Should You Switch Tenure Tracks?

October 02, 2009

At some point on the tenure track, you may face a decision about whether to switch rail lines—that is, accept a position at another institution. Seeking a different job as an assistant professor (or even at the associate rank) is tricky, nerve-racking, and may even undermine your career. Nevertheless, every tenure-track candidate should at least consider the option.

In the next few columns, I will take you through the process, but let's begin with the initial decision to scope out possibilities on the job market.

Ethical qualms. Many academics hesitate about switching jobs because they fear they are somehow letting down their colleagues, their students, and even their departments. I have changed jobs twice in my career. Both times I found new advisers for my students, someone else took over teaching my classes, and other people supervised my projects. In other words, the university survived without me.

Switching positions is a recognized part of our profession. As a doctoral student, I was able to replace three of the original five people on my dissertation committee who left for other universities. If you handle the transition to a new institution well, it's unlikely your move will cause resentment, or even much disruption.

An assessment. Your reasons for wanting out of your current position no doubt vary: You are at a rural campus and your spouse can't find a job in the area. Support from your department is insufficient for your growing research agenda. The senior faculty members are malicious. Or, most commonly, it is simply prudent to explore your options in the wider world.

The essential question is: Are your local problems fixable or fundamental? If you hate your colleagues, your town, and the weather, no conceivable administrative intervention will heal your wounds. But if your current issues are resolvable, consider trying to work them out. The prospect of losing you may prompt improvements in your situation.

Two cautions: First, beware the "quad is greener on the other side" phenomenon. Academe, compared with many other professions, has a much more limited range of perks, privileges, and goodies for employees. If you feel undercompensated, make sure you can be rewarded in the way you want. For instance, I know of a professor who complained to his department chair that the university did not appreciate him. When asked what would make him feel valued, his response was "a car—a company car." Well, most institutions of higher learning cannot hand out Escalades to their professors, let alone Christmas bonuses or vacations to St. Moritz for "top earners."

Second, in weighing your current financial package, make sure your comparisons are on the same scale. A scholar in the social sciences told me about the job offer he almost took because of its hefty pay bump but then turned down because he did a cost-of-living calculation and found the new job would be in a much more expensive area. In another case, an assistant professor switched jobs to go somewhere that offered a lighter teaching load. Unfortunately, he found the students were less academically prepared than his previous ones, and so his pedagogical labors actually increased.

Your time on the tenure clock. As with many things in life, the timing of an exit is crucial. If you seek a new job a year or two after starting on the tenure track, people will wonder, "Why so soon?" You don't want to get a jumping-bean reputation.

Switching too early also means that you have not had time to build a reputation and credentials that will improve both your job prospects and your contract deal. Few assistant professors are superstars a year out of their Ph.D. programs.

A more attractive exit point is in the few years before you go up for tenure. Regardless of whether you have been told that your tenure bid is "all sewn up," looking for another job will allow for a backup plan in the event your case turns out not to be a sure thing.

You can honestly say to your colleagues, "I'd like to stay if you want me, but I also want to have a job, and nothing is certain." Indeed, if you get word that you are going to be denied tenure, an external job offer allows you to ask for the tenure process to be stopped, and then you can assert that you were never officially denied tenure—a very important distinction. Late tenure-track job offers put you in a position to negotiate with strength—perhaps even for tenure itself.

Likelihood of success. Sometimes there are guarantees in the world of academic hiring: For instance, if one college recruits a junior faculty member from another, short of a budgetary collapse or meteor strike, the deal is set. But normal hiring, even when an institution expresses interest in your application, is full of intangibles. To navigate them, you need some help from trusted mentors. They can offer an appraisal of the job market and an assessment of how attractive a hire you are.

A key consideration may be that, ready or not, now may be your only opportunity to move. In almost every field, the number of tenure-track positions open far exceeds those available for associate and full professors. Once I got tenure, for example, I joked that there were no more job openings for me the next year on planet Earth. I was about right: Only one or two faculty jobs at the associate or full rank fit my profile.

Success in employment-seeking should be balanced against the effort it takes. A true job search, in which you apply for numerous positions, is almost a part-time job in itself. How will your tenure-track progress be affected by the diversion of perhaps months, and so much mental concentration?

One assistant professor spent so much time in his last two years on the tenure track looking for a job elsewhere that his productivity suffered. He came quite close to being denied tenure, and he never did find another position.

A thornier issue is the attitude of your colleagues, your department chair, and even your students to the possibility that you are planning to leave them. As said, in the year you go up for tenure, the case for seeking out a "safety exit" is pretty strong, but job searching on the job can be a taxing political process as well as a logistical one. That will be the subject of next month's column.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor at the University of Iowa.