Moving Mid-Career

In the comments to yesterday’s post, Academic Job Search — Know Who Thy Friends Are, reader MidCareerTenured asked a question about upgrading institutions mid-career:

xykademiqz and other: What do you think the chances are for a midcareer tenured scientist to move from a very low ranking research institution to a quality R1? Assume a solid performance in publication and grants on par with an average/good R1 faculty, but nothing spectacular (no Nature/Science or $multimillion grants). Does anyone really sympathize that the effort to get things done in a low ranking institution might turn into much better results in a quality R1? Is it really much harder to move with tenure?

As I told MidCareerTenured, I have no personal experience with moving mid-career. I have had serious “feelers” from several places, including a few fairly formal ones, but I don’t believe in stringing people along when I have no intention of moving right now, so I didn’t accept the interview invitations. Luckily, my department is sensitive to people being courted with outside offers; there are retention funds that are used to  preemptively show appreciation to people who are at a high risk of being recruited away.

However, I can say a few things based on my observation of the people who have either moved from mine to another institution or whom we have recruited after they had become established elsewhere.

In my opinion, it is certainly possible to move laterally or somewhat upward without being a superstar; the question is always what you would bring to the new institution. If you are a respected name and have a niche, you will find a place that wants you, but it may take some time and you probably need to send out some feelers through trusted colleagues. Sometimes, it is about the fit — your expertise may be redundant at one place but sorely lacking at another.

But I would say moving mid-career generally requires that you have an “in,” someone who will champion your case. This is considerably more common than getting interviewed after just applying cold. One reason is that you would have to be brought in with tenure, so colleagues have to commit to spending decades by your side without the acclimating probationary period of the tenure track. That is why it is very important to have someone with a strong interest in bringing you in. For example, there is a person who is being strongly advocated for these days in my department. That person is very good, but I would not say a superstar, yet they have already moved several times in their career (at least 4 or 5), with most of the moves lateral-ish. This person has a whole collective of long-time collaborators in several departments at my university, and these people are jointly putting a lot of pressure on the department and college to make things happen.

If you have been very active at a lower-tier institution, people will be impressed, but I don’t think you can count on them imagining all the wonderful things that you could have done if only you had had more resources.  Instead, I thing I would go for the following mindset: forget that you are at a lower-tier institution. Tell yourself that you are as good as anyone else and these are your technical strengths and this is what you are known and respected for; you deserve to be at  a strong R1. Now, what is it that you bring to institutions that they already don’t have? Often the answer means that you are joining an exisiting strength and are filling a need within that strength. Namely, many strong R1 departments pick several  areas that they want to be leaders in, and then hire to develop those areas to be as strong as possible. Sometimes, a department may have just decided (after some “strategic planning” *shudder*) to start developing a new area, one they previously didn’t have. Usually, such development starts by bringing in someone who’s mid- or even late-career, and ideally someone who has great name recognition. However, not all places are able to afford a superstar. I am not sure what type of place you are at, if you are at a lower-ranked R2, maybe first jump to a top-ranked R2/lower-ranked R1, and there are many very good schools in this group. You could be that productive person who helps them start a program in an area they haven’t had before and really revive their program. Then a few years later upgrade further to a better R1. If you are at a lower-ranked R1, perhaps go for a mid-range R1 first, then even higher after a few years?

Based on what I have observed, ultimately it is about what you bring to the table and where the places are  that have someone who recognizes the importance of what you could bring, and if those colleagues are willing and able (i.e. they have enough gravitas in department) to really go to bat for you.

What say you, blogosphere? Do you have advice for MidCareerTenured on how to move to a better institution mid-career? 


  1. Thank you xykademiqz,

    According to the Wikipedia entry: “List of research universities in the United States”, my university is classified as “high research activity”, which is perhaps R2 in the old system. Our ranking is somewhat in the middle of the pack. The biggest challenge I face is to recruit and retain talented graduate students. They join the group and love the research, the group atmosphere, productivity, but they cannot get over the lack of pedigree. Year 2 and 3 is spend on trying to move, until most realize that they may be better off in here. Honsetly, I cannot blame them.

    There are even more challenges. A funding program manager once told me that he is willing to fund my research as long as it only pays me and my postdocs, assuming that our Ph.D. students are not good enough, else they would have gone to other universities.

    On the plus side, it is relatively easy in such a university to rise to the top and get the attention of the admins with all its benefits.

  2. MidCareerTenured, are you in the physical or biomedical sciences? Can your students get good jobs in industry? Graduate students are a bit of a crapshoot everywhere except at the tippity top places. My department in ranked 14-15 and I know many people complain about students here as well; the average grad student here is not spectacular. But, I am very happy, as I now recruit only from specific schools and it’s working great! Could you work with largely postdocs and techs and maybe undergrads? There are schools where undergrads are way better than grad students.

    There is definitely something to be said for being a big fish in a small pond. I know a couple of people who kicked butt at an R2 and moved to an R1 and continued to kick butt. So it looks like you may just need a colleague to champion you somewhere. But one of the people who did the R2 to R1 move does complain that they had more resources at their disposal at the R2 because they were the administration’s darling…

  3. xykademiqz, I am in the physical sciences. Students have got good jobs in industry, not exactly related to their dissertations, though. Their jobs rely on the problem-solving skills they develop in my group. The quality of graduate students is not a big issue for me. I recruit students that are similar to the average R1 student, but it is very hard to retain them. The typical student is an international one with a very good undergraduate education who comes here because of an RA sponsorship, then decides to leave for greener pastures (top R1) after the first year. Undergrads can be very good though. As for postdocs, it is very hard to get money from certain agencies like NSF. However, I have to combine all suggested tricks and techniques to make sure that the average outcome is success.

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