Five Guideposts for Successfully Navigating the Tenure Process

Map on a laptop keyboard

By Emma White JD, MA
Assistant Professor and Department Chair, English, University of Hawai`i, Maui College

Navigation and cartography may be overused clichés, but they helped me through tenure’s stormy seas. And the process of obtaining tenure is an especially stormy sea for women in particular. Data from the American Association of University Women shows that only 27% of tenured faculty among four-year institutions are women. Women faculty—especially women faculty of color—also face additional barriers in the form of systemic sexism, racism, and isolation based on the marginalized identities they hold. I cannot solve most of the challenges women face around promotion & tenure in one article, but I can share some of my own experiences in hopes of helping other women faculty along in the process.

I applied for and was awarded tenure while pregnant with my first child. Over the five-year process to gain tenure, I followed a highly effective strategy that helped me improve my teaching, align with my goals, and manage my stress. I’ve since had the honor of mentoring other women through the tenure process, and as I look back on how I navigated my own, several guideposts emerge.

Accept that you need a map and a team

Many of us come to academia because of our creativity or passion for a subject, but getting tenure is about being strategic. You first have to find your map and outline each step. At most universities, the map is a contract or faculty description. Find out what documents determine your hiring and promotion. You may find them easily on your institution’s faculty affairs website or with an internet search (search term examples: university name + tenure promotion guidelines, faculty classification plan, tenure procedures, faculty contract, faculty descriptions, tenure agreement), or you may have to ask administrators, secretaries, and union leaders for them. Find them early. If permitted, ask to see multiple successful tenure dossier samples. A lot of tenure application stress happens because faculty review these documents too late and thus do not have time to absorb and apply their standards to their lives.

Now that you have a map that you’ve read over thoroughly, your expedition needs a team. This means you must do your best to cultivate supportive tenure track mentorship and classroom observations. Using your map, find out who the people are who will likely be reviewing your tenure dossier. In my university system, tenure committees are composed of someone from your discipline, someone outside of it, someone from another campus, and someone in administration. My goal, then, was to get mentorship that reflected all of those different areas so I could benefit from a diversity of perspectives and grow in a multitude of ways.

It’s up to you to curate the quality of your mentorship. Like many, my college provides a built-in mentorship committee of three who also serve as advisors in the promotion process. This group is organized by a supervisor and very little formal guidance is provided to mentors on their extent of their mentorship. So, I consulted with my supervisor to ensure my voice was considered in this mentorship selection process. I then made a point to schedule check-ins and observations with these mentors yearly. Do not rest on the formal mentorship process as it likely won’t be enough. Go outside friend or affinity group mentoring. Do the work to connect with colleagues who are different than you and who push you out of your comfort zone. One of the challenges that women and men alike have with mentorship is that we tend to gravitate toward people who are like us. Ultimately, this results in the reproduction of the inequitable power structures we want to help break: men get mentored by men, and–since men tend to be in higher positions of power–they then project that power onto the junior men they mentor. Women shouldn’t do the same thing; it won’t get us where we want to go.

In terms of making the “ask,” identify potential mentors and go to them with humility but do not be afraid to be frank about your goals. It’s OK to be strategic, because the structures of power are such that we women have to be! An ask might look like any of the following: “I’ve noticed you’ve handled x with grace. Can I pick your brain next week over lunch about how you got to where you are today?” Or, “I’m new to x. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about this process?” In my experience, it’s rare that someone says no, and if they do, it’s usually a matter of workload and schedules rather than lack of desire to help. Don’t let the fear of “no” prevent you from proactively seeking out the support you need. Make it easier for mentors to commit by engaging in the mode of communication they prefer and judiciously defining and limiting meeting times.

Draw a map

Leaving tenure up to fate may sound fine in the illusion of a meritocracy, but drawing out a map provides a surer path. Given the high stakes nature of tenure, mystery only breeds stress: demystify it. Know that tenure is a very on-paper process. Usually you have a team of reviewers looking at your tenure dossier, and in doing so they will evaluate it exactly against the stated promotion & tenure guidelines. Find out how this works on your campus, because within those rules is an outline for how to organize your professional life. No matter how long the rules are, read them: gossip is no substitute.

During my first month on the tenure track, I reviewed all our tenure granting guidelines. I broke down each requirement for tenure and faculty classification and created a map for myself, which I then translated into my yearly planners and my email. At my institution (as at many other teaching institutions), faculty members are evaluated for tenure based on the following activities:

  • Pedagogy as applied in the classroom
  • Leadership
  • Professional development
  • Student course evaluations
  • Community and campus service, including research

My goal was to perform at the level of a tenured faculty member in all of these areas so that I would be awarded tenure. Using my institution’s faculty classification plan as a guideline I broke each one down, establishing specific and actionable goals that corresponded with it (e.g. “run for chair of x committee,” “sign up for summer textbook project,” “volunteer at x,” “organize two peer classroom observations this month”). As I did this, I evaluated my current knowledge and experience base against my goals and noted the kind of professional development I would need to engage in to get there. I then wrote monthly reminders in my planner to find and attend workshops in that area. When reviewing the leadership requirements, I realized what committees I needed to join and where I needed to follow up to tie up loose ends for measurable results. mapping everything out early and tracking my steps, my priorities were clear; I knew what to say yes to, and what I had to say no to because it was not in alignment with my goals.

Lastly, I broke these larger goals down into yearly and monthly steps. Scaffolding works for us just as it does for the students we recommend it to! Take your giant goals and try to break them down into chunks that make them feel more approachable and achievable over time. This ensures you are attending to them throughout the years leading up to your tenure application rather than backloading everything toward that end point. By the time I wrote my tenure document, my life was organized and enmeshed so deeply with the tenure map that writing was second nature. Similarly, by mapping everything out early and tracking my steps, my priorities were clear; I knew what to say yes to, and what I had to say no to because it was not in alignment with my goals.

Follow the map

Now that you’ve drawn (and are probably constantly redrawing!) your map, follow it.

To keep myself organized and on track, I created folders in my email to match the main areas of my tenure contract and future tenure application. Here are some of the folders I created and still use today: leadership, pedagogy, campus service, research, community service, professional development, and mentoring. I file each related email I receive accordingly. Every time I receive a certificate of completion for a professional development activity, for example, I file that in the professional development folder. The link to this article will go under both publications and community service. Not only do I keep my inbox clean this way, but I have a record of all my accomplishments that is organized by the format of my future tenure document. I can also go into a folder and visually see that if it’s light, I probably need to work on that area.

Creating a general folder called “application” provides a place for tenure-related things that are broad or that don’t map exactly to one of the other folder categories. At the end of each semester, I write a summary email to myself with a list of all my accomplishments for that semester, including a distinct report of what goals I did and did not meet. Then, I file that under “application.” I keep my planner nearby during this exercise, as I write next steps in my planner for goals I still need to pursue. This end-of-semester check-in keeps me on track and also provides an organized record of my thoughts for future applications. I also keep a folder called the “smile file.” This is one of my favorites: any kind words I receive from my students and colleagues go into this file. I get a pick me up just knowing that file exists and would recommend the same to others. You’re going to have days that shake your confidence or when you feel discouraged and going back through your smile file can be grounding and put things back into perspective.

In this way, each bit of feedback you receive becomes part of your map. For example, you may receive formal feedback in each of your yearly contract renewals leading up to tenure. Integrate that feedback with the actionable steps you write into your planner and email structure. If you do not receive such formal feedback at your university, ask for it through surveys, meetings, and observations.

Slay the dragons

As you’re following your map, you’ll inevitably run into dragons you must slay along the way. Distractions are one example of dragons that will threaten your course. I learned how to say “no” to anything that a) does not fit into my plan or b) does not align with something I truly love doing. Saying no does not have to be a negative thing: it can also show focus and strength.

Here’s an example of language I have used to say no when offered an opportunity that aligns neither with my goals nor something I love to do:

“You know what I’m working on? It’s exciting. I’m working on x; it’s due in three months, so I’m devoting lots of resources to it. There are great outcomes which I can’t wait to share with you, so right now I’m not taking on further projects.”

Try to connect the value of the project you’re describing back to how you serve that person. This framing effectively gets your message across—you can’t participate at this time—while also highlighting the other things you are doing and the value inherent in them.

There are also ways to respond to the various requests coming your way that carry slightly more nuance. One time I was invited to assess some tutor relationships we have with our students in a developmental education program. There was limited room in my schedule that month for new projects, but the invitation did speak to my goals. I was interested, but it wasn’t what I would call a top priority. So, I responded by saying “I have this chunk of time. If we can do it at this time and in this way, I’m so excited to participate.” In this way, I was saying yes, but on my terms. Another option you have is to say no, but still offer to help: “I can reach out to my colleague x.” Or, “I can put you in contact with some other people who I think would be great for this project.”

If your goal is to lead and fully participate in meetings, consider saying no to meeting notetaking. Taking notes in meetings can be distracting and prevent you from speaking up. An effective way to say no to this in particular is to provide an alternative: “Let’s alternate roles so everyone gets experience in each role. Who took notes last time?”

Another dragon that swooped in several times over the tenure process was effectively shepherding support from senior faculty. Senior faculty are often quite busy. How can we ensure mentorship is not overly burdensome to them and also that we are getting the kind of mentorship we need? Be strategic about the kind of mentorship you want and shape that. Be specific in your asks and, if it’s something like a letter of support that you are asking for, provide a focus to save them time and get them started. In meetings, I asked my mentors specific questions designed to elicit critical feedback focused on tenure goals and themes. To generate letters of support that speak directly to areas you want to strengthen, approach faculty who have experience with you in that area and ask them whether they are willing to write a few sentences on that topic. For example, in year three I worked on improving my mentorship of student employees. I wrote the supervisor of those employees with something like the following: “This is what I’m working on and reflecting on. This is what I need to talk about in my document, and I think you can speak to it. Here are some key issues or words–would you consider writing?” Faculty are more likely to reply to specific requests for blurbs rather than open-ended requests for letters of support.

Generally speaking, the biggest dragon I face is lack of time. Online professional development and online conferencing help me maximize my work schedule and preserve my personal and family time. I take conference calls on commutes and even participated in an Academic Impressions department chair leadership training while working out. This may not be ideal for some, but it works for me. We all have various constraints and demands on our time, and it’s up to you to understand what those are, evaluate your schedule and your obligations accordingly with a critical eye, and get creative as to what works best for you to fit it all in.

Pass the map on and keep it going after tenure

Organizing our lives to match our priorities and cultivating a growth mindset is, plain and simple, good pedagogy; I’ll continue to use these strategies as I work toward promotions and can now use the map to model the way for students and peers. Given that women, particularly women of color, are still paid less and are granted tenure less than their male counterparts, continued focus on these inequalities are necessary if we are to improve the lives of our students, faculty, and community. There is a clear need for more systemic and legislative work on this issue, but there are things we can do in the meantime on a personal level to address inequality and be transparent about our processes. As women faculty, the more we demystify our success and leadership strategies, the richer our pool of talent will become.


Turner Kelly, Bridget. “Though more women are on college campuses, climbing the professor ladder remains a challenge.” Brookings: Brown Center Chalkboard. March 29, 2019.

Emma Harber White is an Assistant Professor of English and Department Chair at the University of Hawaiʻi Maui College. Emma credits Millenial-era critical thinking skills and the hustle she developed while navigating high student debt and an extremely competitive job market with transforming her life. Not afraid to quit for a better life, Emma left her career as an attorney for community college teaching, where tangible solutions to inequality abound. Her teaching focus is real-world reading and writing for self-advocacy and personal growth. Her students give her hope.