Have you ever noticed how certain words or certain phenomena seem never to be on your radar, you may even be completely oblivious to them, only to show up repeatedly over a very short time span?
I remember a few years back coming across the word sinister, not exactly a word frequently used in daily communication, probably five or six times in a single day from as many different and unrelated sources, only one of which was a Disney cartoon where the adjective qualified a villain. Another example, at a much more serious end of the spectrum, is a particular fetal malformation of which I had previously never heard, only to find out that two women whom I knew ended up losing their babies because of it within a few weeks from one another.
For some reason, I have heard of three cases of tenure denial over the past couple of weeks. My department is low-drama in that regard, people get plenty of feedback and generally know if they are doing well or not, so surprises are rare. My own tenure case, while anxiety-inducing, was objectively a slam-dunk and was approved unanimously at every level. There were no issues with tenure of the several colleagues who are junior to me, so I sometimes forget that getting denied is a very real possibility.
When things look really bad, you can usually see the signs well before tenure and ideally the precarious situation is communicated to the junior faculty member early enough that they can decide whether to do something about their performance or choose a different career path. We have had a few people who left after their 3rd year review because it was clear that there was little that could be done to change the unfavorable disposition of the department. In two of those cases, the candidates were not listening to advice as to what they should do and decided they knew better. When during your 3rd year review it becomes clear that not only have you received no grants (that can happen, everyone is aware of the funds getting scarce), but the reason is that you were in fact not applying at all because you decided it was not important and you were to focus on research as that’s what you wanted to do (I am not making this up) or because you waited for the world’s largest amount of ironclad preliminary data to even begin writing, that’s a really really big problem. That’s how you don’t get your contract renewal after the 3rd-year review.
All three cases of tenure denial that I came across recently (R1 schools, different physical science fields) were borderline. In each case the decision could have justifiably gone the other way, but it is not clear that the departments had made a mistake, I can see why they wanted to deny tenure. All three candidates had independent funding and published, but less than optimally; one had issues with equipment, which is very unfortunate, and a corresponding publication gap late on the tenure track. Another had basically very, very few publications, and while the field is such that the publication rate is not high and the candidate ultimately published some very high-impact work, it was simply too little and too late for when the tenure dossier was submitted and I presume that, as far as the tenure-case letter writers were concerned, the record was really weak.
Tenure track is short. You cannot embark on a single lofty goal during this period. If you really want to do this far-reaching, high-risk work, you absolutely have to balance it out with shorter-term, sure-payoff projects. The papers that will count have to be published by the end of year 5 on the tenure track, and ideally earlier, so that there’s enough time for people to come across your work. I have seen more than one case where the all-eggs-in-one-basket ended up royally backfiring, even though the seminal finding was eventually published somewhere prestigious — it was just too late.
In this sense, tenure track is about strategizing, career engineering if you will, as much as it is about ideas and technical execution. You have to learn the job fast enough and show others that you know how to do it, that you can raise money, teach, advise students, publish papers and give talks, and make a name for yourself — on time. Tenure track is usually not the time to devote all your energy to a project you have always wanted to do; sure, you can do it, but you also have to do something else, otherwise leave it for after tenure. Many people do their best work post-tenure anyway; the key is to do what you need to do to actually get tenure first.