Tenure Lessons for Engaged Scholars

How can junior faculty advance a public mission when it’s not always part of the job?

J. Nathan Matias
11 min readJun 14, 2021

Many researchers want to do work that makes a difference in the world. That’s sometimes tricky in communities that aren’t sure if engaged research is legitimate work for academics.

I saw that first-hand as a PhD student when three of my mentors were denied tenure. Each did life-changing research, published books/papers, raised significant funds, and spun out organizations that further grew their impact. Each was featured prominently by their universities for transforming diversity in higher education. And when their tenure cases came up, they were denied.

When I went on the job market, I knew I wanted to be at a university that values engaged research. That’s why I’m excited to be at Cornell, which offers funding and mentorship to faculty who work to merge theory and practice, together with the public. This year, I was supported by Cornell’s Engaged Faculty Fellowship program to read and write about career arcs for engaged scholars. This post reports some of the lessons I learned.

The Three Bears of Ovid NY, built as court-houses in the 19th century. I am starting the myth that the room for your tenure case (or PhD defense) is decided by the thickness of your tenure file (or dissertation)

Misaligned incentives

As Ernest Boyer writes, universities have an amazing opportunity to direct our resources to “the most pressing social, civic, and ethical problems of our times.” And universities, especially public ones, have been given the purpose of serving the common good. Yet many scholars find themselves discouraged from doing work that takes on pragmatic questions — or looks even vaguely like activism (Hale 2008). How does this happen?

Universities have an amazing opportunity to direct our resources to “the most pressing social, civic, and ethical problems of our times”

The sociologist of science Robert Merton described science as a social structure that encourages some kinds of activity and discourages others. Everyone feels the pressure of these real and perceived norms during our careers — especially junior faculty on the tenure track whose job prospects are decided by a constellation of other academics. These decisions to retain and promote junior faculty depend on evaluations of our research (measured by publications), teaching (measured by course evals), and our service to our universities and our fields (measured with reference letters).

While the tenure process provides a valuable quality-control mechanism for higher education, it also creates a dilemma for universities trying to engage with the pressing issues of our times. A 2008 report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) observed that public-interest work isn’t systematically rewarded by universities.

“academic public engagement is often a risky early career option, particularly for women and faculty of color”

As a Guatemalan-American scholar, I also recognized the AACU’s observation that “academic public engagement is often a risky early career option, particularly for women and faculty of color.” I’ve heard others say similar things to me when urging me to wait before working on the questions that motivated me to become a scientist in the first place. I respect many of those voices. More often than not, people weren’t putting hurdles in my way. They were being honest about the hurdles already in place.

Given the misaligned incentives in some parts of higher education, what can junior faculty do to advance public-interest research alongside our careers? This post records some of the ideas I’ve developed across my reading this year.

How to build legitimacy at your university

Ever since I was hired after college as a corporate fundraiser for a university, I’ve seen junior faculty try four broad strategies to build legitimacy at their universities. Each of them comes with risks.

Charismatic fundraisers sometimes try to become too big to fail. They raise millions of dollars, attract media attention, and build relationships with scientific luminaries at high-level meetings. Unfortunately, those eminent Nobel Prize winners can’t write your tenure letters, and if other scientists don’t respect your research, large amounts of fundraising can’t fully convince a university to keep you around.

changing the system can be a trap for under-represented minorities, who are often expected to do extra service to fix institutions with histories of exclusion

Public-minded institutionalists often try to change the system. If the university’s incentives are misaligned, they reason, a campaign to change those incentives could help themselves and others at the same time. While this is a noble goal, junior faculty need to manage our service load, especially if it comes at the expense of the reasons we’re scholars in the first place. This can also be a trap for under-represented minorities, who are often expected to do extra service to fix institutions with histories of exclusion (Matthew 2016).

More cautious change-makers try to push the envelope by learning their university’s existing structures and helping those structures shift, bit by bit (Ehrenberg 2002). Acting as “sociological citizens”, they create change by showing how engaged scholarship helps institutions follow their current incentives (Silbey 2011). When done well, junior scholars can inspire and enable more senior people to create substantial change. Other days, you wonder if incremental change is too slow to matter.

Finally, all junior scholars work to make public-minded scholarship legible to traditional paradigms. Wherever incentives are mis-aligned, we learn to translate our work so others will value it. Under-represented scholars are familiar with code-switching in academia and the toll it takes. But in a way, it’s central to the work of building, breaking, and reshaping boundaries at the heart of all scholarship (Gieryyn, 1983).

What strategies do I take? After focusing on transforming systems as a gradstudent, I’m putting more of my time as an assistant professor into pushing the envelope and making my work legible.

Be clear about the value of your work

“Why should scientists care about this?” I still remember how shocked and hurt I was that someone would question the basic value of a project I was pursuing as a grad-student. I was studying a topic that mattered deeply to the lives of millions of people, and this privileged professor with a sheltered life was seemingly questioning the value of those people’s needs.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I had fallen into the category of “applied research.” In one view, the purpose of scientists is to produce basic, “forever knowledge” that applies widely across many contexts. Since this kind of general knowledge is rare, it is especially valuable. The more closely a research study is grounded in a specific context, the less it matters to the prominent scientists who seek out general knowledge. To escape this trap, I needed to (a) translate my work into their value system, or (b) help them understand a new value system.

With use-inspired basic research, researchers make fundamental advances to science by pursuing questions that matter to society

Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. Over the years I’ve come to describe my research as “use-inspired basic research” (Stokes 1997). In this model, researchers make fundamental advances to science by pursuing questions that matter to society. I now show a Venn diagram of my research goals in every talk, explaining what I hope each study will add to people’s lives, to science, and to policy.

If you want to think more about how to generate research ideas that impact society and advance science at the same time, see the article that Adam Levine and I wrote for Inside Higher Ed this year.

Three integrated goals for every study at the Citizens and Technology Lab (CAT Lab)

Make bets across a research portfolio

It’s always nice when community goals align with the questions that scientists care about. But that doesn’t always happen. And not every study has a chance to be published in the most prestigious journals.

Every researcher struggles with which projects to take on and which questions to leave un-answered. These decisions can be especially challenging when you see desperate needs that won’t win the admiration of other scientists. I know some (amazing) researchers who say no to everything except projects that will clearly advance scientific knowledge. Others align themselves strongly with communities and are willing to miss out on chances for deeper scientific contributions.

In my lab, I think of my research portfolio as a set of investments in society and science. Those goals often align, but when they don’t, I try to think about the spread of my projects. That’s easier to do in a lab where we invent novel technologies to support research. A highly-applied study with less value to science can still pay off if it requires us to develop software that we re-use later for a study with higher scientific value.

At my lab, our funders support this portfolio approach, which is co-designed with our community collaborators. This year, CAT Lab is developing a scientific advisory board who can help us evaluate the scientific value of potential studies as we co-design them with communities. Here’s a graphic I developed after our first community research summit to inform decisions about which research projects to implement.

Overlap research, teaching, and service

Junior faculty have three main jobs: research, teaching, and service. Publicly-engaged scholars can sometimes find ourselves over-stretched, especially if our public engagement doesn’t fit with how our universities interpret those three responsibilities. As much as possible, I try to overlap these parts of my work. Here are some examples:

  • Research + teaching: my undergraduate course on the Design and Governance of Digital Experiments organizes student teams to develop new field experiments. So far, I’ve published three academic articles with students based on class projects, with several more on the way.
  • Service + research: I regularly serve on grant committees and publication review committees related to my scientific focus, my research methods, and citizen science more broadly. While serving, I meet new peers, learn about new threads of research, and build relationships with funders who could potentially support my work in the future.
Live footage of a junior professor trying to do all the things.

Plan on producing multiple outputs

“Whatever happened to that amazing researcher who worked with us a few years ago?” When the head of an NGO asked me about an academic whose report had transformed their area of civil society, I was curious and looked them up.

The story I saw in their C.V. was all too common. As a junior professor at an Ivy League university, they had taken on one of society’s biggest challenges by leading a global research collaboration. But while their reports had been widely circulated by NGOs, funders, and governments, they never published any peer-reviewed research from the project. And after their tenure case came up, they quietly moved away. The worst thing? After moving, this brilliant scholar stopped doing the research that animated so much positive change in the world.

many funders and NGOs are unaware that the way they structure their collaborations with emerging scholars are actually contributing to diversity problems in academia

Many funders and NGOs are unaware that the way they structure their collaborations with emerging scholars are actually contributing to diversity problems in academia by making it harder for junior academics to thrive in the long-term. I plan to write more about that topic soon.

In the meantime, what can academics do to ensure that our engaged work does genuinely advance our careers? One small step is to plan on producing multiple outputs. While producing reports for community partners can be especially satisfying, there’s also a risk that academic publications will languish, especially when there are more opportunities than time.

At CAT Lab, every project is published in at least four ways (see examples on our Research page):

  • A study pre-registration that serves as a full description of the study plan. It’s our agreement with communities and a valuable contribution to the scientific peer review process
  • A public report that we translate into all relevant languages, as part of a conversation with communities about the meaning of our findings
  • An academic pre-print that becomes the basis of peer-reviewed scholarly articles
  • A central archive of all publications and media coverage

By organizing every engaged project so that it can “unfurl” multiple outputs, researchers can serve a public mission while also making progress on our tenure files. If you’re wondering how to plan, Diane Doberneck and Christine Carmichael have created a helpful worksheet for mapping out audiences and planning what to publish (Doberneck & Carmichael 2020).

Uplifting others to influence a field

When I go up for tenure, my university will request reference letters from prominent people across Communication, computer science, and the social sciences. If I want CAT Lab to serve the public interest over the long term, I need those people to tell my university that my record merits tenure. To pass that hurdle, I need to do good work. I also need those people to recognize its value.

Even junior faculty have the power to influence the prominence of others — to showcase transformative scholars who may not yet be recognized widely

Like many other junior scholars, I keep a running list of senior academics who might write tenure letters someday. But it’s not enough to simply try to impress the people who are well-recognized in my field. Even junior faculty have the power to influence the prominence of others — to showcase transformative scholars who may not yet be recognized as widely as they should be.

I am personally happiest when I can advance the work of people who are doing transformative research in the public interest. When I blog a talk, introduce someone to a funder, or invite someone to speak, it’s one of the most beautiful, exciting tools I have to create change — the kind that grows beyond any one person.

The desire for change that grows beyond ourselves is why so many of us chose academia in the first place. We accept a very complicated job in exchange for a long-term strategic position at institutions that uplift others. Since the path to that position can sometimes be complicated for engaged scholars, I hope you find these tips and resources helpful.


Boyer, E. L. (1996). The scholarship of engagement. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 49(7), 18–33.

Beaulieu, M., Breton, M., & Brousselle, A. (2018). Conceptualizing 20 years of engaged scholarship: A scoping review. PloS one, 13(2), e0193201.

Doberneck, D. M., & Carmichael, C. (2020). Unfurling Your Community-Engaged Work into Multiple Scholarly Products. Journal of Community Engagement & Higher Education, 12(3).

Eatman, T. K. (2009). Engaged scholarship and faculty rewards: a national conversation. Diversity and Democracy, 12(1), 18–9.

Ehrenberg, R. G. (2000). Tuition rising. Harvard University Press.

Fitzgerald, H. E., Bruns, K., Sonka, S. T., Furco, A., & Swanson, L. (2012). The centrality of engagement in higher education. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 16(3), 7–28.

Gieryn, T. F. (1983). Boundary-work and the demarcation of science from non-science: Strains and interests in professional ideologies of scientists. American sociological review, 781–795.

Hale, C. R. (2008). Engaging contradictions: Theory, politics, and methods of activist scholarship. Univ of California Press.

Levine, A., Matias, J.N. (2021) How to Generate Research Ideas That Impact Society. InsideHigherEd

Matthew, P. A. (Ed.). (2016). Written/unwritten: Diversity and the hidden truths of tenure. UNC Press Books.

Merton, Robert K. 1973. “The Normative Structure of Science from The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. University of Chicago Press.

Silbey, S. S. (2011). The sociological citizen: Pragmatic and relational regulation in law and organizations. Regulation and Governance, 5(1–13).

Stokes, D. E. (2011). Pasteur’s quadrant: Basic science and technological innovation. Brookings Institution Press.



J. Nathan Matias

Citizen social science to improve digital life & hold tech accountable. Assistant Prof, Cornell. citizensandtech.org Prev: Princeton, MIT. Guatemalan-American