Reader Question: Switching Departments Within an Institution

Reader PT (pre-tenure) has a question:

Has anyone switched departments within the same institution, say pre-tenure? I was hired as part of a multi-unit search, matched to two, and shunted to one for political reasons. Now the department has known issues, and my research interests better match the other unit, which is the background for my training. They are also much larger, have actual procedures and distributed responsibility.

Wise and worldly academic readers, what do you say?

8 comments

  1. I have seen several colleagues switch departments. It’s always been very clear it was the right choice and all people involved were happy with the change. In one case, a faculty had been in Department X (which really doesn’t do field Y), was getting no love from Department X, and switched departments to Department Y. (He has since retired, but switched as a full professor.) In another one, Department A had a person as a non-tenure track and Department B wanted her as tenure track. (She is now an associate professor with tenure). In the third case, the person was a joint hire between two departments (across two dean-level “schools”) and collapsed his hire to one department on becoming a full professor because he couldn’t run a center with a joint appointment across two schools.

    I would say it depends on a case-by-case basis. In my experience, I would defer to the experience of politically savvy leaders in your institution (such as your new department head) who will have to make it work with the other powers-that-be.

  2. I have seen several people switch departments, though the bureaucracy involved can get intimidating. I’m not in the department I was originally hired in, because I was part of the founding faculty for a new department. For that matter, the department I was originally hired into just got reorganized into two other departments (both of which were more dysfunctional that the department that was disbanded). Others have moved to try to better match their research interests and teaching responsibilities, or to avoid a toxic relationship between members of the same department.

    Of course, changing departments doesn’t change who you are, so may not solve all problems, but it may be worth pursuing if the improvement in environment is sufficient to justify the bureaucratic hassle. The difficulty in changing departments varies a lot from institution to institution (depending on such things as who controls which departments get to hire and who has to provide resources like office space). Find out from people not in either department what the local obstacles are likely to be.

  3. I have a colleague who wanted to transfer to another department (because our dept head was horrifically toxic), the other department really wanted her – but the Dean refused to let her do so. She then ended up leaving the university.

  4. I did this, about 17 years ago. I would not recommend switching based on my experience.

    My original appointment was tenure-track assistant prof at an R1 in a clinical department with an adjunct appointment in a basic science department. I asked to be switched after 4 years from primary in the clinical dept to primary in the basic science dept because 1) the new research division I was hired into did not materialize, and 2) the big shot faculty they hired to head the new research division turned out to be a major narcissist unethical incompetent nightmare. He was eventually fired/forced out 10 years after his hire, but I saw it early and I also clashed with him despite my best efforts. I didn’t want to go down with that ship so I decided to try to switch departments. My Dean was agreeable to my request to switch departments because he already knew he had a major problem with the big shot. The Chair of my basic science department was also agreeable to this switch (he said he was anyway) because I was doing a ton of their teaching at the time.

    I was thankfully successful in the end in that I was easily tenured after my switch and have had a nice career here for a couple decades, but my success was in spite of 2 strong negatives that arose from my department switch: 1) I had to switch to terrible too-small lab space in my new department and although they promised I would get better space “soon” that did not happen and I now realize this will never happen. 2) I have persistently been regarded by some faculty/gossip in my new department as an “outsider” (for decades!), because I wasn’t one of “their” recruits. I have been successful with funding and publishing and so on, and apparently some faculty have been jealous and I’m an easy target. I’m using “their” space, faculty salary, students, postdoc desk space, etd. Also unfortunately I have realize that my Chair of my new department was not as supportive of my switch in reality as he led me to believe. He promised support/space he did not/could not deliver. Some of the jealous comments and negativity and resentment I have actually traced to him. This subtle negativity and lack of support in my new department have built up over the years and sadly reduces my enthusiasm for my colleagues. I have taken on tons of faculty service/teaching to try to “prove” I belong, but it hasn’t worked.

    So maybe it would have been different if my new Chair was more supportive? Anyway, with the benefit of hindsight, I believe I should have just left and looked for a job at another University. I’m doing so now actually….

  5. Does the move involves two separate colleges? Say from physics to ECE in a university where these are under different Deans? Moving within a college is a lot easier, but I have seen successful cases in both.

  6. I say secure the approval of the Dean(s) and get alllllll the details of your new deal in writing. (What are the tenure expectations, when are you up, what physical resources and space are they giving you, etc.)

    But also remember that departments develop problems spontaneously all the darn time and consider who would have to retire or quit to make your current department okay. I’m not saying it will ever be okay – maybe it won’t! – but things change. Example: I was planning to quit my job the week before the semester started purely to spite the chair. Then the chair left unexpectedly! Joy and excitement! Meanwhile the department hemorrhaged 25% of their TT faculty but now it’s more or less okay? And then the other department I work for, their chair just announced his retirement and it’s not clear who will inherit the stuff Next Chair has been doing (well, and peacefully, for years) and it’s all gonna be on fire for the next 2-3 years.

  7. I’ve seen many people switch departments, some work out well and others not as well. Post-tenure, switching seems to be less risky. You’ve already been “stamped” as proficient at your job and you’re less vulnerable to departmental politics. Pre-tenure, one needs to consider all the potential outcomes, which can be very challenging to see ahead of time. I strongly agree with another poster above, talk to senior leaders from other departments at your university. There are likely other unseen things to consider (e.g. does the new department need to somehow pay back the old department for your start-up package, will you need to be assigned new space, will the old department lose a tenure billet, etc.) that might impact your decision. Another option that might be a possibility is to begin aligning yourself with the new department is a less formal way. Is is possible to get a 0% or courtesy appointment in the other department? Or could you get some of your classes cross-listed? This might allow you to more easily recruit their students and to interact with their faculty. Finally, if you don’t already know, find out how your T&P committee will be put together. At my university, T&P committees must have members from outside the home department. So if you have a natural ally in the second department, do they have the political savvy to get placed on your T&P if you stay in your current department?

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