Starting over on the tenure-track

It was May, my fifth year on the tenure track. At this stage, I should I have been polishing my personal statement and dotting I’s and crossing t’s in my tenure dossier. Instead, I was packing my office, and preparing to move cross-country and start a new job. It wasn’t that I was afraid of being denied tenure in my old job. On the contrary, my university had offered what they could to retain me. Instead, I was taking the opportunity to move somewhere that was a much better fit personally and a very good move professionally. I was starting over. 

This is not the classic narrative of a desperate search for a tenure track position that once landed is held onto for life. Instead, it fits the seemingly increasingly common pattern of getting a few years under the tenure-track belt at one institution before “moving up” or “trading in” for a job that is a better fit. I suspect job hopping is one of the many side effects of tight funding, limited tenure-track positions, dual-career couples, and global interconnectedness. In any case, for those who may be contemplating this season’s faculty job ads, I thought I’d share my perspective on the ups and downs of starting over.

The Ups! Of Starting Over
I’m soaring like a bird.

  1. Soaring bird by Quinn Dombrowski on flickr. Used under a CC license.

    Soaring bird by Quinn Dombrowski on flickr. Used under a CC license.

    A better place to live: In just over a year in my new city, I have just as good or better support network than I did in five years in my old city. This place is just a better fit for my values and interests; it’s a place I feel more comfortable raising kids; and it’s a place where my partner could find a good job. From the luxury of a tenure-track position, I didn’t have to consider applying for positions in places where I was pretty sure wouldn’t work for my family. I already had one of those to fall back on.

  2. Negotiating power: My new university was hiring me on the basis of having been fairly successful in grant-writing, publishing, teaching, and mentoring students on the tenure track. That was a demonstrated record of doing exactly the things that they were hiring me to do. I hope they saw even more potential in me too, but as a candidate I was a relatively safe bet rather than just having the whiff of success down the road. Of course, the past is no guarantee of future (I’m crossing fingers on pending grants), but I think it made them more likely to not second-guess what I told them I needed. It also made me a bolder negotiator.When the offer came, I already had a secure position, so I felt liberated to ask for what I needed to be happy and successful without feeling like I was risking everything. Partner hire, low teaching load, large start up, graduate student support, relocation expenses, and credit toward tenure and promotion were all negotiated successfully. I wanted the job (see above re: the place), but I also knew from experience what I needed to be successful at it, so if they hadn’t been willing to give me most of what I needed, I would have walked away. In the meantime, I negotiated a retention package (counter-offer) with my old job as a back-up plan. The old advice is correct. You never again have the negotiating power that you do as when the university has decided to hire you but you haven’t yet signed the offer letter/contract. Yes, it was stressful and felt duplicitous to be negotiating the retention package with my old job when I fully intended to take the new one, but it was the first time in 5 years I’d had the power to make my job situation better. If I had ended up staying in my old job, and had not gone through the counter-offering I would have no benefit at all from the new job offer.
  3. Knowledge: After five years of research and teaching and service, I knew what I needed and wanted for start-up in a way that I didn’t have a clue the first time around. I knew what a world of difference a 2-1 load is relative to a 2-2 load. I knew not to trust administrators’ verbal assurances, but instead to get everything in writing. I knew to make sure that I had sufficient time to spend my start-up rather than being locked into spending it all in one year (or less). I knew that I needed to start working with sponsored programs long before I’d written a full draft of a proposal. Basically, I knew to avoid the naïve mistakes that I had made the first time. This is a big part of why I’m an advocate for a MS between undergraduate and PhD too.
  4. New opportunities: Scientifically and professionally this job makes it more possible for me to rise to the level where I want my career to be. The vagaries of my old institution meant that while I could be a good researcher there, I was always going to face some pretty serious limits in terms of resources and productivity. While there are some limits in my new job as well (no time turner in my start up package), the ceiling is higher and it is easier for me to soar.

the downs of starting over
The rose-colored glasses don’t have an infinite half-life.

  1. Not having tenure: This is one that caught me by surprise in how much it has bothered me. I would be one year post-tenure decision now if I’d stayed in my old job: an associate professor. As is, I’m two years away from when I’m supposed to go up for tenure in my new job: a seventh year assistant professor. I may ask to go up early, but I’m still looking at 9-10 years on tenure-track before I get the business cards that say associate professor. When I mention business cards I’m playing for laughs, but in a lot of ways I’ve moved into the mid-career stage without having the security, title, and hopefully pay raise that go with it. I’m doing a significant amount of professional service at the national level; responsibilities which were accepted before I knew that I’d be delaying tenure for a few years. It’s really rewarding, but all that service does have a negative impact on how much time I can devote to my own research agenda…the one that I need to wow the tenure committee with. I’d also love to be able to stop chasing grants for the sake of bringing money into the coffers of my new university (so that it counts towards my tenure criteria), and be able to target my grant writing efforts on the smaller number of proposals that really are the best fits for my professional development. And there are a couple of projects that I have in mind that I won’t undertake until after tenure because they are too risky scientifically or politically. So, yes, tenure would be nice any day now.
  2. Not what you expect your lab to look like after 5 years on the tenure-track. Photo by Michael James Boyle on flickr. Used under a CC license.

    Not what you expect your lab to look like after 5 years on the tenure-track. Photo by Michael James Boyle on flickr. Used under a CC license.

    The time costs of starting a lab and a lab group: While I would say that starting my lab and recruiting students has been easier this time than when I first arrived on the tenure-track, there is still a significant time sink associated with starting from scratch. I empathized with every word of scitrigirl’s post on the decision fatigue that accompanies ordering supplies, recruiting students, and so on. Just getting things organized and working takes hours, days, weeks…I spent more than six months trouble shooting a big piece of equipment, and just when we finally think we got it working, the undergraduate who was helping me graduated and I have to find and train a new one before I will produce any data. I didn’t bring any students with me from my old job to my new one, and I thought I’d have a year to work through my back log of papers to write before new students joined my research group. Yes, I had the year without students, but it was also a year without new data collection, and I still didn’t clear my backlog. That time went to recruiting, starting up the lab, and learning the lay of the land in my new region. Someone wise once told me that moving jobs set you back a year. I didn’t believe that person at the time, but I do now.

  3. It’s not the same institution. That sounds a bit funny, but what I mean is that I’ve had to relearn the ropes in ways small to big (how to use the photocopier; how to use the learning management system; what courses and hoops the majors and graduate programs require; how to semi-effectively work with the sponsored programs office). The obvious things are at least obvious. The unwritten rules and campus cultural attitudes are much trickier to keep in my head. It’s easy to assume that things work the same way as my old university, when really there’s no reason that they should. For example, in my old department it was customary to go weeks without talking to my chair and I always made an appointment if I needed to talk to him. In my new department, my chair has an open door policy and wants faculty to keep him in the loop. My new chair will even wander past faculty offices to say hi and ask how things are going. It took me quite a while to figure out what that was all about, and there are certainly other ways that I’ve tripped myself up by assuming sameness when I shouldn’t have. I think if this were my first tenure-track job I wouldn’t have come in with as many preconceived notions about how things worked, so it would have been more straightforward to learn the local academic dialect.
  4. I left behind great colleagues. This was the hardest part of leaving and the thing that makes me most wistful for my old job, because I had a really fantastic set of collaborators on campus who I really enjoyed working with. Yes, there are conference calls, Skype, Google Hangouts and even occasional trips between cities, but it’s not the same as being able to see each other across the table at weekly lab meetings or grab a cup of coffee to talk over the latest interesting data. I miss the regular scientific/social interactions and have at times felt a bit isolated in my new position. That is starting to subside as I now have fantastic graduate students working with me and I’m beginning to develop more on-campus collaborations, but I’m not quite sure I’ll get back a set of local collaborator/friends nearly as special as the ones I left behind.

But don’t let the numbered lists fool you. I love my new job and moving to it was unquestionably the right decision. Despite the costs, starting over is giving me new opportunities and new enthusiasm for my career, while simultaneously dramatically improving my family situation. It’s been a total win-win. Honestly, I think the stereotype of holding a single position from assistant professor to emeritus is on its way out. On the other hand, I’d give myself a very high probability of reaching emeritus status in my current job. Sometimes starting over is required to find the right fit.

20 thoughts on “Starting over on the tenure-track

  1. I think that, for many people, the year or two before a tenure decision is the best possible time to switch jobs. Yes, it delays tenure, but you’re in a more powerful position than most people will be later. You’ve proven yourself as a teacher and researcher, so you’re nearly as safe a bet as the person who already has tenure. But many institutions don’t want to hire people with tenure. (Top research institutions looking for established rock stars are the exception to the rule.) So as a nearly-tenured professor, you’re portable in a way that most people won’t be later in their career.

    So if the fit isn’t perfect for someone as an assistant professor, I recommend applying for other jobs and finding one that is. I’m glad you’re happy, and I think your path is a good one for a lot of people (even if it does come with hassles).

    • Good points! Although I will say that applying for jobs while on the tenure-track is one of the most stressful and exhausting things I’ve ever done. I’m so glad to be able to ignore the job ads now!

    • You can rephrase this idea from a different perspective, namely, that if you don’t like your tenure track job, you can still try to get somewhere better before getting tenure. I’ve seen people leaving academia because they didn’t like the only tt offers they got, without even trying to see if they like it. Of course, each case and each person is unique, but I think it would take out a lot of pressure if people didn’t feel that tt jobs are “forever as long as you get tenure”.

  2. Thanks so much for writing about this, sciwo. And I think Kim makes a great point about your particular power and portability right now — I’m sure your new place is very, VERY happy to have you!

  3. I’ve also moved after three years of tenure track to a place that offered me many more research opportunities. It also happens to be a great place to live and raise a family, but I don’t count this as my main reason for moving. My former city was quite OK.

    Contrary to you, I didn’t get much from negotiation. I’ve tried to solved my two-body problem in either institution but it didn’t work. In the end, it got wonderfully solved two years after the move (don’t try this at home, though, we were very lucky…).

    My tenure didn’t get delayed with moving but I can certainly relate to your downside of not being the same institution and how difficult it is to learn the culture of the new institution.

    It was very difficult to make the decision and to move, but in the end it was so worth it!!!

  4. One thing that I didn’t anticipate about moving: I somehow failed to consider that it might be a lot harder to set up a new lab the second time, because I would simultaneously need to mentor existing lab members and keep current projects moving along as best as I could. (When I moved, I had one grad student and one postdoc who moved with me, and one grad student, one postdoc, and one technician who stayed behind. I moved one grant with me and left one behind.) Setting up a new lab and field sites, keeping projects going (or setting them up again in the new lab), mentoring lab members (especially editing manuscripts), and teaching (which I chose to do in my first semester) was an awful lot to juggle in my first semester. I didn’t fully appreciate how hard that juggling would be until I was in the thick of it. Though, now that I write it out, I probably should have seen it coming, shouldn’t I? 😉

    Loved the post!

  5. Good point about the culture, because it seems so unimportant in the grand scheme of things. But It is really amazing how much culture is different in different workplaces, and it doesn’t just apply to Universities (or departments). The place i worked had several different campuses all under the one admin umbrella, and each campus had a different culture and different way of interpreting the overarching policies. It is certainly something that at first seems trivial, but it is important to take on board whenever anyone moves workplaces as a ‘mature’ professional – don’t assume it will be the same!

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