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Dear Mentors,

Last week, a colleague at another university reached out and encouraged me to apply for a job in their department. It seems like my research interests would fit well, and I got the sense that some other factors -- like the pay -- might be better. It’s not that I’m necessarily unhappy in my current tenure-track position, but aspects about the other job are calling my name. (I’m so excited about it I’ve even gone on Zillow to check out the housing in the area!) The problem is that I feel guilty even considering the invitation to apply. My colleagues have been decent to me, and for some reason it feels like I’m cheating on my department.

Should I stay loyal or consider cheating on my department?


Confused Professor

Dear Confused,

We’re happy to hear that you’ve been encouraged to apply for a job! It means that someone thought you would potentially be a good fit for the advertised position. What it does not mean is that you’re the sole candidate being recruited. So let’s pump the brakes on your Zillow search while we share a few common mistakes tenure-track faculty make when considering applying for jobs and how to avoid them.

Mistake No. 1: Overthinking an invitation to apply for a job. A big mistake that we see early-career faculty make is overanalyzing a job opportunity too early in the process. We realize you’re smart and think for a living. But the job market is complex, irrational and unpredictable, so it’s an arena where extensive analysis is unlikely to be useful. For faculty members, overthinking looks like:

  • Believing that encouragement to apply for a job equals a job offer. (It does not.)
  • Mentally imagining yourself in your new office, home, department and/or community in extensive detail.
  • Role-playing in your mind how each and every one of your colleagues might respond to the news that you have an outside offer and/or are leaving your current department.

Granted, part of being competitive for a job is imagining what it might be like to be there, so you can show a search committee that you want the job. But also notice that there are different levels to that imagining. The examples we previously cited are a bit premature when you have not yet even applied for the job, much less interviewed or received an offer. These mental gymnastics are a huge energy suck. So instead accepting (or turning down) a job you have not yet been offered, realize this is the beginning of a lengthy process. The only choice to make at this stage is: Will I apply for the position or not?

Mistake No. 2: Using a disempowering frame for decision making. When you equate applying for a job with cheating, it suggests that you have an explicit mutual commitment with your current department that would be violated by such an action. If you’re like many tenure-track faculty members, this concern may be driven by a sense of loyalty to your university because they hired you -- in a brutally competitive job market -- and therefore took a chance on you at the beginning of your career.

While mutual commitment is one way to view your relationship with your employer, other people consider the tenure track to be more like dating. If you don’t work out, your campus will have no problem cutting you loose at either your third-year or tenure review. To be blunt, until you have been promoted with tenure, you do not have a lifetime commitment with your campus, nor do they have that commitment with you.

If they haven’t put a ring on it yet, why are you acting as if they have?

How you frame your relationship is a choice, so we recommend you choose the most empowering frame so you can make the best decisions for yourself and your career.

For example, you could reframe applying as “shopping around” or “finding the perfect fit.” Whatever you choose, it should support you having maximum freedom -- however that looks for you. This is especially important for underrepresented faculty members who tend to be overworked and undervalued in their institutions.

Reframing also requires getting clear about your unarticulated beliefs and releasing any that don’t serve you. We’re not exactly sure what your underlying beliefs are, but here are a few guesses:

  • My first job has to be my forever job.
  • I owe my university absolute loyalty for hiring me when so many others don’t have jobs.
  • My current university is good enough; I shouldn’t stretch to see what a higher-ranked department would be like.
  • It's better to take the safe route (staying where I am) than take a risk applying elsewhere.

Once you’ve dug up those beliefs, you can experiment with flipping them upside down to see how alternative beliefs feel:

  • I appreciate my current job and I am open to new opportunities.
  • I am operating in perfect integrity with my employer. (They pay me a salary; I am a hardworking teacher, researcher and colleague.)
  • My research deserves my best effort, and I'm willing to explore various departmental homes to support it.
  • Applying for jobs and interviewing on other campuses is a fantastic commercial for my work and an awesome networking opportunity.

The point of exploring your underlying beliefs is to provide yourself with the most supportive foundation for decision making. Deciding whether or not to “cheat” feels quite different than deciding whether or not to “explore an exciting opportunity.”

Mistake No. 3: Forgetting the unwritten rules of the game you’re playing. By that we mean asking yourself: Am I playing by the rules that actually exist or the rules I think should exist? Regrettably, the way to a significant salary adjustment on most campuses is through an external offer. That’s an open secret and one that many faculty members find problematic. Because of that unfortunate reality, you have to decide whether you want to play by the rules you think should exist (I get paid what I deserve) or the rules that actually exist (I get paid what I demand).

We know this advice might come off harsher than usual, but this time we feel a little bit of tough love is in order. We’ve seen so many mentees, friends and colleagues (ourselves included) spend many hours and precious energy ruminating over opportunities that have not yet come close to fruition. That was time and energy that could’ve been spent developing a new manuscript, making meaningful connections in -- and beyond -- the academy or focusing on self-care. And when you’ve invested too much time dreaming about another job, it makes you vulnerable to heartbreak if it doesn’t work out.

If you want to avoid these common mistakes, we encourage you to examine the mind-set you’re using to decide about applying for this position, get clear about the game you’re playing, act on that decision and then get back to blooming where you are currently planted.

Peace and productivity,

Anthony Ocampo, associate professor at California State Polytechnic University and director of campus workshops at the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, founder of the center

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