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I have heard from several places that to get a tenure-track assistant professor position and to get tenure, not only do you have to be a very solid researcher, but you have to be lucky. But I don't know what they mean. Could someone explain?

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At most schools in the US in fields where you do a postdoc, luck plays a relatively small role in getting tenure (because in the current job market the standards for getting hired are much higher than for receiving tenure), but luck plays a huge role in getting a tenure-track offer, in where you get a tenure-track offer, and in how long it takes to get a TT offer. Here are several ways that luck factors in:

  • How many schools are hiring in a given year and how many positions they have.
  • Which schools are hiring in a given year and whether they have people interested in your work.
  • Who else in your field is on the market in a given year. It’s very hard to be hired if you’re seen as the second best person in your subfield.
  • Timing of journal acceptances. Having a paper accepted in a top tier journal makes a difference, but there’s a lot of luck in who the referees are and a lot of luck in whether the process takes a few months or years.

In consecutive years I had no interviews one year and over half-a-dozen the next year (with multiple offers) with all of the above factors playing a role.

  • Well...now I'm scared. I really should develop a backup plan during my postdoc. Because the outcome seems hard to predict. When I applied for postdocs last fall my adviser was sure I would get something...until I didn't. He pulled some strings and things worked out but I feel as though I am in a precarious situation. – Mehta Jun 12 at 3:29
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I can't give a universal perspective, but often there are so many factors involved that are outside the control of an applicant for tenure that it seems like it is luck and little else. In reality, it is just that the combination of factors is very complex and hard to predict.

I'll focus on obtaining tenure itself, rather than tenure track.

Let's take the case of a well positioned person. Good research, several publications, good teaching. Such a person would seem to be a good candidate, of course.

But, they may not present themselves well to the tenure committee. Being extremely introverted, or even extremely modest about your accomplishments can work against you.

Perhaps you have somehow offended some powerful member of the faculty - maybe just because they are jealous.

Perhaps at the moment you come up, the enrollments have declined, or someone who was about to retire didn't, leaving no real room.

Perhaps several other people were advanced to tenure just the year before and there is no room and rules don't permit you to delay.

Perhaps someone has decided that another candidate meets the needs of some research group better then you do.

Perhaps funding agencies have gotten more conservative just now and the university doesn't seem willing to make a commitment to you for the long term future.

Perhaps the department you are in is in decline, reducing the need for faculty and reducing the overall 'clout' of the department head.

Perhaps there is just too much competition for too few tenure slots right now.

Some departments tenure almost no one, always on the lookout for new faces and thinking, sometimes correctly, that having worked there for seven years will give you a boost elsewhere. Top schools can be like that.

Any of these can serve as a block, as can several other, similar, seemingly stupid things.

A candidate does well to monitor all relevant and many irrelevant factors in the final few years before a decision must be made. If there is weirdness about you may be able to deflect it if you know and are prepared.

It is good for a new faculty member to attach to a mentor who has some power and who will both guide you through the swamp and also serve as your advocate. If you need to present a tenure dossier to the committee, have someone more experienced in that particular system read it and give you advice on what to include/exclude and even on phrasing.

The problem is that the rules are often too strict about timing. Seven years and up or out.

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Luck is part of academia as it part of other businesses as it is part of life.

To get a tenure track position somewhere, you are most likely one of many many candidates among which there are many good candidates. So it is an impossible decision to make for the hiring committee who to chose based on only objective facts. Of course you can screw up your interview or, the other extreme, be extremely talented and get offers everywhere, but if things just go well you need that bit of luck to get hired ( or to proceed to another round of interviews).

Then there is of course the tenure decision. You need a bit of luck with applying for grants, getting papers published in (top) journals, and probably many more.

Though I would not argue that it is solely luck. If you work hard enough or are very talented you will eventually get your fair share of luck :) In other words; apply for many positions and you will find your luck somewhere

PS. This is just my humble opinion

  • I especially agree with the last part. If you are smart and willing to do what it takes to get a job (focus your research to the more marketable areas, lower your standards to schools you have a good shot at, don't even think about being picky regarding location, sacrifice everything else...), you will get a tenure-track job sooner or later. – A Simple Algorithm Jun 6 at 10:20

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