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Once a tenure-track professor finishes their initial 6 year evaluatory period, I imagine their publication/teaching/grant record should pretty much speak for itself to a tenure committee. Apparently, as I have recently found out, some departments additionally require a tenure defense talk at the end of this period. It seems to me that this talk is something akin to a dissertation defense, only on a grander scale of all the research I've done over the initial 6 year period.

But my question is:

Why is it even necessary?

What could be expected from such a talk that wouldn't be readily and easily obtainable from the submitted tenure package? Is it just a formality or does it really hold an important weight in the tenure committee's final evaluation to keep me?

Should I just rehash and summarize what is already in my tenure submission package? Is there something more to it that I should emphasize in my tenure defense talk?

  • A guess from someone not in Academia--can you synthesize your research and show how it's all related and where it's going to go in the future? – mkennedy Sep 10 '14 at 19:22
  • The question is not so much 'Why is it necessary?' but 'Do you want tenure?' If yes, then do your best at it. Joke apart, the point is to see if you are capable of doing an interesting, well-constructed talk that will convince them you're the right choice. – Cape Code Sep 10 '14 at 19:29
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    I have never heard of such a practice, in any of the universities I have been associated with in the US or Belgium. – shane Sep 10 '14 at 19:57
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    @Paul, I'm confused. Per your profile you are still a doctoral candidate. Why the big worry about what happens at the end of your tenure clock? – shane Sep 10 '14 at 20:04
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    @shane: "Knowing there is a trap is the first step in evading it" - Frank Herbert – Paul Sep 10 '14 at 20:33
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I haven't heard of such a thing, which suggests a simple answer: an oral tenure defense is not necessary. But regardless of whether it's necessary in some abstract sense, it might be a requirement wherever you end up.

It's possible that your tenure defense would be a grueling affair, with the audience trying to poke holes in your research or dispute its significance, but I very much doubt it. At worst you could expect the same treatment as an outside candidate giving an interview talk.

The tenure defense is presumably intended to give you a chance to explain your research program, specifically what you have done and why it matters. This is in principle redundant (your tenure file should already do this), but adding an oral presentation could help. It's often inspiring to see someone present their own work, and it can be valuable to have a chance to ask questions. In cases where tenure seems likely, the presentation could also play the role of an inaugural lecture, highlighting for the department the work of someone who is about to become a permanent colleague.

This practice seems uncommon enough that I doubt there's a clear standard for exactly what it means. Anyone considering taking a tenure-track job with a tenure defense presentation at the end should ask how it works at that particular institution.

I imagine their publication/teaching/grant record should pretty much speak for itself to a tenure committee.

Publication records can speak surprisingly unclearly. A non-expert reading through someone's papers won't necessarily appreciate their novelty or how they contribute to the big picture, and may not even understand clearly how they fit together into a coherent research program. Keep in mind that most people evaluating a tenure case will be non-experts: even other department members will typically have different specialties, and that's not counting university-wide committees or administrators.

One crucial part of preparing a compelling tenure case is sorting out these issues and framing everything appropriately. This is done partly by the candidate, partly by whoever is overseeing the case (typically the department head), and partly by the letter writers.

So from this perspective, something more than just a binder full of papers is definitely necessary. However, the added context is typically supplied through written documents; if there is an oral presentation, then it is just to supplement the written file.

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  • +1. The time to deal with such a question is when you are interviewing with, or considering a job offer from, an institution that actually has such a rule. At that time you can find the formal rules, and ask (preferably multiple people) how it works in practice in that department. Since such institutions seem to be rare (if they exist at all), it's unlikely that you'll interview for a job at one, much less take it, so the question is very likely to be moot. – Nate Eldredge Sep 11 '14 at 5:27
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I've not seen any case (in my U.S. -based experience in mathematics) where the junior faculty person up for tenure had to present a summary of their own work, in effect "defending" it as one "defends" the Ph.D. thesis.

However, I have witnessed many cases where a more senior person with expertise in the tenure candidate's work was asked to describe/explain it, or, really, its significance, to the tenure committee (prior to having the full math faculty vote). But in all the cases I've seen, from both sides, the tone was informational, not confrontational or adversarial. And the candidate was absent.

The necessity of that sort of tenure-defense talk is exactly that the body of work itself is hard to understand, the letters of recommendation are inevitably severely tainted by political gamesmanship and circumlocution and conceivably bias, and, thus, in the end, a local opinion+explanation from someone trusted by the tenure committee is highly desirable... despite all the formal procedures.

I'm inclined to wonder whether the question's premise is partly based on inaccurate gossip.

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  • At my university, it's standard practice for professors who are up for tenure to give a talk. However, it's no more a "defense" than a typical PhD "defense" - there is hardly any offense. – Andrew Mao Jan 30 '15 at 17:00
  • @AndrewMao, in a friendly atmosphere, this could be a good thing! One should be aware of one's colleagues' work... and we should practice communicating in ways intelligible to our immediate colleagues... :) – paul garrett Jan 30 '15 at 22:57

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