You Have to Know the Rules to Win the Game

Will you bet your career without knowing the rules?

Will you bet your career without knowing the rules?

Imagine you have walked into a casino for the first time. The bright lights and bells and whistles overwhelm you a bit, but you soon get the idea that people are gambling. Do you walk up to the first venue you see and plunk down your bankroll?

Probably not.

You will likely wander around a bit until you see a game with which you are familiar. You may find a new game that looks good, so you watch for a bit. You probably start with small wagers, getting a feel for the play and the stakes.

What stakes could be higher than your career? Yet many new faculty members fail to learn the rules of success in academia, betting their bankroll on a game they do not fully understand.

Criteria for promotion and tenure (henceforth P&T) should be considered during the job search. After all, if you do not know what they expect you to accomplish to succeed, you cannot really know if you fit the position.

Yeah, I did not think about it that much either. I was much more worried about finding a position in the same city as my spouse.

Once you can find the bathroom and the cafeteria at your new place of employment, but sometime before you have memorized your office phone number, you will likely receive “orientation materials.” If anything produces more disorientation than this packet, I am not certain what it may be. Somewhere in those materials will be directions to a Faculty Handbook (most often a web site these days) that includes the guidelines for P&T.

I once tried to read through my printed Faculty Handbooks (I have been at 3 institutions now). The language most resembles a mash-up of academic prose and Ikea furniture instructions, but with less clarity and no useful figures. The P&T guidelines usually have useful but incomplete information; to serve an entire college, they must be kept somewhat vague since requirements may vary with department.

If you are lucky, your academic unit will have someone to mentor or coach you through this situation, someone who can tell you the actual number of papers or grants you need and those other specifics. What counts for the education mission? Is public outreach a component for success? How many of those manuscripts have to be first or senior author?

If no such person exists, it will be up to you to find the answers. You will need to talk with a variety of other faculty to get a feel for what you need to do. You can often confirm your impressions during discussion with your supervisor, especially during annual review processes.

Just like any game, P&T involves rules. Your first job is knowing those rules. If you do not, the odds of winning are never in your favor.

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