What Does It Take to Get Tenure?
Annabelle Foos, Mary Anne Holmes and Suzanne O’Connell

Data from the National Science Foundation and the American Geological Institute indicate that women geoscientists remain underrepresented at all levels in academia. In addition, the proportion of women geoscience faculty declines with increasing rank, from around 20 percent as assistant professors to 5 percent as full professors.

In 2001, we began a project to collect information that can help mentor women faculty early in their geoscience careers and improve their chances of obtaining tenure. We also wanted to provide institutions with information on retention, tenure and promotion procedures and criteria as they are practiced across the country.

The Bureau of Sociological Research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln sent a survey to the chairs of all U.S. geoscience departments. The survey consisted of questions that assessed what the relative weights were of research, teaching, service and other activities when an academic is judged for tenure. They distributed 628 questionnaires, of which 321 were returned. Of those surveys returned, 280 were complete and provided useful data for this study. Some surveys were returned unanswered and some institutions stated that they did not have tenure and promotion plans, so these were not included in the analysis.

The responses came from a broad spectrum of institutions, ranging from two-year community colleges to major research universities. Department chairs were asked to rate the relative importance of various criteria that are typically used to document excellence in teaching, research and service. Not surprisingly, three-quarters of the department chairs rated course evaluations, publication in national and international journals, and obtaining federally funded grants as being very important.

One of the first things a new faculty member should do is to determine the relative weight of those criteria in their own department. It is also important to consider that within one department there can be a range of expectations. As an example, it is not uncommon for major research universities to hire a faculty member whose major responsibilities are predominantly teaching or predominantly research.
New faculty should focus their energies on activities that are rated as most significant by the department chairs. This is not to say they should not do some of the activities that were not rated as significant, as those activities often lead to research opportunities. For example, internal institution grants provide seed money that can eventually lead to a federally funded grant.

Networking activities such as organizing a symposium or publishing in a symposium volume, though rated as less significant, are essential to establishing a good reputation in the field. Also important to consider is the return on investment of time. Writing a textbook is only considered moderately significant, despite the fact that it requires a significant investment of time and energy. It would be better to spend that energy on a few refereed publications and save writing the textbook until after receiving tenure.

See the May 2004 print issue of Geotimes for more information and survey data regarding how geology departments value different faculty activities.

Foos conducts research in environmental geology and is a professor of geology at the University of Akron, Ohio. Holmes is a research associate professor in the geosciences department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and former president of the Association for Women Geoscientists. O’Connell is a sedimentologist and paleoceanographer, and chair of the Department of Earth & Environmental Science at Wesleyan University.

Funding for this survey was provided by the Association of Women Geoscientists Foundation (AWGF) and the National Science Foundation (grant #0123669). Cheryl Wiese and Connie Frey from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Bureau of Sociological Research, administered the survey. The authors wish to thank the 321 department chairs that took the time to complete the survey.

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