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!
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.