Anecdotally, I've heard that it's easier to get tenure in UK/Canada than in the US. I've also heard that some departments have a reputation for denying tenure.

Are there statistics about this? (related question: Tenure and tenure denial rates by universities)

How can a job seeker determine how difficult it will be to get tenure when weighing offers from multiple departments?


  • For instance, are there polite/coy ways of asking about this? Would students or post-docs know and be in a more honest position than the profs? Are reputations widely known and so just asking some senior people would likely give you a good sense?
  • Another aspect of this question: are there regional differences, as I alluded to?
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    It used to be said that some top universities very seldom tenured people, but still provided an excellent springboard for junior faculty to enter their next position. Possibly this was before the prevalence of postdocs such as is now the case. – Buffy Dec 2 '20 at 23:17
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    @Buffy it used to be said, but I'm not sure it was ever true. Not even Harvard actually uses the mythical Harvard tenure model. (Contact everyone in the candidate's field of study, in decreasing order of stature, offering them a tenured faculty position. The candidate gets tenure if and only if nobody else accepts the position first.) – JeffE Dec 3 '20 at 19:30
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    Voting to reopen. "How hard is it to get tenure?" is not the same question as "How often are people denied tenure?" Among other reasons, many departments strongly encourage under-performing assistant professors to leave before they come up for tenure, so they don't count toward the department's denial rate. – JeffE Dec 3 '20 at 19:31
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Why wait for the job offer? This is a great question to ask during the interview! – JeffE Dec 4 '20 at 16:31
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    @AnonymousPhysicist You can't possibly be serious. Expectations for tenure are the first topic that untenured faculty candidates should bring up with the department chair. Questions about salary or startup packages I could see as maybe being greedy, but tenure expectations are central to the department's culture, and their treatment of assistant professors. Never forget that faculty candidates are interviewing the department just as much as the department is interviewing them! – JeffE Dec 6 '20 at 4:54

Let me mention some aspects not covered by the other question.

I think that for an individual case it is nearly impossible to make a prediction with any validity. Even if you can determine the historical record for a given department, things change. Things always change.

The decisions on tenure are based on both the needs of a given department, which evolve over time, and the actual record and performance of an individual candidate. Nothing in this is very predictable. You can do a "good" job that isn't "quite" good enough as measured by the evaluations of your peers. You might be a bit unlucky in your research production or your teaching evaluations. Or you might be especially lucky. It varies.

Worse than that is the question of changing economic and even political situations. A legislature may decide to reduce funding for a university or for a specialty just as it becomes a factor for you. Economic conditions might be especially good or bad for bringing new students into the university (or your department) at just the point at which decisions are made.

There have been situations in which a department recommends a person for tenure, but the university says no, due to decreased or even uncertain funding. After all, tenure is a long term commitment that may be difficult to make in uncertain times.

And, of course, a pandemic might hit.

While one can gather statistics about such things over time, such things are essentially meaningless as a predictive measure for an individual. You take a chance. You work hard. You hope for the best. But also, you keep flexible if you are wise and look at how your current trajectory is going with respect to the trends developing around you.

The one thing you can do is try to match the stated priorities of an institution to your own skills. If you are a better teacher than researcher, then a teaching college will almost certainly be a better "bet" than a research focused institution. But that, I assume, is obvious. But be realistic about your self evaluation.

  • On top of this, how many tenure cases come up for consideration in a department each year? What fraction of those are useful comparators for a given individual? You're always going to be trying to make inferences based on a very small number of samples. – avid Dec 3 '20 at 0:47

It is a game-theoretical exchange, of sorts. The university (or institution offering tenure) does not really want to offer tenure. However, since other institutions ARE offering tenure, it has to match. It will tend to offer tenure if they believe a) you would bring more prestige (and grants, etc) to the institution than it will pay out over time and b) there is a chance some other institution coming to the same conclusion. Supply, nice to see you again, have you met my friend Demand yet?

In being that - it is basically as any other job - but tenure being as it is the assessments and the appetite for risk are likely different.

Thus we can conclude - if you are a stellar intellectual it is easier to get tenure at lower rank institutions than higher, if the grant/patent/prestige economy is volatile it will be more difficult and if there are several candidates available to the institution per field it will be more difficult. Questions to ask to assess the likelyhood of tenure would be as to the financial health and prestige of the institution, the "hotness" of the field in question, the grant/patent economy of the field and finally, what is the competition like.

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    The university (or institution offering tenure) does not really want to offer tenure — This is completely inconsistent with my experience. The culture in my department is that every tenure denial represents a failure in either hiring or mentoring; we only want to hire people who are likely to earn tenure. New faculty are expensive. – JeffE Dec 3 '20 at 19:35
  • @JeffE they sure are. I admire your departments view on it, more mature than most organizations I have ever been involved with. – Stian Yttervik Dec 3 '20 at 19:46
  • I suspect that @JeffE is right and this is more about culture than game theory, most of the time. My impression is that the culture in Canada is that you will probably get tenure unless you underperform (like graduating grad school). Whereas in the US you might need to be in the top of your "class" (like getting admitted to grad school). – capybaralet Dec 3 '20 at 23:16
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    @JeffE is sort of right. The overall trend is that universities that do not want to offer tenure do not offer tenure track positions. Instead they hire people on one year or adjunct contracts. Most tenure track positions are offered with the intent of granting tenure. A few elite universities never award tenure to their tenure-track faculty as a way of demonstrating their eliteness. – Anonymous Physicist Dec 3 '20 at 23:36
  • @AnonymousPhysicist which ones other than Harvard? – capybaralet Dec 4 '20 at 4:38

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