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.


  1. Would a tenure committee actually look at My own department requests letters from students directly for tenure and they almost universally come back reasonable and consistent with what we expect.

    My own advice would include paying attention to what the department actually thinks is important – don’t waste time doctoring things the department doesn’t care about.

  2. I read this book – in fact, I bought it together with yours because I needed a bit of guidance when I hit a low spot and felt completely overwhelmed. Part of the fact why they might be sold together is that (strangely enough) there weren’t so many tenure track self help books out there, I think.

    I thought some of the tips in Tenure Hacks were spot on. Moving papers along to actually get your stuff published, etc. Along the way, I also started to think that this is not how I want academia to be, though. It is also not how I want to be in academia. The “suck at teaching”, while perhaps technically true, is just not me. That being said, Tenure Hacks does offer some very solid and concrete advise. I will definitely re-read this when it’s time to toughen up. It’s just that (no flattery intended) I felt your book was more human. Which is a factor I’d like to factor into my academic life. If that is not good enough to get tenure, then I am in the wrong place/career.

  3. It is a money game. That is for sure. Follow the money. I actually like the content list of the book. It seems like he/she has formulated getting tenure as a game.

    Anyway, do you schmooze your NSF PO’s. If yes, how and if not, why not? Since I am new at the “game” I would like to know what veterans like you have done in the past that worked (apart from doing a good job at proposal draft)

  4. IME, schmoozing with NSF PO’s is not of great use (but I am hardly an NSF guru). Many are rotators, so they are gone in 3 years. You should definitely call or email if you have specific questions: want clarifications on the program’s focus, need additional info after reading the panel summary, have a white paper to run by them to see if it’s relevant. If you are in DC and can spare the time, you can go meet them. Also, do offer to participate on panels and accept when invited, as it helps the PO see if you are awesome (in case there is every some extra money lying around and you have been recommended even if not highly recommended) and helps write better grants. But schmoozing with NSF POs is definitely not critical the way it is with DOD agencies. NSF will go by panel reviews and recommendations. I hadn’t done the following until recently, but some of the best funded people do: be careful about whom you blacklist as a reviewer and whom you recommend. Many people write proposals quite competently; the key is to have someone on the panel who’ll go to bat for you. Without that, we can obsess about the font and readability and whatnot, but if you are not someone’s top choice (and you likely won’t be unless they are topically reasonably close to you but they are neither a competitor nor an awful human being) there is little that can be done. That’s why NSF is so frustrating. I often feel that the reviews ask an unrealistic level of detail (often peripheral to the project) or ask that I tackle problems that are too far out, but these are all stock critique — they don’t want to fund you and just want to fund someone else instead, and the report is a cover for that. Now don’t get me started on the fact that I am often on panels where 0 proposals come from women, so I imagine when I apply I am easily the only female PI in the proposal roster. All the t’s have to be crossed and all the i’s dotted and it’s still not enough cause someone will come back to say they don’t believe I can use the techniques that I have published with… But this is getting too ranty.

    So yeah, schmoozing with NSF perhaps somewhat helpful, not absolutely critical like in DOD.

  5. I hear you and agree with you. Recently got a NSF grant declined. Reviews came back. Not a single shred of information that I can use to revise or improve on my proposal. Just didn’t wanted to fund me so the review just seemed like a cover up.

    My experience with NIH has been somewhat different. In those proposal I have had grants declined (of course) but the reviews were helpful in getting the proposal revised and extended.

    I wish NSF panels would do something similar.

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