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Recently I had a conversation with a very well known scientist in my working field about the most important indicators to get a tenured academic position. This person is 80 years old and has been a member of selection committees several times during his career. During our conversation I told to him my opinion that I think that the ''research quality'' must be the most important indicator on being selected for a tenure position. After I told him my opinion he commented like this: ''yes I agree with you that it should be like that but at the end the committee mostly looks at the number of papers and the number of citations''.

The response of this scientist surprised me a lot since when I read similar topics on internet about these issues it is always concluded that the research quality is the most important factor. I also had a similar conversation with another scientist and she confirmed to me the same as the person which initially spoke with. Based on these two my experiences I have the following question:

Is the commonly said statement that ''quality is the most important factor on being selected for a tenured academic position'' only superficial?

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    There's idealism and then there's reality... – only_pro Apr 5 at 20:46
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I've chaired numerous tenure review panels in my department. (These are the panels that evaluate candidates for promotion to tenure and make recommendations to the department executive committee and to the department's tenured faculty.) I don't recall citation counts ever being seriously considered in these panels' discussions. The number of a candidate's publications may come up if it's unusually high or unusually low; the journals in which the papers are published is likely to matter more than the number. But more important than any of these things are experts' opinions of the candidate's work. The experts here can include people in our own department but will also include external reviewers, i.e, researchers at other universities (or occasionally in industry) whom we consider highly qualified to evaluate the candidate's work.

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It is impossible to make a general statement here that applies universally. There are certainly places where publications and citations etc will be just about all that is considered, but I would guess that is relatively rare.

One reason that publications and citations are used is that it is easier to count such things, depending on previous reviewers and other academics to make the determination of quality rather than the committee having to do it independently.

In fact, in many places, the tenure committee may not be qualified to really judge the quality of your work independently, since they have different specialties and aren't current in yours. This is certainly true in mathematics, for example, where an algebraist is probably a poor judge of the quality of work in analysis. So, if editors and reviewers are happy to publish you and other people in your field are happy to cite you then your work probably has high quality (or so we hope). Because of the difficulty some committees have in fairly evaluating your work themselves, they may depend fairly heavily on letters of support from your colleagues and others in your field.

But, for tenure to be achieved in many places, there are many other things that will make or break your bid. Can you teach effectively is actually more important in some places. What have students said about you. Do they go to the head/chair to praise or condemn you? In research places, do you attract graduate students? Are you collegial or a thorn in everyone's side? Do you embarrass the department or the institution with outside activities? Lots of things.

At the end of the day, your tenure bid will succeed or fail based on the judgments of a group of people, each of whom have different criteria, some of it unstated. There is a political element.

There are other factors not related to you or your quality on any scale. Do we need a person with your special talents? Is your field becoming more important or less? Can we afford to make you a guarantee of perpetual employment?

  • +1 for the first line alone. – user94036 Apr 6 at 16:15
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It depends very much on the university and country.

But yes, mostly they will first count "hard" factors:

  • Number of papers (especially first-author + senior author) - this is often weighted by "quality" criteria of the journals as impact factors and/or rank of the journal in the respective category
  • Number of citations
  • H-index
  • Grants and other 3rd party funding
  • (teaching evaluation usually count not very much - only if they are bad they might be counted against the person)

Why these factors? Because: who can decide what good science is? Everyone will say their own science is excellent - so it needs to be objectified somehow.

But: Something that many people are not aware of is that personal empathy might play a huge role as well. A brilliant scientist that is not liked by the rest of the faculty - they will find whatever reason to turn this person down. A mediocre scientist that has a good relation with the head of department (might play in the same tennis club etc) will most likely make it. It should not be like this but unfortunately the reality is different (as I have often observed in several countries).

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    +1. The last paragraph is great advice by itself. I'm on the administrative side, but I've never observed a tenure decision that was not materially influenced by these kinds of 'soft skill' things. – indigochild Apr 5 at 21:13

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