How to blog, get tenure and prosper: Starting the blog

23 minute read

This is the first of a series on blogging and tenure. Each installment covers a different portion of the tenure process, from starting and establishing the tone of your blog, up to documenting your blog for your tenure dossier. I don't guarantee anything, and I certainly don't have all the answers, but I worked hard to develop some strategies in my tenure chase, and you may find some of them helpful.

Last month, the University of Wisconsin officially granted me tenure. So, I can say without any doubt (if other examples had not been sufficient), it is absolutely possible to write a daily, high-profile blog and still be recognized by your colleagues as a scholar. In fact, it is possible to blog, do good research, and earn tenure at a Research I university.

That seems like progress, compared to the situation four years ago when I began blogging. A few high-profile tenure denials in late 2005, including physicist Sean Carroll and political scientist Daniel Drezner, made it seem like a blog might be the kiss of death for a research reputation. Inside Higher Education ran a story on the subject, as did Slate, with the melodramatic title, “Attack of the Career-killing Blogs”. Since I was interviewed in that article, I suppose I should have been a little nervous (I wrote about it here).

Happily things have changed. With the rise of science blogging, people have become much more aware of the ways that a blog can contribute to a career in science. If you establish a readership, the chances are your colleagues will find out about your blog themselves, instead of looking at you in befuddlement. Blogs are not research, but in some fields they have become an important part of the process of networking and critical commentary. A well-written blog is far from a liability to a scientific career, and may be a real boon.

However, the transition to a blogging professoriate has barely begun. A large fraction of today’s science bloggers are graduate students. Some have finished their degrees within the past few years, moved on to postdocs and to assistant professorships. Starting on the tenure track exposes young researchers to some unexpected minefields, and there are special challenges when a blog is involved.

Other young researchers may be reading and using blogs intensively and wondering whether it would be worthwhile to start writing. I was in the same situation some four years ago, so I know the feeling.

I’m writing these posts to share my experience. I spent a lot of time evaluating and preparing my blog for the tenure process. From the beginning, I knew that blogging would be only a minor aspect of my tenure review, because the focus of tenure evaluation at UW is research activity. My main goal was to highlight the ways that my blog has enhanced my research and public service presence, and to show that blogging does not detract from my research agenda. I succeeded in those goals, using a number of strategies along the way that may be useful for other people approaching their tenure reviews. Some of these strategies are common sense; others may surprise you.

I realize that I have embarked on a different project than many science bloggers. Most of my words have to do with my field of study. Many blogs include a broader mix of commentary, including political and social subjects. Since I’m an avid reader of many different kinds of blogs, I can comment to some extent on the ways that different subjects and tones may be incorporated into a professional career.

The full story is divided into four parts. In the final installment, which may be most useful to current bloggers, I will describe the specific strategies that I applied to quantify my blog’s role as a service to the field and to the public. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be discussing strategies to build a blog’s reputation and readership in the years leading up to tenure review, and some ways to integrate research with blogging.

Today, I weigh the pluses and minuses of starting a blog on the tenure track, including the key question of anonymity. This will be especially relevant if you are newly on the tenure track and considering starting a blog. You may also find some of it useful if you have a blog already and are considering shedding a pseudonym and making a blog part of your academic life.

The importance of a mentor

The first thing you should do on the tenure track is get a mentor. A mentor is a person who was in your shoes fifteen years ago. Much longer than that, and they not have faced the same challenges that are typical for young professors today. Much less, and they will not have sat through many tenure cases, so they may not know what kinds of trouble can arise. The idea of a mentor is that you can get informal advice: Not only about your record, but also about your new colleagues and how your department and college have reviewed tenure cases in the last few years.

Many colleges now have tenure guidelines that spell out a formal role for a mentor, and that’s a very good thing. It is especially helpful if the mentor is not a member of the evaluation committee. In a court of law, you want your legal counsel to be somebody different from the judge. Even if the judgment should go against you, you want to know that you can trust your counsel. Likewise, your mentor will be most useful if you know that you can bring her concerns or ideas without having them part of the formal discussions of your review.

If your department or college do not assign you a mentor, you should find your own. Invite your senior colleagues to lunch. Your career isn’t likely to be at the top of their agenda, but you may be able to find out some pertinent facts. How many articles have they published lately? What do they think of the direction of your research? How do they think you should balance your research with developing new courses? Have they ever heard of people using blogs or podcasts in their classes?

Even if you have a formal mentor, you should not stop with the formalities. If anyone has recently been denied tenure in your department, find out why. Is there a chance for you to find out recent tenure cases in other departments, and if so, how many publications did they have? Encourage your mentor and other senior colleagues to sit in one of your class sessions and write a short letter for your file.

In other words, start covering your bases in the first year. It’s your job, and your tenure case, and nobody cares about it halfway as much as you do.

Remember, the moment that you are hired, nobody expects you to know much about your new department. They especially don’t expect you to know about any politics that may exist. You might feel better off not knowing – after all, it can be uncomfortable to ask questions about why people don’t seem to like each other. But it won’t get any easier to find out the facts: After you’ve been there a year or two, they’ll already figure that you know anyway. Use the time that you don’t know anything to your advantage!

Should you start at all?

You may be wondering, “What does a mentor have to do with blogging?”

Whenever it comes to blogging and tenure, you have to consider that one of them is much easier to live without than the other. Being denied tenure is hardly the end of the world – in fact, some people report that it is the best thing that could have happened to them. But there are even more people who will tell you that quitting their blogs was the best thing they ever did!

I will assume that since you’ve taken a job as an assistant professor, your goal is not to be the world’s most prolific academic blogger. Because, let’s face it, blogging isn’t going to pay your bills.

So all the stuff about getting a mentor is very important. If you’ve done a good job, and ask your mentor whether you should start a blog, she will tell you one thing: Hell, no!

This absolutely is the best advice. There is no way that you should start a blog, especially in the first couple of years on the tenure track. You should devote all your time to research and grant writing, at least until you know how much work it will really take to get your CV up to the point where you want it for your tenure evaluation. After a couple of good annual reviews, you can start thinking about other things to occupy your time.

Are you serious?

OK, I don’t really believe that. But before you read any further, you really ought to listen to your mentor and other members of your department. Because I don’t have any clue what standards your committee will use to evaluate you, and they do.

Plus, I have an ulterior motive: I’d really like to have more interesting blogs to read and link, and I’d like you to start one if you haven’t already. Whereas, I really don’t have any investment in whether you get tenure. So I’m not impartial.

If I took my own advice, I would never have started myself. The truth is, I kept my blog a secret. I didn’t tell anybody about it – not even my friends. If it failed, I didn’t want anybody to know that I’d spent the time on it. Especially not colleagues in my own department, who would be evaluating me.

Instead, some of them found out about from their friends who had discovered the blog. Word of mouth. In my case, that was the best way to go: By the time anyone knew what I was doing, it was already a success.

I should mention that this is basically the same approach I take to much of my research. Nobody really needs to know what I’m doing, until I’ve done it. It works for me. It may not work so well for you.

Whether blogging is worth your investment of time is a question only you can answer. Really, it depends on your motivations. People blog for lots of reasons.

For some, it’s a hobby, and they mainly write about interests that are different from their academic field. A biologist might maintain a movie blog, for example. If blogging is going to scratch that itch, it’s really no different than any other hobby. By all means do it, but keep in mind that it is a hobby. If your professional goal is tenure, you still have to excel at your work.

But if you’re like many academics, you think the most interesting thing you could write about is your field. After all, you are the expert!

Now, you face more complicated terrain. When you write a blog about your field of study, your students and colleagues are part of your audience. At least some of them will know you, and you need to consider your reputation.

This is both a benefit and drawback of writing a blog in your area of expertise. You can quickly develop a reputation for fairness, good commentary, and enjoyable writing. On the other hand, you can just as quickly develop a reputation as a crank, a partisan for a niche theory, a bully, or worst of all, a bore. Everyone expects a journal article to be boring. But if you write boring material on a blog, people will just assume you’re a boring person. Not so good.

To start, or not to start?

So we return to the question, should you start writing at all? To my mind there are several justifications that are more than adequate:

  1. Your education cost a lot of time for yourself and a lot of money, either for yourself or somebody else. Your work may have been funded by governments, universities, or private foundations. Your education may have been funded by your parents. They have asked you for nothing but good work. But you can repay them with more than this: you can explain why your work is valuable, making it clear to everyone why their money and your time have been well spent. A blog is not the only way to do this, but it has advantages. It is free, and public, and enables commentary.

  2. Ultimately, advancing in the world of science will take writing skill, and for this you need practice. Nobody expects a blog to be perfect, or even very well-polished. But people do expect you to update it regularly. This makes it a perfect way to practice better writing. The only way to build your skill is repetition, and whether your blog has a thousand readers or only ten, they will give you a motivation to work at it.

  3. Journalists read blogs. If you write well about your research, it gives you the opportunity to share that work with a much broader audience. Giving it a higher profile will enhance the chances of grants, publications, and conference invitations over the long term.

Personally, I think that maturity as a scientist comes with the ability to explain your work to your parents. As a graduate student, I felt the great interest and importance in my work, but was not yet equipped to articulate it very well. I’ve gained that ability over time, and have become a much better advocate of human evolution.

Against these, you should also consider the problems:

  1. You may make enemies. Even if you never write anything critical about anyone’s work, you may develop a reputation as a loudmouth or a yes-man. Nobody likes that. Remember, they’re reviewing your manuscripts and grants.

  2. Even if you only write a limited amount – only one or two posts a week – your colleagues may consider that wasted time you could be spending on your research. Depending on your field, you may have colleagues who only manage a few hundred words of writing per week. When you are cranking out a blog that has many times that amount, they will wonder whether you are making the best use of your time.

  3. You might find out that nobody cares. This has been the fate of many institutional blogs: Writing weekly posts on the goings-on at some institution, they discover that this is information that nobody actually wants. For some people, this may actually be empowering – after all, if nobody cares, nobody will criticize! But it’s the timeless dilemma of the child who gets no attention: you may start to seek any kind of attention, even negative attention. Blogging can start a vicious cycle as well as a virtuous one.

  4. Mission creep. You start out writing a few posts about your work, and comment negatively on creationism. And then you spend your time online reading stupid posts from intelligent design blogs, just so that you can refute them. Soon your mind starts to decay, and then you can’t do your actual research anymore.

Are there really more minuses than pluses? It’s a little like Tolstoy said: All happy bloggers blog alike, while unhappy bloggers are each unhappy in their own way.

The group blog

One solution is to share the costs by joining or starting a group blog. This can be a fantastic opportunity, especially if you enjoy collaborative writing environments. Group blogs have some of the most active comment sections, and because of their mixture of different topics, they bring a broad range of readers. If you join an existing group blog, your coauthors may be able to give you feedback about your writing, and connect you with others who have similar interests.

From the standpoint of the tenure track, a group blog has another clear advantage: You need only contribute occasionally. If you take a vacation or need time away from writing, the group blog does not stop; other writers will keep the readers coming. Contributing to a group writing project is an easy sell to an evaluation committee – although the blog is an informal writing project, it looks kind of similar to the process of organizing a symposium, or putting together an edited volume, both of which your colleagues will likely understand. Indeed, depending on the blog’s topic and scope, you may be able to use it as a nexus for research collaborations or meetings.

But group blogs are not without their drawbacks. You can always develop your own distinctive style, but it is easier to stand apart when you control the entire site and all its content. On a group blog, your writing will appear next to articles by other people, who may not share your sensibilities or sense of risk. They may have different politics, different pet causes, and they may busily be making enemies of their own. Will you be able to float above the fray on a combative group blog, or will you be tarred by association?

These may or may not be worries – it depends on your own writing style, interests, and the people with whom you are writing.

One thing is for sure: A group blog will bring your writing more visibility and readers for less work than starting an individual blog. The challenges are finding the right people to work with, and establishing your own distinct voice within the group.

Your name and your time

If you feel the itch to write about your field, but don’t want your colleagues to know about it, you have another option: Just don’t sign your name to your blog. Some bloggers feel that a pseudonym gives the freedom to be candid, without worrying about the consequences for their careers. In their view, being faceless lets them speak truth to power – even the lowliest undergraduate may prove the equal of a Nobel Prize winner. Others blog pseudonymously out of fear – after all, even a Nobel Prize winner may prove the equal of a lowly undergraduate.

Before I write much more, I should reveal my strong opinion: Blogging anonymously is a mistake. If you must resort to anonymous writing, you really would be better off spending the time on your research.

But first, let’s consider the reasons why you might want a pseudonym. First, the rewards and incentives of blogging depend on your rank in the academic pecking order. Students and postdocs may have to answer daily their local version of a higher power. For assistant professors, there will be a Judgment Day, but little fear of immediate dismissal. Both getting hired and getting tenure require you to publish quality research, but tenure may also require you to teach well and be a service to your community. So your activity and your name may have different impacts at different times in your career.

There is a philosophical argument in favor of anonymity. In science, it shouldn’t matter who proposes an idea: the idea should succeed or fail on its own merits. It’s not the messenger, it’s the message. Actually, the same argument about anonymity also applies to research. It shouldn’t matter who has performed a piece of scientific research; the results should be judged on their merits. But would you submit an article to a peer-reviewed journal anonymously?

You might think, “Well, obviously not.” The mantra toward tenure is “Publish or perish.” Yet there are fields where a serious researcher might prefer to submit her research anonymously. Research into the genetic basis of human behaviors often crosses into this territory. Any kind of work that challenges politicized doctrines carries a risk for its authors – the risk that future work will be unfunded, or that a lab’s students will not be hired, or that a young assistant professor will be denied tenure.

Blogging is the same way. You may want to write about topics that are politically sensitive, or that may rub people the wrong way. Expressing an opinion contrary to those of your colleagues may endanger your relationship with them, or your future tenure evaluation. If a blog is not connected with your identity, then it can’t be used against you. And there are other appealing qualities of anonymity – for one thing, if you worry less about making enemies, you might have more fun tweaking people. Truth to power!

I read lots of pseudonymous bloggers, including some of my favorites, and you may find that it works for you. It may be just the thing – letting you blow off steam or push the conversation in politically incorrect directions without fear of reprisals. For those cases, some of my advice may not be very helpful – you won’t be mentioning your blog in your tenure file.

Tell us what you really think

So why do I feel so strongly that your blog should carry your name?

An important aim for an assistant professor is to establish yourself as an expert in your field. If you want to be the world’s expert on a subject, your online writing can associate that subject with you whenever anyone searches for it. A blog gives you the opportunity for immediate reactions to news: meaning that your colleagues can learn about new results by reading what you wrote about them. This can be a powerful way to build a reputation.

A well-written blog will lead to other writing opportunities. Having a high Technorati rank will make no difference at all to your tenure file, but a few op-eds in newspapers or magazines may help to impress your committee or dean, and add to your campus profile. Interviews with journalists that run in the national print media, or local radio interviews also make a difference – and there are few things better than having your students bring in an article because they saw you quoted in it. These opportunities may come about because someone read your blog, but it is your status as an expert in your field that moves the opportunities forward.

And the blog is a public resource. By writing about your field, as an expert, you are informing the public. Your college may recognize that kind of public service directly, or you may get only indirect recognition. Still, your status as an expert makes the information more valuable to the public, and is service in the truest sense. You may not feel that your opinion is more or less valuable because of your authority, but the public does not have your training to evaluate arguments in your field. To them, you are a valuable guide. Like it or not, anonymity reduces that value.

Some of the tips that I will be emphasizing in the next two installments are meant to accentuate the benefits of blogging. But if your readers don’t know who you are, you give up the chance to make your blog work for your career. You may reject that motive for writing, for any of the reasons I pointed out above. Your career does not need to define you, and it doesn’t need to absorb all your time. But if so, remember to listen to your mentor.

Reclaiming your identity

The tricky thing is when you have begun writing under a pseudonym as a student, you have built a long reputation online as a pseudonymous identity, and now you want to make that reputation work for your career. There’s no simple answer to this situation. It may be best to just make a clean break, starting fresh. Or it may be possible to just announce your identity and blog under your real name from now on.

You may be worried that you have written silly things, or rude things, that you would not want associated with your real name. If so, consider the possibility that you are exaggerating the impact of your words. A lot of people have made heated comments on Usenet, newsgroups, or other public forums that today are in reach of Google. I’ve met many folks who are professors now, but 15 years ago were students writing passionately (and sometimes very rudely) on newsgroups. My advice? Wear your past as a badge of honor. Your college has already hired you, and it’s what you do over the next few years that will matter to your tenure.

Generally speaking, nobody is going to troll through pages of search results to find the most incriminating thing you’ve ever written. But then, that depends on what it is….

Still, people expect students to have done silly things. If you have developed a strong pseudonymous identity, and would like your real name to have a similar reputation, there is probably no reason not to simply merge the two. If you’re still worried, then you can consider dumping the pseudonym and starting again, with version 2.0. Even if somebody notices the disappearance of the old person and the near-simultaneous appearance of your blog with a strikingly similar tone, at least you have plausible deniability!

In any event, blogging on the tenure track is different from blogging as a postdoc or student. The stakes are higher, as are your growing connections to more senior colleagues in your department and around the world. It may be a time to consider a new voice for an old blog, a new collaboration with another established blogger, or a different online presence entirely. You are no longer a cog in someone else’s wheel. You need to build an online identity that shows off your strengths as an independent researcher.

And then, for the paranoid

There is another consideration bearing on whether you should write under a pseudonym. Your tenure file will include anywhere from five to ten reviews from outside colleagues, mostly full professors at peer schools. You won’t know who these people are, and you will probably have little role in suggesting names for this list. But they will all be senior colleagues who (hopefully) are familiar with your work. If you’re lucky, they will already be your friends because you’ve met and interacted with them at conferences, maybe shared a drink. If you’re unlucky – suppose your committee doesn’t know any better – the list will include some of your bitter critics.

Now, consider. If even one of these people knows that you are a blogger, they may include it in their letter. She may be trying to help you – hey, she probably really likes your blog, and is impressed at all the hard work you’ve put into it. She writes about how much you are engaged with the public, and how valuable your blog is to other professionals in the field. How did she find out that you were the author? Maybe you told her in one of those slow times at the conference bar. Maybe her students have been reading your blog for years and worked it out. Maybe your graduate advisor has been spreading the word. Who knows? Remember, eventually they unmasked the Washingtonienne.

The point is, it may be possible to lead a double life as an academic seeking tenure, and probably nobody really cares. But if you absolutely need your blog to be a secret, then you’ll have to make it a KGB-grade secret. Otherwise, you’ll be wondering when the word will finally slip to your department colleagues, and you’ll be constantly watching what you say anyway. And if you’re not really going to burn anybody under your false name, you might as well be getting the benefit out of using your real name!

Final words

I’ll be continuing the story next week. Some of this is relatively generic, but much of it stems from my own experiences, conversations with other bloggers, and some deep thinking about the best way for young scientists to build an online presence.

In the next installment, I discuss the balance between controversial, political, and safe topics, and the way they may play out in the tenure hunt. Plus, the all-important question: Should your blog allow comments?