How to Be a Happy Lame Duck

April 21, 2006

Academics are used to the glacial pace of many aspects of their professional lives. Over the course of a 50-year career we hope for but two promotions in rank; reviews for journal submissions can take many months; we may work for decades to finish a treatise in our area of scholarship.

And then there is the long, long interim between signing a contract for a new job at one university and finishing work at your old one.

In my case, I accepted a position at another university in late December. My final commitments for the spring semester, barring surprises, will end in late May. I will start my new job in July. That's almost half a year in transition -- a period so lengthy that it prompts laughter and astonishment from my private sector friends. One asks me, "How much time do you need to clean out an office? You professors take forever to do anything, including quitting."

My response was typical academese: "Well, it's complicated ..."

The lame-duck session for an academic moving from one campus to another is, indeed, as I have learned, not very simple. It can be a time of strained emotions, strange musings, hectic schedules, and dangerous temptations.

So far, I am getting by without catastrophe. With the help of friends and colleagues who have successfully, or traumatically, moved on, I have learned a few basic lessons about achieving a satisfying transition.

Inform promptly. No matter how you feel about your present institution, you owe it the flexibility to plan for your absence. When you receive the official offer from your new employer, notify your present dean or director of your planned exit. When you actually sign a contract, you should tender your resignation as soon as possible, in writing, effective the last day of your last pay period (the exact date of ending your duties can be tricky if you have summer teaching lined up and want to hold onto it).

The wording of the letter should be polite and brief; this is not the time to enumerate your reasons for leaving, to make parting jabs, or to proffer maudlin reminiscences. Just get to the facts.

Put students first. No one is irreplaceable, but the departure of professors can be unsettling, especially for graduate students. For those who can finish their dissertation or thesis in your final semester, the objective is simply to get it done, and get it done well. No matter what inconvenience of time or attention, your sacred duty is to help them in that process -- and to find advisers for those who will not be able to finish by the time you leave. One simple expedient is useful: Hold regular meetings, focusing on finishing work before your departure.

That last lesson I learned by bitter experience. If you think you are not paying enough attention to an advisee, you probably are not.

For other students, there is the reassurance that academe is a small world and that conferences and e-mail always allow personal friendships and professional relationships to continue. I have told my undergraduate and graduate students that I will be just an e-mail away if they need letters of recommendation or career advice. Your basic message to students should be: Departure is not abandonment.

Don't burn bridges ... unless you really want to. If you must use the opportunity of leaving to tell someone off or to express your general frustration with your present situation, do so and damn the consequences. But in most cases leaving without recrimination or score settling soothes your own soul and allows for more pleasant months before the final exit.

Of course, there are many reasons why academics leave one place to go to another. A friend told me that she left her previous university because she hated (a) the location, (b) the department, (c) her colleagues, (d) her students, and (e) "the local music scene." Even she, however, smiled her way through her terminal semester, because she felt that leaving was the best revenge.

Furthermore, do you want to infuriate people who one day, through the circumstances of hiring, may be your colleagues again, or even your dean or provost? A fellow professor told me that one of the reasons he was tempted to apply for an administrative post at another university was that it would put him over a former colleague who had scoffed at him on the way out to a new job.

In my case, I have had 10 good years at my university with few pain-inducing memories and less than a handful of blood enemies, but I have no interest in packing up negative emotions to carry from one campus to another.

Don't disappear. An administrator friend told me the story of a faculty member who had announced that she was taking a position at another college and then apparently took it -- immediately. The missing professor was hardly ever seen on campus; students found a closed door at office hours and only spotty attendance at class time.

I hear such horror stories alarmingly often. My thought for those dishonorable folk is, ethical issues aside -- not that they ever should be -- your present conduct will eventually become known by your new colleagues, who may then view you in a negative light, wondering if you will do the same to them someday.

No one should pretend that the transition period from one job to the next does not entail some compromises. When I told my dean that I was accepting a position elsewhere, I promised him that I would not slack off my current duties. His comment was he understood that I would have a lot of new things to pay attention to. He was right.

Even though I have been asked to undertake very little work by my future employers, the sheer weight of the distractions of house-hunting, school-scoping, and the many other details of moving have absorbed a lot of my attention. I haven't canceled any classes yet, but eventually I may have to, and to be honest I am not volunteering for any new work.

Define transitional duties. A friend at another university tells me that the day after he signed a contract with another institution, he started getting daily e-mails asking for reports or comments, and even inviting him to attend faculty meetings and counsel students. He wanted to be conscientious, but he did not want to balance two full-time jobs, only one of which he was being paid for.

One need not be pedantic about this, but it is useful to work out, at least orally, what your new employer expects of you as the months creak by toward actual new employment. Will you be required to attend any meetings or functions on your new campus? Are there reports or committee decisions that you are expected to involve yourself with? Better to settle such questions upfront than to risk an early conflict.

In all, there are many questions to answer and issues at hand for the academic who -- unlike magazine editors, car mechanics, and bookstore clerks -- essentially is offering a six-month notice rather than a two-week one. Planning ahead is good practical advice; it can also keep you sane during a hectic time.

David D. Perlmutter is a senior fellow at Louisiana State University's Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs and an associate professor of mass communication on the Baton Rouge campus. Starting in July he will be a professor and associate dean for graduate studies and research at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.