Tips for Getting Early Tenure

Last summer, I went up for and just recently received early tenure in the History Department at UNC Charlotte. I had been planning this since first receiving my job offer in February 2010 and thought I would share with you all a few of the things that helped me achieve this goal.

I first asked about the possibility of going up for early tenure while on my campus visit. I did this because I genuinely wanted to know if it was a possibility, but also to impress the department chair with my ambition and make it known that I intended to stay. At some institutions, this is not a big concern, but many departments see high turnover so it is often good to reassure the committee and department that you are committed to staying. Asking about early tenure (and tenure in general) is a good way to do this.

When I arrived on campus, I had lunch with my department chair within a couple weeks and had a more in-depth conversation about department requirements for tenure and the possibility of going up a year or two early. It is essential to have your chair on board with your plan for early tenure. If she or he does not support you in this goal, it is unlikely that it will happen.

At the same time, it is also important to have the support of senior faculty members in your department. If you were assigned a mentor, sit down with that person soon after arriving on campus to discuss your career trajectory. Ask them what they would be looking for in a candidate going up for tenure earlier than usual. In many institutions, the department vote for tenure is really the deciding factor, even though the decision does go to the dean, provost, or other administrators. Thus, it is crucial to have the support of both your chair and senior faculty. Knowing what they will be looking for in a strong tenure file early on in your appointment can help you clearly map out your path toward promotion.

In terms of teaching, I suggest teaching as wide a variety of courses as possible. I was on campus for three years before winning an external fellowship for my fourth, but in that time I was able to offer 8 different classes on just a 2-2 load. I did repeat the early U.S. survey nearly every semester, but my other class was always a different one. I also taught summer school every year (just one session), which helped me get to the eight classes. In addition to teaching a wide variety of classes, it is of course important to have good evaluations and it may be useful to contribute to the scholarship on teaching in some way. You might write for a teaching blog or write an article for a publication on teaching. I decided to edit a collection of primary sources for the early U.S. survey with Cognella, which was noted pretty favorably in my department’s letter recommending tenure.

Service expectations will be depend on a number of factors, including the size of your department/university, the number of junior versus senior faculty, gender ratios, etc. Sometimes minority and/or female scholars will be asked to shoulder disproportionate service loads. If you are going to wait the full 6 or 7 years to go up for tenure, then you will want to jealously guard your time and learn how to politely say no to some of these. But if you want early tenure, I suggest serving on as many committees as you can. I was actually not expected to do any service my first year aside from organizing our monthly brown bag seminars but I nevertheless volunteered to be on a lecturer search committee, a curriculum committee, and the university’s administrative judicial board. One thing to keep in mind for early tenure is that it will be useful to have service on multiple levels—department, college, and university. Within your department it will also be useful to try and serve on different types of committees, whether it is a seach committee, steering committee, graduate committee, etc. You will also need some outside service to the profession and/or community. Lectures at local libraries and historical societies can serve this function, as can serving on a conference program committee for a scholarly organization. Reviewing article manuscripts for journals and books is also a good way to provide some service to the profession and often intersects nicely with your own research.

Research expectations will vary widely across different institutions and different fields so it is hard to give concrete advice in this area. My chair told me that I would need to publish at least one article for reappointment my third year and a book for tenure. He also noted that we do not rank journals or presses, so as long as I published with a peer-reviewed journal and an academic press I’d be okay. These expectations would not get me tenure in the English department at my own university, as they are expected to publish a few more articles, and they will be different elsewhere. So find out exactly what is expected from you in terms of output and where it is best to publish.

I had originally planned on going up for tenure in my fourth year instead of my fifth. At the beginning of my third year I got a book contract and by the end of that year I had multiple service positions and had taught 8 different classes. The norm for those going up for tenure is 9-10 classes, which I would have gotten to in my fourth year. But I then won an outside research fellowship that took me away from teaching and service for a year so my chair suggested I wait. I mention this to say that you may have to balance your desire for a year off for research with early tenure if you win a grant. Three years of teaching and service, even though I had achieved quite a bit, was simply not enough for my dean, so she said I needed to wait until I came back from the fellowship to go up for tenure. To me, this was worth it. While I wanted tenure as quickly as possible, it made no sense for the longer trajectory of my career to turn down the great fellowship opportunity. If you are faced with this situation, I suggest taking the fellowship and delaying tenure. But you may be able to have the best of both worlds by delay the fellowship for a year, depending on the funding institution.

These are just some of the things that worked for me. I’d love to hear comments from others on what has worked for you, as well as any questions you might have.

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Chris Cameron

Chris Cameron is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research and teaching interests are in African American and early American history, especially abolitionist thought, liberal religion, and secularism. He is the author of 'To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement' (Kent State University Press, 2014) and 'Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism' (Northwestern University Press, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @ccamrun2.

Comments on “Tips for Getting Early Tenure

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    That is a tough call, in some depts. those who take the one-year are doomed beuscae the dept. thinks if they were really good, they would have gotten a t-t job. But in other depts. the holder of the 1 year does have the inside track. My best advice is to apply, but do not assume anything and apply for other jobs the next year as well.

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