[Most recent update: 11.21.2019.]
The purpose of this post is to catalogue advice from the internet about how to achieve tenure at a research university.
When I was a PhD student, one method of calming my anxiety was to read advice from professors to PhD students; The Professor is In, Fabio Rojas, and Chris Blattman are particularly helpful. Now that I won the lottery and have started my seven year post-doc, I find myself in a position with even less structure than graduate school. With no teaching requirements this quarter, my mind has had plenty of time to worry itself. To my pleasant surprise, however, I have found plenty of online advice about this stage of my career. The purpose of this post is simply to provide links for my future self and others in the same career stage.
The links are provided in reverse chronological order I found them.
4 Ways to Have More Fun as a Professor (by Trisalyn Nelson and Jessica Early) – This article is presented to academics at all stages of their career. Much of the advice matches other articles aimed at assistant professors, so I include it here.
The Art of Sticking Around in the NBA (by Dan Devine) – So this article from The Ringer is not about academia, and Dan Devine is not an academic. However, many of the lessons for sticking around are similar to what I’ve heard for academia: adjust your ego, take advice from those senior to you, hustle, and stay focused, for example. I was especially struck my players with longevity commenting on how many players more talented than them lacked other attributes that lead to success or burned out from overwork. Many senior professors have made the same comments.
Achieving a Good Work-Life Balance (by Jason Brennan) – I found this post, and Jason Brennan more generally, via the always insightful and reassuring Fabio Rojas. Jason is a philosopher who teaches at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, and apparently he is quite productive (full professor within 10 years of starting, has written several books, multiple articles per year, cue anxiety here). However, he is very clear that he also maintains a strong relationship with his wife, kids, and friends, even finding time to play in a band. He does this by prioritizing writing above all other work obligations, to the tune of four hours per day. While I still have not figured out how to consistently work four hours per day during teaching quarters, his post is approximately the 100th time academics have said to focus on writing above all else. I think for quantitative scholars writing can include data analysis, or at least that is what I tell myself now that it is minute 30 of my simulation code running. I subsequently found this post from him, aimed at PhD students but applicable to junior professors as well,
Advice for Current and Aspiring Academic Economists (by Jennifer Doleac) – Don’t let the name fool you, this page is for any aspiring academic. What I especially like about it is that, like this post, it collects advice from around the internets. What’s cooler than this post is that all of the advice is in the form of tweet storms and is arranged according to career stage. I therefore skipped through most of the posts, but the ones I read were very informative, and I imagine the ones for graduate students are as well.
Getting Tenure (by Karen Kelsky) – Karen provided great advice on surviving graduate school, and I credit a lot of my success to her. Like any good business, she is growing with her customers, as she now has a series of posts on preparing tenure materials. Here is the first post, on tenure letters, and the second, the logistics of the tenure application.
2018 Jeff Bezos Letter to Amazon Shareholders – I appear to be straying a little bit from the original purpose of this post, but I am okay with that. Bezos’ letter, especially pages 1-3, is a great reminder of how excellence develops. The key takeaway: “So, the four elements of high standards as we see it: they are teachable, they are domain specific, you must recognize them, and you must explicitly coach realistic scope. For us, these work at all levels of detail. Everything from writing memos to whole new, clean-sheet business initiatives. We hope they help you too.”
Productivity by Sam Altman – Ostensibly a series of sentences about how he has had a productive career, it is actually full of great life advice. His eye is towards work, but the tidbits contain wisdom more than anything else. Example: “By the way, here is an important lesson about delegation: remember that everyone else is also most productive when they’re doing what they like, and do what you’d want other people to do for you—try to figure out who likes (and is good at) doing what, and delegate that way.” Example: Example: “Doing great work usually requires colleagues of some sort. Try to be around smart, productive, happy, and positive people that don’t belittle your ambitions. I love being around people who push me and inspire me to be better. To the degree you able to, avoid the opposite kind of people—the cost of letting them take up your mental cycles is horrific.” Example: “You have to both pick the right problem and do the work. There aren’t many shortcuts. If you’re going to do something really important, you are very likely going to work both smart and hard. The biggest prizes are heavily competed for. This isn’t true in every field (there are great mathematicians who never spend that many hours a week working) but it is in most.”
The Difference Between Amateurs and Professionals by Farnam Street – Not aimed specifically at academics, the simple contrasts provided in this article provide nice reminders of “good” behavior. I think the piece could be called “The Difference Between Graduate Students and Successful Graduate Students”. My two favorites: “Amateurs see feedback and coaching as someone criticizing them as a person. Professionals know they have weak spots and seek out thoughtful criticism.” and “Amateurs focus on identifying their weaknesses and improving them. Professionals focus on their strengths and on finding people who are strong where they are weak.”
How to Get Tenure (If You’re a Woman) by Erica Chenoweth, Page Fortna, Sara Mitchell, Burcu Savun, Jessica Weeks, and Kathleen Cunningham (h/t Aliza Luft) – A response from political scientists to Walt’s article below. Not a challenge, the authors point out how success in the academy, like elsewhere, is gendered. That said, I read their article and find their advice useful for me as well. I especially like their focus on setting boundaries, contracting out non-academic work, ignoring haters, networking and self-promotion.
How to Get Tenure (If You’re a Woman) by Stephen Walt – From a very senior political scientist, I had deja vu when reading this piece. The article consists of ten nuggets of wisdom. The ones I find most useful are: receiving tenure is a wager on future productivity, publish research that changes how your field thinks and prefer quality over quantity.
The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life by Radhika Nagpal – While I linked to this article in the post’s second paragraph, it is probably the most well-known in this genre of advice and so should receive emphasis. The author’s advice: “I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc; I stopped taking advice; I created a ‘feelgood’ email folder; I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts; I try to be the best “whole” person I can; I found real friends; and I have fun ‘now'”. I realize the irony of taking advice from someone who says to stop taking advice, but I interpret that admonishment’s spirit, not letter. I have already implemented the ‘feelgood’ folder and confirm its utility.
You and Your Research by Richard Hamming – Yes, that Richard Hamming. The link is to a speech he gave in 1986 at the Bell Communications Research Colloquium Seminar. It is one of those pieces that feels like it could have been written yesterday, and each paragraph is reaffirming. Though not aimed explicitly at professors, much less new ones, it is valuable for anyone who strives to undertake excellent work. My favorite three sentences: “One success brought him [Claude Shannon] confidence and courage. One of the characteristics of successful scientists is having courage. Once you get your courage up and believe that you can do important problems, then you can.”
Tenure hacks: The 12 secrets of making tenure by Russell James (book) – Amazon recommended this book to me based on Boice’s book. I also have not read it, but it has more than 4 stars after about a dozen reviews.
Advice for New Faculty Members by Robert Boice (book) – I have not read the book, but it looks comprehensive and is well-reviewed on Amazon. A summary of the points is at this page.
Advice for New Hires by Pamela Oliver – An article on Insider Higher Ed focusing on the social terrain of assistant professorship.
Advice for New Assistant Professors by Eric Grollman – A compendium of links to other places.
Tips for success on your path to tenure by Rodney E. Rohde – Aimed at the sciences.
Advice for Your First Year on the Tenure Track by Karen Kelsky – Very many good, concise points. Her points about applying for external funding, building your profile in your discipline, and maintaining personal time are new, for this list to this point.
My Rules of Thumb by Greg Mankiw – A short essay about how he manages his time, not aimed specifically at tenure-track professors. Some points: surround yourself with good people; manage your time wisely; write well.
Advice for New Junior Faculty by Greg Mankiw – Get your dissertation out the door; good is better than perfect; be a good citizen for your department; network; rejection happens; and don’t blog (written in 2007).
Advice to New Assistant Professors by Chris Blattman – Learn to say no, use blogs and public social media professionally, and other nuggets.
Managing Your Research Pipeline by Matthew J. Lebo – A method for tracking your progress to tenure based on research productivity, from Day 1 to the tenure decision. Slow and steady wins the race.
Principles of Effective Research by Michael Nielsen – This essay was written by a physicist in 2004 and aims at a researcher’s whole career. It has aged well and is useful for young social scientists. I especially like his distinction between problem solvers and problem creators, which is not quite an empirics versus theory distinction. I do not think political science subfields have the same clarity of research questions that it sounds like physics has.