Leilani Burke/Sun Staff Photographer

McGraw and Morrill halls, pictured above, are the homes of University departments. Their faculty go through the tenure process to gain positions at Cornell.

October 19, 2022

Tenure: How Cornell Prepares the Next Generation of Academics

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With a rising number of Ph.D. graduates struggling to find academic positions at universities across the world, tenure-track jobs are the much-discussed object of their search. Cornell continues to offer tenure track positions and mentorship to the next generation of academics, but the competition is steep.

In the world of academia, having a tenured position in a higher education institution is considered the basis for a stable and successful career. However, many people outside of academia are unfamiliar with the process universities use to recruit academics to fill tenure track positions and decide who gets tenure.

At Cornell, the tenure process typically begins when someone is hired as an assistant professor: a professor who, after a period of time, is set to get tenure. Cornell usually recruits junior-level faculty for these positions — meaning those who have recently finished their Ph.D. or a postdoctoral position. Walter S Carpenter jr. Professor of International Studies Peter Katzenstein, government, said that this process is different at Cornell from some other universities.

“We do not tend to hire people at the junior level if there is not a tenure track line. Other universities do, but we do not,” Katzenstein said.

Professor Adam Smith, archaeology, said he thinks the prioritization of tenured or tenure-track faculty is beneficial for the University.

“I think Cornell understands that permanent tenured faculty are healthier for the institution, and provide a better classroom experience that ultimately results in better student learning outcomes,” Smith said.

The process of recruitment begins inside individual departments when another member of the faculty retires, leaves for another institution, or when the faculty identify a gap in their curriculum. According to Professor Thomas Overton, chair of the Department of Animal Science, the department then convenes a faculty search committee to look for replacements.

Search committees recommend candidates to interview and then the full department faculty decide on whom they will offer the position.

Faculty review does not end the moment they receive the position of assistant professor, Professor Antonio Ditommaso, chair of the School of Integrative Plant Science soil and crop sciences section. After their first three years as assistant professors, new faculty are evaluated. In their fifth year, assistant professors have to put together a list of their accomplishments up to that point, including publications, grants they’ve received, and teaching and student evaluations, which the department chair supplements with external reviews of the professor from experts around the world.
According to Professor Nerissa Russel, chair of the Department of Anthropology, the entire process of fifth-year review takes almost a full year to complete because it involves not only the department but also reviews at the college, dean, and university levels as well as approval by the Faculty Advisory Committee on Tenure Appointments and the provost.

The process is not easy for all involved due to the amount of work and the stakes of the results.

“[The process] takes some really intense work and there is a lot of anxiety, a lot of things can go in one way or another. There are a lot of moving pieces,” Russell said. “[It is] an intense and nerve-wracking time.”

Departments place significant emphasis on properly preparing assistant professors for the tenure appointment process. Overton said that the role of mentorship in the process is crucial to new faculty success.

“We have a formal mentoring process here where you know, each faculty member will have a metric committee that is generally three people, one that [is from] outside the department. And they meet with them every six months, maybe every year, minimum once a year,” Overton said. “[They] just talk about how their programs are going, seek advice, and that’s proven to be really effective because it helps people gauge their progress.”

There is a strong support system for assistant professors because of the consequences a failed tenure appointment can have for a department.

“We want to make sure our assistant professors are well supported because… if somebody isn’t successful the college takes that position [away], and we are gonna have to fight for it,” Overton said.

In a shrinking academic job market, Cornell sticks out as the exception to the rule: while contingent positions more than doubled nationally and tenure track positions only increased 9.4% from 1995-2011, Cornell has stuck by its decision to primarily look for tenure-track faculty instead of adjuncts.

“It has gotten somewhat harder, and it’s certainly gotten a lot harder compared to say 10-20 years before I came,” Russell said. “Because there’s an oversupply of PhDs basically, [colleges and universities] can get away with demanding people be really incredible. But at Cornell, it is least fairly reasonable.”

Ph.D. overproduction is a national issue in the face of the recent cuts to academic programs in universities across the country, as well as controversies about the use of adjunct faculty. Some adjunct professors have been reported to be paid so low that they live under the federal poverty line, while other adjuncts are forced to move around for work too much to settle down and start a family. Cornell faculty have found creative alternatives for graduate students. Smith said that his Cornell Institute for Archaeology and Material Studies program has its director of graduate studies spend a lot of time on a program to help students find non-academic jobs.

“The relationship between graduate education and the academic stream of faculty does need to be examined in a thoughtful way to make sure that what we’re training students for is where they actually end up,” Smith said.

Graduate students like Kaitlin Findlay, a third-year Ph. D. candidate in the Department of History said she feels supported by her department despite the difficult job market.

“It has been unusual because of the pandemic. But I have, for the most part, felt really supported and looked after when it has come to financial aid but also my intellectual pursuits,” Findlay said. “The department I think is very good with running seminars or information sessions on what to do with your Ph. D. that is not a tenure track position.”

Arielle Johnson, a sixth-year Ph. D. candidate in plant biology expressed gratitude for the opportunities presented to her by her principal investigator Margaret Frank, such as attending conferences with her and knowing who to talk to in the field.

“I think we are so often siloed in our small lab environment, and just getting to go to big meetings like that has been really helpful for me to see the variety of other science that’s out there and see the variety of other career paths that people have taken,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t be exposed to that just pipetting things in the lab.”

Despite challenging job prospects, Cornell faculty continues to expose students to research and different aspects of academic life, in the hopes that they might see the good side as well. Overton said that the animal science department has a robust undergraduate honors program whose roughly 15 graduates a year conduct academic research.

“We do try to provide those opportunities as pathways for students to maybe identify some interest in theirs and expand… [and]broaden their exposure,” Overton said.