Does This Candidate Meet the Requirements for Tenure? Preparing as a Student for Questions About Tenure

Today we welcome a post by Dylan Burns as part of our collaboration with ACRLog (the blog of the Association of College and Research Libraries)Dylan Burns is the Digital Scholarship Librarian at Utah State University. His research interests are the future of the book, open access, and memory studies. He is also a former writer and community manager for Hack Library School.

Two years ago I was starting my job search, two months ago I was on a search committee. As I look back on that time and thinking about the job search there are a lot of things I would have done differently to save myself time or heartbreak, but, in the end, I’m not sure I would have changed the outcome. (Tell my two years ago self that I’d be loving Utah and see the reaction)

As I write this I am suffering from the great Fall tenure panic, which strikes librarians at Utah State University as the weather starts to cool. Preparing tenure documents encourages me to be a little wistful about how far I have come in the past year but also leads me to wonder “why did I want to put myself through this yearly misery?” While answering this for myself is probably important for my mental health, exploring this existential personal query leads to a larger discussion of what libraries look for when they search for tenure capable librarians.

When we search to fill a tenure track job we are required and encouraged to ask questions, dig deep into references, and read cover letters to determine “does this candidate meet the requirements for tenure?” This is an impossible question to answer truthfully because none of us can look six years into the future and see if the candidate is indeed successful. Yet, it is an important part of hiring faculty librarians.

What do searches look for when filling tenure track jobs?

While I can’t speak for all search committees and all libraries, I think I can speak to my own beliefs about how best to show that you are willing and able to do tenure when you write your cover letters or get asked the inevitable question during your interviews.

First, a disclaimer: Tenure track gigs are not for everyone, and if you aren’t interested in publishing, service or the rat race aspects of academia then it is possible that faculty jobs are not really what you’re looking for. Everyone is on their own library path, and that is totally ok. That said, many of these skills that are being emphasized can be, and should be, important for a variety of librarianships.

Curiosity I think the thing that is perhaps most evident of success in academia is a healthy curiosity. A curious librarian asks “why do we do it this way?” “what can make this process better?” “what does it mean to be a librarian?” When you spend your time thinking about the process and why we do what we do, your curiosity promotes a healthier overall field and shows an engagement that is important to the tenure process. As a student, it also provides excellent avenues for research contributions to the larger field. Figured out a new workflow for something you do at your work? Write it up for publication. Think you can develop a better information literature course? Design it and present it at a conference.

Presentations The best advice that I can give to prospective faculty librarians is to get experience doing presentations. This is for two important reasons. First, academic jobs will often ask you to do a presentation on where you see the job going and the future of the field. Second, presenting is something that you will do a lot of when you’re a faculty member and proving that you can do it and, most importantly, that you are interested in research will go a long way in showing your aptitude towards tenure requirements. There are presentation opportunities at conferences both  local and national that will help prepare you for the job search as well as give you the opportunity to share your ideas with other librarians. It is not always easy for students to travel so seek out opportunities at your library school to present your ideas; very often library schools have their own symposia for student research.

Futures A faculty librarian thinks about tomorrow, and a successful candidate shows that the gears in their head are already moving. I have been told that the number one indication of tenure success is “trajectory.” It is going from the bottom to the top, or the middle to the top, or, maybe, a lower top to a higher top. It is a moving forward and a progress that is central to the future of the academic library in an uncertain age. Successful candidates show that they are thinking about how they will contribute in some way to the ways in which our library futures are written.

These threads should be woven through each part of your job application from the letter to your CV. You should show that you are thinking about libraries on a deep and thoughtful level. Above all, search committees want colleagues who are thoughtful and smart and that comes across very easily in letters and CVs if you emphasize these ideas.

The secret I want to share with you is that each of you is capable of this.

If you weren’t capable of this, you wouldn’t want to be a librarian. Librarians are forced by the nature of their jobs and the empathy central to our careers to think about the future. In addition to this we are forced to being curious about how to do things better or different, and, for the most part, presenting those ideas, either in front of a Library board, K-12 students, Faculty members, Administrators, or tenure committees. Emphasizing these aspects of yourself on the job search will not only show your aptitude for the job at hand but it will help you think about why you wanted to become a librarian in the first place.


Featured image “Romney Stadium” by Trent Hunsaker is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

1 reply

  1. Great post, Dylan! I would also encourage job seekers who are interviewing for tenure-track jobs to ask how many tenure-track librarians end up tenured at that particular library. I think it’s both the department’s and the librarian’s responsibility to help the librarian achieve tenure and promotion. You want colleagues who are supportive, who mentor you, and who offer advice and opportunities for service and scholarship. If they’ve made the commitment to hire you, then it’s in their best interest to make sure you are successful!


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