This is a guest post by James Goldgeier, Professor of International Relations and former Dean at the School of International Service at American University, building on a twitter thread that addressed tenure and reappointment and the narratives people write that go into their packages.
At many universities, the end of summer marks the beginning of the internal review process for faculty on the tenure track. (Most departments and schools sent condensed faculty files out for external review earlier.) Some scholars have two reappointment reviews before coming up for tenure, usually in their second and fourth years; others have just one, coming at some point during the third year. Typically, faculty members in their sixth year are reviewed for tenure.
Having served as dean of an international affairs school for six years and as a tenured faculty member in a political science department at another university for many years before that, I have seen a lot of reappointment and tenure files. And I can tell you, a strong and clear narrative from the candidate makes an enormous difference in the review, particularly as the file works its way up the university process to people less and less familiar with the candidate’s field.
While a file typically contains sections on scholarship, teaching and service, I focus this post on the first. This section is where candidates define their research for their senior colleagues, the dean, the university committee and the provost (and in the case of tenure files, the external reviewers). The narrative explains who the main audiences for the work are, the nature of the work (including theory, methods, and empirics) and the contribution of the work to the candidate’s field(s). If your work is co-authored (and expectations of colleagues regarding single author or co-authored work will vary by field), explain clearly your contribution.
For those candidates up for reappointment on the tenure track, despite the high likelihood of a successful review, do not treat this process as a pro forma exercise. This is the first time you will be introducing your work to many of your departmental or school colleagues and especially to the higher-ups. Particularly at places that do a second-year review, much of your work may be in progress rather than already published, and this is especially true for books. What matters most at the time of reappointment is your trajectory: how are you revising the work you did for your dissertation (whether articles or a book and/or articles) and do you have a sense of what your next project(s) will be? If you’ve had a major journal publication or a book in galleys or published already, great.
In your reappointment review(s), do not be cavalier about your future work. You want to demonstrate your ambition, but be realistic. Good faculty, dean, and provost reappointment review memos will lay out clear expectations regarding what you should have accomplished by the time of your tenure review; read these carefully! These memos will likely be put in the tenure file for those reviewers to reread at that later time. They will look to see what they said they expected, and those expectations will stem in part from what you said you would do. If you said in your reappointment narrative you expected a contract for your second book by the time of tenure review, and they repeat that expectation in their memos, they will expect to see that contract in your tenure file. (More on typical expectations for tenure below.)
A major piece of the tenure file, if not THE major piece, is the external reviews. Most places want senior scholars from peer or aspirational schools, and since most internal readers of the file, especially at the dean, university committee and provost levels, will not be experts in your field, they will take strong cues from those external reviewers. (And it has to be said: many faculty colleagues will substitute reading the external reviews for reading the actual work.)
Start thinking early in the tenure track about the leading figures in your field who can serve this external review role. Most universities will only exclude reviewers who have obvious conflicts of interest: family members, co-authors, members of your dissertation committee, departmental colleagues. Your goal early in the tenure track is to get out to conferences and get your work known. Being on a panel with a senior scholar (and writing a good conference paper and presenting it well!) can pay off later. I’ve had junior faculty from other universities seek me out for coffee at conferences; I see it as win-win: I learn what interesting young scholars are doing, and they’ve got me primed to do a letter later.
If reviewers know of your work, they will already have some idea of its impact. Reviewers are also more likely to accept the task if they know of your work because they won’t be starting from scratch. Remember, they are getting multiple requests each summer, so they have lots of incentive to say no. And an external reviewer who is in your field and has never heard of you but accepts the task out of a sense of duty is a wild card. Whenever I read an external letter that begins with, “I had never heard of candidate X or read her work until now,” I am usually holding my breath for what follows.
The list of external reviewers is usually drawn both from the list you provide and a list that senior colleagues in your department/school put forward. Many colleagues will offer informal advice to you as you put together your list. And most universities will allow you to name senior scholars in the field whom you believe are unable to be objective; use this opportunity sparingly and be able to provide a serious reason. Don’t provide a long list of people you are scared of; you really want to make sure your department takes seriously your belief that scholar X would for ideological or methodological reasons be a poor choice.
For both reappointment and tenure narratives, you will need to provide measures for scholarly impact. Typically, citations are the most helpful, but make sure you list any awards, grants (these are increasingly important at many places), reviews of your work, journal impact factors, and, for book writers, standing of the publisher. In fields with low journal impact factors, add other metrics to show the quality of the venue. If your work appears on the syllabi of scholars at leading institutions, provide that too if you have space.
While faculty colleagues may talk in terms of “meeting the bar,” many internal reviewers, including your dean and provost, will likely view tenure not as a bar to hurdle, but a point at which to judge both past performance and future trajectory. No dean or provost wants to tenure someone whose best work is behind them. At most top research universities, expectations are based on the quality and impact of the completed first project (usually the dissertation manuscript or papers) and what the reviewers can see of the second. You want enough progress on the second for colleagues and higher-ups to have great confidence in future impact. Are there peer-reviewed articles out yet for the second project or at least book chapters and maybe an advance contract (not necessary but can be a helpful signal) if the second project is a book? (And if something lands or you win an award during the review process, add it in!) The university is making a bet on your future contributions to the field and thus to the quality of the university faculty, so help them see how excited they should be about granting you tenure.
If your work has policy relevance or broader public impact, include it. Public engagement cannot substitute for the lack of academic impact, but the dean and provost in particular will see this type of work as a positive addition. Through our Carnegie Corporation of New York-funded Bridging the Gap project and work done by fellow grantees in this area, I hope we will be able to develop better metrics for policy relevance and public engagement that candidates will be able to include down the road. We’re working on it!
Always keep in mind throughout the process: you are your best advocate. Through your narrative, you are defining who you are as a scholar and why your department or school is lucky to have you. Your goal is not just to have a successful review but to make them start worrying about how they will retain you.