Failure in the Tenure Process: We Can Do Better

Tenure is the brass ring of the academy, and careers are made or broken in the effort to achieve it in an all-or-nothing race against the clock. Yet, there are few authoritative sources on the rules of the race or how it is to be judged. Instead, the tenure process is generally conceived but highly variable and relatively opaque, and it goes under-scrutinized because those who succeed rarely question the methods and those who fail rarely talk about their experience.

In my contribution to the PS: Political Science and Politics symposium, Reflecting on the Profession, I reflect on a few of the institutional failures apparent from my own denial of tenure in 2010, including lack of transparency, accountability, and effective leadership. I argue for intentional hiring with written contracts that define tenure requirements; clear and transparent tenure standards so junior faculty understand expectations; honest pre-tenure reviews that provide candid feedback about progress toward tenure; meaningful consideration of external evaluations that provide a broader context for understanding accomplishments of tenure candidates; and, effective leadership in the decision making process.

The article is online with the other thoughtful, insightful contributions to the symposium. All are ungated for the month of October.

PS: Political Science and Politics Symposium: Reflecting on the Profession

It is an honor to announce the publication of our PS Symposium, Reflecting on the Profession. These articles have their origin in our 2017 NSF workshop, which included a broadly diverse group of political scientists. These authors -- and our many other colleagues who participated last fall -- offer their experiences in the discipline as the basis for much-needed conversation about what works and what doesn't work in political science. We hope this encourages other to tell their #profstories as we all strive for improvements in political science and academe more generally.  

Introduction: Reflecting on the Profession, by Susan Sterett and Jennifer Diascro:

Balance Is a Fallacy: Striving for and Supporting a Life with Integrity, by Renee Cramer, Nikol Alexander-Floyd, Taneisha Means:

Making Academic Life "Workable" for Fathers, by Jon Gould & Brian Lovato:

Rejection of a Manuscript and Career Resilience, by Lee Walker:

Failure in the Tenure Process, by Jennifer Diascro:

Rebounding on the Tenure Track: Carving Out a Place of Your Own in the Academy, by Valeria Sinclair-Chapman:

Navigating the Night Sea Journey: Learning to Let Go after Tenure's Loss, by Stephen Bragaw:

Providing Promotion Pathways That Reflect Changing Faculty Workloads, by C. Scott Peters:

Tenure Track to Think Tank and Back: An Unreproducible Path to Success, Christopher Foreman:


Just ask!

When I was on the academic job market for the first time, salary was the least of my concerns. I wanted a tenure track position in a good department where I liked the people, where I had support to do my research, and where teaching was valued. The market wasn’t nearly as awful as it is now, but I didn’t take for granted the luck I had in getting two interviews early in my last year of grad school, and an offer from my first choice soon thereafter. I was over the moon! I got to be a professor! I was eager to sign on the dotted line the minute the letter arrived.

* * * * *

I’ve negotiated every salary offer I’ve ever received — for a grand total of 5 across academic and non-academic jobs — and I asked for a raise and promotion once too. There is so much at stake in a starting salary, not least retirement benefits and future raises. It’s an essential part of advancing your career and protecting your future. In my view, salary negotiation is non-negotiable!

But I hate it. I really don’t like talking about money, in general, let alone asking for more. And I’m not very good at negotiating (ask my husband about the native mask we may have overpaid for on our honeymoon). That would require many things of me, like knowing (and appreciating) the value of my labor and having the confidence to convince someone else of it.

There’s a ton of professional advice out there about how to negotiate salary (just a few are here, here, here, here, here, and here) and some of it is helpful. But a lot of it is generic and formulaic, and sounds great in theory but hard to put into practice.

The truth is, it’s just really difficult to know what to do.

* * * * *

So, when I got the offer, it looked looked pretty good (especially by grad student standards) and I worried about seeming too greedy in the eyes of my would-be colleagues. Asking for a bit more in research funds and other support was easier because it was directly related to my success in the job, which was presumably in the interest of the department too.

Asking for more salary was different. Knowing that retirement and merit increases would be a function of my starting salary didn’t make negotiating seem any less … selfish? Not surprisingly, this is not a feeling unique to me or to higher ed, as this recent piece illustrates beautifully.

Moreover, I didn’t know how to start the conversation. I can be pretty assertive, but this was new territory and it felt awkward. I got some advice, but there’s just no one-size-fits-all way to manage most things, and this was no exception. None of it seemed right to me.

I was ambivalent and anxious, and ultimately asked the chair if there was “room to move” on the salary. Not the most confident ask ever made. But I was lucky, again. Perhaps she figured I’d have trouble asking because she seemed to anticipate my question and immediately suggested there was some flexibility. She would take my counter — such that it was — to the Dean, who made final salary decisions. In the end, I think we split the difference and I walked away with a little more money and a stronger financial foundation.

More importantly, I came away from the experience with a lot more confidence.

It was such a positive experience. I did it — I asked! And I succeeded! But mostly, I’d worked with someone who so clearly wanted me to be satisfied with my decision to join the department and to be a happy and successful member of her faculty. She provided an invaluable lesson about the significance of supportive leadership — especially for the uninitiated — and I had the benefit and privilege of working with her for many years thereafter.

When I went back on the market some time later, my approach to salary negotiation was a bit different. I dreaded it, but I was more secure professionally, a tenured associate professor with years of experience under my belt, and I was getting married so had more than myself to consider this time around. Unfortunately, the open positions in the city to which I was committed to moving were junior, but I thought my more senior status might give me some leverage. Also, I knew much more clearly than I did before that so much of an academic’s work goes uncompensated. Still not singularly focused on salary, this time I did my homework on the cost of living differences and comparative salaries, and I thought carefully about how my experience might be valuable in a salary negotiation.

When I received an offer, I was glad I’d prepared. The salary seemed low and I thought there must be room to move. I had an appointment with the dean and my argument was ready. And while it’s always possible the answer will be no — I didn’t know if my plan was any good, if my ask was convincing — I was completely unprepared for the response I got.

It was obvious that I’d surprised him by asking. He looked stunned and seemed offended by the prospect of negotiating; he suggested that no one before me had asked him for more money. I remember having one of those split seconds of panic when you wonder if you’ve just done something terribly wrong. But no. His response was totally bizarre. No new hires during his tenure had negotiated their salaries? How was that possible?

Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to sit quietly, to not fill the silence with my chatter that might result in me back pedaling or him talking me out of countering. And in the end, he agreed to some amount more than the original offer but less than I asked for.

As disappointing as it was, the experience made me realize with greater clarity how very important the ask itself is. It would be nice — even appropriate — if the hiring process were collegial, where the new employee and the new boss are on the same page. You know, the page where the one wants the job and the other one wants you to have the job, and everyone works together to make that a productive relationship. But it’s often not.

So, I discovered that for me — however uncomfortable and nausea-inducing, and whatever the odds of success — just the act of asking for more money is priceless. If it doesn’t bring more money, it can build self-esteem and be a decent gauge for how invested and supportive future bosses and colleagues are. [For a similar perspective, see this great twitter thread.]

Since that time, I’ve negotiated my salary three times, twice with new job offers and once for a promotion and raise. None of these positions were (traditional) academic jobs, which changed my approach to the ask. First, starting salaries are higher off campus than they are on campus; I had to force myself not to settle just because the offers were already greater than what I was used to. Also, I struggled with what my skills and experience were worth, a challenge that came on the heels of my painful tenure denial. But with help from my husband and friends familiar with the “real” world, I reframed my academic career and accomplishments into a resume that reflected my expertise.

That sounds very confident. Frankly, the memory makes me want to puke.

Still, it worked, sometimes better than others.

With one offer, I got an immediate “no” to my counter. To be honest, my heart wasn’t really in it and I probably wasn’t very convincing. To his credit, he gave me an explanation and reason to believe that the opportunity for a higher salary would come sooner than later (and it did). Despite my rather cynical view of workplace integrity at the time, he seemed sincere in his approach. I didn’t have loads of job offers, but I did have a few choices and time to consider them. Still, this position came with generous benefits, which changed my calculus about the value of the original offer. Ultimately, it felt like a good decision for the time (and it was).

Several years later, I returned to the job market again. But this time was different than any other time. I didn’t need a new job; I wanted one. This job hunting came on the heels of asking for a promotion and raise at my then-organization. I prepped more thoroughly for this negotiation than any other with a list of my accomplishments and the tasks I was performing at the level of the promotion I sought. I didn’t expect an outright yes, but I felt pretty confident going into this meeting that I had a compelling case.

I got an outright no. And it wasn’t a I-wish-I-could-because-I-value-your-contributions no. It was more of a this-is-a-ludicrous-proposition no. He seemed incredulous that I had asked.

Ooof. There’s nothing quite like the gut punch that tells you how little you’re valued. After the inevitable (for me) period of self-doubt, I knew it was time to move on.

Which is why I was overjoyed to get an offer for what I believed — and rightly, it turns out — would be a phenomenal opportunity doing valuable work that would return me to an academic environment and the classroom. It came with a lower starting salary than I was currently making and less robust benefits, but more flexible hours meant much more time to spend with my kids. The team seemed terrific and my would-be boss had a vision that included a valuable role for me. Like I had 20 years before, I wanted to sign on the dotted line immediately!

But, no. Negotiate! So, I did. Albeit a bit ass-backward. I accepted the offer. And then I asked if there was room to move in the salary. I wanted to act in good faith; this was a position that marked a new beginning for me in many ways, and I didn’t want to be coy. I was going to take the offer regardless of the response to my counter. But if there was an opportunity to raise the salary, even a little, it would have important implications for my benefits. And, I hoped for the affirmation that, at the start of this new chapter of my life, I would be considered a worthy and valued member of the team.

She said yes.