Sunday, May 21, 2017

Is the pre-tenure job search a thing?

I recently posted a pool on twitter about when to apply for a new faculty position when you already have one.

I had often seen friends and colleagues apply when their tenure package went in to boost their leverage with current university and to see what was out there. I thought this is just what people do. My friend, who's a senior faculty member in engineering thought this was a terrible idea and that his department would immediately assume the candidate had been told they would not get tenure.

The poll which is not scientific, but had a good number of respondents, also suggested that a good time to look could be earlier than tenure, Year 3-4. But why would you leave that early when you have barely set up your lab?

I still don't know what is the "right" time and the reasons for doing a job search are many pre- or post-tenure.

The most obvious reason is that you really want to leave. Let's admit it. A lot of junior faculty candidates may not have many options or may not be savvy enough to ask all the right questions during their first search, so they end up in a situation which is not ideal. In addition, circumstances change: department chairs retire or move to a different position, colleagues move, deans and university presidents change and shift priorities, your significant other is in a different city. Or simply your research program brings you in a new direction and you need different equipment or resources.

But there is also the need for leverage. My assumption that the pre-tenure search was a frequent occurrence came from seeing multiple people do it, and not only get tenure, but also nice retention packages, because another school was trying to take them away. I have also seen senior academics play this game over and over again. The more competitive the university is, the more you need an outside offer to grab attention. A friend once complained "I feel the people who get the most are the ones constantly threatening to leave". So, you don't really want to leave, but you need something and you get it through a job search. This is a tricky proposition as senior administrators may not appreciate this game and it must be played very very shrewdly, especially if there is an expectation of loyalty. It may be more effective in larger places and it's not that you can ask "So, is the pre-tenure search a thing here?"

Yet, I personally think that if you are at all worried about tenure, it may not be a bad idea. The thing with tenure is that you don't necessarily know how it's going to go, unless you really trust your department and your university. I had friends who were told everything was great, but then were nixed by the department. Others had full departmental support and were nixed by a new senior administrator who suddenly changed the standards. Some of them really regret not doing a search after they obtained their first or second R01. Applying for jobs as a hot fully funded researcher has a very different vibe than applying after tenure denial. And going up for tenure with a few job offers makes sure you will land on your feet, no matter what.

In general, moving is difficult because of the downtime in your research and having to learn a whole new set of politics and mores. At the same time, it could be great and sanity/career-saving. And a job search doesn't have to mean moving, but simply exploring options. If just it wasn't so time-consuming and emotionally exhausting...

So, the upshot is that I don't know. When I did a second poll to find out when people had moved, I had very few responses, but I know from experience that scientists move around and that many more want to move. What do people think? Let me know in the comments.

11 comments:

  1. Great post, thanks. My gut feeling is that one should always consider that the host institution may not be pleased with this approach. Using other offers as leverage is great, but I would only use it if moving is really a serious option. Using an offer 'just' as leverage can easily result in being forced to take a position that one doesn't want.

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    1. I agree. I don't think it should be done "just for leverage". If you are happy and supported there is no need to this, but in many cases there may be some interest in seeing what's out there. Or you're beeing recruited somewhere else and you want to take a look. Every university or department is going to be different in its response to this because it will depend on the personalities involved and the culture. That's the tricky part...

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  2. Luminiferous AetherMay 22, 2017 at 10:12 AM

    I'm new to the PI world, so I don't have any first-hand experience on this, but almost every example that I have seen moved after tenure to cushy Endowed Chair positions (of course, these folks were pretty well-funded to begin with) or moved from research track to TT after getting their first R01.

    If I were to make such a move, I would want to be armed with some leverage (such as NIH funding) and be ready to move if I had to. Personally, I feel that if people are happy in their current department/institution but are playing this game to get a good retention package, it is a risky move and they should be mentally prepared to actually move. That said, as a regular reader of your blog, I know that your motivations are different.

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    1. One of the reasons why I brought this up is that I have many friends moving right now or trying to move and I've been kind of shocked by this whole process. The options they are getting for one reason or another are beyond what I thought was possible, so I'm wondering...

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    2. Luminiferous AetherMay 23, 2017 at 1:37 PM

      Hmm interesting. Would be great if you could at some point put up a post about your experiences/observations on this, whether direct or indirect. Whenever the timing is appropriate for you to do so, of course. It would be very helpful to those of us who are in that position right now or might be in that position a few years down the line.

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    3. I know. I was trying to outline some of those options in this post, but it's hard to do without giving away specifics. I'm weary of recounting other people's stories without their approval. I will have to ask for permission to share. I don't have anything is mine to share, just watching at the moment...

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  3. I've moved twice pre-tenure. I started out at a 2nd tier large state university, but knew from the get-go that I wouldn't be staying long. Bad location (geographically), bad dept politics, and poor support for research. But it was the best offer I received as a postdoc (bad year for academic hiring overall). 2 years later in I ran into a colleague at a conference who basically just asked if I was happy where I was. 6 months later my lab moved to an academic research institute out west and spent about 5 years there. Did well, got grants, pubs, etc., but was really missing the university setting. Recently hired back into a traditional department with promotion, but had to wait a year for tenure since I wasn't technically tenured yet. Definitely an unorthodox path that cost me some time relative to my peers, but worked out in the end. In these types of cases personal contacts are key. No way I would've been able to move twice as just another application in the 'pile'. Plus, if you're moving large grants with you it changes everything. Amazing how money cuts through a lot of the bs.

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    1. I think this is really the key for moving having the right contacts...or developing them in advance for the right move. But after all money makes the world go round.

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  4. I cannot imagine finding the energy and time to put in serious job applications for other positions before tenure. It's hard enough managing all that goes in and around a young lab. I guess what I am trying to say is: unless I would have a hunch that tenure might be denied, I would never put in the effort to apply/explore other options simply to have leverage (call me old fashioned). Also, I would think (call me naive) that applying elsewhere while having tenure would send more of a sign of wanting to consider other options (rather than having). But little do I know: I've not encountered any of this in my own university via friends or colleagues and at my former place the people who did not get tenure were so shocked and amazed that they never even considered another option until their fate had been sealed.

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  5. So suppose you are not being recruited by anybody but want to move while in yrs 3-4. Do you just fill out job applications like any postdoc would? What do you do about stuff like rec letters etc, especially if you don't really want to share with anyone yet that you are looking?

    Or do you email search chairs, dept chairs, and deans directly and ask for a look through your CV?

    Or is there another standard route? Seems like all the cases I know of are somebody being specifically recruited by a collaborator/close colleague. But waiting around for for that of you are interested in possibly moving seems terribly inefficient.

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    1. I think you do all these things. By now you should have a wide network of colleagues, so you mention to close friends you may be looking. If a position in a place you're interested in opens up and you know someone there, you ask around and have them put in a good word, or you just email the chair and show your interest. If they do not have a position open, you ask around. Sometimes just knowing you are interested, could do the trick. On the other hand it is entirely possible the job is not the right fit or it is not the right time. I think the mid-career move is more about networking than just brute force application if you are doing well. If you don't get tenure, then a good old fashioned large spectrum search may be in order...

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