How to: Become a tenured professor at Harvard

You have, at some point, probably heard an academic wistfully daydream about what it would be like to have tenure, or (alternately) moan about the process that it takes to achieve that dream. Tenure is a promotion, but it's more than just a promotion. For instance, it's a lot harder to fire a tenured professor — something that is meant to make it easier for them to research and speak out on what they want without fear of administrative crackdowns. As a result, getting tenure can be a process that is nothing short of labyrinthian. This piece in the Harvard Crimson by Nicholas Fandos and Noah Pisner describes the phone-book-sized dossiers, decade-long preparations, and secret tribunals that are all a part of the standard Harvard tenure process.


  1. During my time in grad school, the received wisdom was that if you didn’t hold some kind of degree from Harvard (Bachelor’s or better) then you had no chance of getting tenure there.

  2. Right, a certain group of schools (Harvard, Yale) simply doesn’t grant tenure, with rare exceptions. You treat the job as a kind of launching pad to another, hopefully more happy, job (or so I am told from those who have done it). Other colleges grant tenure simply by checking your pulse; if you are alive, then you get it.

    1.  Not in my experience. Could you let me know which institutions those are?

      “Other colleges grant tenure simply by checking your pulse; if you are alive, then you get it.”

  3. No single factor is enough to earn tenure at Harvard, those involved in
    the tenure process say. Prize-winning work may not be enough. Excellent
    teaching almost certainly is not.

    The last part is kind of depressing.

    I had a professor in grad school who was absolutely terrible …. I later found out that even though he had tenure, this was his first time teaching a grad-level class.

    1. But this is always the case.  “Good” colleges never hire professors for their instructing abilities. It’s for what they accomplish outside the classroom.

  4. Or you can be academically more or less a faker, but be famous for saying things people want to hear. Then Harvard will give you tenure without much effort at all: Niall Ferguson, Daniel Goldhagen, Alan Dershowitz…

  5. Wow, interesting to learn that Harvard is the same as every other top tier college. Who would have thought?

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