Day: November 6, 2016

Book Review: Tenure Hacks

I bought “Tenure Hacks: The 12 Secrets to Making Tenure” by Russell James a few months ago. Amazon kept listing it as one the books that people view or buy together with mine, and it looked interesting.  (“A brutally Machiavellian guidebook for the current or aspiring assistant professor,” says the subtitle.)

The book was published through Amazon’s self-publishing arm, Creative Space. He did a good job with the layout and editing, probably far better than I would have done if I had gone the self-publishing route. The book is available in paperback only. I think it is too expensive ($28.00 for a 144-page paperback), yet, I did pay, so who’s the sucker here?

James promises a no-nonsense, in-your-face, slightly or not-so-slightly uncomfortable account of what one must do to earn tenure at a research school, and that’s exactly what he delivers. Much of his advice is quite accurate. He makes a clear case that your main value to the university is the ability to bring in grant money, and that in order to be truly competitive for these funds you have to become *the* expert in a niche area, rather than just one of the people who are active in a broad field. As the go-to person in the niche, you will be the obvious choice as the recipient of precious funding. He drives this message home quite relentlessly, which is a good thing. It is important to understand and accept that dabbling is not a winning strategy for the untenured.

He also discusses, in an interesting way, why your colleagues are not really invested in your future, that they (including the chair) may pull you in all directions with the work that you feel you might have to do but that doesn’t ultimately benefit you, and that — and this is very important — it’s really no skin off their back if you don’t get tenure. Becoming a superstar in an emerging fundable area is how you inoculate yourself against getting fired, and everything else is just a distraction.

In the same vein, James advises not to waste time and energy on politics (because it’s not your job to right the wrongs in a department of which you are still not a full citizen), to do minimal service (he advises how to graciously get out of unwanted tasks and to diligently document everything that you do do), and to also minimize the time spent on teaching (e.g., by using other people’s materials rather than developing everything from scratch) as it won’t really help your tenure case at a research school. You will be able to do all the teaching improvement you want later, post tenure.

There is one bit that I just couldn’t stomach, no matter how hard I tried to view it through the lens of in-your-face uncomfortable honesty — he advocates doctoring your (RMP) page by posting fake reviews yourself from different IP addresses over an extended period! (Actually, he advocates posting the reviews you actually received from students in official evaluations.) Reading this recommendation just made me queasy. Even if you think RMP is an abomination, I cannot imagine stooping so low as to manipulate it.

Overall, “Tenure Hacks” is engaging, somewhat rage inducing, and sobering. It is well written, but is also (by design) a somewhat uncomfortable read. If you are interested in getting tenure at a research school, and especially if you are on the tenure track right now and fear that you are not doing well but unsure what to fix, then this book is definitely worth your time. It is also definitely overpriced.