How to Get Tenure

The top ten things junior faculty need to know — and why it should matter to the rest of us.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Business students attend a lecture at the Aula Magna auditorium at the Stockholm University on October 30, 2012. Stockholm University has over 36,000 students at four faculties, making it one of the largest universities in Scandinavia.    AFP PHOTO / JONATHAN NACKSTRAND        (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Business students attend a lecture at the Aula Magna auditorium at the Stockholm University on October 30, 2012. Stockholm University has over 36,000 students at four faculties, making it one of the largest universities in Scandinavia. AFP PHOTO / JONATHAN NACKSTRAND (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)

For academics, a tenured position is the Holy Grail. And not without reason: promotion to tenure means you don’t have to look for a new job when your term as an assistant professor is up, and tenure provides a degree of ironclad job security that most professions lack. The raison d’être of tenure is not to let senior faculty coast until they retire, however; its purpose is to enable scholars to pursue lines of research that might not have an immediate payoff, and to let them write or say controversial things without worrying that doing so might cost them their jobs. If you believe in academic freedom and the importance of wide-ranging discourse, then the institution of tenure makes good sense.

Even if you’re not an academic or contemplating graduate school, who gets tenure at our universities still matters. Some academics like yours truly do engage in policy debates, and a few of those who do actually get read and may occasionally have a real-world impact. Senior faculty can use that position to angle for careers in Washington, D.C. — as many of my colleagues have done, along with people like Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Krasner, Vali Nasr, or Bruce Jentleson — and of course academics play important roles training those who may eventually occupy top positions in government in the United States and overseas. So decisions for tenure are not an entirely academic question.

I’ve been in this business for more than three decades and I’ve watched a lot of friends, former students, and colleagues run this gauntlet. I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of junior faculty do not understand the process as well as they should. They understand the formal mechanisms, but they don’t fully grasp the practical implications and so they don’t necessarily maximize their chances of success. As a public service, therefore, this week’s column is my attempt to peel back the curtain and explain what is really going on behind the curtain.

A few caveats before I begin. First, these observations are solely my own; they do not reflect the official thinking of the Kennedy School, Harvard University, or anybody else. Second, most of what follows applies primarily to major research universities, because that’s the environment that I happen to know best. To take an obvious example, some of this advice would need to be modified if you are teaching at a liberal arts college. Third, I can’t speak with much authority about other disciplines (e.g., engineering, law, business, mathematics, etc.), and I’m sure there are some minor differences in how the process might work for some of them.

So exactly what do you have to do to get tenure? Here’s my list of the Top Ten Things You Need to Know (or Do) in order to get tenure at a major university.

No. 1: Remember that tenure isn’t a reward for good behavior, it’s a wager

When you’re a junior faculty member, there is a tendency to think of tenure as something that is granted if one just ticks enough of the right boxes. Published your thesis? Check. Won a teaching award? Great. Raised some grant money? Bravo. Published some articles in top journals? Good for you.

These are all valuable — even necessary — things to do, but the decision to confer tenure is not a reward for a job well done, or an expression of thanks on the part of a grateful university. On the contrary, the university is betting that you are going to be a very valuable employee for decades to come, which is why it is willing to give you a decently paid job for life. At top universities, they are in fact betting that you might be the best person in your field that they can get for some time to come.

Why does this distinction matter? It reminds you that getting tenure won’t necessarily happen just because you fulfill the Minimum Daily Adult requirements (1-plus books, 4-plus articles, 3-plus book chapters, and 100 or more citations in Google Scholar, etc.). What review committees, departments, deans, and provosts want to see is not just a list of accomplishments (though that is obviously important), but they also want to see evidence of scholarly momentum and an upward trajectory. In short, they need to be convinced that your past accomplishments (however dazzling) are an indication of what is to come and not just part of the historical record.

As a practical matter, this means one usually need to do some serious independent work beyond your dissertation. If all you have to show is the work you did when you were still under your committee’s supervision, your employer may rightly wonder whether you can really produce important scholarship on your own. So now matter how good your thesis and initial publications may have been, scholars seeking tenure usually have to have another promising line of research underway, even it is not yet fully completed. And if that second project isn’t just a minor variation on the work you’ve already done, so much the better.

No. 2: Clausewitz was right

In a famous passage in On War, Karl von Clausewitz writes “In warfare everything is simple, but the simplest things are very difficult.” So it is with getting tenure: what is expected of you is straightforward, but doing it is hard.

There is no magic, hidden formula for getting promoted; no secret handshake that is revealed to some candidates but not others, and no mysterious set of criteria that senior faculty guard jealously and only reveal to their junior colleagues after tenure is conferred. To repeat: what you must do to get tenure is simple, but the simplest things are difficult.

I mention this because I have been repeatedly surprised by colleagues, students, and friends who seem to have convinced themselves they were immune to these principles, or who believed they could make a serious run at tenure without doing the basic things any serious department or school will expect. Worse yet, in some cases, junior faculty willfully ignored the basic requirements, yet seemed surprised when the outcome was unfavorable.

Which brings us to No. 3.

No. 3: You need to do important research

You already knew that, right? No matter how much universities talk about teaching, about citizenship, about being a good colleague, etc. (see below), tenure candidates at research universities are judged primarily on the quality and impact of their research. Note the two italicized words. It’s not enough to publish a lot; what you publish should be read and appreciated by significant figures in your field and regarded by them as important, seminal, or at least not trivial. Writing three mediocre books before you come up for promotion will not advance your cause as much as writing one or two really terrific articles that set the field on its ear. Simple, right? Yes, but very difficult.

What do I mean by “important?” I don’t just mean a book or article that gets a lot of citations in the Social Science Citation Index or Google Scholar (though there’s nothing wrong with that). Rather, I mean books and articles that present new ideas or new evidence that changes how we think about key topics in the field. It could also be a body of scholarship that convinces the field that a previously neglected topic deserves more attention.

One nice indicator of importance is whether a junior scholar’s work starts showing up on graduate course syllabi (and conceivably some undergraduate syllabi too). Space on a syllabus is scarce when you consider the volume of articles and books that get published every year, and most faculty want their students to be familiar with the most important works in the field. This will normally include both “classic” works that have shaped the discipline but also the best cutting-edge work from the research frontier. So if you are publishing works that other scholars feel compelled to assign, that’s a very good sign. I tell my own graduate students that this where they should aim: if you write books and articles that future students will have to read in order by be considered literate or knowledgeable then you are by definition helping to shape the field. And that’s what your department will want to see.

To be sure, this whole issue of impact (no matter how measured) is tricky. It’s partly a function of existing networks, it may be gendered in various ways, and sometimes you don’t have much control over which topics suddenly become “hot.” This means you do have to go to some effort to get your work out in different venues and make sure it gets the attention it deserves. Give talks at other universities; organize panels at conferences, and if you think you’ve written something really important, you can send it judiciously to senior scholars who you think might be genuinely interested because they work on similar areas. But resist the temptation to send out a bulk email every time you publish an article, or carpet-bomb senior figures you’ve never met with PDF files. We all have too much to read already, and overly aggressive self-promotion may not win you the kind of reputation you’re seeking.

No. 4: Quality matters more than quantity

We all know the old line “publish or perish.” Unfortunately, this stricture is sometimes taken to mean you have to publish as much as possible, as if the sheer volume of pages will stun the evaluation committee, the Dean, and the Provost into submission. Bad idea. In my experience, the quality of one’s research matters more than the quantity, because those who might be skeptical about promotion will focus their fire on the weakest works in the candidate’s oeuvre, and discount the good stuff. If there’s too much dross the committee will have doubts about your standards, and worry about what it implies for your future trajectory. Among other things, following up a first-rate body of early work with some decidedly less successful research will inevitably invite questions about one’s future production. Remember: this is a wager, and those judging you will be more favorably inclined if all (or nearly all) of the work is first-rate.

No. 5: Where you publish matters (unfortunately)

In a perfect world, evaluation committees and outside referees would read every scholar’s work carefully, judge it on its merits, and make their recommendations on that basis. But in practice, a lot of people (and especially lazy administrators) make decisions by looking at where something was published (as opposed to what it actually said). So a bunch of articles in a high-prestige journal or a book at a major academic press usually counts for more than an equally good (or better) article or book that was published in a less prominent or prestigious venue. What this means, I’m afraid, is that one does need to aim high if you want to maximize your chances.

There is one important objection to that basic principle, however. Some senior scholars put a premium on publishing in “general field” journals such as the American Political Science Review, on the (erroneous) assumption that these journals are read by the entire field and thus carry greater impact. I think this principle is silly. We live in a balkanized discipline, and scholars seeking to maximize their impact may choose to publish in a journal that caters to their particular subfield (such as International Organization, International Security, World Politics, Security Studies, or Journal of Conflict Resolution). An article appearing in one of those journals is more likely to reach a bigger audience of people who actually care about the topic.

Please note: I’m not saying one should avoid general field journals or even trade publishers, but I am saying one should aim high. And by all means consult your senior colleagues for advice on how to handle this part of the process.

No. 6: Don’t be afraid to challenge senior figures

Because tenure decisions are based in part on evaluations by senior figures, junior faculty are sometimes reluctant to challenge the work of senior scholars lest this elicit a harsh response when outside letters are solicited. Not only is such reticence contrary to basic scientific impulses, I don’t think it works very well. I’m not recommending that junior scholars go out of their way to challenge established figures, or that they do so in particularly pugnacious ways. But taking on a prominent scholar’s theory, approach, interpretation, or data set is perhaps the best way to establish one’s reputation — assuming you do it well, of course — and review committees are likely to discount the views of senior scholars whose work you are known to have challenged in print. Senior scholars should be treated with respect, of course — as a matter of simple courtesy and prudence — but if your research casts doubt on prominent works by established figures, by all means say so. That’s how the field advances. Don’t worry: somebody will be going after your work a few years from now, too.

No. 7: What about teaching?

Let’s be frank: even being the greatest teacher since Socrates isn’t going to get you promoted if there isn’t a solid research record behind it. But that’s not to say teaching is irrelevant, especially in an era when budgets are tight and departments need people who can attract enrollments and do more than one thing. Being known as a good teacher never hurts, in my experience, and it can tip the balance in a close case. Also, being a good teacher is its own reward, and people who really hate time in the classroom and who suck at it probably ought to be in another line of work anyway.

But here’s a pro-tip: try to be an effective teacher in an efficient manner. If you can, resist attempts by your department chair to assign you new courses every year (new preparations take lots of time). Do a really good job of preparing courses and class materials your first year on the job, and with luck that level of preparation will make it easier to do a good job in subsequent years. And above all: don’t let the desire to teach well become a convenient excuse for not doing one’s own research.

No. 8: Be a mensch but not a sap

You don’t have to be Mother Theresa or Albert Schweitzer in order to get tenure, but you’ll aid your chances if you’re known to be a helpful colleague who pulls his or her own weight, doesn’t stab others in the back, and is generally fun to be around. I’ve known a handful of cases of accomplished scholars whose careers suffered because they were widely (and correctly) perceived as overly self-interested and unhelpful to others. This trait might be forgiven if you’re a Nobel Prize-level genius, but most of us mortals need to be better behaved.

But this doesn’t mean you should spend your years as an assistant professor kissing up to your senior colleagues (who will probably see right through this), and it doesn’t mean you have to say yes to every request you get from a department chair or dean or senior faculty member. Make sure you contribute your share of the collective goods, but if you feel like you’ve been a good citizen and are being exploited, you have valid grounds for saying no to the next request.

And beware of “friendly” offers to collaborate with your senior colleagues. There are many good reasons to co-author with senior scholars, especially if there are genuine synergies between their work and your own. But be careful: co-editing a book with a senior colleague may help them get the book done, but it won’t help you much at tenure time because it won’t provide much information about your own abilities. Similarly, using your own painstakingly constructed data set to test your senior colleague’s pet theory won’t count for that much either, because the field already knows the idea is his or hers and you’ll be regarded as the (decidedly) “second author” even if your name is listed first and you did most of the actual work. To repeat: your university is betting on your future, and they will be most interested in works that reveal your own independent capabilities or the unique contribution that you bring to your collaborations. I’m not saying that you should decline any and all efforts to co-author with senior figures in your own department or at another university, but you need to make sure that the collaboration will benefit your emerging reputation.

No. 9: What about public engagement?

As some of you know, I believe academics in our field have a responsibility to apply their wisdom to real-world issues, and junior faculty should be encouraged to do so even if they don’t teach at public policy schools. But this is another area where prudence is in order: articles in Foreign Policy or Foreign Affairs and blog posts on the Monkey Cage will not strengthen your case unless there is also a substantial body of genuine scholarship to go along with it. In my experience, most departments are pleased when junior faculty have reputations outside of the academy, but their standing inside the academy matters more. So be smart: if your research has practical implications that the public would benefit from, by all means write an op-ed or a blog post or some other form of public outreach. But don’t let the desire for fame or public impact get in the way of your scholarly output; you’ll have decades to become a public intellectual after you’ve been promoted (and the university may even appreciate it then).

No. 10. Departments are sometimes irrational; the system rarely is

Human decision-making is flawed and individual departments sometimes make boneheaded decisions. In other words, there are a substantial number of top-notch scholars who didn’t get promoted at their original institution and who went on to become figures that same department would dearly love to get back. What I’m suggesting is that I know of hardly any accomplished scholars whose virtues were not eventually recognized and who didn’t end up in a pretty good position, even if it wasn’t their first choice. If the ball happens to take an unfortunate bounce, try not to be overly discouraged and keep plugging away. If you keep doing good work, maybe those idiots who didn’t recognize your virtues the first time around will be begging for a second chance a few years later.

To repeat, these observations are just my own thoughts on getting tenure, and I wouldn’t privilege them over the advice you get from the senior colleagues who are ultimately going to be passing judgment on you. Different universities have different procedures and standards, and you’ll need to take your particular circumstances into account when deciding how to allocate your time and effort (e.g., liberal arts colleges necessarily place more weight on teaching and less on research, though the latter is not irrelevant there either). In any case, I hope these suggestions are helpful, that everyone who deserves tenure gets it, and that you’ll use it for the purpose it was intended once you do.

Good luck!

Photo credit: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.