The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Advice for a Junior Colleague

November 2, 2014

What kinds of advice do you give junior colleagues early on as they think about what it takes to get tenure and promotion? With some new colleagues, I’ve been giving that some thought based on my own pretty recent experience. Obviously, some guidance is institution-specific, and I have a fairly idiosyncratic circumstance in a policy school. Nonetheless, I think there may be some generalizable lessons, with the focus here on research.

Where Are You Thinking of Publishing?
Some schools have point systems for particular journals. Some have informal guidance about what journals matter.  If you are an at R1 research university in particular, you should aim high. Whatever the top journals are in your piece of the sub-field, aim to publish there.

That might require a long-ish view on timelines for publication. I have a piece that ultimately appeared in International Security after repeated reviews. That took a couple of years between first submission and publication, but the wait was worth it. You might ask around for the current reputation for wait time at particular journals for reviews, but don’t expect the process to be quick, unless you are aiming to publish in more inter-disciplinary natural science journals. That means you need pieces out under review pretty early on during your tenure clock.

If you get reviews on a piece that gives you an opening for an R&R, take it and run with it. I have found that it sometimes helps to be pushy. I was once issued a desk reject from a journal and followed up questioning what went on. It turned out there was a clerical error. That piece ultimately came out in a top security journal. I had another piece where there was some ambiguity in the letter about whether we received a revise and resubmit, but we resubmitted and despite some difficulties and delays, the piece ultimately came out in a good journal.

Do You Need a Book for Tenure?
Ask your mentor at your institution and senior colleagues whether the expectation is if you should do a book. While some parts of the sub-field are article-oriented, your institution may not be, and you may have to do a book, even if that wasn’t your initial plan.

For first time authors, publishers may want to see your whole revised manuscript before giving a contract. When the book (probably a revised dissertation) is done or nearly there, you can send them a prospectus of 3 to 5 pages summarizing your contribution, your fit with the press, the market for your book, and all the particulars of the book. Until you have a nearly complete manuscript ready to give them, you may want to wait on that pitch at APSA or ISA. Ask your colleagues for a sample prospectus from a book that was published by one of your target presses.

Do your homework on top presses before you decide on where to submit your manuscript. According to the 2011  TRIP survey, Cambridge University Press is regarded as the top press in international relations in 10 countries in their survey, followed by Oxford, Princeton, and Cornell. Your field or pocket of research might be a little different so you should check. I have had a fantastic experience with Cambridge on two occasions. They were both very supportive and efficient between acceptance and publication. I thoroughly enjoyed working with them.

You should find out what presses are valued at your home institution and whether academic presses are favored over trade presses. Different universities have different standards. You should see where your colleagues are publishing their books and aim as high or preferably higher.

Some editors and some presses may be more hands-on than others in shaping your manuscript. You should ask around to your senior colleagues. You might find it useful to consider a series at the press for your book. That may involve another layer of people who would vet your book, but a series could help identify where your work fits. People may look to see what books are coming out in a particular series. There may be some particular advertising at some presses associated with publishing in a series, but I have not really observed it all that much. One of my books was in a series and another was not, for what that is worth. Some presses have different offices in the US and internationally. That gives you more points of contact. You should ask your colleagues for who they have worked with at different presses. They may put in a good word when you are ready to reach out to the presses.

When you have your finished manuscript, you may be able to ask for simultaneous review by different publishers. If you picked a topic that is interesting and your argument is novel, having multiple suitors can help you, possibly with respect to the terms of the book contract but just getting a contract is a victory. Some first authors may hit a home run with their book and can anticipate an advance and some generous share of the sales, but presses will have standard contracts and terms. The key things for your purposes will likely be (1) price point, (2) speed of execution,  and (3) simultaneous print, hardback, and e-versions. You will have some input over the title and cover. If the press will send out a bunch of review copies for you and a discount e-card, that should be plenty to get your book on the radar in the field.

Your Policy Pieces Count Close to Zero – Do Them Anyway
If you are blogging or writing a report for a think tank, don’t imagine that will count towards tenure. It may help marginally if you have a body of peer-reviewed work in good places, but if you don’t have much quality work out in the right places but seem to have been spending your time on other stuff, the policy pieces could be a minus. Think of all of that policy writing as service to the world. You do that because you want to, but don’t pretend that will get you over the hump come tenure decision time.

What’s Your Research Narrative?
You will probably be asked to write a statement summarizing your research arc, both how you see your contributions now and in to the future. That will require you to do more than signal your next big project. You should try to think about the thematic narrative that unites your work, especially important if you write on disparate areas as I do. What is the bumpersticker description of the kind of scholar you are. She writes on global health and comparative social movements, focusing on why some issues get attention and others don’t. He writes on food price shocks and their impact on social conflict in Africa. You may have competing narratives that you need to somehow capture, such as three main threads to your work.

Who Are Your Letter Writers?
Different institutions handle this differently. Some institutions may allow you to suggest some number of possible letter writers with the committee in charge of your tenure file picking the rest. You should be aware of whatever input and conversations you can have with your institution about the selection of letter writers. To the extent you can, make sure your mentors or whoever is involved in selecting the letter writers understand you well. Bad letters in your file can be deadly. Again, outside of the number and quality of your publications, these letters are the other main heuristic by which your colleagues, many of whom may be too busy to read all of your published work, will judge you.

Institutions sometimes count it against you if people say no to writing a letter (even if it is a function of them being too busy). It is hard to judge who might be a bad letter writer for you, though you can imagine a formal modeler being evaluated by a qualitative person might not be a good fit and vice versa. If you write on areas that are notionally at the intersection of political science and some other discipline, you might have letter writers from other disciplines, particularly if you teach at an interdisciplinary program like I do. That said, letters from scholars in other disciplines can be problematic if they apply criteria applicable to their field rather than yours.

You have limited influence over this side of things, which is appropriate, but bad decisions taken here by people who aren’t looking out for you could hurt. You want to make sure that your institution is on top of the timing for asking for letters, giving reviewers ample time to receive and read the material. So, you should not just leave it up to your institution to take care of this, but you should make sure they are doing it in an efficient and timely manner, preferably in the spring before you come up for tenure in the fall.

What’s In Your File?
Make sure you are diligent in getting your file together. Make sure you know when things are due, what’s expected in terms of the number of statements (research, teaching, service, CV, copies of your research). Your institution may not want everything you have ever written. They might want the top five (or so) things that represent your best work.

Be on top of your department to make sure that they have your latest CV, statements, etc., as these could change over time, and you want to make sure they are using the right material.

Intra-Institutional Politics and Cliques
While the process has some safeguards to ensure that political influence is minimized, we know that it is not zero. People might vote against you, not because of who you are but what you represent. There might be a direction in the department they don’t like, too many quants, not enough quants. You can’t do too much about that, other than make a strong case based on your work and contribution to the department. It may help on the margins to schmooze and have lunch with your colleagues, but more important in my view is that you are productive and perceived as valuable.

On some level, you can be a jerk and retain your job, but someone in the department should like or at least value you. You should have a few key senior allies who are fighting for you, particularly your Chair or Dean and senior people in your subfield and whoever might be on the tenure review committee or if there is a more exclusive group that votes on tenure decisions other than tenured faculty. I think that only some people will be particularly attentive to tenure decisions, and those folks who are senior and pay attention may be key influencers who can bring others along with them. So, to the extent that more, most, or all of these folks are on your side, all the better.

Eyes on the Prize
It can be a challenge to hold on to your wits and poise in the face of constant concern about tenure. To the extent you can, try to block out the pressure and just get your work done. I know that’s easier said than done, but you have to keep your eyes on the prize. Good luck!


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Joshua Busby is an Associate Professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He is the author of Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge, 2010) and the co-author, with Ethan Kapstein, of AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations (Cambridge, 2013). His main research interests include transnational advocacy and social movements, international security and climate change, global public health and HIV/ AIDS, energy and environmental policy, and U.S. foreign policy. He also tends to blog about global wildlife conservation.