion are likely to be awarded tenure and promotion.
To put this into perspective, according to the United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the overall involuntary turnover rate (layoffs and terminations) in 2021 was 29%. If the average tenure success rate is about 70 percent, then you are just as likely to be denied tenure as you are to be laid off or fired from any job. And yet, unlike most tenure track faculty, other people don’t go around in a constant state of fear and anxiety over the possibility that they might be fired or laid off—that is, unless they have a very specific reason to think their time is nigh (more on this below).
My point is that you shouldn’t either.
Admittedly the statistical evidence I’ve presented here is pretty fuzzy. The data are partial and incomplete, and I’ve glossed over the very real phenomenon of racial and gender disparities in tenure decisions. Be that as it may, here are two more reasons for thinking that if you are already on the tenure track, you are very likely to get tenure.
First, there are an abundance of highly qualified candidates for every tenure-track position. I can pronounce with great confidence that anyone in a tenure-track position is significantly more likely to be awarded tenure than they are to land a tenure-track position in the first place (only about 12-13 percent of PhDs secure a tenure-track job, see Brennan: 32). What this means is that it’s easy for universities to hire faculty who are capable of meeting their tenure expectations, and this is precisely what hiring committees aim to do. Therefore, if you have landed a tenure-track faculty position, you already have strong evidence that you’re a good bet for tenure.
“Because the hiring decision anticipates the long-term commitment of university resources, it is done with great care and with a reasonable expectation that the faculty member will be able to meet the tenure standard. Consequently, most pre-tenure faculty members end up earning tenure.”Avery August, Deputy Provost, Cornell University
Second, although it sometimes seems as though institutions of higher education exist in their own realm (ivory towers, etc.), they are ultimately large non-profit organizations with very tight budgets—even tighter as public funding for higher education shrinks, and student enrollment declines. Like any other business, universities need to balance their budgets, and to do so they aim to keep costs down (hence their reliance on low-wage, contingent faculty).
One way that employers—including universities—reduce costs is by improving employee retention and reducing turnover (voluntary and involuntary). This is because turnover is very expensive. It can be as high as 1.5-2 times an employee’s salary. For this reason, colleges and universities simply cannot afford to discard assistant professors willy-nilly every 5-7 years only to rehire different ones who are equally likely to meet their tenure and promotion criteria. That’s why most institutions do not view assistant professors like iPhones: they are not looking to upgrade to a newer model every few years. Rather, just like your stingy uncle, they’d prefer to keep the ones they have. That’s you.
Unless you have a very specific reason for thinking that you will be denied tenure (for example, your department chair or dean has told you that you are falling short of expectations), don’t sweat it. It is very likely that you will get tenure. As I’ve argued, most faculty are more likely to be awarded tenure than not. Moreover, spending five or more years on the tenure track in a state of near constant fear and anxiety is an extremely unpleasant way to live. Chronic stress is bad for your health and well being, and a sure fire way of setting yourself up for burnout at mid-career if not sooner.
So, instead of worrying about whether you will get tenure, focus on doing your best without working yourself into the ground. That means writing consistently, and ensuring that you’re not sinking too much time into teaching or service. Remember that rest is productive, and that you don’t need to work excessively to earn tenure. You’ve got this.