Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Mid-Career Search part 1: Do you want to do this?

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.[1]  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?[2]), 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.[3]
  • 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.

[1] 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.
[2] The exception here, of course, is if you’ve built entirely new professional relationships with them, post-grad school.
[3] 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.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

So I'm obviously not mid-career, but a pre-tenure "looker." I don't really feel like I can look for another job without some serious publications, so I decided to wait it out a bit longer and see what happens with some articles I have out right now. It would also be nice to have a book contract before I start looking -- if not have a book done. I don't want to do a lateral move, but a move up.

Of course, it's all complicated by the fact that I have kids who love their school and a spouse who makes almost twice as much money as me at a decent (nonacademic) job. And we own a house. Adding all that together, I'll probably never have a chance at a better job because it would likely necessitate a move. So maybe I should just suck it up. I don't know. I'm torn.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Yep. It's complicated. I will say that it's probably less complicated pre-tenure than post-tenure.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

(And I just added a bullet point to that effect. Thanks.)

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you're doing this series! I'm post-tenure and was just invited to apply to my dream job (listed at associate/full level). BUT. I'm seven months pregnant, and having various complications, and I'm seriously exhausted. Do I have the energy to write a decent application? If I were invited to a campus interview, would I even be able to get there? Am I just causing myself unnecessary stress by applying to a job that's a long shot in any case? So conflicted!

Susan said...

I'll just add to your list of concerns/ questions that the older you get, the more difficult it is to build the *personal* support network in a new place. At mid-career you have your professional network, but when you move to a new place you need friends, not just colleagues. Maybe it's easier if you have kids (I notice that parents develop networks by necessity) but for those of us who are childless, it's a serious issue.

Anonymous said...

I will second what Susan said, and it was something for which I was completely unprepared.

Historiann said...

I think you've covered it all, Notorious, with some excellent points here from your commenters.

I think Susan's point bears reflection, even if you have children. A lot of people one meets through one's children are probably not destined to become BFFs. Having a number of good friends & a support network is important for everyone, and if you've got one, it's not something you can count on reconstituting overnight at a new location.

That said: why not apply for jobs when appropriate ones come up? It's a good professional exercise to write a job letter, and if one opportunity doesn't work out, it may generate buzz about you as a person who's willing to explore new opportunities.

Flavia said...

I'm seconding Historiann--both on how fabulous and comprehensive this is, and on the general utility of occasionally taking a flier on the occasional job.

I'm now a couple of years post-tenure, and have only applied for a small handful of jobs over the past eight years (mostly but not entirely pre-tenure, and mostly but not entirely with the goal of getting closer to my long-distance spouse); so far, I've only gotten to MLA-interview stage, and only with jobs about which I was ambivalent.

But having a relatively updated job letter, and relatively recent rec letters, and relatively recent interview experience has still been useful; I may never move, or I may only move 15 years from now. But I think having some experience on the job market *after* getting my first tenure-track job makes me more ready for any future opportunities that may arise, and also makes me a better and more thoughtful member of a hiring committee (and/or department). It's good for our professional citizenship to have a sense of what it's still like out there.

(Obviously, the latter isn't a reason on its own to apply! But it's still a compensatory benefit.)

Anonymous said...

I don't see why you'd consider any of these things before applying for jobs, except for the time and annoyance of writing the application. You consider all of this after you've got the offer. Otherwise you're just making skycastles.

Flavia said...

I partly disagree and partly agree with Anon 8.49--first, the disagreement:

There can be a real cost to always fantasizing about how much better things would be elsewhere, and this post really gets at the core of that problem in urging would-be job candidates to think hard about where their unhappiness or restlessness might be coming from. There might be ways to improve or reinvigorate one's current job situation--whether at the job itself (maybe being DGS or Chair would be fulfilling, or getting involved as a mentor or advisor to a student organization) or outside it (maybe there are professional challenges like a new research project or getting more involved in a professional society--or maybe you need more of a life APART from your job!).

But--to partly agree--my sense is that everyone I know/know of who eventually made a mid-career move didn't do it by just waiting around for an awesome job to drop out of the sky. Most seem to have applied for a number of jobs, at least off and on for several years (and occasionally making it to the final round), before eventually getting an offer they accepted. If nothing else, you're keeping your hand in, learning more about different institutions/departments, and making connections.

What strikes me as (psychologically) hard about the mid-career move is that there are so few jobs that hire at that level that it's easier to overinvest when Dream Job in Dream City opens up; most people aren't applying to everything that moves the way they did as recent PhDs. But the more one can treat the mid-career search as a long-term project that's about seeing what's out there and keeping opportunities open, the likelier it is to be, if not successful, at least not a waste of time and energy.

But if it's an annual cycle of getting one's hopes up and then crashing into frustration and disappointment. . . that's not so good.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Thanks, Flavia: that was a really thoughtful response. There's also something else to consider: your reputation in the field. When you apply for a job, you are asking for someone to invest time and/or professional capital, both of search committee and letter writers. You don't want to get a reputation as someone who is a bad investment of that time and capital -- which you may need to draw on if/when a great opportunity does come along.

Susan said...

My advisor's advice on this question was to never apply to a job you wouldn't consider taking. So random job applications to get a raise are risky. I've heard more than one story of the faculty member going to the dean with an offer in their pocket, and being told, "Well, that sounds like a good offer!"

So carefully thinking about where you are now, and where you are applying, is always helpful.

Therese said...

If your dream job is posted, how can you do anything but go after it with all you've got? To my mind, it's about knowing what you really want. My mid-career move to Europe was terrifying but also the best decision I could have made. Not only did I land the job, which has brought my research to the attention of a far wider audience than in my prior position (where I was fortunate to be at a good state university with very nice colleagues), but I was also successful in applying for major funding just a year later. The risks in a mid-career move are great--no doubt about it, starting over is exhausting--but the rewards can be more than you imagined possible. Who knew that a medieval art historian could get $1.5m for a study centered on women and art?!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Therese, I think you're right -- this, for me, is "that job you can't not apply for. But I'd be interested (and I think my readers would, too!) to hear a little from someone who's actually done this. What were the hardest parts of the search and/or transition? What were the rewards (other than the 1.5M -- wow!) that made it worthwhile for you? What advice would you give to someone in a similar position?

Susan said...

A stimulating job that fits you makes it worthwhile. I moved across the country, and it was harder than I expected. I miss my friends in my old place - I'd been there 20+ years - but I don't regret the move (most days).

Therese said...

In retrospect, the most important thing I did leading up to the big move was networking. I spent a lot of time meeting future colleagues personally, talking with them about their work and mine, and showing what my contributions to my new institution could be. I felt like I was well set to jump straight in on the first day. Even so, the learning curve was desperately steep at the beginning. And while I have some wonderful colleagues who welcome an outsider's perspective, the sentiment is not unanimous throughout the institution. I wish I could say that bringing in major funding at least won their grudging respect, but it didn't, so I guess that my advice would be to recognize ahead of time that a mid-career move means disruption, not only to your own life but to the workings of the institution. Some of your new colleagues will have argued in favor of such disruption, but others would have preferred the status quo. Your presence will be evidence of that divide. In my case, I keep hoping that by reaching out to junior scholars on the other side of the divide, I will eventually win them over once the senior members retire.

As for rewards, this move has been incredibly stimulating because of all the ideas it continues to spark. I find myself constantly jotting down new avenues for my own research, along with thesis topics for grad students. It's as though all the changes inherent in the move brought with them a renewed capacity to spot research possibilities that hadn't been so active before.

If anyone is interested in learning more about the big grants, see As principal investigator you can be of any nationality, although you must be based at a European institution for the life of the grant (max. 5 years).

Ellie said...

To Susan's point about personal networks, I totally agree about how hard it is to build them as a mid-career, childless person. But I would add that losing them can be another factor in getting back on the market. I am happy enough professionally and have found ways to make peace with the geographically challenged location of my institution. But the network of friends and colleagues I built up as a new faculty member have evaporated over the years as others have left, whether for professional, personal, or geographical reasons, and it's proved pretty impossible to break into new social circles in a small, family-oriented town.

I look forward to what people have to say about the process. Besides the fact that there are virtually zero jobs for the tenured!

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College Misery said...

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College Misery