From the Archives: On Moving in Academia

Originally appeared here.

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LTR asked: I’ve heard that men get outside offers all the time, but women rarely do, leading to huge discrepancies in pay and prestige at R1s that go all in on retention and poaching. At least that’s what our provost says. How does one solicit outside offers? Especially if one kind of wants/needs to leave…

Related: I’ve also seen people switch departments at various places I’ve been, usually from a dysfunctional one to a better one in an overlapping field. How does that happen? Dry appointment first?

Are these things different pre- and post-tenure?

I wrote about this a little bit a few years ago here. I know there were other posts, too, but I can’t be bothered to look now.

I am not sure that women get fewer offers than similar-quality men, but it may be that they don’t really advertise all the offers or jump to take advantage of them like men do.

A few years ago, I was on the merit review committee that went over all annual reports. I have seen a number of male faculty report as “outside offers” what I would never imagine of reporting—unofficial feelers from various institutions, where they basically throw it out there to see if you are at all amenable to moving. It would never even occur to me to mention it in an annual report unless I could document the interest (e.g., invitation to apply to a chair professorship or similar). Yet, some other people routinely mention these non-offer offers to powers that be in order to build the appearance of being a hot commodity. It does work. Deans and provosts seem to be very sensitive to a perception of being a flight risk.

There are certainly differences between hotshot and not-so-hot faculty, but I don’t think these split along gender lines. In fact, I’d say that a female superstar in a male-dominated field is likely to receive frequent offers to move. We have a couple of such women, and they do not lack attention. I don’t consider myself a superstar, yet I get pinged reasonably often, but I don’t want to make everyone spend weeks or months on my retention package when I never intended to move for real. But my department is quite proactive about showing people love preemptively (merit raises, professorships, etc.), so that definitely helps.

If you want to leave, it depends on seniority. Right after tenure is a great time to leave, especially if you’ve been very productive, as is anything before year four on the tenure track. Afterwards it gets harder, and effects of kids and house and family are more of a hindrance.

If you are junior (on the TT) and willing to move, apply, similar how you did the first time around. Ideally, with an invitation, but not necessarily. I see many applications from good second or third-year profs who want to upgrade or simply find a better match.

If you are close to tenure, and your record is not obviously awesome, some people might think you’re applying because you think you won’t get tenure. Not a great situation. But before year 4 on the TT and after tenure is generally OK. Even years 5-6 on the TT are OK if your record is strong, and some people apply to sweeten the deal or rush tenure at home. (I personally hate anyone who wastes everyone’s time to get a real, full offer as leverage, without ever seriously considering moving.)

After tenure, if junior, you can certainly still apply cold, but it’s always better to have an in through a trusted colleague. Use your network of colleagues and collaborators. Let them know informally that you are movable and would be interested if there were openings in your area. When you go to give talks, communicate your interest to the hosts. Most ‘feelers’ come when you go somewhere to give a talk. People will let you know if they hear something.

And never badmouth your current department. You can always say it’s not the right fit and you are looking for a better one, that you’d like more options for this or that. Generally, never cite a negative reason (e.g., things are bad) but instead a positive reason (e.g., you are looking for growth, improvement, opportunities).

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Related: I’ve also seen people switch departments at various places I’ve been, usually from a dysfunctional one to a better one in an overlapping field. How does that happen? Dry appointment first?

I have not seen people switch tenure homes completely from being 100% in one to 100% in another one, but I have seen them be hired into something like a 25-75 position, then move to a 50-50 or 75-25 split in their duties over the course of years. I would assume it’s possible to start by having an engaged, enthusiastic zero-time appointment, which then becomes a nonzero percentage, i.e., includes some real commitment to teach or do service. The new department would be willing to give up a faculty line or its fraction for you, whom you already have on campus, instead of bringing in someone else. I think it’s doable, but has the potential to sour the relationships between departments, so how lightly one has to tread really depends on local politics. The good news is that people are often willing to do more to help assistant professors in dysfunctional situations than they are for senior folks.

If I were to summarize, it would be that you have to use your network to gather information informally, feel the lay of the land, and then proceed quickly and as dispassionately as you can.

Blogosphere, what do you say? 

6 comments

  1. I would disagree with this to some extent. Certainly, the rock star female faculty in my area would find open doors anywhere they might want to move, likely a bit more so than the rock star male faculty. But for those in my area who are good but not hotshots, conversations with colleagues coupled with my own experience lead me to believe that men are offered these types of opportunities much more often than women. Or else I am REALLY BAD at noticing when someone is making an oblique inquiry about my move-ability, but I don’t think so. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because one such opportunity has come up and I’m not really looking to move but there are some things I might be able to improve upon in my current situation. Like xykademiqz, I don’t want to waste everyone’s time (and my time) with offers and counteroffers. But this collegiality takes its toll salary and resource wise.

    I’ll also note that at my institution, administration has been frowning upon inter-institutional department moves. This type of internal poaching can be costly for the departments that lose faculty and they generally don’t want to reimburse for the loss. I’ve seen it happen when a superstar is unhappy in their home department and will leave if not allowed to switch, and also when a new college/department is formed and faculty move to the new unit.

  2. My perspective on this is skewed because my field is more than 80% male, and three of us are quite junior so it’s not really an operative concept yet. I hear of senior faculty getting offered chair positions and the like from other institutions, but they are usually men because that’s who’s in senior leadership currently.

    We do have some senior faculty that were poached from other departments internally, and they are wonderful. We are so lucky to have them. If the original department wanted to keep them, they should have kept them happier.

    Thanks for writing about this, x. I am learning the game as I go!

  3. My tenured spouse has been applying for (and interviewing for) positions elsewhere basically on my behalf (I will be unemployed in a couple years when my position ends!) and it has stirred the pot here, via the administration, in a very dramatic fashion.

    The department switching thing is, of course, not possible at very small colleges like where I am. In grad school there were 25 different biology/biochemistry departments but here there’s one.

  4. I changed departments (from computer engineering to biomolecular engineering) by being one of the founding members of the new department. There was more paperwork in changing departments than in an initial hire, but not quite as much as the paperwork for creating the department (and even that was less than the paperwork for creating a new grad program).

    We have seen a few other faculty change departments, generally because of toxic relationships within the original department. We’ve even had a few move to not be in any department, but directly under the dean (in some cases because no department would tolerate them, and in others because they could not tolerate any department).

  5. A male colleague and I (we are both junior) have about the same number of pubs, similar national recognitions, I’ve gotten more NIH grants and he has more media attention. Anyway, he has received poaching attempts, I never have. I do think he is way better at networking than me, however.

  6. wally: Yes, a lot of it is about perceived coolness, for lack of a better word. For a superstar female faculty member in my department, one senior colleague said, “She makes you want to be on her team.” I don’t know how or if it’s even possible to intentionally cultivate that charisma, but it’s a real factor in success, and contributes to being sought after. FWIW, I am not particularly charismatic myself (quite the opposite, in fact). I’ve seen those who are in action, and it’s a sight to behold. Unfortunately, the flip side is charming people with rather unremarkable records sometimes end up being regarded like the second coming and afforded coveted opportunities. There’s only so much one can do there, though. It’s not like I can get a personality transplant, but I can write more and better papers.

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