Thoughts on Moving on the Tenure Track

lyra211 had a question after a recent post on moving in academia:

Do you have any sense of whether similar advice applies for lateral moves between liberal arts colleges? I genuinely do love my current department, and would be sad to leave, but there’s pretty much squat for job opportunities for my husband where we live, and I know there’s an impending retirement in a department at a similar liberal arts college in a more desirable geographic location — it would be a significant step up personally, and a lateral move professionally (there are pros and cons of the two institutions that more or less balance each other out). Should I talk to the faculty members I know there, let them know I’m interested, and ask them to keep me in mind? Is it better to wait until they have a job ad out (which will probably be after I have tenure, since I’m in year 5 now), even though it would probably be an ad for an assistant prof and I’d be associate?

There were some good comments after lyra211’s post, go check them out.

Here are some of my thoughts.

Is your department healthy and generally supportive of you? Do you feel they are invested in junior faculty? Are you certain that you’ll get tenure and that the department would work hard to keep you in the face of a competing offer?

Or do you feel that your tenure is uncertain, or that if they heard you were leaving, they’d say “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out”?

My department is of the former kind, and we really work hard to make sure junior folks are happy and productive. I can say for a fact that nobody would begrudge a well-performing faculty member for leaving, especially if there’s a personal reason. It happened a few years ago; a nearly tenured faculty member had to leave as there were no opportunities here for his wife, even after the department, college, and the provost’s office have tried everything under the sun. (In fact, there were options, but she wouldn’t settle for a career downgrade, and kudos to her, so the husband moved to the big city where she had plenty of business connections.) It was a bit sad, but everyone understood and was supportive in the end.

A few years ago, we brought a pre-tenure faculty member in from another institution. She did get a retention offer from her original place but didn’t take it. Both places went out for tenure letters for her at the same time. A few years later, a senior faculty member from the original institution wrote nice letters for awards for her. Successful people appreciate other successful people and understand ambition, as well as other reasons for which people move.

I’ve also been on searches where a current assistant prof applies because he/she wants to upgrade or get access to certain facilities or collaborators. It’s common in the cover letters of applications to ask the search committee not to disclose to the candidate’s current institution that the candidate is looking elsewhere  until or unless he/she becomes a finalist. I personally like to see applications of successful people on the tenure track, as they ideally already have some papers and grants under their belt.

However, if you feel that your department has ill-willed, vindictive folks in it, or that for whatever reason your tenure is not a shoo-in, it might be a good idea to wait until after tenure.

But, in any case, there is no harm in discreetly and non-committally talking with friends or trusted colleagues outside the institution about how your department is great, but that the opportunities for your husband are limited, and that in principle you’d be open to thinking about other schools somewhere down the road that would solve his career problem. You can also say that you are up for tenure and don’t want to jeopardize that, but who knows what future holds. I am hoping they’ll get the hint. I don’t think anyone is naive enough (although maybe some are evil enough) to go ask your current colleagues about you unless you’ve given an OK to contact them.

Overall, it really depends on how the department culture and your standing within it are.

If you are a superstar, the department is healthy with many successful people, then they’ll see your desire to move as a natural career step. They will try to keep you because you’re a valuable colleague and an asset to the department, but people should not take it personally, as some sort of treason, that you have your own life and decisions to make, which might take you elsewhere.

If the department has a cult-like feel (you must belong… or else…) or for whatever reason you are made to feel that your tenure isn’t certain, I’d wait till tenure (since you’re already close) and then promptly split. You probably don’t want to stay in this type of department longer than necessary anyway.

But other people should know to be discreet, or should if you explicitly tell them; if they are not, they are most definitely not your friends.

4 comments

  1. I wondered if you could help me with a dilemma. I’m currently a postdoc and at the outset of my postdoc started working in an area that is woefully underresearched in a specific population of people – like literally only two people are doing this kind of research, but they don’t have the sample I have to really do it justice. I was super excited when I found this area because it seemed like it could really help me establish a strong program of research in a space where few people were working (but that is critically important), and I got an F32 to support my work. My mentor has been increasingly becoming interested in this area and is now writing an R01 to fund a study basically overlapping my work and using novel methods I had planned to do in my NIH K (which my mentor knows bc my K is drafted already).

    I have expressed concerns about this on multiple occasions, but they don’t see the issue. I’m worried because if that grant is funded, I will no longer have a clear independent area of research. I’m worried because any postdocs or students they take on will be then working in my area. I’m worried because my mentor is asking other people to work on projects in this area with them – whereas I had previously been taking the lead on all projects in this area of research. Finally, my mentor is communicating with experts who focus on this area of research in other populations. I had connected with these people with the idea that they could be collaborators for me – but instead my mentor is having them be consultants on their grant, and having phone calls with them to learn more about this area, but not even including me (and it could have been a really good training opportunity for me).

    Also (sorry, this is long!) – I am writing a foundation grant extending my research. My mentor said last night they wanted to do a presentation this summer that is exactly what I am proposing in Aim 2 of this grant. My mentor knows this bc they have read drafts of the application. They just don’t see this as an issue.

    I feel like I need to change my area of research because I just won’t be able to argue that I am an independent researcher when I apply for a K – and I am frankly so upset by this it is affecting our relationship. But part of the issue is that I am right at the beginning of a 3-year F32 focusing on this area of research – and just starting to establish myself in this area of research (one pub and a few presentations). I’ve been assured I’m not overreacting to this (although my emotional reactions aren’t helpful) by another mentor – but talking to my current mentor just is doing nothing. And they are so immersed in this literature now that there is no way they won’t apply for the R01 (and I am pretty sure it will be funded). Any help would be more than welcome.

  2. Thanks for this thorough and detailed advice — I really appreciate it!

    I do think that my department is generally a healthy and functional place. More so than any other department I’ve ever been in, certainly. There are only three other faculty members, though, and I know that my hypothetical departure would create real logistical problems (especially since one is close to retirement) — for that reason, I would feel guilty, and I would understand if they were miffed even if they understood my reasons for leaving and wished me well personally (which I think they would). I’m going through my fifth year review now, so I think I’ll probably wait to see how that goes before doing anything. My other reviews have been extremely positive, and I am pretty certain that I am exceeding tenure standards in both research and teaching according to my university’s criteria. (For example, my teaching evaluations are highest in the department, and my h-index is one below my next-most-senior colleague, and one above my next-next-most-senior colleague.) But I’m also worried about missing an opportunity at this other place, if their senior person retires sooner rather than later. Still, my husband’s job situation is stable for now, and I’d hate to do anything to jeapordize my tenure case.

    It’s good to know the bit about cover letters asking not to disclose to colleagues unless the applicant is a finalist — I’m not sure I would have known that it was OK/common to include a statement like that in a cover letter. I do trust the person I would contact at the potential new institution, though it wouldn’t hurt to be explicit that I would want her to be discreet. The weird thing in my case is that my department is part of a sort of meta-department that includes this other institution, so all the faculty are in pretty close contact and meet in person annually if not more often. So there would be lots of opportunities for something to slip. All the more reason to be extra-cautious until my tenure case is through, I suppose.

    Anyway, thanks again for picking up on this and offering more advice. It’s been really helpful. I’ve been stewing over this for a while, and it’s awesome to hear from someone who’s been on the other end of cases like this.

  3. Everyone who’s asked a question to be answered in a blog post: if I haven’t already written a post based on your question, I intend to. In order to try to keep track of what I have yet to write, I have re-posted your comment to the comment section of the original November Daily Blogging post (see top of the RHS menu). If I haven’t yet posted on your topic and your comment has not been reposted in the comment section of the November Daily Blogging post, it means I have inadvertently missed it, so please go ahead and request your topic in those comments again. I don’t want to miss anything, but I’m only human. Thanks!

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