22

I had this conversation with a friend recently (who's a tenure-track professor). He says although he's currently in a well-paid, highly desirable job, he is skeptical about his future because he's got to pass his tenure review. If he fails that, then the university effectively slaps a "not good enough" sign on top of his head that makes him unemployable both to other universities and in industry.

I suspect he's exaggerating a bit (since people who are denied tenure can't just disappear, they must be able to find employment somewhere else), but still:

  • How much damage is it to your career if you are denied tenure?
  • How does one explain being denied tenure to a future employer? (Both in academia and industry)
9
  • 24
    There is a delicate issue of causality that makes your question tricky to give a convincing answer to (even assuming the basic premise has some truth to it, which I am not at all sure is the case). If someone hypothetically was denied tenure and then found themselves unemployable, are they unemployable because they were denied tenure, or are they unemployable because they aren’t very good at what they do, which is also why they were denied tenure? How does one establish that it was the denial of tenure that was the root cause of the unemployability?
    – Dan Romik
    Sep 10, 2022 at 5:29
  • 6
    One important point: how would other people know that someone was denied tenure? Is it a public informartion, and in which country?
    – Dilworth
    Sep 10, 2022 at 15:18
  • 2
    Has he considered lying and just saying he didn't fancy staying at that institution or he wanted to move to a new city? Sep 11, 2022 at 0:29
  • 1
    @Allure, for some mysterious reason my reply has disappeared as well. So I repeat it: When asked about his motivation of leaving, the candidate can simply not reveal the truth, as is very common.
    – Dilworth
    Sep 11, 2022 at 20:49
  • 1
    "makes him unemployable both to other universities and in industry": I highly disagree. Industry standards are not comparable to university ones. I remember a funny quote: What happens to someone who fails an academic career? He/she ends up with an industrial job with 3x the salary. Sep 12, 2022 at 12:05

2 Answers 2

23

It depends on why and it depends on where. Being denied tenure for misconduct can be a career killer if it is known, of course. But being denied tenure from a very highly rated place might have little effect except at similar places.

There are some places where it is very difficult to achieve tenure and a much smaller fraction of early career academics make the grade. But those are places where the standards are very high. I once heard a (perhaps apocryphal) story of a place that never tenured anyone, but thought of themselves a a sort of training ground for academics at other institution.

In general, standards for tenure vary and it should be obvious that it will be harder at those places that have a lot of distinguished researchers (and/or teachers). There are even liberal arts colleges in US with such high standards.

So, no, it isn't a block in itself, provided that you meet the standards at the place you are next hired. But you have to produce. There aren't many free rides.


I'll also note that it is possible to be denied tenure for "political" reasons in a dysfunctional department. That has its own problems going forward.

It is even possible to fail to earn tenure for financial reasons. A university suffering a funding crisis, perhaps.


As for how to explain it, you may not need to if your new target is appropriate and the place you didn't earn it was much higher ranked. You will need to explain things like your teaching philosophy and research arc, but that is true anyway.

But, if you don't, then people will make assumptions, which may be fine or not. If your publication and other academic record is appropriate for the new place then there shouldn't be much of an issue.

If you decide to explain it, avoid overly negative words (failed to earn..., denied...) for some more neutral terminology assuming that is appropriate. Perhaps you were told why: "needed more publications", say.

3
  • 1
    +1, Especially for the addition.
    – Peter K.
    Sep 10, 2022 at 11:39
  • 4
    Nice answer. It is also possible to be "denied tenure" without anyone knowing it in some places.
    – Dilworth
    Sep 10, 2022 at 13:34
  • 1
    I was told that at Yale in some departments, only 20% or so of assistant professors end up getting tenure. I suspect that most of them successfully land jobs at other universities and get tenure there soon after. Sep 12, 2022 at 2:29
2

The premise of education is that it is possible to be at a point where you are not sufficiently accomplished to jump some hurdle at the present time, but you can train more and become more accomplished to jump that hurdle at a later time. One would certainly hope that academics of all people understand this, and do not write a person off for the future merely because they fail to clear some professional hurdle at a particular time. People generally get better at their work with more experience, so being denied tenure certainly shouldn't adversely affect your career, beyond the fact that it is the absence of a promotion at the present time.

Now, having said this, certain universities adopt an "up or out" policy** with regard to tenure track positions and even sometimes in other contract positions. Moreover, there does seems to be an attitude amongst some senior academics that is quite impatient towards academic progression, and this augments formal "up or out" policies. For example, some academics on hiring committees seem to prefer younger applicants with less track-record over older academics with an existing track-record but who they perceive to be "behind" an expected schedule of progression, even if they're far more accomplished than younger academics. Having observed this kind of attitude, it is not unthinkable that being denied tenure might have an adverse effect beyond mere lack of a promotion. It would be a huge exaggeration to say that this makes a person unemployable, but it is possible that some senior academics might view them adversely, under this impatient viewpoint. I think this is quite a perverse way to run a profession, but it does seem that some senior academics adopt this kind of view. I agree with you that your friend's view is an exaggeration, but it's not completely baseless.

I'm not sure there is any need to "explain" being denied tenure. In academia people understand that tenure requirements are difficult, and they also require that academics follow a very specific pathway. The absence of meeting those requirements is not something mysterious that would require any explanation. Hiring committees in academia look directly at your publication record, grant record, and other direct measures, so they have the ability to directly assess the kinds of things that a tenure committee would consider. (Ironically, a hiring committee would probably only ask for an explanation of why you were denied tenure if your record is really good with respect to the measures usually used in tenure decisions, in which case they might worry that there is some unobservable reason for denial.) In most industrial jobs, most of the managers hiring people barely have a clue how academic tenure works (some don't even know that the concept exists) so an explanation is highly unlikely to be needed.


** An "up or out" policy for a tenure-track position means that if the academic is not granted tenure at the end of the review period then their position ends. In many cases there is a limited grace period (e.g., one year) where the academic retains their job temorarily while they look for a new position. The "up or out" employment arrangement is common in some countries, such as the US.

6
  • 10
    The OP didn't specify a country, but formal "up or out" policies are almost universal for tenure-track positions at American universities. Sep 10, 2022 at 14:56
  • 1
    Clarification needed I think: (1) what is "up or out" policy? (2) and what is the meaning of "an attitude [...] that is quite impatient towards academic progression"? [my emph]? What does it mean to be "impatient" here?
    – Dilworth
    Sep 10, 2022 at 15:15
  • 4
    @Dilworth An "up or out" policy, in this context, means that if you are not granted tenure by the end of some fixed period, then your job ends. (Again in the US, typically you get one more year after being denied tenure during which you can apply for other jobs.) Sep 10, 2022 at 18:15
  • 1
    And what is "impatient towards academic progression"?
    – Dilworth
    Sep 11, 2022 at 17:18
  • 2
    I've added an example of this to make it clearer.
    – Ben
    Sep 11, 2022 at 22:45

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .