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I recently received an email asking if I would be willing to evaluate a colleague's application for promotion and tenure. We are both at R1 universities in the US. According to the guidelines, I am qualified to serve as an external evaluator even though I am neither tenured nor in a tenure-track position. However, this means that I have limited familiarity with the process.

I am inclined to accept and support the case, but would like to know:

  • What is typically involved in such a review? How much reading and writing? Can I expect to do this in a single day?
  • What makes a great (great = valuable to the committee) evaluation?
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    Before spending the time on the review, you might want to make sure your colleague's institution is aware of the nature of your position. There is often a requirement that external evaluators already have at least the rank for which the candidate is being considered (and have tenure for tenure cases). It's possible that their asking you represents an oversight, and they'll throw out your letter once they realize that you are not tenure-track. – Mark Meckes Sep 5 '18 at 18:52
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    @MarkMeckes I've also heard that some places ask for a junior letter, usually from someone the candidate has mentored. But definitely check. – Thomas Sep 5 '18 at 18:59
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    @MarkMeckes thanks for pointing that out - I'll check with the dept head. A quick review of the institution's guidelines indicates that evaluations can be from scientists with equal or higher rank or equivalent experience; I received a promotion last year that could be interpreted as equivalent to tenure. – Abe Sep 5 '18 at 19:03
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    "Equivalent to tenure" is open to interpretation, especially at an R1. It would be best to check with the person who asked you, whether the candidate or otherwise. Did the candidate mentor you? That might make a difference in an answer. – Buffy Sep 5 '18 at 19:25
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    @Buffy the candidate did not mentor me. I've updated the question to indicate that I am qualified to serve as an evaluator - the suggestion to check is good and I will do so, but for the purposes of this forum I think that it will be useful to have an answer to this question since it is difficult to find guidance on Google. – Abe Sep 5 '18 at 19:32
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For context: I’m in math. Take this advice with a grain of salt if you’re in a discipline with different norms.

A good (meaning useful) letter is typically around 2-3 pages long, although I have seen letters as short as 1 page (not very useful) and as long as 5 pages (useful, but not in proportion to its length and tedious to read).

At least 85-90% of the letter’s length will be devoted to discussing the candidate’s research. It’s appropriate to comment briefly about other aspects of their work such as teaching, service, organizational work, outreach etc, to the extent that you feel such feedback would be helpful, or to the extent you were explicitly asked to discuss those things. Unless you were explicitly asked about them, it’s also appropriate not to discuss anything other than research.

For letters I have written, I would estimate that I spent around 4-8 hours in total doing the review. That time is spread out over several days, which I feel is important to make sure the review is thoughtful and I have time to weigh my words carefully and make sure I am willing to commit to the end result. I am usually familiar with only a part of the candidate’s work, so I spend a good amount of time getting up to speed on their full body of work and trying to estimate its significance. But I think it probably wouldn’t make sense for me to agree to do a review if I felt like I needed more than a day’s work to get to a point where I can meaningfully comment on the significance of their work.

In the letter I usually include both some general comments and at least a few paragraphs on each of 2-3 specific results and papers I am more intimately familiar with. My suggestion is to aim for a good balance between the general and the specific - the people reading the letter need a bit of both.

It’s okay to use some technical language, but don’t overdo it - many of the readers will not be experts in the specific area the candidate is working on. For the benefit of those non-experts, it’s helpful to include language that manages to convey how important and influential the candidate’s work has been without getting into a technical discussion. To some extent you can achieve this by relying on “sociological” data such as how prestigious and well-regarded the journals the candidate publishes in (or conferences they lecture at, etc) are, but try not to put too much emphasis on such things or you will risk coming across as a shallow person who only cares about prestige, and your feedback may be discounted. (Also, as JeffE said in a comment, such sociological indicators of prestige can often be estimated by non-experts directly, so your discussing them is potentially not as helpful as a more expert/technical commentary. But to a limited extent, I think it is appropriate and potentially helpful to comment on prestige.)

Good luck! Writing this sort of letter is a big responsibility, but also a very valuable service. It speaks well of your reputation that you were asked to do it.

  • "risk coming across as a shallow person who only cares about prestige" The person reading the letter might care a lot about prestige - increasing prestige might be their job. – Anonymous Physicist Sep 7 '18 at 8:48
  • @AnonymousPhysicist “increasing prestige might be their job” No, no one has the job of increasing prestige. Perhaps you mean that their job is to increase the level of excellence of their department, which of course would lead to increased prestige, but that would be a side effect not the main goal. Anyway, I’m not sure I understand your point here. The person reading the letter could be any number of things (evil, stupid, misguided etc) but that’s not something that should concern OP, and doesn’t affect any of the suggestions I made in my answer. – Dan Romik Sep 7 '18 at 13:17
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There are typically three things evaluated for tenure: Research, Teaching, and Service. The importance of each depends on the institution, but at an R1 you can guess that Research as evidenced by quality publication is by far the most important. At small colleges it would likely be Teaching first, but not necessarily. But no candidate can afford to not have some evidence in each of the three areas. For some, a book (or three) might be evidence of Service, or of Teaching. Only a seminal book would probably count much in the research area.

In many ways the quality of a publication record is best measured by how much the individual has influenced other researchers in the field in question. How often have they been cited, for example, or how much work has been done to extend the work of this candidate. In other words, how central is this person to the current work of the field. For a mid-career academic, writing a lot of papers may be necessary, but not sufficient.

The kind of person who the institution really wants to tenure is the kind of person who they really don't want to lose. For an R1, think of the following in addition to the publication record. Does the candidate properly mentor grad students? Does he/she hold advanced seminars or run labs? Does he/she bring in exceptional visitors to lecture or talk? What have the advisees of this person gone on to accomplish? Does the person mentor junior faculty effectively?

In some fields, such as CS, in which conferences are important, is the candidate regularly represented? Does he/she participate in conference committees? That can be evidence of service, but also of having a central place in the research community.

At some institutions, grant funding outweighs a lot of other things. One wants to say "outweighs everything" but that seems a bit cynical. But if a prof can draw enough grant money to fund grad students it will be hard for the institution to let them go.

Another factor, not usually formally weighed in, is how collegial is the person. Is the other faculty happy to share the coffee room with them? Note that it is the more senior members of the faculty who are going to be making the decision at most places.

At many universities the candidate creates a dossier for examination by the tenure committee. The dossier may be used to a greater or lesser extent to guide the discussions. But the candidate gets to make their personal "case" for tenure. If you have an idea what they want to communicate and accomplish in the dossier, it might be helpful to both support that but also to supplement it. Sometimes it is hard for a person to say good things about themselves and others can do so more easily. I once mentored a candidate who couldn't bring himself to point out how great he was.

Some places will even formalize the mentoring process for a candidate. Ideally this starts a couple of years before the tenure decision when the person still has a chance to enhance their record in appropriate ways. I've mentored other people (for promotion, not tenure) who refused all advice and didn't advance.

The time to do such a recommendation can vary widely depending on how well you know the candidate and his/her position in the field. If you have a lot of personal knowledge and work in the same field it might go quickly, but I doubt that a day is sufficient. I would want a week, actually, but might do better in some situations. I put an important recommendation together (for an award, not tenure) in a few days. Part of that was just thinking about presentation, so wasn't full time work, but the ideas needed a bit of time to settle and mature.

It can also vary depending on just how important your recommendation is. If it is expected that your support is vital, then it naturally takes more work if you want to be helpful. But if you are just a minor commentator and others will bear the major weight, then it can be quicker.

But, I wouldn't do it unless I actually wanted to do it. Just repeating things you can easily find (Google) will be less than helpful. If you have no personal knowledge, you aren't the right person.

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    This answer is missing the most significant bit. Especially at R1 institutions, promotions and tenure committees want an expert evaluation of the quality (depth, novelty, visibility, relevance, impact, etc.) of the candidate's research. Not merely the amount of research, and not merely the prestige of the research venues —both of which the committee can judge for themselves—but the quality of the work itself—which is best judged by experts in the field. This expert research evaluation is the main purpose of tenure letters. – JeffE Sep 5 '18 at 20:21
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    @Abe, That depends on a lot of things. Who asked you to do this? The candidate or another? Are you a major commenter or a supplemental one? It sounds like you don't know the candidate's record very well and you need to know enough to be honest. Again, it is a judgement call. The less you know, the more you need to know. I think the most important thing is that you have an understanding of the place of the candidate in the research spectrum. If you have no idea of that you might need to do a lot of work. What you know is better than what you've heard, of course. – Buffy Sep 5 '18 at 21:26
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    @Abe, your questions seem to imply that this was imposed on you and is a burden. If so, you may not be the right person to do it. – Buffy Sep 5 '18 at 21:27
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    @Buffy ps Was my interest in quantifying the time commitment that came across as being a burden? Even then, how would seeing this as a burden (as opposed to service) indicate that I am not the right person to do it? – Abe Sep 5 '18 at 22:20
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    @Dawn, I will guess that in a lot of places (most?), while the invitation to comment comes from the chair, the candidate provides a list of suggested reviewers to the tenure committee or department head. This is to avoid the problem of random commenters with no connection to the candidate's work. So, the candidate is in a position to know, even if the invitation, formally, came from another. – Buffy Sep 5 '18 at 22:38

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