Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Woman_standing_next_to_a_wide_range_of_tire_sizes_required_by_military_aircraft._-_NARA_-_196199In my department, it is hard to go up for promotion early. This is for both tenure/promotion to associate and promotion to full. Like many departments, there is an idea that you have to do “more” is you go up early. Personally, I think this is bunk. If you are ready, and you have satisfied the requirements for the promotion, you should get to go up and be evaluated by the same standards as everyone else. There shouldn’t be a requirement for “more.” Recently, our college personnel committee made the same decision, and released it in their annual memorandum. They said that they do not require anyone to achieve a higher bar to go up for promotion at any level.

Because of this memo and several other good things happening, I thought I would send out feelers for going for for full early. In initial conversations my chair seemed positive about me going up early, but said he would talk to others. I also met with the departmental personnel committee chair. That was less positive. He was defensive. He asked me why I should go up early before everyone else. I gave him my reasons for why I thought I was ready, but couldn’t speak for others. He said, “why shouldn’t I have gone up early?” (speaking about himself). Now, I don’t know how long ago that was, I can’t judge how old people are or know when they started their jobs, but it seems to me that this is pretty irrelevant. It really isn’t in my purview to know why he did or didn’t make his career choices. So, I asked him, “I don’t know why you didn’t go up early. Why didn’t you?” He said he had changed projects and didn’t have any papers out. Well, that seems fine, but it really has no baring on me or my record or situation. He asked if others who were associate were also ready to go. Again, I didn’t really see the relevance. He said, “well if you go up, why won’t they all ask, too.” I said, “I don’t know. That isn’t really in my control. I can only say that I think that I am ready.”

The weirdest thing was that he couldn’t tell me what standards I needed to pass to attain full. It was really like there were no standards – just wait for long enough and it will come.

Here is the thing. We need standards. There should be standards if we want to claim academia is a meritocracy. When you don’t have standards, people can’t judge for themselves when they are ready. It disproportionately disadvantages women and minorities who cannot be sure when they are ready. Further, not having clear standards allows unconscious biases to rear their ugly heads and take over. Again, this negatively affects women and minorities worse than others.

I have a friend who didn’t go up on time because there were no standards and no one told him he was ready. He agreed that we should have standards, because then he could have decided for himself if he was ready instead of waiting for someone to let him know. Luckily someone was watching out for him the following year and told him to put in his packet. In my university, this definitely affects women more than men. On average, women take 6 years longer to achieve full compared to men. There are other examples, too, like this self-study at the University of Maine and this article on inequality from Harvard Gazette.

Here are a few other things that piss me off about the recent exchanges I have been having – besides not having standards (which is absolutely the worst, I agree).

  1. When someone asks to go up for full, don’t tell the person asking you about checking on other people at the same level to see if they are ready. Perhaps you should do it. Yes, probably you should be talking to people every year about their career development and advancement – no matter the level. But, that doesn’t mean you should tell them about each other. That is bad leadership. That just makes them feel like crap unnecessarily.
  2. Don’t compare that person to yourself and where you were. Why is that relevant at all? It is in the past. You cannot change the past. Are you so insecure that you cannot have anyone else advance to your level? I really just don’t get this at all. I want my colleagues to be excellent and ultimately, to be better than I was. I also don’t understand the idea of holding someone back based on my personal history.
  3. Don’t compare that person to others at all. It is unnecessary. It is rude. It isn’t about anyone else but that person. It feels sexist/racist.
  4. Perhaps you should get people’s opinions about the person’s readiness for advancement, but you don’t need to share that with the person. You can just use it in an advisory capacity.
  5. When that person is chatting with you, don’t tell them that the dean thinks it would be fine for her to go up early – that she should just try. And even if it doesn’t go through, she can try again in 2 years.
  6. You may be worried about the political appearances within the department if one person goes up early before others – or even ahead of others. But, again, this is your concern and the concern of those people. It doesn’t have anything to do with the case of the person interested in going up early. If the person is ready, it doesn’t matter if others are or are not ready. The only time there is a confusion or difficulty with this is if you *don’t* have standards. In my case, I keep being told that others will want to go up early, too. “How will we distinguish?” My response is that, if you have standards, you will know and you don’t have to worry about it. If 5 people are all ready, they should just all be able to go up, and you shouldn’t need to worry about it because you can justify promoting people because they are ready because they are above the bar.

So, what do you think? What are the standards for full in your department? Comment or post here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Comments on: "The Importance of Standards" (3)

  1. At my institution, the policy about promotion to full prof says: “A faculty member will usually not be considered for advancement to this rank until completion of five years as an associate professor, but in extraordinary cases may be considered after completion of fewer years as an associate professor.”

    This indicates that early promotion requires extra-strong credentials. If your case is not “extraordinary,” you have to wait five years.

    At my institution, criteria for promotion are set individually by each department in their own faculty handbook.

    From Wikipedia, about the inventor of the h index: “Hirsch suggested that, for physicists, a value for h of about 12 might be typical for advancement to tenure (associate professor) at major research universities. A value of about 18 could mean a full professorship, 15–20 could mean a fellowship in the American Physical Society, and 45 or higher could mean membership in the United States National Academy of Sciences.” By that standard, your research accomplishments clearly demonstrate readiness for promotion to full prof.

    But in general I am not content with just using the h-index, or devising a formula that counts the number of publications and weights them by journal impact factor.

    Prime candidates for promotion to full: faculty who give invited talks at key conferences in their field, whose work is cited regularly, and who have ongoing extramural funding.

    Weak candidates for promotion to full: faculty who don’t travel much, whose publications receive few citations, and whose grad students are mostly supported by TA work rather than grant funding. They may have to stay at the associate level a bit longer.

    In the past, nearly all faculty in science departments at my institution were promoted to full prof when they reached a certain age, whether or not their scholarship was noteworthy.

    That era is over. Female faculty seem at particularly high risk of becoming superannuated associated profs. This trend is worrying me a lot.

  2. My department moved, about 5 years ago, to actively considering associate professors for promotion on a yearly basis, starting about 3 years after tenure. If the timing looks right (active grants, strong trajectory), then the department (currently) seems to like putting people up “early”. An advantage we have is that there isn’t a fixed timeline for promotion to full, and that pretty much the only way to get a raise at our state university is via promotion. This was not the case earlier in our history: when I joined the department 11 years ago there were some languishing-associates (now remedied). So, departments can change their views! Our change came in with a new department head.

  3. WoS, I agree with what you wrote in your post. Things are in a bad state if there aren’t standards and/or if people are unaware of them. Your point #6 especially I agree with.

    I went up early for tenure at the advice of my department. At that point, I had ticked off all the boxes that were required. While these were unofficial boxes, they were nonetheless fairly well understood. That being said, it was also understood that to an extent the early tenure was based on a promising trajectory.

    I asked and was clearly told that going up for full was not the same, it absolutely could not be about a promising trajectory. Rather, you already had to be at the level that the hypothetical trajectory would take you to. I was told that the external letters had to be clear that you are an authority in the field, that you have an international reputation. (Fortunately not that “absolute best person in the world” standard that snootier schools have.) You couldn’t be up and coming, you had to have arrived. And it was pretty clear that evidence for that was along the lines that Robin said above: prestigious invited talks, continuous funding, publications in good journals, external letter writers who were themselves prestigious and who knew and admired your work. I felt the standards were quite clear and worked hard to meet them. I didn’t go up for full professor early, but I was happy I understood the situation well enough to know when I felt I had met the standards.

    We have had several people go up for full professor recently (successfully) and I can’t answer for any of them how long it has been since they got tenure. It simply wasn’t a relevant factor in my mind. Although I suspect that more or less it was around the 6 years that’s typical at my school. Anyway this is one reason I agree with your point #6: we had these several people all go up in the same year, and they definitely didn’t get tenure at the same time, and they all were promoted to full professor because all had clearly achieved the standard for promotion.

    … You know, all of this is relevant for folks writing the tenure promotion letters, and the full professor promotion letters. Often the question asked is “would this person get promoted to this level at your institution?” It helps to have clear standards in your head when you try to answer this question. If some folks at your institution are muddled about what their standards are, WoS, then I worry about how they write promotion letters for others.

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