Early-Career Psychology

When Roxanne A. Donovan, PhD, accepted a tenure-track position at Kennesaw State University, she knew what was expected: 40 percent research, 40 percent teaching and 20 percent service.

But the expectation versus the reality of juggling those three components — plus two young children — meant it has been a tough few years as Donovan trudged toward tenure in the department of psychology and the African and African Diaspora Studies program.

“In my world, it was like 60-60-60,” she says.

While she has the stamp of approval from the tenure committee, chair and dean, Donovan is still waiting for the verdict from the provost, president and the board. The path to tenure has been anxiety provoking, but Donovan says she feels grateful for the opportunity.

“In this economic climate it can be really hard to find a tenure-track position,” she says. “It’s an unbelievable privilege. But you need a plan.”

According to a 2007 APA survey, close to 70 percent of psychology doctorate recipients who are research focused took a job in academe. Candidates are usually hired at the rank of assistant professor with the hopes of being named an associate professor with tenure. While universities vary in their expectations, achieving tenure is a difficult, competitive process that often takes seven years.

For those negotiating the tenure track, experts recommend several ways to stay focused: finding mentors, using your doctoral dissertation as a way to start publishing immediately, requesting regular evaluations and being sure you understand your institute’s expectations.

And if there’s one critical point for psychology academics it’s this: The institute’s expectations of the tenure-track professor must be explicit.

“If it’s 40 percent research, 40 percent teaching and 20 percent service, that should be clear. If it’s 80 percent research and 20 percent teaching, that’s a different expectation,” says Suzanne Bennett Johnson, PhD, a Florida State University School of Medicine professor and APA’s 2012 president. A university may have vague written tenure guidelines like “excelling in scholarship,” which is why it is important to nail down — in writing — what the balance should be between teaching, research and service.

“You must request a requirement be changed if you are spending all your time teaching,” Johnson says. “You cannot be passive about this.”

The tenure time frame — often five to six years — goes far faster than many candidates expect.

Connections matter

First off, junior faculty should recognize the importance of relationships, says Robert Sternberg, PhD, provost and professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University and a former APA president.

“People don’t like to talk about it, but you need to be seen as collegial,” he says. “People want to feel like you are contributing. If you are non-collegial, they may not be as positively disposed toward you.”

That doesn’t mean serving on every committee, he says. But “people are often interested in what you can do for them, the department, and their own ideas.”

Befriending other department members can also give new faculty information that is not written down, says Michael C. Edwards, PhD, a quantitative psychologist at The Ohio State University. “A mentor may be the person who can say, ‘This topic is contentious; don’t bring it up,’ or ‘Professor X Hates Professor Y,’” he says. “That can help you stay out of trouble.”

In addition to being professionally friendly, it’s helpful to have more than one mentor who can offer feedback, adds Guerda Nicolas, PhD, chair and associate professor of the department of educational and psychological studies at the University of Miami.

“You need one person who says, ‘This is crap’ and another who says, ‘You’re great,’ and cares about your overall well-being,” she says. “You can’t get everything from one person.”

While achieving tenure is tough, Nicolas hopes that future academics aren’t unduly discouraged. She feels a particular responsibility as a faculty member of color. “My third year of doctoral studies someone said, ‘What about academia? ‘ and it had never occurred to me because I had never had a full-time black professor,” Nicolas says. “I would really hope that people will see what a great job this is. It’s meaningful, and to work with this next generation who will have an impact on the landscape of the academy.”

Publish, don’t perish

While it can be difficult to condense a doctoral dissertation into submissions for academic journals, it should be a launch pad for publishing.

“You better like your dissertation topic,” says Edwards, “It’s ideal if there are three papers in there and it has legs. You don’t want to have spent all that time and get one paper.”

Future professors benefit from choosing a research area that will have publishable data, says Nicolas.

“For me there was a big difference between what I was passionate about and what the research will produce,” she says. “You have to balance passion, quality and quantity.

That doesn’t mean that passion won’t ultimately yield dynamite contributions to the field. But Sternberg says a tenure-track candidate should diversify his or her portfolio.

“It’s like writing the great American novel — you need to have other things going on,” he says. “You need to have some shorter-term research that you can get published that may not be as consequential, and hope that your longer-term investment will pay off.”

Edwards found it helpful to start a “need more pubs” club, a group of junior faculty who met each week to talk about their projects.

“It was a completely arbitrary deadline, but I hated going to that meeting and not having something done. With publications, the rule is however much you’ve done, you need to have done one more,” he says.

Time management was critical to finding time to do his work, Edwards says, and that meant occasionally saying no.

“The single biggest problem is that your work is the quietest thing in the to-do pile. All these other things have louder voices. But my expectation was that I would succeed or fail on how much I published and did research,” he says.

Establish expectations

In an ideal world, all future professors could do brilliant research and nurture the minds of tomorrow while heading up innovative committees and finding time to have children or hobbies. But in lieu of that, seasoned academics warn that candidates need to know what exactly is expected of them to achieve tenure.

At Fairleigh Dickinson University, that means excelling in teaching.

“We had an industrial/organization person who left after two years to go to a research lab,” psychology professor and former clinical counseling program director Lona Whitmarsh, EdD, says. “It wasn’t the right fit for him.”

That can be flipped: Sternberg remembers being thrilled that a student of his received a prestigious university tenure-track position. But “she was passionate about teaching, and they were passionate about the research, and it wasn’t a good fit,” he says.

“Most people are not terrific in all three areas, and generally, service is less important, but that can vary,” he says. “If your strength is research, you don’t have to be a great teacher, but you don’t want to be a crummy one, or vice versa.”

If it doesn’t work out, that does not always spell disaster or starting over at a new university, Johnson says.

“One of the things I try to do is help people ascertain whether this is for them,” Johnson says. “One time I hired a philosophy professor who was a pretty good teacher and he had done some research, but the committee said that unless this guy started publishing cutting-edge things there was no way he was getting tenure. I changed his position to a teaching position. It was a mutual solution that was good for everyone.”

Push for evaluations

At the end of each year, a tenure-track candidate has potentially taught from four to eight courses, sat on a committee and submitted articles for publication. It’s now time for a progress check from the department chair, says Johnson.

“There needs to be structure and expectations established,” she says. Many universities have a formalized tenure-check process at year three that might lead a candidate to look elsewhere.

At FSU, the faculty has established a tenure-advisory committee that can review the professor’s work annually and give specific recommendations on how to keep on track. Even if the candidate is progressing, universities are also aware of the long-term impact of his or her career, whether it’s bringing them prestige or funding. Increasingly, it has become important for professors to have external funding for their research, and not rely solely on the university.

“Universities want faculty to succeed, but many universities have limited positions and resources,” Johnson says.

At Fairleigh Dickinson University’s psychology department, candidates get yearly evaluations, which require syllabi from every class, along with teaching artifacts, programs from professional presentations, statements for research agendas and the candidate’s pedagogical philosophy, says Whitmarsh.

“We’ve worked hard to eliminate ambiguity in the tenure track,” she says. “Our heavy emphasis is on the teaching. Our university’s attitude is that if you meet the criteria, you have the opportunity to get tenure.”


Elizabeth Leis-Newman is a writer in Baltimore.