Surviving the pre-tenure years at an R1 university

Relax, you’re not going to die.

A few days ago, Pröf-like Substance asked for posts with suggestions on how to survive the pre-tenure years. I went over my blogging history and realized that I hadn’t really written anything on this topic yet. Most of my advice to date is targeted at more junior scientists. So here is my attempt at giving some suggestions on how to make the most out of your years on the tenure track.

The below applies to a tenure-track position at an R1 university, where your promotion will largely depend on your research productivity. I’m assuming that you’re teaching one course a semester or less, you have limited requirements in terms of departmental service, and you have access to a pool of capable graduate students.

Relax, you’re not going to die

Well, you are, but likely not any time soon. Being a fresh Assistant Professor on the tenure track is a pretty sweet deal. You have 5-7 years of guaranteed job security, during which nobody is going to tell you what to do. Your teaching load is pretty light. You get to spend most of your time doing stuff you really enjoy. Also, unless you’ve signed up with a place known for not tenuring their junior faculty members, such as Harvard, odds are in your favor. As long as you perform reasonably, you will probably get tenure. And, even if you are denied tenure, you’ll likely land on your feet and find a good job elsewhere. I can think of only a handful of people I know who were denied tenure, and all of them have done Ok. In fact, the vast majority of them are now in permanent academic positions at different (or even the same1) universities, or at national labs.

Stressing over tenure will only make you perform worse. To be successful, you need to be original, you need to be productive, and you need to inspire the students and postdocs in your lab to perform at their best. Worrying about tenure will interfere with all of this. So you might as well forget that there is such a thing as tenure, do your day-to-day job as best you can, and enjoy the ride.2

Carefully evaluate any advice you receive

You’ll receive tons of advice on how to get tenure, including this piece you’re reading right now. Chances are, some of the advice you hear will not jibe with you. Some of it may even conflict with other advice you’re hearing. If you try to follow all this advice to the letter, you may feel dragged back and forth, and you may be doing all sorts of things that aren’t really you. Being an academic is all about being original and independent, doing things differently than other people have done, swimming against the stream. For any piece of advice somebody gives you, I’ll be able to point to a person who ignored it and got tenure anyway.

Now this shouldn’t be a license to behave like a complete idiot. You will need to show some productivity, you will likely need some external funding, and you need to behave reasonably towards your colleagues and your students. But beyond that, there’s many ways to skin a cat, and you’ll have to find your own.

Write at least two papers a year

A minimum of two papers a year will provide insurance against any potential claims of poor productivity somewhere up the chain in the promotion process. These claims are usually brought up when applicants have on their cv one or more years without any papers, in particular in succession. One paper a year might be sufficient, but two is safer. It protects against the vagaries of the review process, which may overly delay some of your papers.

Since you’re working at a place that emphasizes research, writing two papers a year should be eminently doable, even if you’re doing difficult experimental work that progresses slowly. Let’s do the math. Over a five-year period, that’s about 10 papers. Three of them can be review papers, which you can write without needing any new data. Two of them should be major contributions. Let’s say one is a piece of work you started as a postdoc. That’s a paper for which you should have most or all of the data already, and you should be able to write that quickly. The other should be the first major, independent piece from your own lab, which you may submit late in year three or early in year four so it comes out in time for your tenure review. Surely your research isn’t so complicated that you can’t generate enough data for a solid paper in three years. (If it is, maybe you should reevaluate your research program.)

This leaves five more papers to write. Those can be small, “least publishable unit” (LPU) papers. You should be able to write one of those each year. Write something about a method you developed. Re-analyze a previously published data set. Publish some of the partial results that will eventually lead to your big paper, three years down the line. Honestly, if you can’t write at least one LPU paper a year, you have to take a hard look at your standards and ask yourself whether they’re too high.3

Publish the same idea multiple times

I’m not asking you to self-plagiarize, I’m just encouraging you to keep beating the horse even though you may think you have slain it already. If you’ve shown something once, show it again in a different way. Or in a different system. Or write a follow-up paper showing something that may be totally obvious to you given your earlier results. Then write a review paper about all of the above.

First, this approach will help you with productivity. Second, and more importantly, it will associate your name with the particular effect you’re investigating. As part of the promotion process, letter writers will be asked whether you’re a leader in your field. One of the best ways to become known and recognized as a leader is to say the same thing, over and over, until it’s been heard in even the last corner of every ivory tower.

Say “yes” to as many conference and seminar invitations as possible

As I said in the previous point, being known helps tremendously with getting tenure. And traveling around the country giving talks at departmental seminars and conferences helps tremendously with being known. Thus, if you’re invited to speak somewhere, try to say “yes.” For some, this advice is a no-brainer. But if you don’t enjoy traveling, or if you have health concerns, or if you have teaching or family obligations that make it difficult to travel, you may be inclined to say “no.” Of course there are perfectly valid reasons to decline a travel invitation, and in the end you have to weigh the various priorities and make your own decision. My advice, if you have a tendency to say “no,” is to make an honest assessment of how much travel you can realistically accommodate into your life, and then plan accordingly. For example, you might decide that you can travel X times a year, or that you need at least Y weeks between trips, or that you can never travel in the spring. If you have a clear system like that, then it’ll be easy for you to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way. And you’ll also feel more comfortable saying “no” if you have a straightforward reason to decline, e.g.: “I’m sorry, this would be my second trip in August, and I never make more than one trip a month.”

Apply for funding early, often, and widely

You’ll probably need funding to receive tenure. Even if your university doesn’t make funding a requirement, you’ll probably need funding to keep your lab going/productive, and you’ll definitely need a productive lab to get tenure.

Compared to publishing a paper, getting a grant is much harder. Most papers I write get published; most grants I write get rejected. However, the good thing about grants is that you don’t need to obtain that many. If you’re receiving one medium-sized grant every other year or so you’re doing pretty good. To maximize your chances of receiving funding, apply often and widely. You should probably write 3-5 grants a year. Most importantly, don’t just try one funding agency or one program. Even if you’re told you need the R01 to get tenure, I doubt your colleagues will be upset with you if you’re getting a nice grant from the Navy instead. Also, don’t write all of these grants entirely by yourself. Build some collaborations, and try to be part of some larger research teams. Again, even if you’re told you need the single-investigator grant, your promotion committee will certainly rank collaborative funding higher than no funding at all. And, any funding you manage to secure helps you to hire people and pay for experiments which may be preliminary results in your next single-investigator grant application.

Make sure you recruit graduate students as soon as possible

Graduate students are the lifeblood of a new lab. Attempt to recruit one or two good ones as early as possible. The moment you receive your offer letter, find out how graduate recruitment works, and make sure you’re in the system and prospective students know about you. If possible, attend events for prospective graduate students even if you haven’t actually started your position yet. Ask your (prospective) department to add you to their web site as soon as possible. If your department has a rotation system, make sure you’re on the rotation schedule.

Graduate student recruitment happens only once a year, and if you miss the first year, you’ll risk sitting in an empty lab for a long time.

Be careful with your postdoc hires

Hiring a postdoc can be tricky for a young faculty member, unless you’re at Harvard or similar, where postdocs are willing to join any lab just for the overall reputation of the university. Most really good postdocs prefer to go to large, established labs with a proven track record. I’ve heard lots of stories from young faculty members about the postdoc woes they have gone through. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hire a postdoc at all. It just means you should focus on getting someone really good and vet them well. One option that may work is hiring a student from a past adviser, possibly somebody you worked with when you were a postdoc yourself. In case of doubt, recruit graduate students rather than postdocs.

Teaching may hurt you but it is unlikely to help you

If your teaching is atrocious, you may be denied tenure even if your research is stellar. However, if your teaching is stellar and your research weak, chances are nobody will care about your teaching performance. So plan accordingly. Put enough effort into your teaching so that nobody can say you are a bad teacher, but don’t sacrifice your research program for the goal of becoming the best teacher in the department.

Do things that make you happy

No matter how much you enjoy being an academic, there will be elements to your job that you don’t enjoy. It’s a job after all. Therefore, it is important that you find a balance between doing the things that you do enjoy and those that you don’t. When you’re under pressure to perform, such as with tenure looming, it is easy to get dragged down into doing mostly the things that you don’t enjoy but that must get done. You need to be aware of this dynamic and consciously work against it.

For example, assume you have successfully set up lab, and you now have a couple of grad students and a technician. They are all reasonably capable and they produce results. What your lab now needs is papers and grants. And you’re the only one in the lab who can write them. So, clearly, you should be spending all your time writing and none of your time doing experiments, right? This is only true if you really enjoy writing papers and grants. Let’s say you don’t. Let’s say what you really enjoy is standing at the bench doing experiments. In this case you need to find a balance such that you sometimes get to do the things that made you become an academic in the first place. Maybe you write in the morning and work at the bench in the afternoon. Or you work at the bench one day a week. Even though theoretically your productivity would be higher if you spent all your time doing the things only you can do, in practice your productivity will only stay high if you’re happy. If standing in front of a bench makes you happy, then absolutely do so, without any regrets.4

  1. Not getting tenure the first time round but eventually getting it anyway seems to be somewhat common at UT. I can think of at least four cases since I’ve been here.↩︎

  2. See also: The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc.↩︎

  3. On the topic of whether it is worth it to write low-impact papers, see also this post I wrote a while back.↩︎

  4. The same concept applies to balancing your job with the rest of your life. You need to do things that make you happy. Go exercise, watch a play, learn how to juggle, write a blog, write a novel. Anything that gives you joy deserves some of your time.↩︎

Claus O. Wilke
Professor of Integrative Biology


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