Tuesday, September 30, 2008


For those who are at or considering an R1 university, you already know what the 40/40/20 rule is. For those who don't, 40/40/20 refers to how an Assistant professor is supposed to split their time: 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service.

This seems very well-defined. It seems straightforward. It seems like, given these parameters, why doesn't everyone get tenure - just follow the 40/40/20 rule and you're golden. Well, it really doesn't work out that way.

Just as in grad school, the percentages don't really count. (in case you don't know to what I'm referring: if homework counts for 60% of the grade, and the final exam counts for 40%, it would appear that both homework and the final exam are important. However, since everyone gets 100% on all of the homeworks, really the only factor which plays a role in determining the final grade is the final exam, unless you completely blow off your homework.)

Everyone follows the 40/40/20 successfully (unless they are just completely clueless), just like everyone got 100% on the homework. Therefore, in the end, what really matters are the letters. Reference letters of sort. Letters from complete strangers (because, they aren't going to ask people who have a vested interest in seeing you do well - ie your thesis advisor, your post-doc advisor, your collaborators, etc). And, apparently, there will be something like 6 of these letters.

And they need to say things like "she would get tenure at my institution" and "she is the top of her field" and "she is amazing, fantastic, glorious, god-like". (Okay, maybe the last one was over the top).

Based upon my experience with strangers commenting on my work (ie journal referrees), I'm not too confident in this system. I have about a 50% track record of getting positive comments (and by positive, I mean good enough to get the manuscript published, not good enough to qualify in the "she is fantastic" column).

The one good thing about this system - my thesis advisor is automatically dis-allowed as a letter writer. Not really for the right reason (typically advisors would write an overly positive letter, when in reality he would write a negative one), but he is still excluded, which is the important thing.


Anonymous said...

Go ask 6 random dudes on a street corner to write you a love letter... same shit.

The system sucks and it ain't right.

Anonymous said...

40/40/20 doesn't sound right. Probably more like 55/40/5 if you have a new course prep and 75/20/5 if not. Honestly I have no idea how I'd spend 20% of my working hours on service, this seems ridiculous.

Perhaps needless to say:

- It feels nice to do a really great job teaching a class but often the student evaluations don't reflect the greatness, but rather gripe about the workload, what you wore to class, etc.

- Conversely it's possible to get good teaching evals without being a great teacher.

- Your letter writers *need* to know about you and your work ahead of time. A bit of good honest self-promotion probably does more good than any 3 publications. Of course a really great publication, properly placed, serves as excellent self-promotion.

- You probably have some influence on who your letter writers are. At some places you ask asked for names formally. Other places, it is common practice for senior faculty to informally ask you. If not, it's always possible to drop hints.

Just MHO. I'm up for tenure now at an R1 engineering dept.

Peggy said...

But they aren't really complete strangers, are they? You've probably met some of them at conferences, they've heard you give talks and they may have reviewed your papers. Isn't that part of the test, that others in your field have heard of you and think favorably of you even though you haven't worked together?

Anonymous said...

If you don't have it, you should get this book. Ms. Mentor has a fairly sophisticated take on who gets tenure and who doesn't (definitely not all about the letters).


Candid Engineer said...

I would imagine that a letter written in regards to a tenure application is going to be significantly less grouchy than manuscript review comments. The context is entirely different.

I am also a bit incredulous that profs really spend 20% of their time on service. How can they afford this? There aren't enough hours in the day.