Job-Searching on the Job

October 23, 2009

So you've batted around the pros and cons and decided to seek another tenure-track job. The next issue to mull: Whom should you tell about your job search, and whom shouldn't you tell?

If you don't think that's a tricky question, consider:

• Case No. 1: An assistant professor who was satisfied with his institution, colleagues, and courses was nonetheless flattered when he got a call from a senior mentor at a more prestigious university encouraging him to apply for an opening there. By coincidence, the assistant professor met that day with his dean and mentioned the exchange. The dean said brusquely, "Well, I'm sorry to hear you are unhappy with us." From then on, the assistant professor felt that the administration had written him off as already gone when, in fact, he had just been musing aloud.

• Case No. 2: An assistant professor increasingly dreaded the prospect of spending the rest of her life in a place, and among colleagues, she did not like. Worse, she and her department chair never seemed to click. At one point several of her peers suggested outright that she look for a job elsewhere. But she wondered: Won't it cripple my search if nobody internally will speak well of me?

• Case No. 3: In her penultimate tenure-track year, an assistant professor was told by everyone, including her senior mentors, that her promotion was as close as possible to a sure thing. Yet she knew there were no certainties in promotion and tenure, and that once tenured, she would see her job options shrink drastically. She decided to scan the want ads and apply for select positions. She told no one about her plans, not wanting her colleagues to think she was going to leave them just as they were considering her tenure case. But that put her in a quandary as to whom to list as internal references.

As those cases make clear, the issue of whom to tell is complicated. So let's turn to how, and why, you should try to manage other people's awareness of your job search.

Retaliation, resentment, and write-off. Who knows what about your potential or real job search can have an impact on your career even if you stay put. The consequences of being seen as looking for an exit can be positive, negative, or both. Colleagues may resent you; students may feel hurt and potentially abandoned. Conversely, administrators may start to value you more and try to figure out how to keep you.

A tenure-track faculty member at a tiny, church-related college told me that when it got around that he had interviewed for a job elsewhere, his colleagues started treating him "like an apostate." Even at a larger institution, you face the issue of resource allocation: If a dean thinks you have one foot out the door, will she be willing to accommodate your current requests?

A low profile is a good investment. The publicity factor in job hunting, especially when you are already on the tenure track, is a foggy terrain. As an assistant professor, I went on the market several times. I talked in confidence with a senior mentor who told me, "You have the right to explore your value; everyone does." True, but he also agreed that there were many levels of political subtlety about whom you should tell about your search, and what reasons you should give for looking to leave. Don't burn bridges you haven't crossed yet.

Academics live in two worlds—town and gown. Both can be small enough to warrant prudence when sharing details of your career plans.

The academic small town is your discipline, where people meet regularly at conferences, have longstanding friendships across continents, and engage in chat and gossip about events in the field via Facebook. In this era of instant global communication, you will tell a colleague in Hong Kong or Bucharest about your job search, and your next-door officemate may find out 10 minutes later.

Likewise, in the typical campus town, people talk. You may confide in your neighbor, who mentions your plan to a mutual acquaintance who is an insurance agent, and two weeks later your dean hears about your job search at a Rotary Club lunch. Even large and medium-size cities tend to have smaller groups of professionals who are involved in academic matters. You never know who is a only few degrees of separation from whom, so watch those loose lips.

Make your confidentiality rules clear. I am always surprised by the number of faculty members who are job-searching and don't clarify with their references the limits of who should know. I recently heard about an assistant professor at a small business college who asked a colleague to serve as a reference but left the issue of confidentiality vague. To his horror, the senior professor brought up the younger man's job search at a faculty meeting. The intention was apparently innocent, even supportive. But consequently, other senior faculty members started acting as if he were already gone.

It behooves you, then, to be precise in your request for silence about your employment explorations. When I am asked to be a reference, I make it a practice now to ask the candidate about whether to keep quiet, and why that might be wise.

Conflicting loyalties. One of the main problems with trying to restrict information about your job search is that nearly everyone you confide in will have conflicting loyalties. For example, you may ask a senior faculty member to serve as a reference. She may well honor your request to keep confidence. But she may also be a member of the senior ruling group of the school, and a friend of the chair, and have mentees elsewhere whom she wouldn't mind applying for your job if you left.

There may be other situations in which a reference's interests and even ethics lead them to out your secret. For one thing, asking colleagues to keep something in confidence is not asking them to lie for you. If a dean or another faculty member hears a rumor that you are on the job market, don't expect your internal references to deny it if they are asked point-blank. Remember, their relationship with other, tenured colleagues in the department is more important than their acquaintanceship with an assistant professor—who, after all, may be leaving.

Discuss the confidentiality issue with search committees. There are many ethical and legal rules and codes that govern searches. They are all routinely broken. In most cases I am convinced that the reason is not malice but rather friendliness, incompetence, or inquisitiveness.

A dean told me how she had instructed her faculty members—who had not conducted a search in years—on the exact HR rules for what questions could, and could not, be asked of candidates. Sure enough, several faculty members ignored her or didn't care and violated the protocols, as in, "So, do you have any kids?" You should never count on everybody's following the rules. You can ask search committees to keep your candidacy quiet, but it's never guaranteed.

Don't let your job search hurt your job. Many assistant professors who are job-hunting end up outing themselves. If you are aggrieved or desperate to escape your current job, it is easy to fall into the ethical and practical trap of sloughing off your current work in favor of your exit activities. I have seen and heard of faculty members, especially assistant professors, who are so busy with their searches that they cut their own classes, blow off office hours, fail in service work, and generally act so distracted that they are hurting their departments and their own reputations.

Even when you've told everyone why you are out of town or out of touch so much, they may rightly still resent you. Remember, job-hunting is essentially something that you should be doing on your own time; it should interfere only minimally with your current teaching, research, and service obligations.

I still get chills recalling the time I went on a job interview and my cellphone rang from "unknown," who turned out to be my dean asking me why I wasn't at a faculty meeting. Bad show.

Know when confidentiality ends. At some point, confidentiality dies a natural death—namely, when you are invited to a campus for an interview, or certainly when you receive an offer. You should be aware of the stages of the process. Know, for instance, when the search committee plans to start calling references, which is the most likely time that confidentiality will be broken. Know its policy about the level of publicity it gives an on-campus visit. It is common, for example, for institutions to put on their Web sites an announcement that someone is coming for an interview. I have even received such notices on e-mail discussion groups.

Sometimes the secret is revealed by inference: I once joked with a young acquaintance in the sciences that he was looking trimmer and so was either "in love or looking for another job." He did a double take: It was the latter, and he hadn't considered that a reduced waistline might be giving him away.

Beware being "blogged out." I know someone who recently accepted a position at another university. The process was smooth. The department asked him to apply, he sent in his CV, he visited, he accepted an offer, end of story. But a disconcerting sidebar was that he had been outed by anonymous postings on some Web sites associated with his academic discipline.

Welcome to the newest twist in the rapidly evolving world of online social-networking. Now you can go to various Web sites and not only read news about openings but also find out who is interviewing or thinking about interviewing. There is a legal and ethical swamp here that rivals Okefenokee, but it has become a fact of job-searching in academe. Everyone, especially tenure-track faculty members seeking new employment, should be well aware that their best-laid plans for secrecy may end up as blog fodder.

Don't lock yourself out of a good reference. There is such a thing as being too secretive. Job searches and speculation about applications are routine. The same chair who you worry will get mad at you for showing disloyalty may, in fact, be off interviewing for a deanship.

Then there is another curious but widespread phenomenon: Even your worst enemy may become a friend when faced with the prospect of your getting out. I heard about a young scholar who had butted heads with an old bull on his faculty. The tussles became one factor that led the assistant professor to try to find more peaceful grazing elsewhere. To his surprise, his nemesis, on hearing of his search, volunteered to serve as an enthusiastic reference. The old fellow did not actually come out and say, "I'm happy to help you leave," but that was probably the motive.

There are good reasons, then, when you are already on the tenure track and are considering switching to another job at another institution, for being prudent about whom you inform. Nevertheless, you may find that your guarded secret was common knowledge.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at The University of Iowa. His latest book is "Blog Wars: The New Political Battleground" (Oxford University Press).