ASEE PRISM - September 2000
Teaching Toolbox
The Tenure-Track Years

When the academic clock is ticking, it's important to get off on the right foot.

By Nicholas J. Altiero

Illustration by Paul CozzolinoI believe that most of us in the engineering professorate are very satisfied with our professional lives, and feel that our decision to pursue an academic career was a good one. We may not have been so sure, however, during those first five to six years of our career--that demanding and stressful period known as the tenure track, in which the assistant professor must establish her or his credentials. It is a very short period of time given the extremely high expectations, so it is important to get off to the right start.

To help ensure that you are granted tenure, you should know from the outset what is expected of you. At a research university where strong scholarly work and an international reputation are the most important prerequisites to success, there will be certain expectations with respect to published output, external funding obtained from agency and industry sources, Ph.D. production, and so on. Ask your department chair and your senior colleagues for general guidelines on what these productivity measures should be for a successful tenure candidate. While they won't be able to give you an exact answer--the tenure decision will be based in large part on the quality of your work as evaluated by your professional peers--they will be able to give you guidance on how the promotion and tenure process works at your university, and on what basis decisions have been made in the recent past.

Establishing a visible and highly respected research program will not be your only responsibility. You will also be expected to establish yourself as an effective and involved teacher at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and to actively serve your university and your profession. For the vast majority of faculty members these are welcomed expectations, because engineering education is what attracted us to academia in the first place. As a new assistant professor, however, you must be careful to balance these responsibilities and to set priorities carefully.

Before accepting a faculty position, you should inquire about your teaching and service responsibilities during the tenure-track years.

Many departments have instituted lighter teaching loads for new faculty members, usually one course per semester for the first one to three years. Generally the assigned courses are a mix of undergraduate and graduate courses, but the number of different courses is limited to three or four--allowing the new faculty member to teach each more than once during the tenure-track period. A reduced and focused teaching assignment will allow you to develop several strong courses, while still having sufficient time to build your research program and become actively involved in your professional community.

During your early tenure-track years, professional service should take strong precedence over institutional service. Be visible at professional society meetings, where you should volunteer to organize and chair technical sessions and to serve on technical committees. You should also become a reviewer for professional journals and funding agencies and serve on funding agency review panels. Ask your department chair to limit the number of department and university committees on which you serve.

The mission of a faculty member at a research university is threefold: research, teaching, and service. During the tenure-track years, you need to demonstrate that you are highly capable in all three aspects of this mission. Your main focus, however, must be on building a strong scholarly foundation. Talk to your department chair at the outset about expectations and assignments during the tenure-track years. If you set your goals and priorities carefully, your tenure-track years will be rewarding and successful.

Nicholas J. Altiero is chair of ASEE's Engineering Research Council
( ) and dean of engineering at Tulane University.
The opinions in this article are solely his.

Engineering Grant Opportunities

NSF Arctic Research Grants-Engineering

    Number: Unspecified
    Amount: Contact sponsor
    Deadline: February 15, August 1
    Description: Research in bioengineering and environmental systems in arctic topics of interest including hydrology in cold environments and thermodynamic phenomena
    Contact: Program Director, Arctic Sciences, Division of Polar Programs, Directorate for Geosciences, (703) 306-1029, or visit   

DOI Earthquake Hazards Reduction Research Grants

    Number: Unspecified
    Amount: $7,000 to $120,000
    Deadline: Contact sponsor
    Description: Research projects involving land-use planning, emergency preparedness, and earthquake engineering design
    Contact: Deputy Chief, Grants and Contracts, Office of Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Engineering, U.S. Geological Survey National Center, (703)-648-6722

DOE Engineering Grants

    Number: Unspecified
    Amount: $10,000 to $2 million
    Deadline: Contact sponsor
    Description: Program to extend knowledge of current engineering practice to enhance energy savings and production
    Contact: Director, Engineering Research, Basic Energy Science, Office of Energy Research, (301) 903-5822 or visit 

NSF Computer and Information Science and Engineering Research Grants

    Number: Unspecified
    Amount: $5,000-$4.2 million
    Deadline: Contact sponsor
    Description: Research to enhance training of scientists and engineers
    Contact: Juris Hartmanis, Assistant Director, Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering, (703) 306-1900, e-mail: , or visit 


Grant profiles are reprinted from GrantSelect, the online version of the Grants Database published by Oryx Press; A one-year subscription to costs $1,000. Used with permission from The Oryx Press, 4041 N. Central Ave., Suite 700, Phoenix, AZ 85012; (800) 279-6799; .

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