Assume there is a young tenure-track professor on a 9-month salary who is a good instructor and manages to get research published at an appropriate pace during the school year for tenure consideration. Could the professor's decision on how he/she spends his/her 3 months each summer affect his/her tenure decision? Specifically, if the professor chose to do something unrelated to teaching summer courses or doing research.

I'll propose two examples:

  1. Spend the summers working a completely unrelated (perhaps lower-level) job just to mix things up or out of necessity or delight. Let's say as a cruise-ship tour guide or as a laborer (e.g., painter, landscaper, farmer, mechanic, etc.)
  2. Spend the summer vacationing with family / kids.

If the individual got the work required for tenure completed during the 9-months of the school year, they could do whatever they want the other 3 months (since they are off contract) without repercussions, right?

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    This is an excellent question for your department chair. In principle, it shouldn't matter, but in practice, it depends on your department's culture.
    – JeffE
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 3:47
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    @DanRomik: Really? I think it's perfectly plausible that a department chair could say something like "Officially, it's irrelevant. Off the record, I have a sense that it might affect the votes of certain faculty members. There was a previous case..." Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 4:52
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    "If the individual got the work required for tenure completed during the 9-months of the school year, they could do whatever they want the other 3 months (since they are off contract) without repercussions, right?" This seems to me like a great example of a vacuously true statement. Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 4:53
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    Could you explain why you're asking, please? Is it that you are fantasizing about getting a tenure track job, and are hoping you can spend your summer snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef? That you are wondering how the heck the guy down the hall from you thinks he stands a chance of getting tenure if he spends his summer building himself a house out of straw and clay? Something else entirely? Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 6:20
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    I second JeffE's comment. There are some departments where nobody will even notice whether you're in town over the summer, because no one else is in their offices either, and as long as you get work done nobody will know or care exactly when you did it. There are other departments where every closed office door will raise eyebrows, no matter how productive you are. Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 13:40

3 Answers 3


This is really dependent on your department culture.

Officially (at least for all the tenure systems I've participated in), tenure decisions are based on the quality, reputation, and impact of the candidate's research (and to a lesser extent, teaching and service), and their potential for future intellectual leadership and international stature. (Woo, that's a mouthful.) In particular, the decision is based on what the candidate has actually accomplished.

Are they publishing high-quality work in high-visibility venues? Is their work highly regarded in the research community (as described in the letters)? Do they have a solid track record of external funding? Do they have a solid track record of successful graduate student advising? Have they accumulated other indicators of respect within their research community: awards, plenary talks, invitations to program committees/editorial boards, well-placed and successful students? Do they have other evidence of research impact: open-source software, community-standard data sets, or patents?

If this case is strong on these merits, then the day-to-day work habits of the candidate shouldn't matter, and usually don't. In particular, the reference letters, which are by far the most important component of the case, will be written by people who are probably completely unaware that the candidate disappears to a fishing lodge in the Adirondacks every summer. There have been multiple successful tenure cases in my department where the candidate essentially vanished every summer.

More strongly: If their research case is strong, then what assistant professors do during the months the university is not paying them is really none of the promotion committee's business. I work in a field where a three-month vacation in the Adirondacks (with a sufficient supply of pens and paper and reliable wifi) would be amazing for my research productivity.

Nevertheless, faculty are apes; we do apey things. Every department and every field has its own cultural norms, and assistant professors must be aware of and sensitive to those norms. Some departments have a shared belief—which may even be correct in their field—that the research required for a successful tenure case requires being physically present and visibly productive 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Others won't even notice when you're in the office being productive, because they all keep their office doors closed, or they work at home, or in coffee shops, or in a shack in in the Adirondacks. Others have a de facto list of accomplishments that are necessary, sufficient, or both. (NSF CAREER? NIH R1? Three papers in Science? H-index above 50? IEEE Fellow? Letters from five Nobel laureates?)

Whether or not tenure decisions should depend on these local expectations is utterly immaterial. They do. Either you meet them, or you find a job somewhere else. And the only way to understand what these expectations are in your department is to ask directly, and to insist on regular mentorship and feedback from senior faculty.

  • There's a lot of people who would be more productive with their research taking that time off and coming back refreshed. It's called the "work hard, play hard" mentality. (Or if you're like me, it would be the "work hard, laze around when you're not working "mentality...)
    – corsiKa
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 22:34
  • @corsiKa: of course - it is vital not to get burned out, and many of the best researchers take plenty of personal time for family, hobbies, and vacations. But they don't tend to do that for the entire summer, which seems to be the subject of this question. Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 23:08

To answer your question literally, if the professor outputs research at a reasonable pace during the academic year, then flatlines during the summer, then no, they are not on track for tenure.

Perhaps you meant to ask if they are stellar and overperform during the year. This really raises the question of why they are not at a more prestigious university then, and if they are, I'm really curious which of the 7 or so people in the world capable of overperforming by a couple standard deviations at an R1 school you're talking about.

All-in-all you are asking something that misunderstands what this period of life is like. Being tenure-track but not tenured is one of several extremely demanding periods in an academic's life. "Demanding" and "triple the vacation of a typical industry job" are mutually exclusive.

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    "This really raises the question of why they are not at a more prestigious university then". Maybe because they want to take the summer off?
    – user24098
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 6:47
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    @JessicaB, a high-performing academic can often extract lots of concessions in return for staying at a lower-tier institution. It makes sense as a career path if they want a lower-pressure job.
    – user24098
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 8:59
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    [citation needed] This answer may be true in your department, but it is demonstrably not true in mine.
    – JeffE
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 13:04
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    There is a significant difference between "You won't get tenure if you don't work 12 months a year" (which is what your answer says) and "Your chances for tenure are better if you work 12 months a year." If you mean the latter, then you should change your answer to actually say that.
    – JeffE
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 16:28
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    Sigh. Let me try again. There is a significant difference between "You won't get tenure if you work 9 months a year" (which is what your answer says) and "Your chances for tenure are better if you work more than 9 months a year." If you mean the latter, then you should change your answer to actually say that.
    – JeffE
    Commented Dec 10, 2015 at 15:09

Everyone has their own opinion about the purpose or benefits of 9-month contracts (which is not to say the history of how they developed). It appears to some extent that these contracts are unique to the United States in any case.

Other answers point out the importance of knowing the local culture of your department. I want to point out a few commonly-held beliefs about the role of summer time for research-intensive faculty, which are good to know when you try to assess that culture. These are beliefs that a significant number of research active faculty will have.

  • A benefit of 9-month contracts is to allow you time (mostly) unencumbered by teaching and service to work on your research. Of course, you might be able to do this from a cabin in Alaska, but it is not "time away from research" strictly speaking.

  • For researchers who need to travel, e.g. those studying the art, history or cultures of other countries, the summer is a time to spend a few months in the country they study, going to libraries and museums to do the groundwork for research. Similarly, those who need to do field work (ecology, geology, archaeology, ...) can use the summer months to gather data.

  • A third benefit, in some disciplines, is to allow you to take salary from other discipline-related work during the summer, e.g. grant support in STEM fields or consulting work in business or engineering. For example, many grant agencies will not allow a researcher to take salary from a grant while also drawing salary from the university. The 9-month contract circumvents this by not paying university salary during the summer.

So, from a certain viewpoint, the benefit of 9-month contracts is that they allow you to do more tenure-related work over the summer, not less. It would be a mistake to think that many research-intensive universities have a standard that makes it easy for the average tenure-track faculty member to earn tenure while not using the summer in any way for research.

At these schools, the "appropriate pace" for research already assumes that faculty are working on research over the summer, which is why some other answers seem incredulous at the idea that a faculty member would be publishing at "appropriate pace" while also working as a waiter on a cruise ship all summer.

The situation can be very different in departments where research is not very important for tenure. These departments may have a local culture of doing some service over the summer (or not), but in my experience they generally do have more of a culture of taking the summer off. This is particularly noticeable in "transitioning" departments, where older faculty had fewer research expectations, and so developed a culture of "taking off" the summer, while younger faculty are required to do more research for tenure and do not have that luxury.

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