By Anna Esselment and Emmett Macfarlane

Maybe it’s us, but academic anxieties never seem to dissipate, regardless of career stage. Up first is the concern over whether or not you’ll ever finish your dissertation. Next is the worry about landing a coveted tenure-track position in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Even if items one and two are successfully completed, the prospect of tenure and promotion settles like a dark cloud overhead, as you frantically aim to publish, teach, and perform your administrative service duties as best as you can.

The question on the minds of all assistant professors is “what do I need in order to get tenure?” At most Canadian universities, it is a combination of one’s record of research, teaching scores, and service responsibilities. The teaching should be good, and the service at least satisfactory. Those two categories are potentially less concerning to tenure-track professors than the first one: what type, and what amount, of research should be produced? The answer to that question can vary from one institution to another. One colleague was told by his department that ten sole-authored articles in top-flight journals was what he should strive for; oh, and if there was a book in addition to that, the tenure file would be a slam-dunk. Other colleagues have been informed that a book was good enough for tenure, with little need for any other publications. Clearly this represents two extremes, and we’re not sure the advice was right in either case.

We’ve been fortunate to have had a better experience. A number of years ago (prior to our hirings) our department undertook to set out guidelines for tenure and promotion (to be fair, faculty members at the University of Waterloo are not unionized, which makes this sort of undertaking far smoother than it might be with an active union). This document is handed to every new hire in the department, and it is clear on the question of “what do I need to do to get tenure?” It sets out minimum expectations for both quantity and quality, crystallized through Category A (a book at a well-regarded academic press, or three articles at top-tier journals) and Category B (three peer-reviewed publications in other journals or edited volumes). To be considered a “strong” candidate for tenure, you must meet the requirements of both Category A and Category B at least once. To be a “very strong” candidate, Category A is met twice, and Category B once.

Our departmental standard is flexible enough that it fits the research area of the scholar (for example, the Canadian Journal of Political Science is considered a very good journal for Canadianists and is viewed in that light – you don’t have to aim to publish in the American Journal of Political Science if your research doesn’t fit it). Faculty members can reference our guidelines regularly to gauge how they are meeting expectations. This is complemented by a rigorous annual performance review scoring system by a committee of our peers, which also serves as an assessment of how junior colleagues are progressing towards T&P. And the guidelines document forms a part of the T&P package that goes on to the Faculty and then university committees, so our colleagues from other disciplines and faculties can be given context for what our file should look like.

Not all tenure-track faculty benefit from this degree of clarity in expectations. Tenure-track faculty who are unsure of their own institution’s standards for tenure should speak with their chair or dean. Another helpful, albeit less formal, resource is to speak with colleagues in your department who have recently gone through the tenure process themselves. This can be particularly helpful when writing the cover letter of your tenure application (learning how to ‘sell yourself’ can be a daunting task). Most importantly, you should seek out your institution’s standards for T&P as soon as possible.

New faculty also need to think about their medium-term research plans. This involves considering what your overall research profile will look like by the time you go up for tenure (typically in Year Five or Six of your appointment). This means considerations beyond number of publications and quality of outlets, but asking yourself what an external letter-writer will be looking at in terms of appraising your future research potential. For example, while it’s important to leverage your doctoral work (turning your dissertation into a book, or producing at least a couple of articles), it’s also important to demonstrate that you are capable of moving beyond it. This generally means that your cv should reflect at least one or two new projects that have led to publishable results during your tenure-track appointment.

The first few years of a tenure-track appointment can vanish fast, particularly given new teaching prep and acclimating to what is usually a new working environment. Given that research remains the key (though not only) component to getting tenure at most Canadian universities, having a research plan that can guide you during this period is therefore crucial.

We are grateful (and relieved!) to have successfully navigated the road to tenure and promotion. As of July 1, we can formally refer to ourselves as “Associate Professors”. We expect to marvel at our achievement for at least an hour or two before the familiar anxiety sets in, this time about grasping the golden rung that is full professor status.

Dr. Anna Esselment and Dr. Emmett Macfarlane are associate professors in the Department of Political Science at the University of Waterloo, in Waterloo, ON.