Ambivalence About Midcareer Moves

Today’s column comes not from the usual reader’s question, but rather from several negotiations I worked on lately with faculty clients mulling a midcareer move. They experienced a lot of ambivalence in coming to a decision, and afterward struggled with feelings of buyer’s remorse.

That seems to happen frequently when I assist “established” academics — meaning advanced assistant, tenured associate, or even full professors — on a career change. An existential anxiety and midcareer ambivalence underpins many of our exchanges.

A.B.D.s and brand new Ph.D.s often have but one offer to seize, and are elated to have a job — period. Even when they are in a position to choose between several positions, they are dealing with multiple unknown futures. But shifting gears from an established position in one department to a different one on a new campus brings its own set of doubts and uncertainties.

 

Sure, a midcareer move can be a way to finally jump ship from a toxic department — a reward for all that publishing and networking you have done for years with a laser-precise focus of “getting out.” In that case what you probably feel about the move is jubilation, not angst.

But most of the midcareer academics I work with are in mixed-bag situations. They are considering a lateral move because they have a job that is adequate, but not amazing. When there isn’t a clear push factor (like a seriously dysfunctional department) or a clear pull factor (like an endowed chair in the city of your dreams, with a signing bonus), the possibility of starting from scratch somewhere new triggers ambivalence that is not always easy or possible to resolve.

All sorts of questions about the new job, department, and institution may leave you uncertain about whether to stay or go:

  • What if the new place turns out to be toxic?
  • Or what if the department is collegial, but you still have a hard time gelling with your new colleagues?
  • What if delaying tenure — which is often inevitable in a lateral move — disadvantages you, both because you have to wait two or three extra years to seek tenure and because you now only have a short time to prove yourself at the new institution?
  • What if, in the time that it takes to adjust to a different teaching climate, your teaching evaluations tank?

The what-ifs are endless. Beyond the professional considerations lie all the complicated personal reasons why you might be weighing a midcareer move. Among them:

  • You may see it as your last chance to leave what you’d hoped and assumed would be your “starter” job. There is truth to the whole “last chance” thing. While people can and do change jobs after tenure, it is much more difficult — simply because there are far fewer openings for tenured professors than tenure-track ones.
  • Maybe you still harbor a publish-your-way-out dream of moving from a teaching-oriented college to a research university (or, much more rarely, vice-versa).
  • You have family reasons. Perhaps you are hoping to resolve a two-body problem and work in the same city as your partner/spouse. Or maybe you want to move closer to your aging parents.
  • Maybe you don’t feel comfortable where you are living. Perhaps being a queer liberal in a religious conservative part of the country is isolating and soul-crushing. Maybe it’s hard being single in a tiny rural town where everyone is paired off. Or maybe you’re tired of city life and want to move to a more rural setting.

A midcareer offer puts all of those personal factors on the scales. No one but you can weigh how important each factor is to you. But I can suggest some prompts to help you think through the decision.

Which job would you rather retire from? If this is the last job you are going to have (which is totally possible), how will the differences between the two options play out? This may include thinking about things like location, length of commute, or environmental factors that may become increasingly oppressive over time.

How financially stable are the two institutions? Tenure is one thing, but you also need to compare the financial health and outlook of the campus (and/or the system) you would leave versus the one you would join. If the job offer comes from a private institution, is it tuition driven? If it’s from a public institution, how is the higher-education system in that state? What battles have they been fighting? Is your disciplinary area safe from budget cutbacks?

How healthy is the relationship? If the potential move is driven by personal reasons, like being closer to your partner, will you still feel OK about your new department and campus if the relationship ends? If you have kids, you may end up marooned in place for custody reasons.

How “young” are the departments you are choosing between? A department in which many faculty members are less than a decade from retiring will look completely different in the near future — and you will have a hand in shaping it. On the other hand, if you have awful colleagues, and the majority of them are your age, that, too, is something to weigh.

Is there a status differential between the places? And if so, how important is it to you? This may be difficult to admit. You don’t want to feel snobbish or silly for falling into the trap of worrying about cultural capital — but be honest with yourself. Is this something that will eat at you every time you don a nametag at Big National Conference and someone squints at it in the elevator because you internalized your adviser’s voice telling you that you are destined for an Ivy, not a compass-point state university?

With tenure being the ultimate academic aspiration, the ethos of our profession is that, if you are lucky, a job is for life. Don’t underestimate the fact that you have been socialized and professionalized into a mental state in which you are — quite literally — picking between two different lives, in a sense. So it’s not strange to have a lot of agita around this process, and you are far from alone in feeling it.

Karen Kelsky is founder and president of The Professor Is In , which offers advice and consulting services on the academic job search and on all aspects of the academic and post-academic career. She is a former tenured professor at two universities. Browse an archive of Kelsky’s previous advice columns here .

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