[Updated July 2017.]
Today is a Special Request Post for Matt, who wishes to know the ins and outs of applying for a second tenure track job. That is to say, how to apply for a job when you are already in a tenure track position but hope or dream of getting another, different (better) one.
This is an excellent question.
It’s tricky. Maybe one of the trickiest things there is in an academic career. There is usually a certain amount of secrecy involved for at least some part of the process. And secrecy breeds anxiety and stress.
At the same time, sometimes people overestimate just how secretive they actually have to be, and cause themselves unnecessary levels of stress and anxiety.
Before we delve into that question, though, let’s pause to consider the question of when to go back out on the market. While the answer to this will be highly personalized, there are a few considerations. Going back on the market in the first two years of your tenure track job is often a mistake. The market is stressful and time-consuming. It is good to enjoy the stability of your first job to get some solid teaching under your belt, and learn how to be an assistant professor. The job doesn’t have to be perfect.
At the same time, if you discovered that you’ve landed in a viper’s nest and need to leave for your own physical and mental health, then go for it, no matter how soon it is.
At the third year, you have a bit of a chance to look up and ask if you’re happy, and on track for tenure. If for some reason your tenure case is already looking extremely shaky, then you might consider jumping ship as an option. It’s usually a terrible option, because the job market and the hassles of moving and starting a new job will put you even further behind in your writing, most likely. But, if you move to a place with lower tenure expectations, then you might turn out ok.
You can also consider leaving, around the third year, from a position of strength. If your publications are on track, and you’ve accrued great teaching experience, then you will be well situated to make the move to a better, more appealing, or higher status assistant professor position.
Another well traveled path is to go on the market closer to year four or five. The reason is, you’ve been working toward tenure, and your c.v. looks fantastic. Your book is written and possibly already in press, you’ve been promoting yourself like mad at conferences, and your first blush of reputation is reaching its peak. It’s an ideal time to move up! As long as you can clearly articulate in your materials and interview that you are leaving not because of problems at university #1, but because of your ambitions for a brilliant career at university #2, then you’ll be an appealing candidate for many top tier positions, and may be able to negotiate tenure as part of your offer.
Be aware that when you move without tenure, and you aren’t advanced enough to do the above, then you lose years toward tenure. The publications that you did prior to arriving at university #2 will not count at university #2, unfortunately (unless you make special arrangements at the time of offer), and you may end up having to write a whole second book (!) or another set of articles for the new department’s tenure case. Get the expectations in writing before you sign on the dotted line.
Now, having chosen a time to go back out on the market, be aware that it the trickiest part of the process may be judging whether or not your job search will, if discovered, earn you the universal enmity and resentment of your department. It might not. In many universities, going back on the market for a better job is in fact a time-honored tradition, which is practiced for a number of reasons, including:
- Wanting to elicit a counter-offer to gain some important benefits at institution #1, such as a raise or spousal tenure track offer.
- Feeling aggrieved and unappreciated at institution #1 and wanting to prove one’s value outside.
- Needing to accommodate a partner’s career requirements.
- Actually just wanting a better job.
The important thing to realize here is that every department, and every departmental culture, is different. You have to move cautiously. This is one time when it is really, really critical that you have the advice of a trusted senior mentor, either in your department or outside of it (and in a later post I will be talking about how to find senior faculty mentors). That mentor can tell you what happened to “the last guy” who went back out on the market, whether he was shunned or envied by his colleagues, whether they still talk to him at conferences, whether he got a reasonable counter-offer or not, and what ultimately happened to him. You need to gather this real-life information first, before doing anything.
Now, if your researches reveal that your department is a vile, toxic, back-stabbing environment in which real retaliation follows on acts that colleagues consider disloyal, then you should, indeed, proceed in a very secretive fashion, quietly letting your letter-writers know that you’re on the market, and asking that they keep it quiet.
However, if you find that you are in a more typical departmental environment, one with a reasonable level of collegiality, and learn that assistant professors have indeed moved on to other jobs without being stabbed in the back as they leave, then it is my general opinion that honesty is a better policy. By which I mean, telling your department head. This is a professional courtesy that will gain you a great deal of good will if and when you come to the point of entertaining a counter-offer.
It is important that if you do decide to tell the Head, you tell her some legitimate reasons for wanting to leave. These would include:
- Wanting to be at a department or institution with more strength in your field
- Wanting to accommodate a partner’s career
- Needing to be by elderly parents
- Being actively recruited by another institution
- Wanting better conditions of work, such as lower teaching load and more research money
- Wanting to work with a particular type of student, or graduate students (if you program doesn’t have them)
- Wanting to move to a more teaching/research oriented institution
Your reasons should not be random complaints about colleagues or the weather (although god knows, those play a role). Your Head will respect you more if you articulate clearly that the things you wish to gain are things that are simply not possible at your current job.
Be aware, though, that your Head MAY come back with an offer to “fight” for you—and to elicit from the Dean many of the goodies you seek. You have to be honest, again: would you consider staying if they give you a raise? If they hire your spouse? If they give you teaching release?
Do not walk into this discussion with the Head (and that includes after you may have already gotten an offer) without knowing your own bottom line. Because the Head should never be put into a position to spend precious capital with the Dean to “buy” you advantages, only to have you thumb your nose at them. That elicits ill will all around.
Returning to the question of whether to tell your Head that you’re on the market, once again, I want to emphasize that ultimately you must be cautious, and look at a multitude of variables, including how supportive your Head has been to date, how short-handed the department is already, how brutalized the department has been by previous departures, and so on. To repeat: the advice of a trusted senior mentor is going to be your very best protection as you move forward.
But the reason I advocate telling the Head, is that ultimately, it can work to your advantage in several ways. First of all, the very best application will include a letter from your current Head or from a senior faculty member in your current department.
Here’s what you may not have considered. The first question that department #2 will ask is: why is he leaving department #1? Was there a problem? Was he hounded out? Was he about to get turned down for tenure? Did everyone hate him? Will we hate him?
The letter from your current Head is your greatest insurance against those doubts and questions. That letter will say something like, “We love Matt. He’s been a great colleague and a fantastic teacher. We’d love to see him stay here for his whole career, but we know that our campus at Eastern Nevada State has few of the resources in rainforest studies that he seeks to support his research agenda, nor do we have a graduate program in the department. So we support him in his ambitions to move to a larger, R1 institution.”
Now, as you proceed in the application process, if you are short-listed, the Head can assist you in other ways. She may reiterate her desire to fight for you. She might even go to the Dean for what’s called a “pre-emptive counter-offer,” which is an offer made to you that will induce you to drop out of the search, and turn down the campus visit. These are not common, but do happen. They’re most common at more advanced levels.
For assistant professors, particularly at cash-poor institutions, a far more likely response is: “well, we’d be sorry to lose you. I hope you don’t like it there!” And then the Head waits, because there is no point in getting everyone all worked up until she knows if you actually have an offer or not. But she will be starting the groundwork for a possible counter-offer if you’ve indicated you’d consider one.
The ethics of making campus visits while you’re in the middle of a teaching semester are obviously rather fraught. It really isn’t quite kosher to cancel your classes and fall down on the job you do have in your mad rush to get a better one. Please treat your current students and colleagues with the respect and consideration they deserve. But ultimately, yes, you have to make the campus visit if you’re serious about the job, so plan ahead, and have videos, out-of-class assignments, or guest lectures planned well ahead to drop in at a moment’s notice (as campus visit invites can often be a bit last minute).
When you are on your campus visit at department #2, the single most important rule is not to complain about or criticize department #1 in any personalized or emotional way. Why? Because your would-be future colleagues are closely studying you to see how you talk about you colleagues, and if you come off sounding like a malcontent vis-a-vis department #1, they have no reason to suspect you’ll be different with them. You MAY, on the other hand, speak honestly about the legitimate needs that are not getting met at institution #1, such as:
- a graduate program
- abundant research funding
- a library rich in your field
- an appealing geographical location (especially when it relates to your work, as opposed to personal desires; for example, the appeal for an Asianist of a job on the West Coast)
- spousal opportunities
Department #2 will feel flattered and smug about having those things, and will look favorably on you for wanting them for yourself.
Once an offer is made, usually in mid-spring, then it is critical that you tell your department immediately, and communicate as clearly and directly as you can whether you will consider a counter-offer. If you will not, then the department must immediately make plans for your replacement in your scheduled fall classes, committee assignments, etc.
The question of when to tell your graduate students is one of the most fraught. They will panic, and you can’t really prevent that. It is perhaps kindest to tell them rather later, after the offer is 100% sure, rather than cause them to fret and lose sleep for all the months that you are on the market. One thing to remember is that sometimes, if department #2 has the resources, you can negotiate graduate funding for one or more graduate students to “follow” you to the new job.
[As noted in a comment below, the other school of thought is to tell them early in the process, so that they don’t hear vague rumors that they aren’t allowed to substantiate, or have to walk around awkwardly pretending that they don’t know you’re on the market when they do. In addition, more lead time gives them more time to make their own alternative plans. This is probably the better advice].
I did that successfully for my first Ph.D. student, who started her graduate studies at Oregon, but completed her Ph.D. At Illinois.
This is more common for more advanced people, but even an assistant professor can pull it off occasionally.
When you have signed on the dotted line, and all is official, have the head of department #1 make an official announcement to the department, so that there is no confusion or backchannel gossip. Be gracious and kind to your colleagues, affect a rueful grimace, and learn to say, “I really wish I could stay, but in the end, the offer from XXX was too good for me and my family, and we had to take it. I’m sorry to leave, though—I’m really going to miss it here.”
[This is a topic that I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of. Readers, please weigh in with your own advice and experiences.]