Carnegie Mellon University

An Overview of the Tenure Process at Carnegie Mellon University

The following text serves as a guide to new faculty regarding the tenure process described in detail in the university policies. Faculty should look for more guidance from their own school/college. 

Note: Some text has been adapted from UC-Berkeley and Cornell

The award of tenure is an immensely important decision. Carnegie Mellon seeks to apply the highest standards with respect to professional achievement in the areas of scholarship/creative work and teaching.  As described in the Faculty Handbook, “tenure decisions are governed by the contributions the candidate has made and is expected to make to the excellence of the university, the advancement of the candidate's academic field, the quality of education and the functioning and welfare of the university community.”  Each case is evaluated on its own merits. 

Although standards are uniformly high and apply to all units, the precise criteria and requirements vary by department.   Thus the candidate needs to understand the department’s interpretation of what is required to meet the tenure standard. Many units provide detailed periodic reviews.  In addition, conversations with your mentor, department chair and senior colleagues are an excellent way to understand the expectations of your unit.

All aspects of your job are important and outstanding performance in one area won’t compensate for an unsatisfactory record in another dimension. Thus, for example, exceptionally strong research cannot compensate for unsatisfactory teaching.  Balancing these obligations can be challenging and successful faculty look to their mentors for guidance in this domain. 

The tenure process actually begins at the time of your initial hiring.  Typically your tenure case will be decided by your ninth year, however, you may choose to come up for review earlier if your work is progressing rapidly. The schedule for review can also be altered in the event that you require a delay due to parental or medical leave (see university policy for details).   Previous experience, college norms can also change the timeline, hence it is important to communicate with your unit leader to be sure you understand your own tenure clock. 

A critical appraisal point prior to the actual tenure evaluation is the promotion to Associate Professor. While no guarantees can be made, faculty who achieve this promotion are believed to be on a “trajectory to receive tenure”.   While standards are high at this step, this promotion offers the department a final opportunity to identify weaknesses before it is too late for you to improve your record.

While faculty must maintain high standards in their teaching, ultimately your research accomplishments will constitute a substantial basis for your evaluation and promotion to tenure. Ideally you can organize your year around your own research, while delivering a good teaching product. A good plan that can help you to achieve this goal includes the following considerations.

  • Develop your plan around your teaching schedule, best times to collect data, deadlines for conference and grant submissions, and the best times to write. 
  • Leave blocks of time to work on your own research activities and do not deviate from your plan. Keep a set number of hours open for students as well, but do not let emails and other distractions interfere with your research time. Guard your research times as if it was an actual appointment.

  • Although the pre-tenure time period may initially seem lengthy, it goes by quickly. You do not have time to master teaching, before turning your efforts to research or vice versa.

  • Avoid over-investing in aspects of the job that offer immediate gratification or positive feedback.   A common pitfall is arises with teaching and advising.  The admiration of students can be addictive, but extraordinary success in the classroom will not offset shortcomings in research and scholarship.

  • Avoid taking on excessive service activities and commitments. This can be a particularly serious challenge for women and underrepresented minority faculty members, who are frequently invited to join committees based on their ability to add diversity.   Just say no when asked to serve more than your other colleagues.

  • Be careful in your choice of research pursuits. Chose ambitious projects, but guard against aiming too high and failing to achieve your goals. 

Disciplines vary with respect to what kind of scholarly contribution is most valued—whether it be a book or journal articles, empirical or theoretical work. You must choose wisely about shaping the direction and scope of your scholarly activities. But for all disciplines, your scholarly contributions will be evaluated for evidence of impact on the field, or independence and originality. If the majority of your work is done in collaboration with someone else it may raise questions about the nature of your independent contribution. In any collaborative work, you should be prepared to relate and document which aspects of the work are predominantly your contributions. Some fields may expect some sole-authored contributions; be sure to understand what is expected. 

You will have to make choices about when to publish, what to publish, and where to publish. It is important to publish your work as soon as you can so that you gain visibility. With your best work, aim for the most respected publications in your field. Be sure to learn from your colleagues what scholarly or creative productions they will use in evaluating your work.

Good mentoring will help to assure that you evaluate your progress realistically.  Even if a formal mentor has been assigned, engage with other faculty members both within and outside your department to gain advice about research, scholarship and teaching. When appropriate, circulate your draft work to others for comment.

Talk with your Chair regularly about important professional choices and about the criteria for promotion. By doing so you can help the Chair compile a convincing case on your behalf.

The tenure review process often takes roughly six months from start to finish. There are multiple, successive decision makers in the tenure process depending on the college.  The process involves key decisions by the department faculty, the dean and the Provost. And these decision makers are informed by various committees at each level.  Moreover, there are outside reviewers who evaluate the scholarship as well.  Despite the number of players in the process, the goal of each level of review is the same – to verify that the tenure standard’s requirements of excellence and future promise have been met.

In preparation for your review, you will be requested to put together a packet of materials including: your CV, a statement describing your research and teaching and a complete set of published and unpublished work. Your casebook will also include recommendations of outside reviewers based on their evaluation of your work. 

You will be asked to recommend several potential outside reviewers. These reviewers should be senior faculty (preferably full professors) at well-regarded universities. It will be to your benefit if you and your work are already known to them.

The tenure review process occurs in a number of phases. The first phase of review is usually by your department.  This is followed by a review performed by one or more college committees and finally the university committee. Your College Handbook outlines a standard set of procedures and criteria, which can vary somewhat from unit to unit. The chair of your department plays a central role in the implementation of the review process. It is a good idea to consult with him or her at the beginning of the process.

For the outside reviewers, your department will share a packet of your published and unpublished work (or links), including an updated vita and a statement describing your research and teaching. It can be helpful if the outside reviewers have access to all of your work for their evaluation. Most reviewers will check for your website to obtain additional materials so keep this site up to date at this time.   

Assessment of your national reputation as a scholar is an important part of the tenure review process. There are several things you can do to increase your visibility.  Publishing your work in highly regarded journals is ideal.  You can also post your completed, but unpublished, work in electronic repositories such as arxive or bioRxive if this is the tradition in your field. It has also become typical to maintain a webpage showcasing all of your work. It helps to participate in conferences and other professional meetings to establish contacts. Small meetings where you have more opportunities to engage in discussion with colleagues can often be more helpful than larger meetings.  

Although the pre-tenure period is challenging there are many resources to help you succeed: 

  • Your department chair and your mentor(s) are the most critical resource in ensuring that you are making good progress. Actively seek their advice and guidance. This applies not only to the trajectory of your teaching and scholarship, but also to how to deal with the many complex challenges of academic life.
  • The Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence provides a wealth of resources for improving your instructional skills.
  • The Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty provides a range of support and training dealing with many dimensions of faculty life.
  • If the stresses and difficulties of your life become overwhelming, your local Human Resources representatives can help direct you to the right resources.