I’ve often preceded my posts with an enormous “Your Mileage May Vary” — that is to say, that this blog, like every other blog, represents my experience and what lessons I’ve gleaned from it. But here we go with a post where I haven’t got much experience at all: the mid-career search. So, consider this less “advice” and more “thoughts and musings.” And I invite anyone who’s actually done one of these (whether or not you’ve been successful) to jump in on the comments.
When I speak of the mid-career search, I’m talking about perhaps the most difficult search out there. This isn’t the regular moving around (or seeking to move around) that goes on pre-tenure. I myself applied for two jobs between my hire at Grit City U. and my tenure and promotion. Nor am I talking about those rare instances where a university with some deep pockets and/or an endowed chair goes looking to poach a superstar or an up-and-comer. (pause here to daydream…) The mid-career search that I’m talking about is where a tenured professor decides to dive back into the open market, applying for jobs right along with the grad students, lecturers, and untenured junior faculty seeking to make a move. These positions might be open-rank, or the extremely rare (at least in humanities fields) associate professor hires, or they might be advertised as “tenure track.” But they almost always mean leaving behind relative job security for the unknown.
So, why might you want to do this? I've got a few friends who have done this, and many, many more who have actively considered it. In some ways, it seems to be the same set of factors that influence the pre-tenure search:
- Location: The job might be close to family, or something else that says “home” to you. You might be dying to live in a big city, or a college town, or near a coast or the mountains or that research library that you travel to twice a year anyway. Maybe you're fine, but your spouse or partner is desperately unhappy. Whatever. Location is not the number one thing that matters in any job, but it does matter. Dr. Crazy once got some serious snarky blowback (the infamous Gumdrop Unicorn controversy) about this several years ago at a certain Website that Shall Not Be Named. But I am willing to defend the proposition that living near friends and/or family and/or in a place you find nurturing is something we all factor in to our decisions. And for the record, that website folded in 2010, and its successor folded shortly thereafter... and Dr. Crazy's still going strong. Take that, snarkmeisters.
- Money/Resources: The job you’re in might be short on resources. Maybe you haven’t had a raise in five years. Maybe you don’t get money to present at conferences. Maybe all the books in your library are from 1976 or earlier. If you see a job where you’d be doing more or less the same thing but with better salary, benefits, or campus resources, it’s tempting.
- New career opportunities and challenges: This one tends to be more about the mid-career person than the early mover: now that you’ve got your feet under you, you may realize that you have ambitions to build your teaching and/or research program in directions that you can’t take it where you’re at. Midcareer’s main challenge is the fight against stagnation and inertia. A new set of challenges can be a tonic to the sluggish academic soul.
- Partner concerns: are you part of an academic couple where one partner is the trailing spouse, subsisting on whatever courses the university tosses your way? That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but for many couples, career inequity can put a strain on a relationship. Likewise, if your partner is a non-academic who can only work in a handful of areas in the country, and your current job is not in one of those, a career move may be worth considering.
- Toxic work environment where you’re at: here I’m talking about something beyond “They’re not paying me what I’m worth” or “80% of my course load is the survey.” Sure, these might be reasons you think about moving, but here I’m talking about “I’m facing systematic discrimination” or “I’ve been bullied by a senior colleague and nobody will do anything about it” or “I’m dealing with a sexual harassment issue that won’t go away,” or “I don’t feel safe here.” There’s also — and this is the flip side of the “partner concerns” section above — the possibility that you’re dealing with an ugly divorce/breakup from a colleague that is making your work life unbearable, and being somewhere else — anywhere else — seems preferable than facing the next 3 years or so it will take for all the trauma and drama to blow over.
- The Dream Job: Either institution type or actual institution. That place that you can’t not apply to.
- You're ready and positioned to move up: Maybe you were middle-of-the-pack back when you got your current job, or it was just a thin year on the market. Maybe it's a good job, but you now think you're qualified to step up. Humility is important for the job you're in (that is, don't go being an ass to your current colleagues, no mater what), but there's nothing wrong with ambition, if that's your bent.
Okay, so you’ve asked yourself “Why might I want to do this?” The next question is: “Do I really want to do this?”
- Job searches take time: Think you’re tired and overworked now? If you haven’t been on the market for a decade, you’ve probably forgotten (or blocked out) how much time and effort applying for a job — even one job! — takes: secure letters from recommenders; write a good cover letter that reflects what you bring to the position, rewrite that letter about a zillion times; research the institution and the faculty; find the perfect writing sample; maybe even write a statement of teaching philosophy (and rewrite that a zillion times, too). A semi-successful search takes even more time than that: you’ll be doing even more research on the institution, prepping for an interview (When’s the last time you had to boil your current research down to 90 seconds? Do you think the process will be any less hateful now? Especially if you're in the early stages of that second- or third-book project, rather than just wrapping one up?); thinking about a job talk; figuring out how to schedule a campus visit around a full-time teaching and service commitments. Do all of this while maintaining your work load and all the grading and meetings and stuff. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
- The market is much worse than it was a dozen years ago: Seriously. We midcareer folk blog about this, but it’s BAD out there.
- Finding letters is in some ways harder than it was when you were a grad student: Yeah, you’ve got a broader reputation in the field (and I don’t have to tell you that dissertation committee members are not good choices at this point, right?), but these hotshot faculty who will tell everybody that you’re the bees knees might become a bit more reticent to set you up as competition to their own grad students on the market.
- You have significant anchors where you're at: Your spouse/partner may not want to move. Your children may be in excellent schools. Your aging parents may live nearby. You may have purchased a home or put down deep roots in other significant ways. The longer you're in one place, the more likely this all is to happen. Remember that a different job may contribute to your happiness in some ways, but detract from it in others. And you might not be the only one who has a say.
- Expect the stinkeye from all those grad students and lecturers who are desperately trying to land their first job. I recall how irritated I was as a first-time job seeker to realize that some of my competition were people who had perfectly good jobs already. Couldn't they just stay put so I could have a shot at a job, too? On the other hand...
- The search committee may only want to (or only be able to) do a junior hire: There are lots of reasons that this might be true. But know that this is entirely out of your control. Last year (and yes, this is the inspiration for this post), Fellowship University, where I was so happy for a year, advertised to fill a long-vacant position in my field. So I wrote to the search committee chair, who I had met and lunched with a couple of times while there, and s/he told me, off the record, that while s/he would love to have me as a colleague, the way the search was structured meant that a mid-career person wouldn't even be shortlisted.
- More stinkeye, this time from colleagues: If word gets out that you’re on the market, you may be in for some unpleasant reactions from the people you work with, ranging from isolation to hostility to retaliation. I devoutly hope that all my readers are in nurturing, supportive environments where colleagues understand and respect that everyone has their own career calculus and no one takes it personally. But that’s not always the case. This, of course, will be exacerbated if you have a history of being a department malcontent, slacker, or prima donna — though chances are that, in this case, your colleagues will do everything they can to support your attempts to go elsewhere.
- Things are rough everywhere: Granted, life at a well-funded private research university is different than at a mid-tier regional comprehensive. But most career moves aren’t these huge jumps. If you’re moving from, say, one state system to another, the issues are going to be different, but they’ll still be there. Even if you’re moving from public to private (or vice-versa) there are going to be resource challenges. If you approach the search committee as if you were Cinderella and they were your fairy godmother, waving the wand and making matieral and fiscal issues vanish, you’ll be disappointed. Likewise…
- They call it a “Dream Job” for a reason: Dreams are not reality. And along with this, remember that if we’re talking about top-tier colleges and universities, your dream job is likely the dream job of dozens if not hundreds of other applicants out there, which means that the applicant pool will be much larger.
- A geographic cure does not cure all ills: Or, to put it more crudely: If an asshole gets on a plane in L.A., it’s that same asshole who gets off the plane in New York. As noted above, there are toxic work environments that one simply must escape. Agreed. But as with any fight with a spouse, sometimes it's hard to tell what's them and what's you. If you want to leave to escape drama, is it drama that you had a big part in creating (say, by flirting with your grad students or being condescending with your colleagues)? If you’re unable to be happy in your job, is it because of the job, or because you just find it difficult to be happy in anything less than your ideal? Answer that question honestly — to yourself, if to no one else.
- You may have to give up a lot: If the search is advertised as tenure-track or Assistant Professor, you may be able to negotiate a bit, but there are always constraints. Would you give up your rank? How about tenure? How about take a pay cut? Teach more survey courses and fewer in your area of expertise? Undergraduate courses only?
- Can you face starting over? Likely you’ve spent the last ten-plus years building a professional reputation among your colleagues. A move means proving yourself all over again. You’ll need to build new professional networks. If you’re not married or partnered, then you’ll need to build entirely new personal networks as well: everything from your friends to your gym to your favorite coffee shop or breakfast joint. That stuff gets much harder as we get older. Are you willing to risk a period of loneliness and isolation?
Right. So there are some of the questions and considerations. Please expand, contribute, and even contradict in the comments. And, if the craziness of my own job doesn’t interfere, then sometime in the upcoming week I’ll post a "part two" dealing with things to focus on if you do indeed decide to do this thing.
 One of these was for a location closer to family; another was because the type and caliber of institution was really appealing to me. Neither one resulted in even an on-campus interview, much less an offer. But that’s a story for another day.
 The exception here, of course, is if you’ve built entirely new professional relationships with them, post-grad school.
 Yes, I just asked you to think about whether you were an asshole. Don’t confuse that with me asserting that you are an asshole. It’s a good question for all of us to periodically ask ourselves, even if we’re not looking for a job at the time.