Mid-Career Moves

For academics wondering how to best approach the job market further along in their career, Jennifer Lundquist and Joya Misra offer some advice.

February 9, 2017
 
Istock/AndreyPopov
 

Advice abounds for new Ph.D.s about how to approach the job market, yet guidance is harder to find for tenured mid-career faculty members. Even if you are lucky enough to have landed a tenure-track job and earned tenure, it does not mean that the institution is a good fit. For those of you puzzling over how the job market may be different when you are further along in your career, we offer some advice.

There is less information about the tenured job market in part because jobs at advanced levels are considerably less common than pre-tenure positions (not to mention the flourishing market in underpaid adjunct faculty positions). Indeed, some assistant professors go on the job market to avoid becoming a “lifer” at their current institution. But even though job mobility is more constrained at the middle and senior stages of academic careers, advanced positions do exist.

Before you go on the job market, it’s first worth asking yourself why. If you are happy and feel valued where you are but need additional resources, such as a spousal hire or higher salary, you may be in a position to ask for it in exchange for not going on the market.  Some colleges and universities have preemptive policies in place to prevent their most productive faculty from looking elsewhere.

But the routine usually plays out differently, with counter offers forthcoming only after an outside offer has been made. Thus, you should only apply to jobs you would seriously consider taking -- not just to drive up your salary. It can be demoralizing if the counter offer does not materialize and your dean high-fives you with, “What a great offer; you should take it!”

You should also know that tenured job searches differ from the conventional new Ph.D. search. In general, it is a less stressful process. At this point in your career, the stakes are considerably lower than they were when you were just starting out. With a secure job to fall back on, the desperation factor that often accompanies a first job search is significantly diminished.

You now also have a better sense of what kind of workplace suits you, while being able to wait for the right job in the right location (although it may not feel this way if your current workplace or location is deeply unpleasant). And you have a proven record at this point in your career, no longer needing to convince search committees of your potential -- though of course, this comes with an expectation that you have maintained productivity post-tenure. 

All that said, departments exact greater scrutiny around collegiality when hiring for a position that comes with tenure. No department wants to get stuck for life with someone who turns out to be a toxic force (hence, one chair’s endorsement of The No Asshole Rule in his department’s hiring decisions).  This brings us to our next point and some other recommendations when embarking on a mid-career job search.

Don’t be an arrogant jerk. Just because you have less to lose doesn’t mean you can rest on your laurels. While that should be obvious, we often hear complaints about advanced candidates not taking the interview seriously. No matter how senior you are, it is still important to do your due diligence. One departmental chair put it bluntly: “People should be humble and still do their homework about the department, and prepare a good talk rather than acting like smug, arrogant, entitled assholes.”

It is crucial to review the departmental web site and familiarize yourself with the work of the faculty members who will be interviewing you. Treat your potential colleagues with respect, engaging with them about their research and experience at the institution interviewing you. You may be well known in the field, but don’t assume your reputation precedes you.  Confidence is good, arrogance is not. Just as much time and care should go into preparing your job talkas it did when you were a recent Ph.D. 

Don’t make your job talk an overview of your life’s work. We've seen disastrous job talks where the audience is treated to a shallow romp through all of the candidate’s major research findings and no one is left satisfied. When you have an established body of work, it is tempting to want to showcase it all. Resist. Just as for junior candidates, your job talk should be a single research project-in-progress. You will have opportunities to showcase your research career during the Q&A and over the course of the interview period.

One chair told us: “No one, including senior candidates, should use more than two to three minutes of a job talk to speak in generalities about her or his work, to speak summatively about a field, or to present her or his vitae. We prospective colleagues want to hear about actual research in progress. I have seen several senior-candidate talks founder on this error.”

Ramp up your web presence.  Chances are, online platforms for making your work available were not widely used when you first went on the market. We recommend that you have a profile on an academic website, like researchgate.net or academia.edu, from which your papers can be downloaded. While you may have a standard webpage as part of your departmental web presence, it is also worth establishing your own website to showcase your research, teaching and career-development highlights in an e-portfolio. Common web hosts that faculty use are SquareSpace, Wordpress and Google Sites.

Be discreet, but assume word will get out.  For new Ph.D.s, the job market foray is very public. Mentors actively promote you to their network and you may give a public practice job talk. But when you are a senior colleague, teacher and mentor to a group of people who (usually) would prefer that you stick around, it is best to keep your job exploration to yourself until it becomes serious.

Tell your references if you are not comfortable with them mentioning to other people that you are on the market. When you receive an interview invitation, do let your chair know, if they have not already served as a reference for you. (See below.) This offers an opportunity for them to offer you resources in exchange for you not going on the interview. Even if you are not interested in a preemptive counter offer, it is common courtesy to tell them before they find out from someone else. Academe is a small world; colleagues in your department inevitably will have connections to colleagues in the department where you are interviewing. People talk. Job talks are often advertised on public websites.

While you may worry about how your department will react, healthy departments take pride in having desirable colleagues who are coveted elsewhere.  Going on the job market is a normal function of academic life and it is perfectly reasonable to further your career and/or seek relocation for personal or family reasons. There are certainly always stories of dysfunctional departments that treat senior job-seeking as an act of adultery deserving of retaliation (in which case you would do well to get out of that department). If you suspect that might be the case, run your plans past a trusted friend in the department to get their sense of how best, and at what point in the process, to approach your colleagues. 

Ask your current chair for a letter of reference.  Requesting letters from colleagues at your current institution may worry you since you probably prefer they not know about your plans until later in the process. Nevertheless, it is important to get at least one letter of reference from a colleague, ideally your chair. Remember our earlier discussion about collegiality? Your new colleagues will want reassurance that you are not leaving your department because you are a problem. Chairs are accustomed to such requests. You might worry that colleagues will have a conflict of interest in writing a good letter for you, but they are professionals and, despite their disappointment, still want the best for you. (And if you really are a problem, you may find them falling over themselves to write you a glowing letter that will lead swiftly to your exit.)

Do not list anyone as a reference without having discussed the fact that you are on the job market. You can ask whether the search committee chair would allow you to offer references at a later stage if your file moves forward in their search. In some cases, senior positions will not request letters until you have made the short list.

Your graduate mentors may be too far afield from your current career status to be effective letter writers at this point, unless you have maintained a continuing relationship with them.  Good potential letter writers are also those you suspected wrote your tenure/promotion review letters since they presumably think highly of your research and can easily adapt their tenure letters. Former graduate students now in the field, current research collaborators and colleagues are also good choices -- they can speak to both your research and your collegiality.

Digging up Roots

One of the most difficult things about a later career job search is that, chances are, your life has gotten a lot more complicated since the first time around. You may now have children or aging parents whose needs must be considered. Unlike the typical non-academic job switch, academic moves are intensive geographical relocations that impact all members of the household. Spouses and kids may not take kindly to being uprooted from jobs and schools. Students may be counting on you to see them through their graduation. You may have bought a house that now must be sold.

One chair described the complications of negotiating a senior hire: “There are so many moving parts that are impossible to anticipate. They may be a perfect fit for the department and be totally pumped to join us, but then there’s some deal breaker that always rears its ugly head. Their kids can’t find the kind of specialized school they need in the area, the assisted living facilities are way too expensive here -- [one candidate] …  got cold feet when they found out they couldn’t bring their dog into work, for god sakes!”

The move may also be hard on you, even beyond the guilt you may have about its effect on your family members. You have spent years building up social and cultural capital and you will be starting that process all over again. Realizing those sorts of concerns, some faculty members take the job search much slower -- for example, trying out a semester as a visiting professor at their desired institution before taking the plunge.

Sealing the Deal

If you get a job offer and decide to take it, negotiate reasonably for what you need. In particular, associate professors should be clear about the terms for their promotion-to-full-professor case. Establish how many years toward full professor you will be coming in with and how your new institution will weigh work that you previously published. A few professors who made mid-career job moves told us they later found out they had been expected to assume a major service responsibility, whether as departmental chair or program director. Make sure your antennae are up for these sorts of expectations and address them directly.

Upon leaving your institution, don’t burn bridges, unless it was a toxic work environment where bridges are best burnt than left to smolder. These are colleagues who helped you get where you are now. You will see them again, as future reviewers on manuscripts and moderators at conference sessions.  Communicating your gratitude clearly, and responding graciously to the needs of students and colleagues who must move on without you, helps leave the door open for ongoing relationships.

The good news is that even if you end up without an offer, it wasn’t a waste of time. Many people say senior job searches make them appreciate what they have in a way that they would not otherwise have realized. While it’s time-intensive to be on the job market, it can also be a worthwhile investment, expanding your network, and introducing you to new colleagues and institutions. And making these efforts will prepare you for what to expect when your next dream job comes a-calling.

Bio

Jennifer Lundquist is associate dean of research and faculty development and a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Joya Misra is professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top