Feelers

I have been a professor for nearly 10 years. I am good at what I do and respected within my community, as small as it is. I am well-funded, although that’s always a temporarily accurate statement. As I do theory and computation, I don’t bring in oodles of money, but I have always been able to support a viable research group of between 6 and 10 people. I publish in well-respected society journals, interspersed with some high-profile papers. My students are good and have been able to get good jobs after graduation. We look at interesting problems and publish papers that I would like to think are original, insightful, and well-written. I am successful, but I don’t think I am wildly successful. I would not classify myself as a hot commodity. Perhaps only a hot-as-a-hot-shower commodity, say 100-110 degrees Fahrenheit.

Yet, over the past few years I have been getting “feelers” from other institutions with increasing frequency. Usually it goes along the lines of me going to give a talk and then several people asking me if I am happy where I am and what my husband does and if I would consider moving/leaving my university. I used to think people were just making conservation; I was very naive. Nobody ask you about your happiness and well-being unless they are your mother, a close personal friend, or they have a very good and far-from-selfless reason to ask.

So far the feelers have been from places that would present a lateral or even a slightly downward professional move, but with potentially a lot of money. A few came from places that are in a growth mode. In contrast, my current place is good, but uncomfortably stagnant. Declining state support has everyone tightening their belts, wondering what comes next. The college has lost a number of successful mid-career faculty.

For me, the biggest reason for not considering moving at this time is my family.  If it were up to me alone, I would move. I hate the freakin’ weather where I am now, the endless winters, and I would honestly move for the sunshine alone (several recent feeler places are in very warm locales, such as the one I am visiting at present). Another reason is that, as much as I have been willing myself to love the city I live in, I just don’t. We don’t really have good friends here like we do, for instance, where my PhD alma mater is (yes, I got a feeler from them, too). Have I mentioned the endless cold weather where I am now? I know, it sounds very shallow even considering moving for the climate, but I will ask you how you feel about it after you have been snowed in for 6 fuckin’ months. We had a new snow fall snow earlier this week. (Note: DH greatly prefers cold to hot; DH may be crazy.) As for friends, we have several couples whom we see on occasion, but I doubt any of them would be shattered if we left. We are situational friends — friends only because life threw us together, not because we are particularly compatible or drawn to one another — and, after 10 years here, it’s likely that situational friends are all we will have. They are basically someone to kill a bit of time with, but nothing deep by any stretch. We are too foreign, too accented, and too godless for the locals, so we are not even bothering any more with anyone whom we don’t know from work.

But with crappy cold weather come good public schools for my children. And my children have their friends and their memories tied to this place; they have real childhood friends here. I have a colleague who’s from a fairly traditional culture who says that his kids get no say in what he does professionally; if he gets a good offer and decides to move, they move, end of story; he says he doesn’t care what the kids think or feel about the ordeal. With my eldest starting high-school, I could not bear to destroy the comfortable life he has now by moving; he is such a happy, well-adjusted  kid, and I think moving him cross-country would hurt him.

I would love for the place where I am now to become a place I am content with both professionally and personally. It’s a very good place professionally, but it could be better. For instance, after I had visited my alma mater, I was reminded how nice it was to have several faculty in the same area, who could collaborate and go for bigger grants and even take care of each other’s students. I remember loving the fact that I was part of a large, probably 30-student group of all these different professors together when I was in graduate school. In contrast, my students are somewhat isolated, in that there is no one else at my current place of employment who does work similar to mine. While I can have my pick of experimental collaborators, being the only one is quite limiting — I don’t have the bandwidth to do all the things I could potentially do. It’s also quite taxing on me that I am the only source of technical knowledge in my subarea. Where I went to school, there were several professors and a much wider variety of courses was offered between the 3-4 of them; here, it’s just me. And being that I am a well-liked teacher, I end up teaching undergrads a lot. Which does actually shaft my grad students, as the graduate courses they need just don’t get offered if I don’t teach them, and these days I rarely do.

On the other hand, there are many good experimentalists where I work now, and they bring in money, and the money raises the profile of the place, which in turn brings in good students. Indeed, the students here are pretty good, both undergrads and grads. Or, I should perhaps rephrase — one can hand-pick very good students here, those who have a good background in math and physics, and are motivated — and these students come for the school’s name.

If I didn’t have a family, I would move someplace warmer, where there are other people doing what I do and where they would pay me a lot. Actually, if it were just me, I would probably move every 4-5 years, as I tend to get very restless. But I have a husband who is very happy with his job, kids who are very happy with their schools and friends and one of whom would be devastated to move. I could potentially move in 3-4 years, as the eldest starts college and the middle one (who is currently very much on board with moving to someplace with hot weather) starts middle school. But even so, I feel heartbroken — even if just in theory — for my eldest to not be able to see his childhood friends when he comes back home during college.

This whole feeler business and the possibilities of going someplace are making me restless; they are enticing, and possibly even more enticing since I can’t really act on any of them. I don’t want to make the people interview me formally and give me offers when I know I am tied down (although plenty of people do precisely this, make the other institution interview and make a formal offer just to get leverage with their home institution; I think it’s douchey to do unless you are seriously considering moving). I am not unhappy or unproductive where I am; the feelers don’t come from the places that would be a blatantly obvious step up (do you hear it, MIT and Stanford? I am still waiting), i.e. they are not something nobody in their right mind would miss. There is no pressing reason to move, except my restlessness, dislike of cold, and a lack of good friends. There are reasons to not move, such as uprooting my family from a good situation, which includes good public schools and a solved two-body problem, for essentially no reason.

Yet, I wonder…

What say you, blogosphere? Is it hopelessly shallow to want to move for the weather and because you just don’t feel love for your place of employment? Should I just target to move in 3-4 years and let people know that’s when I will be available for wooing, and in the meantime just work my butt off? Should I just take a chill pill and bury my head deep into work and not concern myself with foolishness, waiting for the global warming to bring tropical heat to my cold cold place?

Ah, possibilities. And at the same time, impossibilities.

23 comments

  1. These schools are willing to offer you more money, yes? And you have a son getting close to college age, yes?

    Not saying that you’re making the wrong choice, just saying that if you want to consider anything beyond what you outlined, that’s something to think about.

  2. For what it is worth, I moved across the ocean shortly before starting high school. While I was *extremely* upset about getting displaced at the time, I got over it after a while and ended up being very happy in high school. When I went home to visit my parents in college, I happily scheduled in time for visits with my friends…

  3. I’ve been in your shoes. I also don’t think it is right to put everyone to all that hard work interviewing, negotiating just to increase your salary where you are. So I haven’t done that, even when I had the opportunity – instead I turned them down outright once I did the interview and realized that job was not going to be right for me. But most folks say that is stupid. I guess I have too much integrity.

    One thing to realize though is that it just gets harder and harder to leave the longer you stay. For one, you get promoted to the top levels and there are only just so many of those types of jobs available.

    However, they are available if you are willing to go into administration – which I am not (I’m a researcher through and through). If you do want to leave, one good way to do it is through administration. Those types of jobs open up all over, all the time. You’d have a much better chance at moving late in your career if you choose this path. To do that, you need to put yourself in a position to be competitive – in our case we have rotating Chair positions, so if I really wanted to leave, being Chair for a term would give me more experience and make it MUCH easier to choose other options in other parts of the country.

    I had another opportunity this year to leave but I killed it in the bud because of quality of life issues. In that case, earning more money (lots more) wasn’t worth it to me because of many other negatives, including location. So I think you DO need to take all those things into consideration – your kids, your husband, the weather, housing, K-12 schools, etc. I happen to have a job in one of those warm places and it has been a big factor in my NOT leaving.

    I recommend that you just keep working your butt off, as per usual, and just keep your eyes and ears open. When the right position opens up, you can take it. If the timing isn’t quite right there still may be ways to work around it. They may be willing to wait a year for you, you might be able to live apart for a year, while your husband stays and gets one or more kids through an important year in school, or some combination of different creative solutions.

    But if you close your mind to such opportunities because the timing isn’t perfect right now, such opportunities might not come again. There usually is a way to work it out. go for it!

  4. I moved for the weather (among other things) the last time I changed institutions in 1986.

    Having alternated for a while between nasty weather and good weather (East Lansing, Michigan; Palo Alto, California; Ithaca, New York; Santa Cruz, California), I can assure you that weather does make a difference. Cultural differences between northern California and the midwest or east coast can also be pretty big.

    The last time I moved was before I married. It would be difficult to move me now (if for no other reason, I’d have to clean out the 28-year collection of junk in my house).

  5. I agree with everything annon said.

    Having just moved from “crappy town we tried to pretend wasn’t crappy” with situational friends, a place that you love with people who share your worldview makes all the difference in quality of life!!

    Granted we had (and still have) an unsolved 2 body problem…but even if we didn’t, the quality of life difference is worth it to us…

  6. So this is a timely post as my SO and I (who have a solved 2-body problem) have also started to receive potential feelers (all at places that are a good to significant step up). We’re not as far along as you career-wise and those feelers haven’t materialized into anything yet, though I’ve noticed that people, even people that have moved, are cagey about how it actually works. That is, one gets feelers and then, seemingly suddenly, one gets an offer. Or an interview. Or a talk becomes an interview. It’s all very confusing and probably made more so by our 2-body problem.

    All that said, we are now contemplating a possible move to a place with, ironically, the same crummy weather. There is still room for it to not work out but I was very interested in reading some of the issues you have thought about when thinking about moving.

  7. While of course it’s hard for kids to move, I feel like moving as a kid is good for you. I’m sure you will still consider your childrens’ needs when you move – good schools, safe outdoor play areas, etc. Especially if your son hasn’t started HS yet, this might be an ideal time to consider relocating. Kids will make new friends, and if you’re happier and making more money, that can’t be a bad thing.

  8. I see what you are saying. Weather in your part of the country is terrible and for some (like my wife) it can be a potential problem. I also know that moving with a family ( even though we only have one kid who is 1 year old) is a big pain.

  9. I still remember when my academic father informed me that we were leaving our southern state school for an international location. It was halfway through my first year of high school. I threatened to stay with a friend and go to boarding school, but my parents would have none of my theatrics and after three months in my new location I was very happy. I missed my friends, but I made new ones and got some great experiences. It is definitely difficult moving children in their late teens, but it generally works out just fine.

  10. Since you asked…
    No, Sure, meh. 🙂

    Btw, we forced my sister to go to private school for high school 45 min away from our town. She made new friends and is a dedicated alumna. Kids are pretty resilient. (Also I went to boarding school for most of high school, but that was my choice rather than forced on me.)

  11. I moved after a little over 20 years at an institution in a much better climate to someplace with a way better department and better resources (though we too had that snowfall earlier in the week). It has been hugely invigorating, and I am really glad I did it, but the “situational friends” issue is an interesting one. I had some good friends where I was, but not many, and for various reasons didn’t see much of most of them. But now, even though I see the potential for more and deeper friendships, it is hard to make these happen. People get set in their social ways, and though I don’t feel excluded by anyone, and have had some wonderful interactions, it’s just not like moving someplace as an assistant professor when the expectation is that you will have peers who are in the same boat.

    On the other hand, I don’t have kids, and my husband complains about the winter but was supportive of the move (the university here did a great job of accommodating both of us).

  12. If you let it be known in casual conversations at conferences, word might get around quicker and another bigger uni might hear of it…

  13. Only leave if the opportunity is perfect. It sounds like you’d actually be leaving behind a lot of good things. I wouldn’t worry about the kid thing though. They’re still young enough where it won’t matter (seriously, how many friends from middle school to people talk to…me=zero). If these aren’t perfect then keep working hard like you normally do and eventually the perfect opportunity will pop up. Though it already sounds like going to your alma mater is a good fit. If your DH can find work easily, then jump on it! The kids will be fine. Might actually be better because they will experience more.

  14. The way I’d think about this is, “what would another place have to offer to make it worth it to me to move, considering all the various professional and personal aspects?” You might even be able to involve your kids in the conversation (on their own levels). On the one hand, you don’t want to transfer anxiety to them with constant “what if” scenarios, but on the other… isn’t it possible your kids would also like to live somewhere warm, and might not mind the prospect of living in a bigger city and/or making new friends? If you know what you would want/need, then next time you get a conversational feeler, you can do a bit of that back… feeling out the relevant aspects of that place and what it might be able to offer. Don’t be held back by thinking that you aren’t a “super-hot” commodity. You have a job. Your job is good. You’re not even sure you want to move. So if it turns out the other place doesn’t want to offer what would make it worth it for you to move… well then, no problem! This is pretty much the best position possible to be in, in terms of stress-free investigation of options.

  15. I know (and you have at times written) that at times, it may seem that R1’s value grant $$ above all else in faculty searches, hence your feeling you are not a super-hot commodity. But *you* don’t value $$ above all else. (If that’s what you valued, you’d be out doing something else, something that rakes in lots of cash.) So sure… any particular department / search committee / institution that primarily emphasizes grant money may not be super keen on hiring you, but there may well be other scenarios / situations in which there is a better match in values, and they would put a very high value on your hire. For example, I hear there is at least one extremely prestigious applied math department (that will remain nameless) that actually *discourages* (at least pre-tenure) faculty members from seeking grant money, as math students are all supported on TA and writing proposals is thought to be a distraction. I’m not saying you want your students to TA for their whole PhD, but it does illustrate the point that local cultures vary. If you know what you strongly believe in and value, you can see if these other places sending feelers would be a better match for you.

  16. You wrote about this in a previous post at the old blog, so I’m going to venture a likely unpopular theory: your family would be fine if you moved and undoubtedly happy that you’re happier. But you are using them as an excuse not to take a risk and venture into the unknown after 10 yrs at your current place. I could be wrong, o.c. — you certainly know your loved ones better than I. But I have to wonder…. (Apologies if this ends up really pissing you off; it’s not my goal.)

  17. I am the other half of nicoleandmaggie. I desperately wish someone would head-hunt me. Seriously, y’all, I’m right here! Send those feelers, c’mon!

    Also I sort of agree with Ann above, in that your kids might take it better than you think, especially if you yourself are happier in a new place.

  18. I personally wouldn’t move for the weather, but I’ve thought about moving because lack of friends. It does seem like my closest friends always move away…but we have family here, and that would be rough.

    We moved from Minneapolis back to Fargo right when the older son began high school. He still keeps in touch with a couple of his best friends from Minneapolis. (Cell phones with unlimited texting are awesome.) I wish I could say he made some friends here, but not really. On the other hand, he’s starting college next fall, and I have the feeling that will help with the friend issue. Still, he’s doing fine right now, and his best friend is thinking he’ll come up here for school next year.

    I guess I’d check with your oldest and see if he has any desire to go to school at the places that send out feelers. There’s a lot to be said for tuition waivers. 🙂

  19. Just reiterating what others have said above – yes, a move as a kid is a little painful at the time, but it is far from destructive to your overall happiness. It’s not like you can live down the street from your childhood friends for your whole life, and experiencing different world views (and weather) while still pretty resilient is a positive growth experience. I moved once in grade school and again (from CT to AZ) before my senior year in high school. The first one was barely noticeable for my 10 year old self – sure, I missed my friends, but I made new friends. The second one was honestly one of the best experiences of my life and one for which I will be eternally thankful – it totally blew my mind and changed my thinking. Best teachers I had were there, met my best friend there. Moving is not a punishment for kids.

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  21. I say go. (I am also in the mod to go.) If you are thinking about it this much, it is what you secretly want…

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