15 things I wish I knew before handing in my tenure packet…

So the full tenure packet is off to whatever committees need to see it. Luckily at GW, they have us do it in steps: research packet first, then teaching and service. My department was great about giving advice, and there’s nothing more I can do other than sit and wait for the outcome. But there are some things you just have to do for yourself before they really make sense. Here are a few things I learned along the way about the process, though at this point I have no idea about the outcome (wish me all the luck, the best luck.) Schools are all very different, of course, but I think that some of these observations probably translate well across the board.

Research Portfolio

  1. No one along the way wants to read everything you’ve written. Ultimately, the research portfolio was a lot like compiling a clip packet for one of my journalism job applications. I’ve written enough to pick and choose among my work. But at least at GW, while citations matter, not every great article gets as many citations as you like. I was advised to include articles that showcased my best work, not necessarily my most cited pieces. After all, anyone can look up your citations on Google Scholar anyway. And if people want to see more of your stuff, it’s not like they can’t find it online.
  2. Keep a running list of people in your corner from Day 1 when you start your TT job. Perhaps this is super instrumental, but it’s also worth thinking about your tenure letter list earlier rather than later. The people on it might change as your relationships wax and wane, or as you actually co-write with them and lose that arms-length claim. As the tenure submission got closer, my colleagues instructed me to think about gender diversity, rank diversity (some very senior, some mid-level senior, and some associates), and institutional diversity (people from peer schools, higher-ranked schools, and international institutions) when thinking about my recommenders. I was also lucky because friends at other institutions who did similar work had shared this in-process list with me before and after they went up. This seems to me to be something that a lot of schools might also want from an assistant professor. Plus, keeping a good list is helpful, in part because all along the way you have a sense of the people who are open to offering some mentorship and who you can call on for advice. You might also want to go on the market, and figuring out who might be good references outside your department is a lot easier if you actually keep a written word file of folks.
  3. Be ready to make a comprehensive case about why what you’ve done actually matters to your university’s strategic plan/goals. OK, so I was pretty aware that I had to make a case for why my research mattered to the academy and potentially to the public. But didn’t realize going in that you also have to have a good understanding of what matters to your institution and why keeping you will help it position itself better in the future. I’ve certainly drunk the kool-aid here at GW (I’m now living as Faculty-in-Residence), but it’s worth considering whether you are geniunely able to write about why you care about the place you work & how you feel you are able to contibute to it.
  4. Your department’s view of you may matter significantly less than what other people end up saying about you. I think I’ve got the best department I could possibly have; a great range of amazing, engaged, and supportive colleagues who are all either research-active or creative-active and do incredibly inspiring work. I like to think that I’ve got fairly good relationships with them too and consider many of them not just work friends but real friends. But ultimately, if your school weighs external letters highly, your department has to make some sort of suggestion that takes into account whatever those letters say. My sense is that your department (if all is good) will go to bat for you in the best way possible, but they only have limited material to work with if the letters aren’t the best. (I’m trying not to focus on the content of these mysterious letters from people who shall remain a mystery).
  5. If you’re writing a book, try really hard to have it exist in the real world by the time you have to hand everything in. There is something so materially significant about holding a book in your hand. This thing, it exists in the real world, and it has your name on it, and it’s the coolest feeling. Proofs in a binder just don’t feel that way — even if they’re nicely typeset and corrected. My sense is that giving others a real book may also provide that impression: you are a real author, with a real THING out in the world. Better yet, if you get it out in time, someone may actually write a review of it in a journal, and that’s a really nice feather in your cap (I think.) My new book on programmer journalism is due out in October (check it out, it’s ready for preorder!), but turning in a binder with the final proofs seemed just, I don’t know, less real.
  6. Corollary: People may actually want hard copies of your work. Even if your articles exist online, and even if you’ve prepared a lovely and well-organized Dropbox file for your department to share, there will be some reviewers that actually want all this stuff in real paper. It’s worth thinking about whether there’s someone that can help you make this look good or asking what these binders actually end up looking like.
  7. Pace yourself. If you write your book “too early,” in your clock, as I “may have” and one of my colleagues who just received tenure “may have,” depending on your institution, do not be surprised when someone asks you to offer the book proposal for your second book. Did you produce a lot of articles in your first year or two because you had all of your dissertation data? This was either my paranoia or actually true, but pie begets more pie in this case, at least in my own head. Luckily, I still had a ton of energy and a lot I wanted to write about, but keeping up the pace I had set for myself was really tiring and I hope I have the chance to sit back and just let things marinate a bit more. Again, this was probably my paranoia (albiet very motivating).
  8. But also, don’t end up in the other situation where you don’t have enough and you’re scrambling at the end. Give yourself some time for things to go wrong. That article might take way longer to get out the door of the production process than you expected, even if it’s done. The person you counted on to be interested in your book proposal might leave the press. The press might not be as interested as the person at the press is interested in your book. You might break an arm and be unable to make revisions to…well, anything. Life circumstances might change. People might not get your research even though it’s going to be amazingly significant. Even truly great articles sometimes need a round or two of submissions. One of my colleagues was doing really cutting edge work in {his her} sub discipline, and for the first few years of {his her} clock, it was an uphill battle to get published. When this colleague did, it was always in a truly great journal and got good citations, but the raw numbers of stuff on this person’s CV were not really huge. To me, it seemed like this colleague got more pressure than {he/she} needed to have the book done and when there was a publisher-snafu, the stakes felt way too crazy. (This person is now tenured and this person’s book won a really big award, as have a few of this person’s articles in the past few years). I don’t know what this person could have done differently, but the pressure was pretty extreme for at this person the end (again, perceived or real, not sure). I’m not sure what this person could have done; the field had to catch up to this fantastic research. But point being, the space for stuff to go wrong was minimal at that point due to factors outside this person’s control.
  9. For future parents who have the privilege to make this decision: the decision about stopping the clock seems more important to you that it actually is to anyone else. Maybe it was just me, but the question of stopping the clock didn’t really matter to my department. I wasn’t planning to at any point, but no one seemed to care either way. People do have children, you know. You’re not the first one. If you’re at a place where you intend to stay and not be miserable post-tenure, hope you’re somewhere where having a child isn’t some insane idea that creates serious consternation. If you get leave (dads too) don’t half-ass take it and force yourself to do stuff (also I don’t know how people do manage to do stuff, but….) This is time with your kid. It is so totally amazing & you never get it back. You are not supposed to be working. Don’t. I let myself just be with my kid. It was amazing. It was a weird break in that I was exhausted in a completely different way. We are insanely lucky to have a situation where some schools make it possible to take a semester to be with our bundle of joy.
  10. Don’t torture yourself with tales of people who didn’t get tenure. I’m working on this right now. There was the Chem professor on the Amtrak, the assistant prof at my PhD-granting program, the professor that gave up tenure and moved for a spouse. Don’t indulge in this paranoia.


Somehow, it seems that culturally people spend a lot of time writing and talking about a research portfolio in places like The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, while there’s a lot less discussion about how to prepare a teaching portfolio. I accidentally stumbled into being able to write what I hope is a compelling account of my committment to teaching because of choices I made out of a genuine desire to improve as a professor. I’m lucky that I actually did these things because it turns out you do need to have some actual evidence that you care and are trying beyond just good raw # evaluations.

  1. Take advantage of pedagogy/teaching and learning offerings at your institution. I didn’t actually plan anything instrumentally with regard to improving my teaching dossier. But I’ve done a few formal programs through our teaching and learning center and that made it a lot easier to tell a story about my development as a professor. I also got a few external peer reviews through one of these programs that were not from my department which I was able to include in my dossier.
  2. Keep track of any innovations in the classroom. Did you try implementing Twitter as a component of your class? Did you start using clicker questions in lecture? Did you ban laptops (and what happened?) Even if these experiments don’t work, I think being able to talk to them may make for more powerful testimony when it comes to demonstrating your teaching committment. I don’t know that to be the case, but having done some of this, I’m glad I could write about it.
  3. For the love of G-d, please do a better job than I did of keeping track of all of your mentoring activities. I had to painstakingly go through annual reports and emails to figure out how many interns I had advised, how many UG and G thesis/capstone committtees I had advised/been a reader on. Somehow, you do enough of these, and despite the great memories you have of each, you manage to forget how many you’ve done.
  4. Stay in touch with students. I’ve had some fantastic students who I am pleased to say I really do see as peers at this point. This dynamic developed naturally (as it should, I guess). I thought that all of the “save that great thank you letter on stationary for your tenure file” was the kind of student endorsement that I would add to my file. But actually, GW suggested legit letters from alumni. My former students wrote great letters and got them in by deadline, and I’m so thankful to them.


  1. For the love of G-d, please do a better job than I did of keeping track of all of your school service activities. As previously mentioned, I now live on campus so I had just written an application that was focused on my service activities up to that point. But digging up what I actually did on that committee my first year, or talking about all of the times I just went to student events because they were fun, or remembering the years I had served on various grant-review committees…this was NOT a fun thing.

People did try to tell me this stuff too. But it didn’t make sense until I did it. So that will probably be the result of you reading this too. I am not on the other side, to take from this what you will. Good luck to you & wish me luck!

Associate Prof at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Studies news, politics, technology, and power with a humanistic social science take.

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