Comparing apples and pears

So I”m finally back after spending some quality time at a more northernly locale! I came back to work to find that: my email inbox had about 300 messages, that we had two papers rejected, that my university’s animal care committee wants me to re-write a large part of my animal protocol which had been fine up to now, and that the semester starts a week sooner than I expected. Shit!

Fig 1. Wishing I were back at a more northernly locale...

More importantly, I was also informed by my department’s chair that they sent out requests for letters of support for my tenure case. Gulp… These letters are supposed to be, so I’ve been told, what can make or break your tenure case. They are letters from experts in your field from so-called “peer institutions” and who are asked to evaluate your work up to now. This of course is somewhat oblivious as to how science is done, since the world expert in your field may find themselves in a small university, while a large research university may have nobody working in your field. In this case, it is your departmental tenure committee and department chair’s job to convince the university tenure committee and administration that the letter from super big expert in little university should carry more weight than the one from not so big expert from super fancy university. But what I find most troubling is this idea of what a “peer institution” is. So for example, if you are in a medium-sized research university with a heavy emphasis on undergraduate education, although the faculty members in your department may be leaders in their fields, as a junior faculty you will not have access to the resources that you would have at a university affiliated with a major medical center. The type of core facilities you will have access to are much more limited, the graduate programs are likely smaller so you will have less access to graduate students, startup packages are smaller, there’s less possibility for collaboration and you will likely have to teach a lot more than your colleagues at a major medical school. Which means that unless you have superhuman powers, your productivity will be somewhat less. Also, smaller universities tend to have shorter tenure clocks, so again, by the time your colleagues come up for tenure they will have amassed a greater amount of publications, grants and fame. Despite all this, from what we’ve been told at these tenure workshops our administration holds for junior faculty, is that they consider these universities with major medical centers to be our peer-institutions. It might be the case for some of the humanities, but certainly not the case for life sciences. One question the letter-writers get asked is “would this person would get tenure at your institution?”, and of course we are comparing apples and oranges here. OK, maybe more like apples and pears, but still. Particularly if the tenure clock in their institution is twice as long as that in your own institution. One would hope that an experienced letter-writer will highlight these differences, but maybe they might not, or be oblivious to them. You never know, and to me this is a bit of a worry. In which case it will rest on my department’s chair, if my department decides to recommend me for tenure, to explain these subtleties to the university tenure committee which can contain people ranging from anthropology to Slavic studies. And to also explain these subtleties to the administration – as to why major medical center X is not really a peer institution.

So in any case – it’s somewhat out of my hands now. Lets hope the letter writers can tell the difference between an apple and a pear and maybe even a quince. Speaking of apples, it’s almost apple picking season! Yum.

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7 Responses to Comparing apples and pears

  1. GertyZ says:

    Wow! Surely this must be a concern anytime someone comes up for tenure from your dept., right?

    Good luck!

  2. While there is plenty to worry about in the tenure process, what is described here is not really near the top of the list in importance. The bottom line is that colleagues in your field are going to ask themselves whether they consider you a valuable member of that field who is already and will continue to be making important contributions and pushing the field forward as a productive intellectual leader. If so, they will write you favorable letters. All that fine-grained hair-splitting about peer-institutions and shit that they are *asked* to address is rarely actually addressed.

  3. Namnezia says:

    @CPP – That’s good to hear, based on how the process is portrayed by the university administration in these tenure “workshops” for junior faculty, one gets a different impression, and the effect is that they engender a culture of paranoia among junior faculty here.

  4. Arlenna says:

    I’m at least three years away from this, and I am terrified already. I kinda had some heart palpitations reading your post. Euuuugghhhhh…

  5. Odyssey says:

    What the administration says about earning tenure and the reality of the process are two very different things. At the new faculty retreat I attended six weeks after starting my TT position, the dean told us if we hadn’t already submitted a manuscript and at least one grant proposal we were horribly behind and likely to fail. What bullshit. Listen to CPP – he’s right about the letters. They are low on the list of things to worry about.

  6. Odyssey and CPP, that is what some of the tenured folk are always telling us, but it isn’t much comfort that the Administration is lying to us about tenure requirements!

  7. GMP says:

    My experience is different than what CPP describes. At my institution most of the weight is on the letters, as they are what people who are not in your field go by (the university level approval). Letters were the thing I was most concerned about, and I traveled like crazy in my 5th year to make sure everyone who needs to know me has met me in person. (I will post more on this in a bit.) Typically, letter writers at my unioversity are selected from big name schools and with lots of accolades; most letter writers are actually sensitive to the fact that your insitution may not be Top 5, but that you are a solid candidate and deserve tenure at your institution. If they like you, but your institution is of more modest ranking than theirs, they will say something to the effect “Namnezia is certainly on par (or better) with peers at most top insitutions” or “Namnezia is well qualified for promotion to associate professor” without the “where” qualifier or put in a slighlty vague one such as ” in a strong program in [specialty]”.

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