Friday, September 05, 2008

Jumping the Tracks: Applying for a Job When You Already Have One

The Tenured Radical gmail account has been receiving a few gentle prompts asking when new installments in the job market series will appear. "Hey! What happened to the job market
posts?" one faithful reader writes. Well, I must confess that the lure of national politics and the beginning of the semester has kept me more than busy (although I have nothing -- NOTHING-- to say about the Republican convention. I have no words to express my dismay that the Republicans have finally been brought to their knees by their right wing. I couldn't even pay attention to Sarah Palin's acceptance speech for all the shots of that poor baby being passed from hand to hand in the gallery and the crowd shrieking maniacally when she delivered the line about the pit bull and the lipstick.)

However, today the series continues with:

Applying for a job when you already have one.

About a year ago there was a significant kerfuffle in the academic blogosphere that I unwittingly stepped into by suggesting that when writing a job letter you should, if you are actually employed at the time in a teaching position, use your employer's letterhead. "No!" many shouted. "This is fraud! Stealing!" It struck me as odd that anyone would have such strong feelings about what was, after all, an inexpensive piece of decorated paper. But they did. And I then came to understand, as readers linked to other posts, that there was a raging battle out there about whether, once you have stepped on the tenure track at one institution, it is ethical to jump to another track elsewhere.

May I digress for a second? Academics are so weird. They will have high-falutin' ideas about something like this, and then explain that it is ok for Professor Wingnut to be dating his teaching assistant because "lots of people in the department do it, and many of them are now happily married." I know, you never would say this, dear reader. But others would. I've heard it.

I found it bizarre that trying to change jobs could be framed as an ethical problem. I mean, after all, this is why they call it a "job," right? As opposed to, say, indentured servitude? It's why the students call you "Professor" as opposed to, say "Sergeant," "Kulak Bastard!" or "Prisoner #447865." It's why we talk about the job market -- the word market implying some degree of free agency on all sides. In fact, having once been fired from a job at an institution other than Zenith in the midst of a political squabble (when the person who fired me was deposed, I was actually re-hired) I learned something very important. A letter of appointment is not actually a contract that guarantees you a job for the period of time stated in the letter, despite the fact that we refer to these documents as "contracts." All untenured faculty are employed "at will." This means that in exchange for giving you, the employee, the "right" to break the contract, the university also has the right to break the contract. This leads me to what I would call the two major fallacies that dominate the discussion about people who already have jobs going back on the market.

1. Applying for a job elsewhere is disloyal to your current employer and to your colleagues. Loyalty is a tricky concept to impose on a probationer to whom the university has made no commitment other than the promise of a tenure review in seven years. What it suggests is that because you have had a job bestowed on you, you must never want anything other than what that institution should provide. I would put this in the category of "like it or lump it" sentiments that would include: make a bad marriage work; don't have sex if you don't want a baby; because you have always gone to Stop N' Shop you must never buy at Costco; and you have to love your parents even if they were horrible to you. Furthermore, everyone goes "ooh!" and "ahhh!" when Big Ivy comes rolling around to rip off one of your colleagues who just wrote a prize winning book. But somehow the people who have the least -- assistant professors -- are supposed to remain grateful forever that they even got a job in the first place.


2. Going back on the market adds undue pressure to an overloaded system with too few jobs; furthermore, your current job gives you a "credential" that is an unfair advantage over others. Yeah, and that article you published in a prestigious collection puts other people at a disadvantage too. Let me just say: that there are so many fine scholars without the good jobs they deserve is one of the great tragedies of intellectual life right now. But let's blame the people who need to be blamed: the federal government, and state governments, that have slashed higher education budgets, and with them, tenure-track lines. The majority of tenure-track jobs were never in the private sector; they were created in the great expansions of public education that have been occurring since the 1850's (most prominently since the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890); and again after World War II. The government gaveth, and the government tooketh away.

My point is: if you go on the market you are not ripping the food from someone else's mouth. And if you get the job, presto! Your job opens for someone else! First a visitor, and then as a beginning assistant professorship.

So let's forgo judging people who might want to go back on the market, since there are as many reasons to do so as there are people, including that you might be a basically flighty person who can't commit. So what? And there are lots of serious reasons too. You might want to choose where you are going to live, rather than have it chosen for you; you might have taken a job that you knew wasn't a good fit, but your obsession with eating and paying rent got the better of your good judgement; you may be living too far from people, or a person, who you love. Perhaps your colleagues seemed nice, but turned out to be uncontrollable monsters. Who knows? Your reasons are personal, and they are yours: you don't have to explain this to the army of the unemployed. The only thing I would say is that putting your energy into a job hunt is something you need to weigh against another priority, which is getting on with your scholarly career. I have known a very few people who are so obsessed with getting a better job that they have sold themselves short in the end.

But let's say you have decided to go back on the market. What do you need to attend to?

1. Every time you apply for a job it exposes you in a way you can't control. Some of your colleagues may feel betrayed, particularly if they worked hard to bring you there and went to a lot of trouble to negotiate a great start-up package. They put a lot of work into the search, and may not be able to hide their disappointment and resentment that you don't want to be there. So you need to know that, although you can ask for your application to be confidential up to a point (and probably should), that can't be guaranteed, and eventually you may have to deal with questions. Because of this, you will need to have a story to tell your current colleagues and your prospective new employer about why you are jumping the track, and this story may or may not be the same story you are telling yourself. My blogosphere colleague rightwing prof argued in comments to this post that applicants should tell this story right up front in the job letter. I disagree with that, but I would also say that if you are successful in your quest, eventually the story will have to be told, and possibly not on your timetable. So be prepared, and frame it in a way that leaves everyone's dignity intact .

2. It is a good idea to get in touch with a friend in the department you are applying to, or with the search chair, to find out whether your application is welcome and what the implications would be for your tenure clock. When some ads say "beginning assistant professor" they really mean it, and it could be a waste of your time to apply. And if you are moving from a SLAC or a less prestigious public institution to an R-I, be prepared to turn your tenure clock back. My very own Zenith, a SLAC that has a high research and teaching standard, is asking new hires with experience to roll back the tenure clock so that they have plenty of evidence when the tenure case is eventually heard. This may not be something you are willing to do, and I think this emerging practice has particular implications for women whose baby clock and tenure clock are competing with each other.

3. Unless you are in an utterly hostile environment, you need at least one colleague as a referee to reassure your prospective employers that there is nothing worrisome about you. This might be the person to say, "We hope we can hang on to her, but her partner is employed in Big City and the commute is taking a lot out of her." Or, "While we are excited about what he adds to our department and would regret losing him, the strength your department has in Latin American history is an obvious draw that we can't compete with." And let me say -- either of these explanations could be real, or they could be cover. No future employer wants to hear that you are in flight from tenured mysoginists, or that a gay man from New York living in Nebraska can feel like a fish on a bicycle. In other words: you may be moving for personal reasons, but come up with a legitimate professional one too.

4. What if you are on the market because you feel, through no fault of your own, that your career is in danger where you are? This is a sound reason to go on the market, in my opinion, and a good place to highlight advice I have already given above. If you are lucky, you will have a colleague at your institution with whom you can discuss this, who will help you frame your strategy, who will act as a referee, and who will agree to talk to prospective employers about things that should never go on paper and that may be too painful or unprocessed for you to discuss (racism, ideological prejudice, anti-semitism, sexual harassment, an affair that went psycho, homophobia, a horrible divorce from a senior colleague.) That said, you will eventually need a story to tell, and you need to figure out how to be truthful without potentially exposing yourself to further abuse in your department. If you are already dealing with people who are unsympathetic or cruel, you don't want it to get back to them that you are saying things that they will almost surely think are not true (when was the last time one of your colleagues self-identified as a homophobe?). But don't, whatever you do, make any of these stories part of your letter of application. If all things are equal, the committee will want you as part of the pool, and as your application proceeds to more serious stages you will know how much of your story to tell and to whom. Remember: this is why we interview people. To find out more about them; to try to judge their level of maturity and intellectual depth; and to give people the opportunity to volunteer necessary information on their own terms.

Next week: For the committee -- how do you evaluate your pool?


PhDinHistory said...

How much of your previous teaching, scholarship, and service get counted when you start the tenure clock at the new job?

What if your department loses a faculty line when you leave?

What if the prospective employer wants to hire you through an unadvertised search?

davidjhemmer said...

Thanks for the plug TR.

I am just starting the second year of a new job after doing just what you discuss, going on the market while an assistant professor, in this case for no other reason than to move to a better school and/or get a higher salary.

One decision you must make is whom, if anyone, in your current department to inform. I let the chair in my department know what I was doing, which I thought was a respectful thing to do and he basically said, "keep me informed, hopefully we can keep you here." I felt much better about this than just "sneaking around", and besides academia is such a gossippy place the probability that the news will get back to some (and then perhaps all!) of your colleagues is very high.

I was on the job market simultaneous to my tenure review and negotiated a one year tenure clock at my new school, so I am now tenured here. Often you can have two years unpaid leave, so a tenure clock of 2 years at most keeps you from burning your bridges.

Another interesting question is, suppose you are at an institution (like my previous one) where, do to union rules, it is next to impossible to get a decent raise without getting an outside job offer. Nobel prize? Sorry no raise for you! Is it ethical to go on the job market with no intention of moving? I say absolutely, although it is dangerous, I don't think bluffing is smart, you need to at least be willing to consider leaving.

A colleague of mine at another R1 institution has a provost who actually encourages faculty to apply for jobs, as the outside offers are useful to him in evaluating which of the faculty are truly stars.

I had no letters from any colleagues, but in mathematics this is pretty normal, one would almost never have recommendation letters from colleagues except perhaps the "teaching letter".

Anonymous said...

I am a new reader to the blog and enjoy it. I'd like point to out a difference of opinion with right-wing prof and something that also might be worth discussing with your audience (if they worried about the ethics of all of this).

While right-wing prof notes the ability of faculty to take an unpaid leave and "try out" a new job at another college/university, I believe this strategy is flawed. Such a strategy would leave your former colleagues at an obvious disadvantage. They would be without your services, but unable to hire a new tenure-track replacement. While this strategy is not uncommon in higher ed, I would urge your readers contemplating a move while already holding a faculty job to make the decision to move a permanent one, instead of leaving colleagues in a difficult position.

davidjhemmer said...

I understand what you are saying ga prof but the right to have an unpaid leave of absence was, at least at my previous school, part of our contract and I don't see anything wrong with taking advantage of this right. It can't possibly be my ethical duty to not utilize this benefit. Especially in my situation, there was no way I was going to give up my just-tenured status at my old school until my tenure came through at the new school.

If it is causing problems, the administration needs to deal with them by either changing the rules or hiring temps.

Now in a math department with 25+ faculty and dozens of part/timers/lecturers and half a dozen people on sabbatical every year it is a easier to adjust to a missing faculty member and in a much smaller department.

Aguacate said...

I am one of those career is in danger people, but I'm lucky to have a few folks who will and are serving as references. I'm at an R1, and the danger is simply that the department does not do enough to ensure that junior faculty can be successful in what is already a cutthroat institution. And in fact do many things that jeopardize careers. Unfortunately, as I've begun to interview, prospective employers (so far they are lower ranked than where I am) are seemingly perplexed at why I'd leave the glorious land they think Pressure Cooker U is. Because they perceive it to be high in prestige, resources, yadda yadda, I keep getting the "why would you leave?" It's clear that they think I am playing chicken with my dept and that any offer they extend will only be turned into a ploy for a raise at my current institution. How do you convince the search committee that yes, for God's sake, you really do want to move?

Anonymous said...

This is a very helpful blog post. I am applying to a job that asks for a 20 page writing sample, but the only things I have that are this length are an article that was published three years ago and another one that is not from my book manuscript in progress. The one I would like to send is my most recent and best article, accepted into my discipline's top journal, but 37 pages. Should I truncate this article somehow and send it? What would one do in this case to achieve the optimum result?

Anonymous said...

I'm with right-wing prof on the leave of absence thing. In my experience, this courtesy has only been extended to tenured people who were "trying out" another job, not junior faculty, but I find absolutely nothing wrong with maximizing one's options. If your employer offers the possibility of an unpaid leave, why not take it? It doesn't hamstring the probably soon-to-be-former department that long, and institutions always, always, always have more time and more resources than individuals.

And aguacate, I feel your pain. All you can do is to be the most open and most enthusiastic version of yourself that you possibly can be. Get to know as much as you can about the faculty and the institutions you interview with to show evidence of your interest in them. You will probably be able to convince someone that they'll be lucky to rescue a quality person like you that Pressure Cooker U. refuses to appreciate. (TR may have other, more specific advice.)

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Anonymous said...

Hi TR! Excellent post. I'm sending the link to all of my friends who are currently in this position.

To phdinhistory,

This has been my individual experience with your 3 questions.

1. My uni will allow me the full 6 years before going up for tenure (requirements are a lot higher here than at my previous school, so I want all the time I can get), but they are also flexible, and my chair has told me on two occasions that if my book comes out before year 6, he would wholeheartedly support me going up early--whenever that would be.

2. My old department did lose the line when I left. That is their problem, not mine.

(FWIW, they treated me like dirt, but even if they had been a good colleagial department, there's nothing I can accomplish by worrying from afar about the extra work my former chair is now left with as he scrambles to get adjuncts to teach my courses for an indefinite period of time.)

3. A hire through an unadvertised search is often termed a "a target of opportunity hire." This is when your prospective department makes a case so strongly in favor of hiring an individual for very specific reasons that conducting a national search would prove to be antithetical to those goals.

Anonymous said...

I switched jobs this year. My expressed reason, to referees, friends, enemies, dean, search committee, family was: I enjoy my current position, but I'd like to find a position where my growing interest in [topic] is a better fit for the department's priorities. Positive, career-oriented, low-key reason with an obvious transition to the advantages of new department.

I negotiated tenure clock. The new department offered full credit, but I expected my research productivity to suffer during the transition. It did, so I'm pleased to have an extra year.

Anonymous said...

Hi TR,

Love the blog, esp since I am in the academic advice racket also. A few comments and takes on stuff in the comments thread:

WHY NOT TO USE LETTERHEAD. I actually don’t think people should use their current institution’s letterhead when applying for a new job (most of the time). You are, after all, selling yourself and trying to separate yourself from the institution where you work. The letterhead is a reminder for the committee of where you’re at and doesn’t necessarily confer any advantage: either you’re at a “good” place (please note ironic scarequotes) and they wonder if you’re really serious about leaving (or why you are) or you’re at a “bad” place and therefore get no points for being there. Also, you’re applying as a person, not a functionary of the institution (as opposed to using the same letterhead for a recommendation). Basically, I think it’s the “don’t use letterhead for personal business” rule; don’t do it for the same reason you don’t dispute suspicious charges to your credit card on letterhead.

THE STORY OF WHY YOU WANT TO MOVE: I think the #1 rule is simply to speak in positive terms—why you are excited about the new opportunity and place and what you hope to accomplish there. The less you say about where you are (beyond the standard “I am currently an assistant professor at such and such a school”, generally speaking, the better.

IS IT UNETHICAL TO APPLY FOR ANOTHER JOB WHEN YOU HAVE ONE? No, never, unless you are actively deceiving someone about something. No matter how much capital people spent to get you to a place, it is a market, you are absolutely entitled to test it any time you want and for any reason. Of course, you can’t keep approaching your institution for counteroffers, and I don’t recommend going on the market frivolously (if you’re not serious about it, there is really no point and a lot of damage to be done) but those are other issues. Colleagues may be mad that you applied for another job, but they are either naive or they resent that you have the possibility to move (either because of your life situation or the quality of your work).

Anonymous said...


I've been on search committees in a good but not outstanding department. We've never had a problem with thoughts of "we're wasting our time recruiting this person because he's just trying to get a better offer." The reason is that it's usually tenured folks who try that strategy. You don't have tenure, they know you don't have tenure, you have doubts about whether you'll get tenure, and they know you have doubts about whether you'll get tenure.

I say just apply, tell the truth, and don't worry about it. Key piece of advice, though, write in the cover letter that you're willing to start your tenure clock over. If so, you're less of a risk than 95% of the applicants. Sometimes we get apps from assistant professors at good schools who want to come in with tenure - no way. From your comment, I don't see what you are telling them, and they genuinely want to know.

When you hear "why are you interested in us", they probably expect you will get a better offer from some other school. And they're probably right; it's a lot easier to predict your odds of recruiting an assistant professor than a new Ph.D.

Anonymous said...

I would love to hear advice, TR, on how to jump from an R1 to a SLAC. In fact -- truth be told -- I would very much like to jump to your SLAC or one like it. However, your schools and most others of its kind rarely advertise for tenured professors, and I do already have tenure. Any advice?

davidjhemmer said...

I think it is generally a cold day in hell when a SLAC hires someone at a senior level. Actually I tried to crack that force field after graduate school and again after a postdoc, but it is very very difficult. Especially the SLAC that expect you to maintain research productivity of an R1 but be at your students' beck and call as well!

HGHotho said...

Anybody have any advice for jumping from non-tenure track to tenure-track? I'm headed back to the market after eleven years at an excellent research university teaching between eight and ten courses a year. I finally published the book, and I'm eager to do a little better in terms of money and research time. My reasons for moving are very obvious--do I need a different or more elaborate story? What kind of position am I eligible for at this point?

davidjhemmer said...


Your reasons for moving will be obvious, they need no explanation. However I fear you have descended into the netherworld of the permanent academic underclass and there will be no escaping it. If you had been 2 years post degree and your book was coming out perhaps you get a TT job. Now, with the "same" research record but an additional 8 years of teaching you will find yourself getting nothing, your denominator in the equation

productivity rate=research/yearspastPHd

is too big.

In mathematics, in order to leave this permanent underclass, you would need to make a big research splash. If someone has been doing various visiting/temp positions for many years and then they prove a spectacular theorem, they will have a good shot at moving to the TT. If the same person just manages to publish a couple middling papers, they likely will not get out, even if a new PhD with the same papers might get hired. If your field is similar, your book had better be earthshattering.

HGHotho said...

Thanks for the blunt and direct opinion, Right-wing Prof. I've had a few too many years of people saying "this will be your year" to my face when they knew it wasn't. Fortunately, the book really is a splash--it has a top-of-the line publisher, an original thesis on several major figures, and a breakthrough in methodology. I knew after just a few years off the tenure track that the odds were against me unless I pulled off something big. The odds still aren't very good because of that brutal ratio you describe, but at least they're better than they were.

davidjhemmer said...

Sounds good and good luck. In case I didn't make it clear, I have not the faintest idea of hiring/job market in any field other than mathematics! Translate my experience to your situation at your own risk.

HGHotho said...

Thanks, Right-wing. I'm in a humanities field, and there's been a lot of discussion lately (led by Lindsay Waters) about the problem of expecting humanities scholars to follow the same kind of research trajectory as scientists and mathematicians. Apparently, there's a stunning statistic about mathematicians making most of their major contributions early in their careers, and an equally stunning (although less quantifiable) statistic about how long it takes humanists to make truly major contributions. By looking too hard for prodigies, humanities departments have ended up with too many trendy lightweights. I'm hoping that I can fill the gap in experience and depth they've created. In any case, I'm giving it a try.

Anonymous said...

I think we should rather define adjuncts as those who "have the least." Everyone else seems to forget we exist, including this post.

Aguacate said...

Thanks for the comments, folks. In my cover letter, I am definitely the most open and enthusiastic self I can be, and honestly discuss why I'm interested in the position, their department, what I think I can bring to it, etc. I haven't said I am willing to start over my tenure clock--and I don't think I am. I don't expect tenure coming in, but I want my years to count. Between several years of postdoc and then faculty years it'd be too much to start over. But yeah, it's when I interview that I get "Rrrreallly? Why would you want to leave Pressure Cooker U?" And I give them honest reasons but the incredulity really surprises me.

BlogSloth said...

Word up.

Anonymous said...


I'd agree with the advice you were given, but am also curious about what type of tenure track job you are looking for. I'm guessing a job with a decent teaching load. That's difficult, actually nearly impossible.

However, I think you have a decent shot at a tenure track job with a high teaching load in an undesirable location.

A better strategy would be to publish for the next three years. Cut your teaching by a course if possible. Don't do summer teaching. Take a semester off and live with your parents.

You need more time for research, given your teaching load, and you need some success. If you can publish and put together a plan for another book, a tenure track job is not out of the question.

If reducing your teaching load is not possible I see no way that you will ever get a tenure track job with a nice teaching load. Ultimately you have to convince your future employer what you would do if given the job.

Larry Cebula said...

"How much of your previous teaching, scholarship, and service get counted when you start the tenure clock at the new job?"

This is negotiable and varies tremendously by institution.

"What if your department loses a faculty line when you leave?"

This does happen sometimes. It is not your problem.

"What if the prospective employer wants to hire you through an unadvertised search?"

In my experience there are not a lot of unadvertised searches for TT positions, but I may be leading a sheltered life. I would just take the job.

And pay attention everyone to TR's point that you need a letter from someone in your current department to reassure us that you are not a weirdo.

Anonymous said...

I myself am stuck in a confusing oppurtunity myself. It feels as though Im rowing a little boat working for my company and now all of a sudden a yacht came and swooped me by. IS their an issue with loyalty? I dont think so. I think if their is something better in store for you, grab it off the shelf and make it yours, but make sure to take care of it so it can be there for long. Look, in order to be rich you gotta be a bitch

Am I Right Or Am I Right?

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