After I’d been sitting behind the desk in my campus office for about 10 minutes on a quiet spring afternoon, my palms were slick with sweat. An increasingly rapid drumbeat was playing out in my chest, and I was unable to concentrate on the words on the laptop screen in front of me.
Attempting to distract myself, I shifted my gaze from the screen to the shelves above the desk, although they held nothing interesting to divert my attention. I’d already removed a lot of books and the assorted detritus that gathers in an office for one simple reason: this would be my last day in this space, behind this desk, doing this job.
A month before the end of my third year in a tenure-track position at a research university, which during graduate school had been touted as one of the ultimate destinations, I was on my way out. And it was my choice, a fact that complicated that moment. To try to calm myself, I thought back through to how I’d come to this point -- how and why I decided to leave.
Throughout the previous summer and fall, I’d started thinking about long-term goals: questions concerning my identity as a teacher and writer, satisfaction in my career, and overall comfort with this being my place of work for the foreseeable future. The answers to such questions made me realize that a change might be the best option. I’d begun to scrutinize the series of decisions that led me to take my first job out of grad school, what I knew about academe then compared to what I knew now, and the vast distance -- marked by particular experiences as a teacher, researcher and colleague over a few years -- between those two points. In sum, I knew more about being a junior faculty member now, which made me consider my job in a different light than when I first started. And that allowed me to be better informed about where I might go and what I might do.
Then, midway through the fall semester, I came across an advertisement for a job that appeared to fill more than the usual boxes on an imaginary checklist. That checklist consisted of a somewhat vague metric that I’d put together some years earlier in graduate school while grinding out a dissertation followed by dozens of job applications.
The job was in a department with a different focus than my current one, and I’d be teaching courses better suited to my interest and skill set. It also appeared to have a great support system for junior faculty. After the nerve-racking process of application then Skype then campus interview, then wait and wait and wait, I was lucky enough to get offered the job. We went through the dance of negotiations. I signed the contract.
And now, in my office, palms sweaty, I was going to make it official by telling my department chair.
I thought I was prepared, but a flurry of questions rushed my mind. Was I allowed to quit? Since coming to the United States from New Zealand more than 10 years previously, I had never voluntarily left a position -- I’d just never been in that kind of situation. Was there some part of the contract for my current position I hadn’t read properly? It sounds ridiculous to say now, but I was worried I might not be permitted to leave. The few books left in my office weren’t likely to help me. I googled the phrase “moving institutions as a junior faculty member” on the off chance that I’d find some golden nugget of wisdom -- which, at this late stage, would mean nothing, because I’d already accepted a position at another university. It was too late to change anything.
In retrospect, the mini panic attack I experienced had nothing to do with the way I came to make the decision: I knew as much as I’d known anything with this level of certainty post-grad school that I’d made the right choice. In that very moment, I reflected on the fact that coming out of graduate school I just did not truly understand that fit -- something that my mentor, University of Florida Research Foundation Professor Sid Dobrin, had spoken to me and my cohort about from our first semester as aspiring academics -- would be so crucial to post-grad school success. And that was the anxiety serum: I’d done all this to find a better fit, a better future. I shut the screen of my laptop, wiped my hands on the back of my pants, and walked down the hall toward the chair’s office.
But that was far from the end.
Once you’ve accepted a new position at another institution, you need to do certain things. And, in the words of Jeremy Foley, a successful collegiate athletic director at the University of Florida, “What should be done eventually must be done immediately.” One of those things that you must do -- immediately -- is to learn from your last position.
You can start your reflection at the macro level. Should you have focused more on various research opportunities? Used the resources available to you to develop your teaching? Reached out for different opportunities in service? Made contact with faculty members in other departments to facilitate new teaching and research avenues? Those are larger questions that are probably tied to your original decision to seek employment elsewhere in the first place. But you’ve added many tools to your kit, and now is the time to use them.
Time management: Remember when you were in graduate school and thought you would never be busier in your life? And that quick shock to your system about how much busier you were in your first semester as a junior faculty member? And how you learned techniques that helped balancing work and life? You need to clearly identify those and transfer them over. The aforementioned demand on your time is likely to lead to a deeper puddle of anxiety in which you might slip and fall. Again, remember that you’ve been through this before: you can manage the 60-plus papers more than you ever had to grade during graduate school; you can make the transition from a graduate student being mentored to a faculty member who mentors your own students; you can take ownership of the many hats you must wear as a junior faculty member. You’ve learned some tricks of the trade; now you can apply them to someplace new.
As for one of those hats: you now truly understand the concept of academic service. In graduate school, you had an idea about service because you were part of it; the professors who led you through the intricacies of getting an advanced academic degree were doing service by working with you. As you know from your first position post-grad school, even after your first few weeks as a faculty member, you could be expected to serve your department in any number of ways. Of course, the degree of service responsibility you have will be dependent on your discipline, institution and specific position, but you’ll be providing service in some way to your department.
Resetting the clock: if you are on the tenure track and have negotiated credit for previous research and teaching, you have to have the mind-set not only that this isn’t your first year again but also that you simply have less time to establish yourself among your colleagues before pretenure and tenure review. The clock has been wound forward, which is a great thing if you feel like your research is proceeding at a good clip, you’ll receive strong teaching evaluations and you can put together a dossier that demonstrates you deserve tenure. But it also means that you have to be conscious that you have less time to do what you need to do.
Speaking of colleagues: I may be stating the obvious, but along with your students, they are the most important relationships you’ll have in your new job. And, as I mentioned above, you are coming in as someone who is new to the department but also has several years of experience elsewhere. As you learned from your last job, establishing such connections is essential to putting down roots at your new institution. Although I am only one semester into this one, starting to forge relationships with my colleagues has been one of the most enriching facets of my new position.
Whether you thought you’d be at your first job for a long time, as I did, or you knew that your first stop was likely to be just that, switching positions in your first few years as a junior faculty member is both stressful and energizing. From the moment you send out an application for another position to your first day on a new campus, you’ll undergo a swirl of emotions.
Ride them out and see where you end up. As a mentor once told me, “The house of academe has many rooms.” And if you get the chance, maybe you’ll find it worth your while to visit some ones to which you haven’t yet been.