Selecting external reviewers for tenure

One of the most critical aspects of any tenure and promotion case are the letters from external reviewers. The number of reviewers varies by institution, but typically anywhere from 6-10 letters will be solicited from scholars who can speak to the quality and impact of your research. Often, these letters play a significant and even outsized role in the evaluation process. In today’s post, I will share some suggestions for selecting external reviewers for tenure and advice for navigating what can be a confusing process.

Selecting external reviewers for tenure

Photo credit: Flickr Karen

Tenure candidates will be asked to submit a list of potential external reviewers. Again, the specific process used varies, but most universities allow candidates to submit names.

The candidate’s recommendations along with a list from the dean or department chair will constitute the reviewers requested to respond to a tenure candidate’s materials.

External reviewers will typically respond to a candidate’s CV, a few exemplar publications, and a personal narrative.

Every pre-tenure faculty member needs to know both the rules and norms for the selection of external reviewers. The rules will provide guidelines on who is and isn’t eligible to serve as your reviewer, but the norms are perhaps more important.

There are always norms around the types of reviewers that should be solicited and you will want to seek advice from tenured faculty in your department regarding these unwritten expectations.

The last thing you would want to have happen is you select a reviewer who writes a good letter only to be dismissed because the reviewer doesn’t fit in whatever way with the norms of your department, school, or university.

For example, if the rule for your institution is that you can have a mix of associate and full professors review, but the norm is that only one associate is selected you run the risk of your letters being minimized if you have 3 associates.

At nearly every institution in the country, there are some standard rules that you can expect. Co-authors and faculty at your doctoral institution can’t serve as reviewers (except in cases of very small fields of study).

Once you have an idea of the rules and norms for your situation, there are 3 primary criteria to use when selecting external reviewers for tenure.

1)  Quality of reviewer

You want someone is who is recognized and accomplished scholar. The person should ideally be in your area of research or as closely related as practicable. One test for this criteria is to look at the potential reviewer’s vita. If you think your tenured colleagues would be impressed, the reviewer is a viable option. If you think they would be underwhelmed, you might want to consider other options.

2)  Quality of institution

The bottom line is that prestige is important in higher education. As a result, the name on the letterhead matters. You want to select individuals that are at places that your institution would consider peer or aspirant institutions. Institutional prestige of reviewers may be the most impactful way that tenure committees evaluate your reviewers.

3)  Rank and Position

Some tenure committees or individual faculty place a great deal of weight on the rank of the external reviewer. Even if your tenure policies allow associate professors, you would be wise to include a significant number of full professors as candidates. Moreover, committees can be impressed by someone that also serves as a dean, department chair, or as a center director. The thing to remember is that the more distinguished the reviewer is then the most their recommendation impresses committees.

Ask Mentors

Before you put together your list of reviewers, I recommend reaching out to your mentors regarding their advice of who to select. This approach provides you a couple of advantages.

First, tenured faculty in your field will be in a better position to think of reviewers for you because they are not as personally tied up in the case. This distance can help them think through alternatives more easily.

Second, mentors may know people that you need to avoid because they write unnecessarily harsh letters. For example, I know who in my field writes excessively negative letters or who never recommends that a candidate to receive tenure. Quite obviously, you want to avoid these reviewers at all cost.

A Few Closing Pieces of Advice

Well before you are ready to go up for tenure, you will want to make contacts with potential reviewers through conferences and other professional opportunities. Ideally, you want a potential reviewer to be familiar with your work as this puts them in a much better position to discuss the impact of your scholarship.

External letters are different from recommendation letters. For starters, you do not contact reviewers to ask them to review for you. You want to make connections, but not directly for the purpose of letter writing. In addition, someone who knows you really well or that you have a close personal connection would not be appropriate for an external reviewer.

One problem that many deans and tenure committees have today is finding enough people to write letters. With the decline in the number of tenure track faculty and the increased workload that everyone faces, it can be quite difficult to find reviewers and get them all to complete the assignment. As a result, I recommend including an extra reviewer or two on your list of names. Your committee might not use them, but if they are having a hard time getting reviewers you may be able to get more from your list in your final packet.

Selecting external reviewers for tenure is an important step in the process that you should take some significant time to consider. Talk to colleagues and mentors about their experience and advice. External review letters really can make or break your tenure case so they are worth taking some time to eliminate as many potential problems as possible.