Advice for the PUI theorist approaching the tenure decision

Just when you’ve settled into your institution, and you’re starting to get the hang of this faculty thing, the tenure decision will be right around the corner. Here are some things to consider as you approach this important career milepost.

– Your Local Environment
Keep in mind that standards for tenure are different in different places. Know your institution; find out the expectations both at the departmental and institutional level. It is not enough to read the faculty handbook. Talk to your colleagues; talk to people with recent experience on the tenure and promotion committee. Be sure you understand the processes that will be used to evaluate your work (e.g., outside reviewers, student evaluations, etc.). Some institutions do not accept outside letters while some require them. Some interview tenure candidates while many do not allow contact between the candidate and the evaluation committee.

– Your Portfolio/Dossier
Invest sufficient time in preparing the written materials that you submit for tenure (don’t save it for the last minute). Before you start writing, find out what the typical length of a tenure portfolio is and, if at all possible, view an example of one (e.g., from a colleague). Before you submit, have someone proofread your materials. Throughout, keep in mind that this is your chance to tell your story and to make a case for yourself. This is not the time to be overly modest! Sell yourself; explain why your research is exciting. Contextualize your publications in your portfolio (e.g., give a narrative) and know your audience(s): be sure your level of discussion is appropriate. For instance, if a member of the history department is going to read your research statement, make it clear and understandable to them. Be sure to address any shortcomings directly, and keep in mind that these can often be presented in a positive light (e.g., positive reviews of a rejected grant proposal or paper).

– What’s distinctive about the portfolio of a theorist at a PUI?
Maybe you’re the first theoretical physicist to go up for tenure at your institution, but even if you’re not, your portfolio will be different from those of your experimental colleagues. Members of the review committee(s) need you to help them understand these differences. For instance, maybe it was easier for you to publish in the first few years because you had unfinished projects from graduate school or post-docs, but then you needed to take extra time to develop new collaborations and projects. Meanwhile, your experimental colleagues may have spent a good deal of time in the first few years putting together their experiments and then published a number of papers all at once. You may need to explain why you’re not bringing in as much grant money (presumably since you don’t have major instrumentation needs).

Collaborations are common in theoretical physics and you will need to help your colleagues understand the nature of yours. For instance, at a minimum, make sure they understand any traditions in your field for the ordering of co-authors. In some fields, a theorist can work on a more varied array of projects than would be feasible for an experimentalist. Make sure you put in context the breadth of your work in terms of the normal “spread” for theorists in your field.

If you are the only theorist in your department, find out if you can have input from theorists at other PUIs included in your application. The Anacapa Society may be used as a resource for finding appropriate colleagues at other institutions; let your institution know they can contact us.

– Quantity vs. Quality in Research
This is a common question that does not have a simple answer: is it better to publish one big, important paper or many smaller ones? Of course, find out any specific requirements your institution has regarding number of publications, citations, etc., but in most cases the guidelines will stop short of requiring specific numbers. Do what makes sense for your research, and take the time to explain your publication record in your portfolio. Help your committee understand metrics like journal impact factor, citation number, and H-index, if appropriate. Explain the quality and refereeing practices of the journals you have published in, conferences you have presented at, etc. If you have a smaller number of papers you may have a harder case to make, so: take the time to make your case.

– Undergraduate Research
Different departments have different undergraduate research cultures (for instance, expectations for taking summer research students and/or advising senior theses). Know this culture and make sure that the members of the tenure committee understand the role as it is practiced in your department or division.

– Teaching
Make sure colleagues outside your department understand that physicists often teach across the discipline (i.e., many different courses), and that this may be particularly true for a theorist. Make sure your department has given you teaching assignments that provide you with metrics that conform to the requirements of your institution (e.g., relative numbers of introductory vs. advanced courses). If student evaluations are going into your portfolio, be sure to explain any course-related trends that are unrelated to your specific abilities (for instance, service courses tend to produce worse evaluations than courses for physics majors).

– Service
Emphasize anything you did outside of required service that could be construed as service to the institution. For example, if you performed any outreach activities, organized seminars or social events for students, etc. be sure to include this work in your portfolio.

– Is it advisable to switch institutions prior to tenure?
There are always difficulties in switching institutions. However, if you feel things are not going well, you should actively try to change institutions. A few things to keep in mind regarding timing: if you try to leave after receiving tenure, be aware that it may not be possible to move into a tenured position at a new institution. If, on the other hand, you leave before tenure, be sure to explain why. Prospective employers will be wondering whether you are leaving to avoid a negative tenure decision; address this issue head-on.