Sunday, June 6, 2010

How to get tenure at Harvard

There is an old joke that says that at most universities, you have to write a book to get tenure, while at Harvard, they have to write a book about you. I am not sure who wrote that one, since I recently found out that I've been promoted to full professor with tenure. (Unlike most places, at Harvard, full professor is the only tenured rank. I've actually been an associate professor for three years now and the total clock is seven years.) So my time as a disgruntled junior faculty member is drawing to a close - on to the far more entertaining life as a (presumably) gruntled senior faculty member.

Harvard has a notorious reputation for not tenuring its own junior faculty. Indeed, some departments have not promoted from within for decades -- so long that they probably don't remember how to do it if they wanted to. In the math department, for example, junior faculty treat the job like an extended postdoc, with the goal of getting tenure somewhere else -- Yale or Columbia perhaps. You'd have to win the Fields Medal to get tenure in math at Harvard. Such departments treat the end of a junior faculty member's contract as an opportunity to scout out the best person in the world to fill the position, and typically the best person is 20 years more senior and at another school.

This is the classic Harvard model, but in recent years Harvard has started to use the term "tenure track" for the first time in its history. Since I joined Harvard in 2003, we have tenured six CS faculty from within, and turned down tenure to two people. The CS faculty here (and, more generally, the entire School of Engineering and Applied Sciences) are extremely supportive of junior faculty and we work hard to ensure that everyone has the best shot at tenure.

Unfortunately, this attitude is not pervasive, and often rubs against the antiquated culture found elsewhere in the university. For example, it was only recently that Harvard's request for tenure letters explicitly stated that candidate X from Harvard was actually under consideration for the job. The letters still request explicit comparisons against a set list of other faculty who are typically expected to be *full professors* at other schools, and respondents are asked to rank the candidates. To be promoted you need to be ranked first or second consistently across the letters. It is a very daunting process for a junior faculty member.

At many universities, tenure decisions are made at the department or school level, with the university essentially rubber-stamping those decisions. Not so here. The final step of the Harvard tenure process is the mysterious and fearsome ad hoc committee meeting, which is presided over by the President of the university, who has the final say. For this meeting, three senior faculty from other universities come and grill the internal "witnesses" that may support or oppose the case. I am pretty sure the meeting also involves a ritual with a human skull and a goblet of blood, but cannot confirm as of yet.

Now that I've passed the trial by fire, there is one last step. Harvard does not tenure anyone without a Harvard degree, and I've never been here as a student. So next fall, they will grant me an honorary Master's degree to clear that burden. I am not making this up.

From then on I hear it is just smooth sailing, lazy days with few responsibilities and just raking in the paychecks and use of the private parking space. Right? Right?

I'd like to thank all of the people who really made this happen. More than anything else, my tenure is a reflection on the hard work and vision of my amazing students and postdocs -- who took my wild-eyed whiteboard ramblings and turned them into reality. More often than not, though, the best ideas came from the students themselves. I have learned so much from them and have been extremely fortunate to have such an amazing group. I'd especially like to thank Margo Seltzer and Greg Morrisett for their tremendous effort in marshaling my case through the process. Thanks to Michael Mitzenmacher for the puff piece on his blog today. Finally, great thanks to all of my faculty colleagues for their encouragement and willingness to put up with my crap in our weekly lunch meetings.

(Once I've had a chance to digest it, I'll post a more personalized account of what it took to navigate Harvard's tenure process.)


  1. Are you serious about the master's degree???

  2. Yes:

  3. Congrats, Matt! Well deserved. Love your blog and your honest opinions. Looking forward to reading your experience in Harvard's tenure process.

  4. Way to go, Matt! It's great to see real evidence that CS at Harvard supports its junior faculty to the point that they can get tenure.

    BTW, Dartmouth has a similar thing about awarding master's degrees to full profs. They award the degrees every few years in a small, private ceremony.

  5. You got a private parking space? I'm going to the Dean to renegotiate...

  6. Congratulations -- well deserved!

    Your description of the tenure process at Harvard makes the entire process sound quite ridiculous and arcane. After reading this, which young faculty member in his/her right mind would want to join Harvard? The Harvard CS department is nowhere as good as Harvard math, so clearly cannot use the policies similar to the math to tenure its faculty members.

  7. Anon - Many otherwise smart people have made the (perhaps somewhat irrational) decision to join the Harvard faculty, knowing full well the risks of the tenure process up front. It is clear that different departments "use" the Harvard tenure process in different ways, as explained in my post. In my case, while I recognized that getting tenure at Harvard would be harder than other places, I felt up to the challenge and felt that it would be worth it in the end. I will post later on my gripes about the process, which I think takes too long, but on the plus side a longer clock allowed me to take bigger risks with my research than someone who would be up for tenure in, say, four years.

  8. Congratulations, Matt.

  9. Anon #6: What exactly are you finding ridiculous and arcane about the Harvard process -- besides the granting of a Harvard degree if you don't already have one? (That, I'll admit, is an unusual tradition.)

    We ask for letters. We compare (and ask the letter-writers to compare) against other top people in the field at a variety of career stages. Matt, I think, exaggerates slightly -- he hasn't sat on the other side yet! -- about what the letters have to say to make a strong tenure case, but of course he is right that the letters have to be very clear that you're a top pick. The higher-ups (in this case, the President) has to sign off. Is this different from other top schools? (And yes, Harvard is a top school -- we've been considered top 10-20 in CS for some time.) Not to my knowledge.

    As Matt points out, we've successfully tenured most of our junior faculty (myself included!) in the last several years. It's a difficult process -- tenure is supposed to be! -- and unsurprisingly, there's perhaps more bureaucracy than one might hope. But, at least for CS, I think it's a fair process, and as Matt says, we're doing our best to support junior faculty and make sure they have their best shot at tenure.

  10. Mike: I think the tenure process at Harvard is different from other schools, though it largely comes down to a public school versus private school distinction. Of course there are exceptions to prove the rule!

    At most public schools, the default decision and expectation is to grant tenure to a faculty member. The bar is typically not being the very best in the world or even comparable to the very best. If you have done well (good teaching evaluations, graduated a few PhD students, published regularly in the top conferences in your area), you will almost certainly get tenure at a public school.

    Put another way, when I am asked to write a tenure letter from top private schools, the request explicitly requests a comparison to the top people in the field as you and Matt point out. Letter requests from top public schools only ask about the quality of the candidate's scholarly work in isolation. The message is clear. At private schools, the expectation is that you have to be among the best to get tenure. At public schools, the expectation is that you have "merely" done well.

    Of course, those of us at public schools want to ensure that we can compete with private schools in terms of the quality of our faculty. So that makes hiring decisions somewhat more important to us. We want to hire people who are going to be the best in their fields independent of the tenure bar.

    I always tell my junior colleagues (that ask for advice): if your goal is tenure, you are clearly aiming too low.

    And of course the main point: congratulations Matt, richly deserved at Harvard or anywhere.

  11. Congratulations Matt! Well deserved.

  12. Why do Harvard deny tenure to its tenure track faculty members? I once heard from a great professor (Mitch Marcus) at UPenn that if the department fails to give tenure to a faculty member, then it means that they made a big big mistake during the hiring process.
    So does this imply that Harvard does not have a great hiring committee.
    (I actually know something about the professor who was denied tenure at Harvard CS. I personally think that he was great and at any other place he would certainly have been a tenured.)

  13. @Michael: "What exactly are you finding ridiculous and arcane about the Harvard process"

    The fact that the tenure process at Harvard is comparable to the tenure process at MIT, Stanford and CMU -- i.e., extended tenure clocks with no guarantee of tenure even if you've done "well" -- even though Harvard is nowhere nearly as good as the aforementioned universities. I left out UC-Berkeley from my list since it is a public university and tenures its faculty members differently, as also noted in Vahdat's comments above.

  14. Anon - "Why do [sic] Harvard deny tenure" - We do an extremely thorough job on the front end when hiring junior faculty. One of the key questions we ask is whether someone will be able to navigate Harvard's tenure process. Of course there is no guarantee. Without commenting on specific cases, what I can say is that Harvard's process requires more than just convincing your colleagues in CS that you're doing great work - it requires buy-in from other communities (the rest of Engineering, and the measures of scholarly work expected by the University). Impact and external visibility are also important. Of course, you can't always predict someone's success when they come in the door. Can you name a single department with a 100% success rate of tenuring junior faculty?

    You are right that it is a failure of the whole department when someone is denied tenure, and each time it happens there is a lot of soul-searching about what can be done better, both in terms of hiring and mentorship.

    Anon - "The fact that..." Harvard is a small department and certainly does not have the reputation of those other schools, true. Personally, I think the best way to get that reputation is to hire and retain the best faculty we can, and to maintain incredibly high standards, like those other schools do. (We do the same when recruiting grad students. Rather than padding our ranks with a bunch of warm bodies, we are extremely selective. It means we lose potential students to places like MIT and Stanford all the time, but that just means we're accepting the right students.)

  15. Matt, you are a great researcher - no doubt; and congratulations! It is not worthwhile, however, to write a long blogpost about how great Harvard's CS tenure process is. There are many great CS departments out there - most of them better than Harvard's - and all of them may have relatively "much easier" tenure process. But at the end of the day, they produce top-notch research and have a commensurate number of honors and awards (Harvard comparatively doesn't, at this point). Clearly tenure selectivity has *nothing* to do with the real stuff - particularly, impact.

  16. I never said that Harvard's tenure process was great. Just long and labyrinthine, compared to many other places. Did I make any claims that Harvard is better than other schools? Go back and read carefully.

  17. Anon #15:

    I think, for the most part, you're just mistaken.

    1) First, I think you mistake the quality of Harvard's department. Harvard is fairly small, and in that sense, we don't compare well to many larger department. But in terms of faculty quality (per capita basis), we do. Take a look around.
    2) Second, I think you mistake the difficulty of other top-quality schools' tenure process. Feel free to throw me some figures, but I don't think other top places are tenuring at 100% rates.
    3) Matt certainly didn't write a post on how great Harvard's tenure process was -- in fact, just the opposite! I stepped in to defend that our process wasn't nearly so deviant as it might seem (though, as Amin pointed out, there's still some significant difference between top public/private schools). Even I as the defender didn't attempt to suggest the process was "great" -- just that it wasn't really far out of line with many others.

    Anyhow, I get tired enough of correcting anonymice at my blog, so I'll stop here for this post as well.

  18. I for one would enjoy hearing about your arcane tenure process.

  19. @Michael Mitzenmacher : If you are so much against anonymous postings then why don't you turn them off. You have to realize that it is very difficult for junior profs, post docs and grad students to use their name, while asking difficult questions.
    Lance's blog has lots of anonymous posters and he is fine with it. Matt is also cool with anonymous posters. It is only you who have lots of problems with us :)

  20. Given that certain funding opportunities (the NSF CAREER in particular) are
    reserved exclusively for assistant professors, does Harvard's ladder mean that
    untenured faculty members can only apply for the CAREER in their first three
    years? Or is there a loophole that still lets untenured associate profs apply?

  21. Assistant prof is 4 years here. NSF CAREER explicitly states that even untenured associate profs are not allowed to apply. In practice you really want to get your CAREER within the first few years of starting a faculty job (and I don't know anyone here who did not get a CAREER.)

  22. Anon #19: I'm not against anonymous postings as a rule, any more than Lance is. (I find it odd you'd think otherwise -- I allow them -- and having talked with Lance, the idea that he is "fine" with them is kind of funny. He's just stopped responding to commenters -- I haven't!)

    To be clear, I'm against stupid anonymous postings, that require corrections to avoid others potentially being misinformed. I hope my position is now transparent.

  23. Congratulations, Matt!

    I am just a reader of your blog, entirely self taught, with no ties to academia. But from the quality of your blog, you are exactly the kind of teacher I would have wanted in my young and foolish days! Great news and keep blogging :-)

  24. Wow, congrats Matt. In addition to the lazy days and a private parking space, you forgot another perk -- long sabbaticals (probably in some tropical paradise).

  25. Congratulations, Matt. I've heard about those other departments that hire tenured faculty from other schools, rather than promote from within. For those denied tenure, what is their placement record like? That is, where do all those shot down by the math or physics department end up? If the placement post-Harvard is poor, then only a fool would take a junior post there.

  26. Anon "placement record" -- Well, in those other departments, it's not so much the case that someone is being "denied" tenure -- they are never even considered (and don't even shoot for it). I've been told that "Harvard is great for getting tenure -- just not necessarily *at* Harvard." So I think in those other departments having been junior faculty at Harvard is seen as a very good thing.

  27. Just to confirm what Matt said, my understanding (from several junior people in other departments) is what he says; in some departments at Harvard, you just do your best work, and jump ship after X years when you get a tenure offer at a suitably good school. (And my understanding is often enough the good schools will just come after you, recognizing you're ready to be poached.)

    Let me be absolutely clear that that is NOT how the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is functioning, as Matt and I both know from personal tenure case experience.


Startup Life: Three Months In

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