I have been at my academic job for about six years, and this year I'm coming up for tenure. That is, I'm about to reach the end of the tenure track and am barreling along at full-steam towards the station (see video at end of post). I was actually supposed to do this last year, but although I had major grants from governmental and private funding agencies, a decent set of publications, and sufficient funds to keep my lab going at a nice clip, I did not have funding from the NIH - the gold standard for tenure. My department chair did tell me that NIH funding was not a requirement for tenure, as long as my lab was funded, and that tenure rates at my university were high. However recent incidents where people were denied tenure even with NIH funding made me panic a bit and I took advantage of a retroactive parental leave policy to extend my tenure clock for a year. Which I guess was good, since NIH funding finally came through, we published a handful of papers and submitted another handful. So now I'm just worried, not terrified.
For those of you not in academia, or pondering jobs in academia, tenure is something that is awarded to faculty after 7-10 years, depending on the university, which essentially means you have indefinite, guaranteed employment. My guess is that initially tenure was awarded to guarantee freedom of scholarship. That is, faculty would be free to research unconventional topics or hold controversial opinions without fear of losing their jobs. In practice though, even if you are tenured, you still need to fund your research, and a two-year wild goose chase with no positive outcome will result in no publications and make it harder and harder to renew your funding. So any advantages tenure gives you are counteracted by the need to stay funded. However, I think the main reason for tenure still existing is to convince the brightest people to stay in academia. Working in academia is hard, stressful and pays comparatively little to other fields which require similar or even less amount of training. So the promise of lifetime employment is a nice bonus.
So as I was saying, I'm 'up for tenure' this year. The process varies from institution to institution, but in general you are supposed to be evaluated for three things: scholarship, teaching and service. In reality though, scholarship is what mostly counts, at least at a major research university like mine. It's good to have decent student reviews (which I guess can help you find a teaching job if you are denied tenure), and service, which means serving in departmental and university communities as well as benefiting society in general, counts for very little other than for generating good will among you colleagues, hopefully convincing them that they want you to stick around indefinitely. But scholarship, assessed by your publication and funding records and your reputation among colleagues, counts the most. In my institution the tenure process is as follows – after completing five years, a departmental tenure committee is formed and you are asked to provide them with a list of suggested letter writers, colleagues outside your university that can evaluate your work. These can't really be your PhD or postdoctoral advisors since their letters will be perceived as biased in your favor. I mean, they can write letters for you, but they won't count for much. Your committee then meets, picks five letter writers from your list and suggests another five and shows you the final list. Then you have to assemble your dossier. This consists of your incredibly detailed CV (listing publications, funding, committees you were in, talks you gave, meetings you presented in, students you advised, etc.), summary of your teaching evaluations, copies of papers published, etc. This gets sent out to the letter writers in the fall and all the letters are compiled and added to your dossier. Around this time you are supposed to give a talk, open to the public, about your research and future plans. In late fall, your department meets and votes whether to recommend you for tenure. If they do, this recommendation goes to the dean and once approved, your department chair goes before the university tenure committee to present your case. This committee has faculty from all disciplines, including things like Archeology or Media Studies. So it is your department chair's job to not only make the case for you, but to explain why it is OK for someone in your field to have 1-2 publications per year, while the guy from engineering that they just reviewed has something like 7-8 publications a year. The committee then votes, and their recommendation is sent to the Provost. You are also informed of the outcome of the vote. This is sometime during early spring semester. The provost then makes the ultimate decision for all practical purposes. While usually the provost's recommendation goes the way of the university tenure committee, he or she can overturn the decision either way. The provost can recommend tenure in a case where it was voted down, or recommend against tenure in a case where it was voted in favor. At this point you are informed of the decision, typically late spring, and if you are awarded tenure it becomes official once the board of trustees approves of the provost's decision and if you are not you basically have a year before you have to get the hell out of dodge and find a new job.
So it looks like a I have a stressful year ahead of me. As I said, I am nervous but not quivering in a corner, based on what I've been told of my case. I will update you as things progress and provide my progress and insights into the process. For now, I have to go generate a list of potential letter writers and go finish a manuscript. Here's my favorite train scene, ever: