Flipping out over tenure

Recently b* (who is my tenure buddy, apparently! we're going up at the same time! w00t!) wrote a post that, I think, captures perfectly the angst, anxiety, stress, and mental craziness that the tenure process induces in otherwise sane people. In her case, it was a procedural change that sent her into somewhat of a tailspin, emotionally. This post struck such a chord with me, because not so long ago, I too found myself in an emotional tailspin over tenure, and I must admit that I was completely blindsided by it (which I don't think helped me get over it as quickly as I should have). So b*'s post inspired me to share my story.

One of the normal parts of the tenure process is submitting a list of external reviewers. This is a list of people (I'm guessing the number varies by school, but in my case N is around a dozen) that you think could "fairly" evaluate your work, for some definition of "fairly". There are all sorts of rules around who can and cannot be on the list: no one on your thesis committee, no coauthors, must be tenured at an academic institution, etc.

This sounds simple enough, but as with most parts of the tenure process (I'm finding), there's some gamesmanship that occurs. You want to pick people whom you think will review your work favorably, but you don't want to stack your list exclusively with your fan club (because that looks suspicious). You want to make sure that the people on your list understand the type of institution you are at and will review your work through that particular filter (so, for instance, someone at an R1 evaluating someone at a SLAC will not expect the research production of an R1 prof). But you also know that only a few people are going to be picked from your list, so you have to think about maybe leaving someone off and hoping they "magically" end up on the committee's list...and so on.

And this is where I got stuck.

Now, I should preface this by saying that I feel pretty confident about my research. I've been publishing steadily, at an appropriate pace and in appropriate venues for my institution. My work is well-reviewed, and there is some interest in my subfield for this particular line of research that I'm doing. So this really should have been a pretty straightforward exercise for me.

Instead, I panicked. Totally and completely panicked. As I started to compile my list, I immediately started second-guessing myself. "Hmmm, this one works exactly in my area and we've exchanged ideas and papers over email. But how do I know he doesn't think my work is crap? What if this person is bad-mouthing my work behind my back? And what about this one---oh my god, he publishes sooooo much! There's no way he's going to find my publication pace adequate. And I have to add this guy, but I think he might be idealogically different in his assumptions about X, and may decide to trash my work on X! Oh, and this person who works on Y---but I don't know her that well; what if she hates my work? Crap, I can't add FanClubGuy because I forgot we collaborated years and years ago. And I need to find a Z person, but I only know people in industry in that area!"

So about 5 minutes after I started, I had myself completely convinced that (a) I was a total and complete fraud, (b) my research is crap, (c) no one in fact likes my research, and (d) no one could ever possibly review my research positively.

At this point I (wisely) decided to put the list aside. The problem is that I found that I couldn't pick the list up again---every time I tried to go back to the list, I panicked. Meanwhile, the deadline came and went, and I started getting emails asking me where my list was, which made me panic even more. I was in a serious spiral and I couldn't get myself out.

Finally, I came to my senses and---duh!---ran the list by a couple of my senior colleagues. And they helped pull me out of my Serious Meltdown state, enough so that I could sit down and finish the list. But I still panicked a bit when I submitted the list---still found those feelings of total professional inadequacy sneaking in.

I *think* I'm mostly ok with the list now, although there's really not much I can do at this point! (Because I'm guessing bribing my potential external reviewers would be considered bad form. I'm kidding, of course.) I ended up putting some questionable names on there---questionable in the sense that I'm not entirely sure how they will review my work, to be honest. But there's a part of me that probably won't relax until I see the external review letters. And the saga is still not over, because at some point (soon, I'm guessing) I will get the committee's list and have to go through this whole feeling like a fraud thing all over again. Gah.

I mentioned that I was blindsided by the fact that I reacted so strongly and so negatively to what's really a routine part of tenure. I think I was blindsided because I'm pretty confident in the research part of my package, and so I didn't think the tenure panic would come from the research side. My reaction also reminded me, though, that I can *say* all I want that I'm going to be all zen with the tenure process, but that saying it doesn't make it true. You know what? This whole hazing process is stressful. There's no way it can't be. And I'm sure now that at every other stage of this process, I will also freak out at least a little (ok, probably a lot) because the stakes are so high. So maybe having my complete freak-out early is a good thing, because it will prepare me for the other freak-outs I will inevitably have.

We'll see how the rest of the process goes....


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its all normal, and of course you know you just have to let it flow, but it is stessful. All of us tenured folks have been there....and it is a lot of hazing depending on how your school does it. Who does the primary evalutaion of your file? your department? or broader college/ univeristy committee.

At least you get to see the external letters. I neither got to submit names, nor do I get to see the letters. OK, well, to be honest, XU does not allow the candidate to submit names, but my chair had an off-the-record chat with me at some point about who I thought would be appropriate. But it's funny, because your post makes me think that maybe I'm better off that I didn't have to think about it much myself, although the secrecy of the process at XU is otherwise not so great, I think.

I just handed in my list of external reviewers and the exact same panic-reaction! There's no way to avoid it, I think.

I calmed myself down by telling myself that someone would have to really really have a HUGE problem with your work to actually write a letter recommending that tenured be denied. I think most people write positive letters. Right? â¦

Given the time and effort it takes to write a tenure letter, few will write a letter recommending tenure be denied. The process doesn't work like that. What happens is that (a) good people will simply refuse to write a letter for you or (b) the letters will be "soft". The ability to see the external letter represents, I would think, a global softening factor that the tenure & promotion committee is calibrated for.

Wow, it's such a relief to hear that other people flip out over this too! The feedback I was getting on my end was that I was weird for flipping out over this....

And it's always interesting to hear how other schools do things. Although I'm finding, as you have, ianqui, that there's the "official" policies and the "actual" policies. Ugh. But I'm glad you were spared the "fun"---sounds like suggesting people unofficially is a less stressful way to handle that task.

rb, my dept sees my file first in the chain, although I think someone over in administration will see the file before anyone else.

sfguy, hopefully the good people will be writing me a letter, then. :) But I did wonder how often such letters get written...thanks for chiming in!

See Jane Compute: Demystifying the tenure process since 2008.

I started to freak out about this, too, but I talked to some colleagues I trusted, all of whom gave me great advice that I chose to follow. And the external review process turned out to be my favorite thing about going up for tenure. The amount of effort they put into those letters amazed and humbled me. Once I calmed down (or found people to calm me down) and worked the process more methodically than I was, it was fantastic.

But there's a part of me that probably won't relax until I see the external review letters.

Are you sure you are going to get to see them? I have never heard of any institution that allows the candidate to see promotion/tenure letters.

CPP #9 - re: tenure/promotion letters. At my university (BigStateResearchU), all the letters are legally open. In fact, one letter writer refused to write a letter when he found out it was open. I tried to say that I was happy to have him write a secret one that I wouldn't read, but the university would have none of it. At one point in the process, I had to sign a document saying that I had read them and did not need to answer them.

Every place is a little different.