Getting and Keeping a Tenure-Track Job at a Research University

CAMWS, Madison, March 31, 2005

S. Douglas Olson, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Adapted from a presentation delivered at "The Job Search: a Blueprint for Success in an Academic Career," a panel organized by The Graduate Students Issues Committee

Permission to display this article has been granted by the author.

Let me begin by thanking Lauren, Anna, Bob, and Carrie for inviting me to participate; I hope what I have to say will be of interest and use to some of you. I intend to be straightforward, honest and blunt. I want to give you what I think is good advice—and keep you from making some of the many, many mistakes I have made in my own career. My goal is not to frighten you, but to prepare you for what might otherwise be frightening experiences. As my topic is a large and complicated one, I will restrict myself to three areas: First, some general remarks about Research One positions and why you might—or might not—want one. Second, reflections on what, in my opinion, R-One departments are looking for when they hire junior faculty. And, finally, a series of recommendations about how to succeed—or fail—in the R-One environment. Much of what I have to say applies equally to other sorts of institutions; and my overall message is actually quite simple: recognize that the move from graduate student to faculty status represents a new stage in your life, which will require you to think and behave differently than you perhaps have before; learn the local rules and customs, and play by them; and work hard and systematically, above all else on your research, but on your teaching as well.

Question Number One, then, is: Do you really want a job at a research university? The structure of graduate education in this country creates a substantial prejudice in that direction: because almost all classicists are trained at R-One institutions; and because most students want to be like at least a few of their teachers, and teachers almost by definition produce students who resemble themselves, the R-One job becomes the model job, the thing we all aspire to. But most jobs—perhaps 80% of them—are not R-One jobs; and there are significant disadvantages to teaching in R-One institutions: the pay is not really any better, except perhaps at the very upper echelons; there is substantial pressure to publish, and that pressure continues throughout your career; teaching assignments routinely include very large lecture courses intended for a non-specialist audience; opportunities to nurture individual undergraduates, by having them in a whole series of classes, are rare, and mentoring of that sort tends to happen "off the books", as uncompensated overloads; the institutions are so large and bureaucratized that you are unlikely to have much influence on their direction; and, frankly, graduate teaching in second- and third-tier programs is not always as rewarding as it should be. There are great things about R-One institutions: they have more resources, and specifically more scholarly resources, than smaller schools (bigger libraries, more programs, more pots of money here and there); they have graduate students—and good graduate students are wonderful to teach and nurture, although that is an immensely time-consuming and sometimes frustrating process; and the teaching load is lighter (generally 2-and-2), although you are expected to make productive use of that "extra time".

My first point, therefore, is that you need to think carefully, and be honest with yourself, about what kind of a job you really want; and recognize that there is nothing wrong with a non-R-One job, particularly if it is in a good department in a good school, or in an institution that represents what you see as your larger mission in life. Nor should you overestimate the extent to which your fate is in your own hands. Indeed, you will be astonished at how aggressively and consistently the market will pigeon-hole you; regardless of who you think you are or should be, interviewing institutions will have a mysterious, firm sense of what kind of job you belong in. This has to do not just with what you work on and what you've accomplished, but where you went to school, including as an undergraduate, and who you worked with—things you perhaps could not control at the time and certainly cannot change now. If your goal is an R-One job, in other words, you may already be swimming upstream. But I swam up that stream; and we are in any case here to talk about what you can do, not what you can't.

Question Number Two is: What are people at R-One institutions looking for when they hire junior faculty? The short answer, I believe, is: "A colleague"; and while that may seem obvious, what I mean is that they not looking to hire a graduate student; they have those. Graduate students teach for a living, using whatever text they have been assigned; for most of their careers, they read what they are told to read, and write about what they are told to write about; the goal of everything they do is their own enlightenment and development; and they are in what amounts to a different social and political class from faculty, in that most of what goes on in the department is not their concern or responsibility. All of this is appropriate—and none of it is true of a colleague. A colleague is fundamentally an equal, who is expected to function as such, and to join in building and maintaining a larger enterprise, be it the department, the university, or the field or profession generally. Let me illustrate what I mean by reference to the canonical three key areas: teaching, service and research.

If you are a graduate student and have taught a course for which you designed the syllabus, chose the textbooks, and wrote the exams, that is wonderful thing—and also somewhat unusual. But for a faculty member, all these things are expected. A graduate student teaches first-year Latin from whatever textbook the department uses; and in a job interview, a graduate student says: "Whatever you use is fine with me." A potential colleague has opinions, and is able to discuss them; and if they are different from mine, so much the better, so long as they are thoughtful and well-articulated. And that level of engagement stems in part from the fact that, in the case of a colleague, this is not just a job; we are talking about our students, whom we are going to work together to train.

So too with service, which simply means "all the incidental non-teaching work that makes a department, university or professional organization function". Graduate students have very little responsibility for this; but colleagues do. Here's a true story. A few years ago I knew someone who had a one-year position at an R-One institution. She was a nice person and got along with the other members of the department; she was a good and successful teacher; and she was working hard on publishing. The job turned into a tenure-track slot, for which she obviously had the inside track—but she didn't get it. I knew the Chair, so I asked him why; and he said: "We had an event for our majors one Saturday morning, and we asked her if she would handle it. She said: 'Wow, that's really early; I don't know; weekends are kind of bad for me, especially Saturday mornings; could somebody else do it?' And we realized she was the wrong person for the job." The individual in question was on a one-year contract and fully within her rights—but that's not how colleagues act, and I can't blame them for not wanting to bet a tenure-track position on her.

As for research: Everyone wants to hire a junior person with a plan, and particularly a plan that goes beyond publishing the dissertation as a book. But a colleague needs to be more than that. A colleague recognizes and can express the fact that we are engaged together in a joint project of making the ancient world comprehensible. Graduate students work for themselves; colleagues do work that interests and engages other people. And that, for my money, is worth far more than an article or a string of CAMWS papers.

On to Question Number 3: You've got a tenure-track job at an R-One institution; how do you get tenure and keep that position? I'm going to talk about three things you need to consider: politics, teaching and research. "Politics" is another way of saying: who likes whom, and who hates whom; who talks to whom, and who trusts whom; who speaks with authority, and on what; what subjects have to be avoided and why; how the department's business is really done; how people get their way, or don't; and so on. Every department has politics, and the faster and more completely you figure them out, the better. When I was child, they warned you about railroad crossings by saying: "Stop, Look and Listen." Those are good rules for life generally, and certainly for the academic life. Be cautious, even wary; don't open your mouth too quickly or move too fast. Watch what people do and how business is conducted; notice who controls things, and who accomplishes things, and who has the power to veto things. And keep your ears open: think about what people are saying, and what they mean, and why they are saying it now. No one may be out to get you, but you need to know if they are; and more important, you need to know how to get things done and who to go to for help and guidance. And I can guarantee you that things are always more complicated than they appear to be. Here are ten rules to live by:

(Number 1) You're not a graduate student anymore, and in any case, everyone in your new department has had the same set of experiences you have. So don't talk about your prelims, or the rigors of your grad school training, as if this were fascinating news. No one wants to hear it.

(Number 2) Transfer your personal affiliations and orientation unambiguously to your new institution from wherever you did your PhD. Try never to say "Well, the way we did it at [fill in the name of your own graduate school] was ...", as if reference to the elite atmosphere from which you have descended could straighten everything out; that's the wrong way to make friends and influence people.

(Number 3) Don't complain: once again, no one wants to hear it, and it makes you seem foolish and ungrateful: "Apparently you don't like it here". And never, ever complain about your institution's tenure standards; if you really think they're too high, you belong at a different school.

(Number 4) If you find yourself dominating conversations, in faculty meetings in particular: bite your tongue. Your colleagues are most likely just as smart as you are—and if they aren't, they won't appreciate having the fact called aggressively to their attention. In any case, they are much more experienced in all sorts of things than you are, and they don't need to be lectured or instructed. Behind a placid exterior, they are most likely wishing you would be quiet.

(Number 5) Don't rashly assume that people or programs want to change—or more to the point, that they want your advice about how to do so. The tenured faculty are probably very comfortable doing things their own way, no matter how misguided they seem to you; and it's not your job as an assistant professor to steer the ship. Stop, Look and Listen.

(Number 6) Don't waste your colleagues' time. They're busy people, and while they may willingly and graciously make space for you and your concerns in their schedules, that doesn't give you a license to linger in their offices. Put another way, don't abuse whatever kindness you're shown.

(Number 7) Take advice; maybe not all advice, but as much of it as possible. Many of the tasks you are doing have been done before, and doing everything your own way is not necessarily a virtue. And remember that not all "advice" is really advice; some of it is a way of telling you what you need to do, and of watching to see if you have the sense to listen.

(Number 8) Be friendly with your colleagues—but don't expect to be friends. It would be wonderful if academic units functioned as cohesive social units, so that wherever you went, you had a pre-formed group of buddies. Doubtless there are exceptions; but at most places, it's not that way. Most people want to be nice, and you will enjoy their company in the office or at department events. But they're older than you, and at different points in their lives; and odds are they won't be your pals, and there's no point in being upset about it.

(Number 9) Figure out where the money is. There are always pots of money hidden in various places in large institutions: international travel grants, public events funds; undergraduate research funds; and the like. Find some of these pots and get your fingers into them.

(Number 10) Make friends with the department secretary. He or she may well be the most powerful person around; and in any case your day-to-day existence will be much happier.

On to Teaching: Here's a dirty little secret: No matter what anyone says, here or elsewhere, mediocre teaching will not get you turned down for tenure at an R-One institution. (Note that I am talking about mediocre teaching, not disastrous teaching, which will get you turned down.) But the corollary to that dirty secret is that great teaching is a huge plus. A few people are natural teachers; but even if you are one of that select group, there's a huge amount to learn about managing students, writing exams, planning discussions, and managing TAs. So in addition to being politically wise, your second great goal in your new job should be to become a tremendous teacher. Once again: Stop, Look and Listen. Most likely there is at least one excellent teacher in your department; and he or she will, almost certainly, be one of the people who genuinely care about this aspect of the job. (He or she may very well, incidentally, not be the person formally assigned to mentor you; keep the two ideas separate in your mind.) You need to identify that individual, and then learn from and imitate him or her. And take their advice, solicited or not; that will show that you're a colleague they want to keep around.

Finally, research. The most important thing I have to say here is this: from the time you begin your job until your tenure dossier goes out to your referees, you have about five years. And given that before that, you must, at any normal R-One institution, submit a complete book manuscript; get it refereed, and with any luck (but maybe not) accepted; and then do the revisions for the final draft, you really have something more like four years of research and writing time. That time will go faster than you can possibly imagine; and you must therefore begin working right away and systematically. Do not let a year or two slip by; if you do, your back will be against the wall. And to make this possible, you must give your research priority over everything else. Grade your Latin quizzes at night, after dinner; do your own work while your brain is fresh. Close your office door (and don't open it) in the afternoon, or go to the library; block that time out. Work on the weekends; you don't have to work all weekend—but work then. Treat Spring Break as 11 days of uninterrupted research time, with no students around, rather than as an opportunity to drive round-trip to Oklahoma to see your family. So too with summer: work, and work hard, and in an organized fashion. You are entitled to a life, and you should have one. But research has to be your number-one priority. You don't have much time; but you have enough.

As I noted early in this talk, some of your fate is no longer in your own hands, if it ever was. But some of it is. Make the most of it.


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