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A Brief Note on Tenure


I don’t like talking about myself (outside discussions of hyper-specific productivity techniques), so I’ll keep this announcement brief…

At some point early on in my graduate student career I set two somewhat arbitrary goals for my academic trajectory: to become a professor by the age of 30 and tenured by the age of 35.

I ended up starting at Georgetown at the age of 29, and earlier this summer I earned tenure at the age of 33 (though I since turned 34).

There are many factors that help fuel an academic career, and many fell outside my direct control.

But reflecting on these past five years, it’s easy for me to identify what was by far the highest ROI activity in my professional life: deep work.

I know I’ve said similar things a million times before. And it’s not sexy. And it’s not a contrarian “hack.”

But in my case, focusing intensely on hard things that people unambiguously value, day after day, week after week, was more or less the whole ball game.

68 thoughts on “A Brief Note on Tenure”

  1. Congrats on getting tenure, Cal! A great example of putting in the necessary time to do the hard work that needs to be done.

  2. Given that the English have terms like “Sir” and “Lord,” while the Germans have their “von,” perhaps academia should come up with a term that could be prefixed before names and means “tenured.”

    Any ideas?

    • As a matter of fact, in Germany, there is no “von”, but a “Prof. Dr.” in front of your last name to indicate that you are a tenured professor. Professors of state universities are civil servants.

      Any civil service position comes with a rank, and therefore, when you put “Prof. Dr.” in front of your name in Germany, it usually means that you are a tenured professor.

      However, there are honorary professors too, and because the title of “professor” is so highly respected in Germany, many honorary professors put “Prof. h.c.” in front of their names too.

      Just teaching classes doesn’t make you a professor in Germany. Even if you are solely responsible for a class, you cannot call yourself “Prof.” unless you are officially made a tenured professor.

      Another way to become a professor is if you are a professional who has been teaching classes at a university for more than 5 years. Then you can put “Prof.” in front of your name, too, if the university officially pronounces you to be a professor.

      Of course, there are endless variations and subtleties, depending on which state you are in, but this description probably covers at least 80% of all tenured professors in Germany.

  3. Congratulations. I’d like to hear how ‘deep work’ sits with the administrative and teaching requirements of your job, do you just plan around them or does your approach help here too? Thanks.

    • Good question. I find teaching, in particular, to be one of the deeper activities of academic life. Prepping lectures is an exercise in concentration. As is giving a sharp lecture (I don’t use slides).

        • It’s a habit I picked up at MIT for teaching anything mathematical. The pace of writing on a blackboard is just slow enough for an observer to process what is being written. This is why, for example, Khan Academy videos are so effective. The need to write down from scratch what is being discussed forces a natural pace. If you put everything fully formed on the slide it’s hard to get the timing right.

  4. Hey, Cal! You are among my favorite bloggers, and I am so proud right now to read that you have reached your very ambitious goals! Congratulations!

  5. Fantastic going! Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and methods on the blog and in your books – all the while working towards your stated aims.

    Outstanding and thankyou once again.

  6. Cal,

    I offer you my heartfelt congratulations! I was rooting for you.

    I respect especially that you openly shared your strategies for success from the beginning.


  7. Congratulations, Cal! As a full professor of microbiology & infectious diseases, I know full well the feeling of achievement and the incredible focus and hard work involved in obtaining tenure.

  8. Hello Carl,
    Congratulations and best wishes to you and your family for not only the hard work you continue to put in your professional and family life but also SHARING with anyone who cares to read from you.

  9. Let me add to those who have said, Congratulations! I don’t work in academia but I have found your advice to be enormously helpful. Thank you for sharing…and leading by example.

  10. Congratulations! Well deserved, I’m sure.

    By the way, your influence in my family is now multi-generational. Not only have I enjoyed and benefited from both “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” and “Deep Work”, but my oldest son just started his freshman year at college, and is working his way through the copies of “How to Win at College” and “How to Become a Straight A Student” that I bought for him. Thank you for the great work you do beyond your “day job”.

  11. Well I know no one needs another congrats post here, but as a person who asked how things had come out in an earlier comment, I certainly must add my congratulations. It is nice to see hard-working people win. Also relieved to know your books and blog and marketing efforts did not distract you from what you university wanted. This news will give you even more credibility than before and of course, it is a no-brainer you are going to do a “how to get tenure” book to cap off your series.

    Keep on trucking!

  12. Congratulations. A remarkable achievement, especially in this tightening academic job market. Great news for the school, and a great validation for your deep work and other theses.

  13. Congratulations Cal! I just gave a lecture to incoming freshmen at my university, where i featured your work prominently as career advice – get good at something rare and valuable. Hopefully it affected the mindset of at least some of the kids in the room!

  14. I’ve followed along in your desire to be tenured, great to hear the news. Thanks to you I’ve had many peaceful hours deeply studying and learning in my area of expertise.

    “Reality, to be controlled, must first be obeyed.”

  15. Congratulations! One thing I wonder (and haven’t read a lot about in the blog), is how you balance being hard to reach with the requirements of running a successful research group. For example, fostering a lab culture, enabling students to help each other, being there for your students when they need help. In my experience (in perhaps more applied computer science), this comes down to having lab meetings, doing dry runs for conference talks, organizing internal reviews for papers, talking regularly (daily) with students to move their projects forward, work on scholarships and publications, etc.. Would love to read more about how you balance this aspect of your job with deep work!

    • It’s a good question. I don’t have a lot of direct experience with this issue as I’m a theoretician, so I don’t run a large research group. We tend instead to collaborate widely internationally.

      But I have done some research into this issue. A technique I’ve observed to be quite successful in science academia is to adapt agile ideas from the tech business world. Scrum, in particular, can work well for structuring interactions in a group.

      • I agree with Cal – Scrum is a good guiding principle for running a lab. A good reference is at

        You can make the Product be something tangible, such as a peer-reviewed manuscript or a conference presentation, and then organize it into several Sprints. One challenge is running several unrelated Sprints at the same time, and keeping on top of each one. I have had varying degrees of success with it, have abandoned it multiple times, but also have come back to it several times.

  16. Huge congrats Cal, well deserved.

    Question: Do you have rough estimates of hours/week of deep work you were averaging since you joined Georgetown till now (tenure)?

    I, in a completely different field (running two small businesses), am averaging 1 – 2 hours a day.

  17. Congratulations Cal. What sets you apart from others who write about time management etc. is that you have a successful life divorced from earning money as a productivity expert. It makes you different (and better) than 95% of everyone else who writes about it – in my unscientific opinion.

  18. Congratulations! Saw this quote from Alexander Hamilton and thought it might resonate with you…
    “Men give me credit for some genius. All the genius I have lies in this; when I have a subject in hand, I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me. My mind becomes pervaded with it. Then the effort that I have made is what people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of labor and thought.”
    ? Alexander Hamilton

  19. Congratulations Cal! It would be great if you could come up with a “Applied Deep Work”.
    The practical companion to “Deep Work”.

    Thanks in advance,

  20. CONGRATULATIONS!!! 🙂 We all knew it was coming eventually. You’re awesome, Cal! Thanks for sharing the good news and also for sharing your strategies for success with us.

  21. Congratulations. I’d like to hear how ‘deep work’ sits with the administrative and teaching requirements of your job, do you just plan around them or does your approach help here too? Thanks.

    I’ve followed along in your desire to be tenured, great to hear the news. Thanks to you I’ve had many peaceful hours deeply studying and learning in my area of expertise.

    Best Regards
    Adam Barton


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