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08/08/2022

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Mike Titelbaum

Marcus absolutely nailed it as far as the answers to these questions depending on the context in your university. Does your department (and the higher-ups) want you to keep doing what got you hired, or focus your research in particular ways? Just knowing that you’re at an R1 isn’t enough to answer these questions—different R1s have different standards and goals. So as they used to say in my day, you better ask somebody.

As far as what letter-writers are looking for, I think “field leader” captures it better than “expert”. “Expert” feels to me like a term about your level of knowledge. Letter-writers care about what you’ve contributed to the dialogue on some subject (or subjects). And schools care that you’ve established a national (or international) reputation in your field. Do people working in your area(s) know your work? Do conversations in your area(s) mention your work? That’s what you should be looking to achieve.

Laurence McCullough

The questions posed could happen only in a department with no mentoring program for junior faculty. I spent my academic career as a medical educator (in professional ethics in medicine) and mentoring is common in medical education. We (Baruch Brody, of blessed memory, and I) called it mentoring for success. That such mentoring is, apparently, not the norm in philosophy speaks volumes, all bad.

Anonymous full professor

I have done quite a few tenure and promotion reviews both for US and Canadian institutions, so I can speak on this issue. I've written tenure reviews for R1s, for places like Yale and Harvard, for small liberal arts colleges etc.

I always look in detail at the tenure requirements. So your foremost job is to meet these requirements to the best of your ability. Some R1s have clear quantitative criteria (e.g., at least 8 papers in peer-reviewed journals or a monograph and 3 papers etc, this is just an example). Meet the quantitative criteria. If you don't, it raises inevitable questions.

Others are a bit vaguer and talk more about quality.

Also, R1s vary a lot. I know that at a place like Yale or Harvard a lot of people with excellent files fail to get tenure (though they often land at other places), so I write my letter depending on how field-leading I think the candidate is, knowing that perhaps less than glowing letters might result in them not making the cut.

A lot of papers, even in top journals, are then perhaps not enough if no-one cites them. So if you're at an Ivy I would suggest that you make sure word gets out on your work, focus on a few or a given topic to pursue excellence, and network the living daylights (sigh... I know this is not the great side of academia, but it's a reality) so that people know your work and will cite it. Presenting at conferences, participating in joint ventures with others, is very important.

In general, also if you're not at an Ivy I cannot emphasize enough the importance of networking. Start with this as soon as possible. Joint collaborations, conferencing, social media (only if that's your thing),... it makes a difference.

I've reviewed tenure files of really excellent people, judging by the quality of their papers but I don't know them, I haven't interacted with them. I do my best to write a good evaluation, of course, that is fair. But if I know the person and can put a face to their name, have seen them present... it is just so much easier to write a strong review letter.


former chair

I agree with the stuff said above. First things first, check with the department and recently tenured folk.

Re "field leader." Fwiw, here's how the chair at my grad program (at a once-ranked R1) advised new faculty. Focus on publishing several papers in a relatively narrow area, e.g., on a problem or set of somewhat closely related issues. His idea was that if you do, you'll become someone recognized (at least) by others working in the area. He told them it was a mistake to publish in too many areas, at least early on.

early career

All great advice above, I would just add that you should think about what strategy will make your life more enjoyable. I am an early career TT prof at a Canadian R1, and when the pandemic hit I realized that I needed to change my strategy to publish more narrowly, for two reasons. First, because I needed/wanted to spend more time with my kids, and second, because I felt really scattered and stressed doing all these projects only tangentially related to each other. So, I backed out of a few projects that were not squarely in my area of research expertise. No regrets since.

If you are not at an Ivy, then my sense is that you have more freedom on how you achieve tenure. If that's the case for you, and you have checked with your institution about requirements and expectations, then I would suggest you pursue the path that is more fulfilling to you, whatever that looks like.

tenured at an R1

Your department probably has a document that sets out research expectations. These often are vague. Once you've read this document, ask a few departmental colleagues how the department interprets those expectations. I say 'a few' because sometimes there are disagreements about this within departments. Some people might care more about quantity, some might care more about having a unified research program, etc. You'll want to meet all of their interpretations of the standards. But don't guess. Ask.

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