Professional Development

What goes into a tenure review letter

Bill Sullivan
Feb. 4, 2022

The key milestone in an academic career is acquiring tenure. Tenure was created to foster academic freedom, protecting faculty who venture into controversial territory from being dismissed. As it stabilizes an academic’s position, conferring tenure is a major commitment by the university that is not taken lightly. Those who evaluate faculty going up for tenure rely heavily upon reference letters from the candidate’s colleagues. 

When evaluating faculty members whose primary focus is research, universities typically solicit at least six external tenure review letters, usually from established members in the candidate’s field of research. Despite the importance of these letters in the tenure process and their heavy influence on a colleague’s future, little guidance is provided on what the reviewer should write. Faculty on the tenure track also should be aware of what goes into these letters for career development purposes. 

Am I eligible to write the letter?

If you’ve been asked to write a tenure review letter, either the candidate suggested you or the departmental tenure review committee identified you as an investigator active in the candidate’s field. If you feel that your area of expertise does not align with that of the candidate, you should consider declining the request. 

Your assessment of the candidate needs to be fair and impartial. You should decline the request if you have a relationship with the candidate that could be perceived as a conflict of interest. Relatives, close friends, significant others, and former supervisors or mentors of the candidate should not be involved with the candidate’s tenure evaluation. 

Other conflicts of interest include previous or planned research collaborations, such as co-authored papers or grants. If you have a longstanding disagreement or personal beef with the candidate that may bias your review, you should consider declining. 

Some universities are more flexible when it comes to the candidate’s past collaborations. For example, a letter from someone who co-authored a paper more than five years ago may be acceptable. If you are uncertain whether your relationship or qualifications disbar you from writing the letter, it is prudent to explain the situation to the person who extended the request. 

Finally, make sure you have sufficient time to complete the letter before the deadline. Depending on how well you know the candidate, it can take quite some time to review their CV, research papers and scholarly activity. Notify the committee if this will be a problem, because it could delay or jeopardize the review of the candidate’s tenure application. 

What should I include in the letter?

Along with the candidate’s CV, the tenure committee chair likely will send some information about what should be included in your letter. (If not, feel free to ask.) If their requested items are not mentioned below, be sure to address them. 

As a general rule, you do not want to burden the tenure committee with redundant or irrelevant information. Try to limit the letter to one or two pages and avoid summarizing the candidate’s CV, as it will be included in the candidate’s dossier. 

Your letter should state explicitly whether you support the candidate for tenure and provide a concise rationale justifying that decision. As universities differ in their stringency for tenure, your recommendation should be based on the criteria used by the candidate’s university. 

To simplify the structure of the letter, divide it into three main blocks. Use the first block to introduce yourself briefly, emphasizing how you know the candidate and why you are qualified to assess their impact on the field. 

The second block is an objective assessment of the candidate’s contributions to the field. This can include discussions highlighting key publications, presentations or grant funding. 

Avoid making a laundry list of achievements; instead, provide your expert opinion of the candidate’s work. Is it of high quality? Is it pioneering or innovative? Has it changed paradigms? Did they develop a new technique or model system? Will their work have a sustained impact that moves the field forward? Is there something special that makes this candidate stand above their peers? 

Be mindful that the various committees and stakeholders that review the candidate’s dossier are not experts in the candidate’s field, and some may not be scientists. A tenure letter is not the place to go into great technical detail regarding the applicant’s research area. Additionally, reviewers may not be familiar with the significance of the work, the quality of the journals or the prestige of presenting at scientific conferences, so be sure to add context to their achievements. 

Where appropriate, the second block is also a good place to mention the candidate’s accomplishments in other areas relevant to academia, namely teaching and service. Letter writers might highlight signature contributions to teaching and mentorship. Particularly important areas of service to mention include editorial boards or grant review panels, as a strong reputation in the field is a prerequisite for these positions. 

It also may be helpful to include modern metrics (alternative metrics or altmetrics) of the candidate’s performance to emphasize their growing stature as an academic. Such altmetrics could include social media platforms, media appearances, Google Scholar citations, pageviews/downloads and number of articles written “beyond the journals” in publications like ASBMB Today. 

The third block should discuss the candidate’s future prospects. If you feel it necessary, begin this block with constructive feedback that mentions areas the candidate should focus on for improvement. Well-intentioned advice is not only helpful to the candidate’s future endeavors but also underscores the authenticity of the positive remarks in your letter. End this block with your expert forecast of the candidate’s ability for continued success and productivity. 

Universities want to be assured that granting tenure is not going to foster complacency; they want to hear that the candidate has a genuine passion and lasting hunger to break new ground and become a world-renowned leader in their field. 

Be sure to conclude your letter with a clear statement as to whether you support the candidate for tenure. If not, it would be helpful to provide an additional sentence that states what would change your mind. 

Tenure review letters should remain confidential, but bear in mind that the candidate likely will be made aware of the contents of your letter either in redacted form or as part of a summary statement written by the tenure committee. It is advisable to maintain professionalism and avoid writing criticism that you would not feel comfortable telling the candidate in person. 

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Bill Sullivan

Bill Sullivan is a professor at Indiana University School of Medicine and the author of several books.

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