To many assistant professors, the tenure process is something of a mystery--a black box, waiting to be opened at the end of the probationary period, generally after six years. But while the determining factors may seem out of reach to some, senior scientists and others who have long experience reviewing candidates for tenure say it is hardly necessary to walk on water to win tenure at most colleges and universities.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, all that's necessary, according to physicist and dean of science Robert Birgeneau, is to have "established yourself among the leaders in your field." At Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., chemistry professor Jerry Mohrig says faculty need to demonstrate "first- rate teaching and continuing intellectual vitality." Princeton University's physics department is merely trying "to find people who are better than we are," says professor David Wilkinson.

No matter how they evaluate candidates, faculty who sit...

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