How to get tenure – choosing research questions

This should be easy, right? After all, you are a professor because you love research. For your Ph.D., you discovered something new, then found the time to write it up into a coherent dissertation. You nestled your new research in its cozy of past research. You revealed enticing new directions. You published.
You found an interesting topic for your post-doctoral research, one that introduced you to a new system, or brought a new angle to the old one. I hope you also published that work regularly, so you could face your new job without a huge backlog of things to write, or pieces to complete before writing. But either way, you are amazing. You got the job over other well-qualified candidates. They chose you. Keep doing what you were doing and they will give you tenure, right? Publish at a decent rate in good journals, get some funding, and they will give you a contract for life, right?
Actually, it is a little bit more complicated. What we are asked to do when we consider someone for tenure is to predict what they will be doing in ten years, or even twenty or thirty. You don’t need me to tell you that this is a nearly impossible task, at least at the extremes. That shining light that had several universities begging him to accept their repeated offers actually went on to a rather modest career. That quiet but creative person that came in second repeatedly in interviews actually went on to a brilliant career. So the task is hard, but there are some standards that get used. It is best to know what they are so you can make them work for you.
Tenure is not granted only on the basis of research, but research is the topic today. I’ll talk about getting funding, teaching, committee work, collegiality, and intangibles later, for getting tenure is an absorbing interest, one that will continue for as long as this system lasts. Even if you are at an institution that values teaching primarily, you will be involved in research with undergraduates. It still pays to think about what that research should be.
Take stock of where you stand. What are the big questions that you have advanced? What skills and research approaches are you good at? Make a list for each. Are there neighboring areas with big questions that could use your tools? Try to identify them by reading, thinking, and listening to people. The five or so years you have before tenure are not a time to do something entirely new, or to make a major focus be questions for which you lack the tools. But you must move on from your previous research to some degree.
But what do you do with projects from your Ph.D. or your postdoc that still need work? Keep working on these and finish them while you are beginning something new. Be a finisher. It is an excellent habit. Let go of work and publish it. If it didn’t turn out to be as brilliant as you hoped, publish it anyway, shooting for more focused journals, or PLoS ONE.
You may wonder why bother to finish old stuff if it won’t count for tenure, as some get told. I can think of at least four reasons. First, the people that write letters supporting you for tenure will consider those papers when they evaluate you. Second, your collaborators from your grad student and post-doc periods are also counting on getting those papers out. Don’t disappoint them. They are also likely reference letter writers. Third, someone paid for your research, probably the public. Publishing is part of the deal. Finally, and most importantly, your research is important. Publish it so you or someone else can take the inquiry to the next step.
You may be wondering how you can possibly get your old stuff out while forging new directions. Where does the time come from? Actually, the answer to this is quite simple. Collaborate. You need to spend time thinking of the new directions you want to explore, but you do not need to personally do all the new work. This is the big change. Even if you keep doing theory, benchwork, or fieldwork, and even if you collaborated a lot as a post-doc, the balance will flip. Now you spend more of your time guiding hands-on research than doing it. So a simple rule for balancing innovation with finishing old projects is to guide students towards the new questions and to craft new collaborations while you write up the old stuff.
If you stick with your old question on one very specific topic and stick with your old collaborators, colleagues evaluating you for tenure will not know if you will be able to jump to something new when the old system gets played out. Yes, they all end up with diminishing returns, no matter how great the system or powerful the question. Can you take sideways swings with new projects and collaborators onto another main trunk, or will you head resolutely out into the twigs clinging to your old ways and friends? If you do the latter, even as you publish well and are funded, the tenure deciders will worry about your future.
Your absorbing concern during your first year as assistant professor should be those new directions and collaborations. Choose them carefully. They should be very close to what you already know, but slightly different. You may do the same thing as before but at a new field site, or on a new species, or a different pathway. Pick two new things to do, with two new students and one or two new collaborators. Make sure the collaborators bring skills and insights you do not have, just as you bring something to them. This will make it easier for evaluators to understand who did what. At this stage the best collaborators are not too senior to you, say within 10 years of Ph.D.. One of your new projects should be entirely in your lab.
Get advice from others on choosing these new directions. Think hard about how important the new direction is, how likely it is to be fruitful in a short time frame. It is tricky to get the balance right. What tenure evaluators want to see is independence and an ability to choose carefully. But they also want to see you building your career as an expert in a certain area, with focus not scatter.
For example, I’ve always worked on social evolution. I began with two species of Polistes wasps and studied kin selection. Pre-tenure, I moved on to several more species of Polistes wasps and a much more ecological focus. But I also kept writing up papers from my Ph.D. At tenure time, I had far more papers from my Ph.D. and post-doc than from the new system, but I did have some papers from it, enough to show I had swung to another trunk. And so I had, and continued to do so with post tenure work on molecular measures of relatedness, wasps in different genera with different social systems, then on to stingless bees and ultimately social microbes, all made most delightful with an excellent, enduring collaboration with my husband, David Queller. The Ph.D. work showed I could do research. The early pre-tenure work showed I could jump to new promising systems and collaborate. Choose carefully and have fun! Then tenure will be easy.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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