Midcareer Mentoring, Part 1

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

March 19, 2012

It is common these days for tenure-track faculty members to be assigned a mentor—someone who will give advice (solicited or unsolicited), and who will (in theory) keep a close eye on and help the new scholar navigate the complexities of the years leading up to the tenure evaluation. Even some of us who weren't given an official mentor nevertheless benefited from the advice of friendly senior professors in our pre-tenure years.

Those of us in the post-tenure phase of our careers no longer have official mentors. Does that mean our professional life is uncomplicated, serene, and lacking in mystery? That we now know everything about the profession and don't need guidance? I would answer no.

Post-tenure career issues may pale in comparison to those facing our graduate students, postdocs, and untenured colleagues, but can still provoke a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty.

I am writing from the vantage point of a tenured professor at a large research university. But the e-mail I receive from readers of my blog shows me that professors at all types of academic institutions have questions and concerns about post-tenure career issues such as:

  • How do you pursue positions at other institutions, and should you?
  • How can you use a job offer from another university to negotiate an improvement in your current job after tenure?
  • Once you are tenured, the expectations for service to your institution and profession increase substantially. How do you know how much service work to do and yet stay (mostly) sane, and have a hope of being promoted from associate to professor?
  • Should you pursue a part-time or full-time position in administration?

I am certainly not an authority on all those issues. I don't think anyone could be, given how many variables are involved for different people in different fields. But I would like to start discussing those challenges, starting with the issue of our mobility.

We become less mobile when we get tenure—at least if we want to stay in academe—because there are not as many positions available at the level of associate or full professor. Opportunities do exist, however, and if any of them interest you, explore them if you can. Tenured professors may be recruited, aggressively or tentatively, by other universities. Or senior scholars may seek to move on their own by putting out feelers, talking to colleagues, and applying for advertised positions.

If the opportunity arises, should you stay or should you go? I can think of many reasons for wanting to leave one's job—or, at least, being willing to think about leaving—and only some of them relate to deep unhappiness with the position. If your motivation is that you don't like some of your colleagues or the department chair, it's important to remember that most departments have a few jerks, and department chairs come and go. Are you willing to trade the jerks you know for some new variety of jerk?

When you compare your situation with jobs elsewhere, how do the research and teaching opportunities measure up? What about quality of life and other factors involving your partner and family? It can be difficult to predict what working in a new place will be like, but if you are restless or dissatisfied where you are, it may be worth at least looking into the possibilities, even if you aren't sure you want to relocate.

A question that involves both the active and passive modes of exploring other options is whether you want your current institution to know you are on the market. Obviously if you accept an offer, you will have to tell your employer, but I'll deal with the interesting complexities of that in a future column. Before any actual offer is made, you have to navigate the preliminary steps of a search process that may or may not lead to anything, even if you are the one being wooed.

If you are actively applying for other jobs, you may not want your department to know. You may be concerned that colleagues will see you as disloyal or greedy, or that the prospect of your departure will upset your graduate students. You may fear that your standing in the department will be harmed if you announce you are job hunting, and then don't get an offer.

From what I've seen, most tenured professors who apply for other faculty positions tell a few trusted colleagues, at least one of whom may write a letter of reference. It can be helpful if one of your current colleagues can attest that you are not a monster and that it would be a huge loss to the department if you went elsewhere.

Some institutions don't care about any of that and don't even ask for references. They do their own research on you, invite you to give a talk, and then you find yourself having a "conversation" with the department chair about your willingness to move.

A related question is whether, and how, to explain in your application materials your reasons for being on the job market. Some people don't—at least not in the cover letter or other application materials. Some people refer only vaguely to their interest in "pursuing new and exciting opportunities." In many cases that is enough. When someone is trying to leave a smaller, lower-ranked, and/or geographically challenged (according to some) institution for a larger, higher-ranked institution (particularly one in a place that many consider a desirable place to live), people reading the application may think, "Of course Professor X is applying to work in our excellent institution! Who wouldn't want to come here to work with us?"

But not everyone agrees that the "best" jobs are at the highest-ranked institutions, and not everyone agrees about which places are the most desirable to live. So cases arise that seem mysterious. People on search committees may wonder, "Why is Professor X trying to leave his/her institution? Is there something wrong with Professor X?" If you anticipate that such questions may arise about your application, you could diffuse them in advance with an explanation, direct or subtle.

Or not. You don't have to explain. But if you decide to do so, make your explanation a positive one. Talk about something you find appealing about the place to which you are applying. Do not say that you hate your colleagues or your department chair. Do not rant about how unmotivated and underprepared your students are. That advice applies to interviews, as well.

You can request confidentiality in the hiring process, and you can tell only your letter writers and your cat about your applications. But in my experience, whether you are being wooed or are applying for jobs on your own, word is going to spread. Assume that your applications and discussions are not confidential, and realize that there isn't much you can do about it.

If you are asked point-blank about your plans by colleagues, your department chair, or anyone you'd rather not confide in, you don't have to give details. You can reply, "What have you heard?" or just say, "I'd rather not talk about that now."

In some cases, rumors that other institutions are interested in you can work to your benefit. Even without an actual offer, your institution may take steps to keep you. That's great if you aren't all that interested in leaving: Getting an outside offer may be the only way (other than winning a Nobel Prize) that you are likely to improve your standing (and salary) at your institution.

For those who advise graduate students, a particularly complex issue is whether, and how, to inform your advisees about your efforts to leave. I don't think you need to tell your students until it becomes relevant—that is, when you are fairly sure that you are going to leave, and certainly as soon as you know for a fact. You need to provide enough time to come up with a good plan that takes care of your advisees. Some may stay behind and some may move with you.

But why cause unnecessary anxiety if you are only exploring possible options and are not definitely set on leaving? If your advisees hear rumors, you may want to have an open discussion with them. Otherwise, you don't have to tell them about your job search when it is in its early, uncertain stages.

If you somehow get through the initial stages of a post-tenure job search and receive an offer from a competing institution, you can pack up and leave as soon as it is practical. Or you can bring your offer to the attention of your current institution and see what, if anything, it will do to keep you. More on that in the next column.

Female Science Professor is the pseudonym of a professor in the physical sciences at a large research university. Her blog is