• October 31, 2014

Know the Vital Players in Your Career: External Reviewers

Careers Illustration -- Affairs of Heart and Mind

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

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close Careers Illustration -- Affairs of Heart and Mind

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

The first time I served as an external reviewer for a candidate’s tenure bid at another university, I had just gotten tenure myself. I was flattered to be asked and wanted to do a good job at what I felt, and still feel, is one of the most sacred tasks of the tenured professor: evaluating whether or not to induct someone into our guild.

So I was ready to do my duty. The only problem? The state of the tenure file I received. It could have been a test case in how not to present a tenure packet to an external reviewer.

The instructions sent in a letter accompanying the candidate’s dossier did not offer much guidance on where to begin. Was I supposed to weigh some aspects of the candidate’s work more heavily than others—research, say, versus teaching? Was I supposed to render an “aye” or “nay” verdict as to the professor’s tenurability? Should I evaluate the candidate based on the standard at my own university, some universal standard, or that of the candidate’s program and institution?

The packet itself had glaring omissions. The letter mentioned that I should assess the faculty member’s teaching, but no student-evaluation scores or peer reviews were included. Worst of all, the packet contained a book manuscript with no notation of whether it had been accepted for publication anywhere.

I still have no idea who was to blame for that dossier’s epic failure. I asked the candidate’s department chair for more information but received none. So I wrote my evaluation letter flying blind. If I were to receive that same packet today, I would be more insistent on having my queries answered or simply refuse to participate in such a bungled process. But the experience did teach me that my professor-father’s advice—“He who sweats the details best, succeeds best”—was certainly true when working with outside evaluators.

In this series on the key players who affect your tenure case, I have thus far turned the spotlight on the department chair, the head of the P & T committee, the P & T-related faculty factions, and senior administrators. Now let’s shift our attention outside the university.

Good external reviews often depend on good internal management. I have written before about the process of choosing external reviewers, but here I will focus on how you, as a tenure candidate, can make your best case to them.

Know the internal rules on selecting outsiders to review your promotion. Typically an external reviewer must:

  • Be a “senior peer or better” at a rank above yours (e.g., associate professors can judge the tenure packets of assistant professors), and in that rank for a certain number of years.
  • Come from a peer institution (that is, a college or university ranked near your own, or higher).
  • Be able to speak to your area of teaching/research, or even experts in your subfield.

Some outside reviewers will be selected by you, some by the tenure committee or the chair; all of them must be approved by a dean. The catch is that there are disqualifiers as well. For example, you probably won’t be able to solicit an external review from anyone on your doctoral committee or with whom you have published. That restriction can prove tricky: In an era of microspecialization, there might be only a dozen (or fewer) folks who are truly senior peers in your specific subfield, and if you are productive and collaborative you might find yourself in a situation where all the people who would be truly good judges of your work are disqualified.

All you can do is plan ahead. Build relationships with a wide range of external peers, become known in your field, and make sure a sizable group of potential reviewers appreciates your work. Network at conferences, and contribute to fieldwide projects.

Even so, remember that at many institutions you can select only part of the external review panel. And you often don’t know who has turned down a request to review your packet. In the end, you don’t want to find yourself at the mercy of strangers who don’t understand what you do. At the same time, you want to avoid ending up with only a tiny band of people qualified to judge you.

Put your packet in good order. Other than your dissertation, the tenure packet is the single most important file you will compile in your career. Give it the respect and attention it merits.

In the roughly 100 tenure packets I have evaluated, I have found certain features and qualities that define a superior dossier:

  • It is neatly packaged. Don’t just send 400 loose pages; think snappy binders. Give the reviewer clean copies. I once got a heavily coffee-stained book in a tenure packet. The book itself was an impressive work, so the sloppiness didn’t color my review, but it might affect other reviewers.
  • It is well organized, complete with identifying labels and dividers. You can never be too obsessive-compulsive about this task.
  • It is complete, with no items (like publications or teaching evaluations) missing. If possible, include original copies of significant items like books.

In some departments, you hand in your tenure materials, and someone else organizes the file. In this scenario, you can try your best to be … helpful. Volunteer to do extra work putting your file together. Hand it in as prearranged as the department will allow.

Clarify and contextualize. Ideally your tenure packet will go out to external reviewers who know about what you do. They will teach similar courses, study similar topics, and work at a similar institution. But finding enough qualified experts who will agree to write an evaluation is tough—and getting tougher. Turndown rates are high. So it is also possible that your evaluators may not be specialists in your subfield.

A good tenure packet, thus, is comprehensible to a wider audience than your disciplinary peers. It is annotated; anything at all that might be mysterious to an outsider is duly explained. It should add impact scores for journals in which you’ve published, and their acceptance rates. Even simple items may need explication. One dossier I reviewed included quantitative teaching-evaluation scores but did not tell me what the local scale was.

Read the instructions carefully. For an outside review, the most important item in the tenure packet is the cover letter written by a chair, an associate dean, or some other administrator. The same tenure file could be judged either superior or inadequate based on the criteria set out in the letter. A vague or poorly worded letter can spell disaster for your bid.

Of course, as an untenured professor, you have no control over the wording of that letter. But you have some six years to inquire—diplomatically, perhaps through a proxy—about the details of such letters. It’s not a huge request: You just want to make sure the outside evaluators know how to evaluate you and understand your local tenure requirements.

Spell out your career trajectory clearly. Tenure is often not a matter of just being good. Your colleagues are taking a risk that you will not collapse in exhaustion after the “finish line” and snooze for 30 years—indeed, that you will not think of tenure as anything but one chapter in your storied career. You will, we hope, go on to yet more sterling accomplishments—for the love of the game, not just for the advancement of your career.

The most impressive sentence about a scholar from an outside reviewer would say something like this: “In sum, Dr. Erdos is rapidly gaining a reputation and having an impact as an expert in his subfield. It’s also clear his ascent will continue as he further develops.” You can communicate that message in several ways in your tenure packet. In teaching, for example, it certainly looks good if your teaching scores and peer evaluations show you getting better and better. In research, it helps if you can show that your work is increasingly cited or that your grant money is on the rise. Of course a career trajectory is rarely that smooth and easy. But you should seriously think about how your tenure packet best reflects what you can be, not just what you have been.

Outside letter writers are supposed to be the disciplinary safeguard that ensures a reasonably fair process. In practice the system is strained by increased turndown rates in many fields and the ballooning bureaucratic burdens on tenured professors. Still, most people will execute this considerable duty with diligence. Help them by offering the clearest and most accurate view of you and your accomplishments.

David D. Perlmutter is dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the "Career Confidential" column for The Chronicle. His book Promotion and Tenure Confidential was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.

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