Tuesday Tirade

To the faculty on the tenure track at research institutions (and likely elsewhere, but the weight of research and letters vs other aspects may be different): Here are  some things you absolutely must do, and maybe you think they are wrong and stupid but you must do them, and I am writing about this because a case of someone who hasn’t done them is very, very fresh.

What letter writers say is very important. What letter writers look for is whether you have established yourself in a niche where you are a key player, if not the key player. If you came from a group of a famous advisor, they will not take kindly to the fact that you never seemed to be able to fully emerge from the advisor’s shadow. Nobody wants a pale copy of your advisor. Nobody wants to employ you to work as a de facto extended postdoc for your advisor. People want to see a clearly (from paper authorship, from new collaborations, from the disappearance of advisor from your list of coauthors after a couple of years on the tenure track) that you are your own person.

Too many people think that because someone met them when they were a student or postdoc of famous advisor, that person knows and appreciates their work. No. In most cases, they do not remember you well, and anything you did during your PhD or postdoc is in their mind likely associated with your advisor, NOT with you. You need to put yourself in their way, in front of their face, with your awesome new independent work. You need to make them override all they thought (or more likely didn’t think at all) about you as a famous advisor’s graduate student and make them start to think of you as a colleague, as a rising star, as someone whose science should be watched for originality and impact.

Doing good work is not enough to get tenure. Maybe over the course of the career good work floats to the top yadda yadda, but more likely not. Genius work, sure, merely solid work–not. There’s far too much solid work, and much gets overlooked. You need to draw the attention of people to your work; you need to make them not dismiss you. The tenure track is not infinite in duration.

Travel. Give seminars. Go to conferences where big shots will show up and introduce yourself. Invite them to give seminars at your place.

Do not put yourself in the position where people write lukewarm letters or don’t want to write because they have no idea who you are or what you did since you were a student.


In my fiction as in research, I fall in between the cracks of common divisions (genres in fiction; areas in research). In research, people don’t believe me I can do all the things I say I can do (but I can, honestly!) and I likely have a harder time getting money than if I’d stayed in just one area. But I like what I like, and what I like is a challenge.

I have a piece of writing that I don’t even know if I should classify as fiction or creative nonfiction. It’s got speculative elements, observational humor, and societal commentary. Choosing where to send it is challenging.

There’s a prompt and all the pieces submitted are literary fiction; I absolutely itch to and thus end up writing high fantasy.

There’s a competition with a broad science prompt; everyone submits science fiction, while I decide I’d write lab lit.

When I write it out like this, I seem like a total pain in the a$$. What else is new?

How’s your week going, bloggy friends? 


  1. Gah, way to stir up a freak-out in me as I’m waiting (this week) for the results of my 5th year review and planning to submit my tenure materials 10 months from now (if this review goes well). I think I’ve been doing the things you said to do, at least as much as I reasonably can given the constraints of teaching and parenting. This year I’m in charge of both our colloquium series and our major annual lecture series, and you can bet that I’m inviting senior people who could write me letters (while maintaining enough diversity to not piss off the rest of the department by making them listen to only talks in my subfield all year). I haven’t been traveling as much since kiddo was born 1.75 years ago, but the invitations are still rolling in and I’ll be hoofing it next semester and over the summer, and I can only hope that’ll be enough. I am encouraged by the fact that my advisor and I have over the past few years been recounting to each other amusing situations where either he or I will encounter someone who says (to him), “Oh, I didn’t realize Lyra was your student!” or (to me) “Oh, I didn’t realize X was your PhD advisor!” — I think those are good signs. New collaborations — check, check, checkity check. I’m very popular before proposal deadlines. Papers without my advisor on them — trickier, since my subfield is very small and it would be weird not to collaborate with him, but I talked to my dept chair about this in year 2 (and 3) and he assured me that it won’t be an issue. I do have some, and while he’s definitely still a coauthor on papers from my group sometimes, he’s way down the author list. And as previously mentioned, I think it’s pretty clear that other people in my field recognize my work and ideas independently of my advisor, so that’s good.

    OK, navel gazing over. But I do think that external letters are the scariest, because they’re what you have least control over out of everything in your tenure packet. You’ve got some good advice here, but it feels like a drop in the bucket relative to the terrifying vagueness of “establish a research identity independent of your PhD thesis advisor.” I also think it’s important to recognize that the silverbacks in the field probably have an easier time seeing a bright young buck as independent than they do a bright young doe (to mix my animal metaphors). Even just serving on panel reviews, I hear people question the independence of young women SO MUCH MORE than the independence of young men — it’s appalling.

  2. Good advice! In reading these letters on (deliberately vague) committees, I’ve seen that this idea of independent research identity is indeed important.

  3. I concur! And especially if you are a woman, if you publish a lot with your former research advisor, your input will be 100% discounted. For some reason, women are more likely to be stereotyped as followers and not leaders.

    Your former research advisory should moreover understand this, and should not take offense. Get him (yes, it’s usually a “him”) off your dang papers like, yesterday, and stop being a tight collaborator with him.

    It will of course make it harder for you to publish your papers, since reviewers will be more likely to be super critical if they don’t see your famous former advisor in the author list. But in the end, it will be worth it.

    The only way to get credit for being independent and doing your own work is to actually function independently.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s