Faculty Movers

Jan 19 2011 Published by under career issues, faculty

A swarm of recent questions relates to the topic of moving from one faculty position to another. 'Tis the season for offers and decisions for faculty moves?

As I have described in the FSP blog at various times, I moved from University 1 to University 2 after several years as an Assistant Professor. Before University 1, I taught at a small liberal arts college, but I was there very briefly, so my main move was between universities. The reason for my move was because of my so-called "two body" situation, not owing to any unhappiness with University 1 (in fact, I was very happy there) or because I wanted to move to a higher ranked program (although that's what I did).

The specific reasons for my move may or may not be applicable to others contemplating a faculty move, but a general question is:

When and how do you tell colleagues, administrators, and students at University 1 that you are (contemplating) leaving?

There is no one "right" answer because there are so many variables, but I can describe what I did, and perhaps other readers can share their own stories.

When I was at University 1, I was very dedicated to my institution, department, and students. I had great colleagues, some of whom became (and still are) my friends. I was open with colleagues and administrators about being on the job market and my reasons for doing so. I did not talk about it constantly, but neither was I secretive about it.

I didn't have to tell them, of course, but news travels, and I figured it was better that I tell my colleagues what was going on than that they hear rumors. I felt that this was the right thing to do for me, but I think it would be perfectly fine if someone did not inform their colleagues of any efforts to move. They might hear about it anyway, and some might ask about it. I think that, if asked, it is best to be honest, but you can be vague in your response if you want.

When I was at University 1 but keeping an eye out for jobs where my husband and I could live and work near each other, my graduate students were generally aware of the situation, but I did not inform them of the details (applications, interviews). I think they knew that I would not abandon them -- i.e., that if I did move, we would discuss it then and make a plan for each -- but I saw no reason to go into the gory details until it was relevant to do so.

When the offer from University 2 came, I immediately told my chair and a sympathetic associate dean, who leaped into action and came up with a retention package that included a tenure-track position for my husband (who, by the way, was more than qualified for a faculty position there). That was nice, but it also made the decision about staying vs. leaving a wrenching one. I understand why they couldn't create a position for my husband until pushed to do so, but even so, one reason we left was so that we could both start fresh in a new place.

I ended up staying at University 1 for an extra year, for various reasons, and this allowed my graduate students to finish before I left.

Since then, I have had a few occasions to contemplate leaving University 2 for another university. As a more senior faculty member without a "benign" reason (like a two-body problem) for leaving, I have told only my very closest colleagues about these moving opportunities. I see no reason why anyone else (including students) should know until there is something substantive to tell. There is no point in everyone's being on alert or making alternative plans until there is a real reason to do so.

When I discussed this in the FSP blog before, it was controversial. Some think that students have a right to know everything, even if moving is just the faintest glimmer in their advisor's eye. I can understand that, but I don't agree with it. The process of possibly luring a professor to a new institution can be a very long and indirect courtship, and can involve offers and counter-offers. Unless someone is 100% determined to leave, which I am not, I don't see the point of keeping a research group on alert for possible major disruption when there may not actually be any disruption.

There is a well-known advantage of possibly-moving in that this is how you demonstrate your worth at some universities (unfortunately) and this may be the only way to get some big-ticket items (a major raise, a job for your significant other); it can also be a route to early tenure and promotion. To my surprise, I have found that the rumor of having outside offers from excellent schools can have an energizing effect on some administrators; in some cases, it is not necessary to have an actual offer in hand.

Supposedly, men are better at negotiating retention packages as a result of outside offers, whereas women worry about being seen as disloyal, or they may fear that they won't get an offer of a retention. I don't know, but I don't think it is disloyal and I wouldn't worry about not getting a retention offer. Even if you get an outside offer, you don't have to take it. You can present it, see what happens, and then decide what is best for you and your family.

My advice, in summary: If you want to move or have to move, and you have the opportunity: just do it. Do it well, though, taking care of your graduate students and postdocs, if you have them, and dealing with all the bureaucratic fun of moving grants and other research-related stuff and figuring out a new university system and moving your cats.

29 responses so far

  • MZ says:

    This is *hugely* apropos for me, as I'm a reasonably senior professor being wooed by another institution. Like you at University 1, I am not unhappy, but I can see some pluses to the move, and since I have only had an academic job at one place, wonder if I wouldn't find the switch energizing, as many of my colleagues who have moved claim they have.

    But I am still conflicted about what/how to tell my students, and in particular what to tell the students who are currently applying to the program to be in my lab. When all this came up -- and FSP is so right, it can (and in my case has) drag on for quite a while -- I did tell my students, but because there wasn't anything happening immediately, I am not sure it made any difference, since I had no definitive news and still don't. I just didn't want them finding out via rumor. I generally figure I should err on the side of caution and tell everyone about the possibility, but then there's no point in getting people stressed out over a hypothetical.

    So thanks for your thoughts. I'll be interested to hear what others think.

  • Anon says:

    A prof in my dept recently up and quit, and he did not “do it well.” He left without saying a word to his graduate students – not even goodbye. The dept notified some but not all of the students; I should know, I was one of the ones who was left to figure things out on my own. Despite his extremely unprofessional conduct, this prof is listed on our dept website as adjunct faculty. Recently, I noticed that he was congratulated on that website for being part of a student-lead team that won a best paper award at some conference.

    I have never thought of this dept as great, but for me, this experience just seals the deal. I cannot wait to get my degree and never look back! Or perhaps I will write a nice long letter to the president of my uni about it….

  • Rebecca M says:

    I agree with the comments of caution and no need to over-share, but I recently saw this done terribly badly with my own mentor. She waited no only until offer was already in hand, but it was a month (!) before she was jumping ship before I was told of the imminent departure. This left me holding the bag with a lot of administrative stuff for her grants that couldn't yet be transferred due to various lab set-up issues, and basically burned the bridge between us. So definitely don't forget about any junior faculty you may be mentoring as well, in addition to students and postdocs.

  • bob says:

    It was long, long ago, but my advisor left academia while I was in dissertation mode. In one of our regular meetings, he simply said that he was taking a leave of absence to join a startup company, and that it was likely he would not return after the leave. Fortunately, we agreed that I was within striking distance of completion and could finish while he was still officially on leave (and thus, still on the faculty and capable of being a supervisor). He actually managed to get two of us to our degrees that year - well above the average for the department at that time!

  • postdoc says:

    I firmly believe you should tell your graduate students, including serious potential graduate students, if there's a nontrivial possibility you'll leave. When I was considering different PhD programs, the person who became my PhD advisor told me she had over the years been talking with some other universities about possibly joining their programs. She emphasized she didn't know the timeline or the odds of it happening, just that it might happen and that I could probably go with her. The directness, openness, and respect implied by this disclosure was one of the reasons I decided to work with her. I never talked about the potential move again, including with other graduate students in the lab, but it was information that greatly influenced my decision-making. To the person who commented about potentially 'stressing out' graduate students--'stress' is hearing the month after you've signed a title (or a one-year lease) that your advisor is moving somewhere. While surprise moves can kind of happen to anyone, it's kind to inform others around you of the changing risk.

  • mathgirl says:

    I moved from University 1 to University 2 after 3 years of TT in Univ 1. The reasons for the move were purely about my specific topic of research, otherwise I was happy at Univ 1. There was also a 2-body problem, that remains unsolved (Univ 1 couldn't come up with a TT, but neither did Univ 2, I wonder if there will be a Univ 3 in my life...)

    I knew my time at Univ 1 was going to be short since I started there, as Univ 2 began the courtship even before I accepted the offer from Univ 1. I was open to my chair since the beginning (and kept him informed about interviews, offer, etc), but I didn't mention anything to my colleagues until the day I accepted the offer (I went in person to each office to tell them the news and dispell gossip.)

    Since I knew I had a high chance of leaving I didn't take PhD students at Univ 1. I only took a postdoc and some undergraduate students, so it was easy to sort this out. I informed those people the same day I informed my colleagues. (I realize this is easier to do in Mathematics than in other Sciences or Engineering, since I don't have a lab.)

  • Nicole says:

    I really just don't want to go on the market again. I know I will have to at some point in this environment of frozen salaries, especially if my husband decides (or is forced) to leave academia. But man, interviews...

  • AC says:

    My first advisor took a sabbatical and never returned. I only found out he wasn't coming back when another professor asked me what my plans were, now that my advisor had accepted a new job. He'd told some colleagues, but apparently not (yet) his students. As you can imagine, this came as quite a shock.

  • studyzone says:

    I'm interviewing for TT positions now, and there are signs that I could be offered a position at (at least) one school. I'm also the older child of aging parents and worry about living too far away to help them when needed. While I've searched for jobs close to my parents' home, the nearest I can find is the next state over (which is still a considerable distance). So, on the one hand, I'd be thrilled to have a job in any of the departments I've interviewed in, but on the other hand, I know I'd be keeping one eye on the job market in my home state, and if a position were to open up (even if it was a "step down") I'd probably apply, just to be closer to home. I'm one who thinks this would be disloyal to my original department, hence the dilemma. So, now I'm considering plan B - one-year visiting positions until something opens up closer to home.

  • S Seguin says:

    My undergraduate PI moved to a better PUI at the end of my time there. It was no secret that she had a bad relationship with our chair, and was generally frustrated with things in the department. There had been some weird things those of us in the lab didn't understand at the time (why would she go out of town during finals week and let someone else proctor her exam?), but I think generally the way she handled it went well. She made meetings with each of us (conspicuous, but appropriate) to tell us the news, and then make a plan for the future.

    She helped find new positions for those who were interested in moving, and kept those of us on who were counting on a job as long as possible. As far as I know, she wrote letters for everyone who asked. For us, this worked out well- but I know that the students who stayed felt like they had a bit of a black mark. I imagine that the way this went on the faculty side wasn't quite as smooth. It also didn't work well for the two Master's students she had. She seemed disappointed with their performance, and they felt disappointed with her mentorship. A major move is quite a distraction at thesis writing time.

  • dave says:

    i hear a lot of comment about the woo-ing or the courtship beginning. Is that actually true? Is it the case that you get a job at University 1 and University 2 starts hitting on you unsolicited. Or is it more a case of constantly being on the lookout, and applying when the greener grass appears?

    • Science Professor says:

      You can definitely get hit on unsolicited (if you want to put it that way). Several times I have been invited to give a talk at another university, only to find out once I got there that the chair or designated faculty wanted to talk to me about possibly moving. In some cases I had advance hints that they were interested, but in others I was completely surprised. Another method is to let it be widely known that you can be uprooted from your current institution, and see what happens. And another is to send out applications that are relevant to your field and career stage.

      • Vegas Burlington says:

        Being faced with a similar situation where another university is inviting me to give a seminar to discuss a possible move, I was wondering if you or anyone knows what happens after the seminar, if you are interested to move to this university. Specifically, doesn't the university need to follow the hiring process. Or can they simply offer a position after a seminar? What about affirmative action? #Anxiety

  • Anonymous says:

    I also think there's an obligation to inform graduate students if an advisor is just considering moving -- especially to inform prospective students. Graduate students also have two-body problems, children, cats, and houses; moving during a program may not be feasible, and changing advisors or being advised from afar may be deleterious to the advisee. Given the investment one makes in going to grad school, an advisor not telling one's grad students about a possible move is irresponsible.

    A couple years ago my advisor kept *hinting* about just such a move. The department had lost others in the program to other universities and my advisor kept extolling the virtues of one particular other place. So I said to him, "if you were to go to this other university, how much lead time would I have?" I.e. how much time would there be between his decision and his move? He said at least a year and I was satisfied with that. (I found out later that he had been planning to accept the offer that was about to be given, but due to a calamity in his personal life, he decided to stay.) Still, I felt much better knowing that he *might* move and that I'd have a while to figure out a plan with him if he did move. It was more honest.

  • Confounding says:

    From a graduate student's perspective, the idea of faculty moving is a hard one. For purely selfish reasons, it's not something I'm thrilled about - generally speaking, decisions made entirely by other people that have large impacts on my life aren't things I get thrilled about.

    That being said, I don't think you need to tell students the moment you start considering it, though I think once its headed toward "word will get out", the news should probably come from you. And I think honestly, the more you're doing to "protect" them - ensuring their projects are portable or at the point where they no longer require your presence in your lab, taking them with you if necessary, or indulging they or you coming down to your new location with some degree of frequency while they finish, the later you can probably tell them.

  • msphd says:

    I absolutely agree that you should tell prospective grad students and postdocs if there is ANY possibility of you moving.

    Think of it this way: would you be interviewing potential new hires if you knew your funding was gone and you couldn't get more? Probably not.

    This may come as a surprise, but many grad students and postdocs are adults who would like to own houses and have spouses - who need career stability, too.

    I shudder to think how much better off I would have been financially if I had bought a house when I started grad school, but I always worried that my situation wasn't stable enough. My first choice advisor left during my first year there (with no warning). I might have gone to a different graduate school if I had known he was planning to leave.

    I can see why FSP says if there's nothing certain, there's no point in worrying anyone. That makes sense. But on the other hand, sometimes I think faculty are unbelievably selfish and lacking both imagination and empathy. Maybe none of these things mattered to you when you were younger, so you just can't imagine why anyone would care. Or maybe you're just so self-effacing that you don't think your choices matter that much to anyone but yourself? Either way, in the end, you're uprooting other people's lives and careers. Try to remember that.

    • mathgirl says:

      The problem is that the "may move" situation is waaay much more common than the "move" situation. In a way, there are always reasons to be unhappy and I'm sure most of the profs consider moving at some point or the other.

      My advisor considered moving (after I graduated). He got an offer from somewhere else, and he was waiting to make the decision before telling his students. In the meantime, one of his students found out about the offer and chaos arose. In the end, he didn't move, so the whole thing was a very stressful situation for nothing!!!

  • Elmo says:

    I dropped no hints nor did I let anyone at University 1 know that I was looking, except for formally complaining to my Chair and Dean that their system of not sponsoring residency (green card) for international faculty till after tenure had negative impact on my ability to compete for grants; thus hindering my career. Nothing changed, so I kept the search ( applied to 3 other places and got an interview with all three) on the lowdown till I accepted the offer from University 2; after about 2 months of negotiations. The next day I told my students, this was also one day before I handed in the resignation letter to my Chair. All this occurred 4 months prior to me actually leaving. All four of my students graduated a few weeks prior to my departure, mainly because they were on track to graduate anyway -- we got lucky there.

    I would not recommend this route, wait till the last minute, then fly the coupe...unless you enjoy watching your lab being dismantled while you are still trying to complete research on projects that funded the equipment in the first place.

  • Mac says:

    Thank you for addressing this topic! The advice to just do it but do it as well as possible is very reassuring. It's easy to over-think these things. I'm in a situation more analogous to your first move and it's helpful to hear - these things happen and people move on. Thank you.

  • neurowoman says:

    Graduate students seem unaware that any faculty could pick up and move at any time, not just the ones who are actively looking or being recruited. Funding could run out, tenure could be denied, illness could disable, bus could run over. It's a rare situation that anyone can absolutely guarantee 5-7 years of stability in terms of location and funding. Students at least have some degree of departmental support, can switch mentors, get TAships, transfer programs. I agree that PIs shouldn't jerk their people around, but neither are they obligated to inform their lab members of every possible gloom on the distant horizon.

    • Anonymous says:

      Graduate students seem unaware that any faculty could pick up and move at any time, not just the ones who are actively looking or being recruited.

      Speaking as a grad student, I disagree. It’s all about the odds, neurowoman. Faculty who are “actively looking or being recruited” have a greater likelihood of moving than those who are not (looking or being recruited). Anyone, even a grad student, can get hit by a bus, so that’s kind of a wash. And, of course, if my advisor departed suddenly due to illness (hir or hir family’s), I would view this in a very different light than if ze knew ze was leaving and waited until the last possible moment to inform me. Grad students are adults and understand that life happens – we just don’t want to be dicked around for no good reason.

  • Anonymous says:

    Let's not forget the colleagues. I had collaborative projects on-going with someone who left, and I was practically co-advising one of her students. In spite of the things I had done to help promote her work and career, and despite the fact that my research program would be the most affected by her departure (esp since she took her students too), I was probably the dead-last person to find out that she was leaving. And she never even said good-bye. Gee, I'd even thought that we were friends.

  • anon says:

    I agree with telling prospective students. I found out the prof I was going to work with was leaving the university right after I had made all the arrangements to move to the new city (husband in tow) so changing course wasn't an option. It cost me a year of wasted time finding a different advisor at the school and has left me in a less than ideal advising situation.

  • Angry Mother says:

    I don't think there's any obligation to tell ANYONE until the likelihood of a move is probable. It's all just too uncertain. But, any decent person would think about how this would affect their grad students and postdocs, and help them with the transition. In my old field it was common for grad students near completion to move with the advisor if they chose to. So while I was finishing we had a new grad student come in with a new professor, and graduate the next year.

    This is somewhat related to the issue of money however. Students and postdocs don't like to be left without funding! I've seen this happening ALOT lately. Postdocs who arrived thinking they had funding for a couple of years, all of a sudden are told they only have 6 months due to grants not coming through. As I understand it this is a failure of both the professor and the department in projecting future support levels.

  • Young grad student says:

    I would think the way to do it (because graduate students often have two-body problems and other issues as well) is to give them plenty of lead time: 1 year seems sufficient, any shorter would be very tight.

    Essentially, commit to disclosing a move 1-year ahead. If the move would take place in a smaller time-frame, then you would have to disclose it when it is still only a possibility. If the move would take place only after a year post-finalizing the move, you don't have to disclose anything until 1 year prior to the move.

  • asst prof says:

    1. When interviewing for a postdoc, one of the faculty members I met with started out the interview by saying, "There's something you should know..." and telling me there was a chance he would move, but that he was still excited about the possibility of me joining the lab. I did not take that job, in part because he was moving (I'd wanted to move to City #1 to be closer to family, but potential Advisor was considering a move to City Far Away...and he did indeed move). However, I have a great amount of respect for him for giving it to me straight.

    2. During my postdoc, my advisor went to give a talk at another school, and someone had mentioned to me a month or so before that this school was doing a faculty search. I put 2-and-2 together, and due to the timing I suspected he was interviewing, but didn't know for sure. At the time I discussed this with one trusted labmate, but no one else.

    Nearly a year later, a similar subject came up and I rather slyly mentioned to Advisor in private that I'd suspected he had interviewed at School X a year before. Turns out I was right, and he hurriedly explained that he considered telling the lab, but didn't because (a) he wasn't very serious in his consideration of the position, and (b) he was really concerned for one particular lab member who was struggling with anxiety/depression at the time. We knew that this person had been suicidal in the past, and Advisor didn't want to bring up the topic unless it was an absolutely sure thing, as a major life change would be likely to drastically increase anxiety. Advisor claimed that he probably *would* have told us if it weren't for this one lab member...

    I realize this is a rather unique scenario, but, point being, if there is just one person who may be adversely affected by the rumor, then it's probably wise to withhold the info (unless it is a sure thing - if it's been decided and it's for sure, absolutely you need to tell everyone asap). *I* could have handled knowing Advisor was interviewing and that it may or may not come to anything, but I doubt my labmate could have, so I think Advisor did the right thing.

  • neurowoman says:

    Anon @ 15.57: As a grad student, you don't know what you are talking about. Virtually every post-tenure faculty member I work with has entertained prospective offers to move to other universities, and those are just the ones I know about. So in some sense, everyone is either passively or actively on the market, you just don't know about the passive ones. Perhaps I should have said 'openly' actively looking, but I'm also not convinced that actively looking means you're that much more likely get an offer and to move than someone who gets wooed by another department - most people dislike moving, and most universities will offer retention packages. If there's a difference in odds, I think it's pretty marginal. Once you receive an offer, you should tell your people, arrange for plenty of lead time so that you don't mess people over unnecessarily. I have known faculty who have stayed places to their own personal career detriment in order to support their students (and the students are probably unaware of this).

    • Anonymous says:

      Perhaps I should have said ‘openly’ actively looking, but I’m also not convinced that actively looking means you’re that much more likely get an offer and to move than someone who gets wooed by another department – most people dislike moving, and most universities will offer retention packages. If there’s a difference in odds, I think it’s pretty marginal.

      Neurowoman, if you are actively looking, then it makes sense to think that you would NOT be opposed to moving. And if you really wanna move, your threshold for what is a good offer worth accepting is going to be lower than if you’re happy where you are and being wooed by someone else. This is just common sense.

      And thanks for your extremely condescending opening sentence, BTW – what a joy you must be to work for!

  • MZ says:

    This has been really helpful as I am embroiled in my own moving considerations, so thanks to everyone, especially Science Professor.

    I did want to add something that no one else has brought up explicitly: including some funds in startup for help and support for current students who are too far along in the program to benefit by moving. I have some students who are about 2 years from finishing (or so we all fervently hope), and I wouldn't move for at least a year, if I did. I asked the university I would be going to whether it would be reasonable to add some money to bring those students to the new place for a month or so while they are writing up. The chair said sure, that's completely legit. I am in the process of discussing with the students exactly what form that support should take, but the idea is that it would ameliorate some of the inconvenience.

    Part of why I thought of this is that my own adviser moved when I was a couple of years away from finishing, and that's what I did. That month was a lot of fun, introduced me to some cool people, and it was easier than doing everything via email or (horrors -- this was a while back) via snail mail.

    So for faculty considering moving, it can't hurt to ask to include this in your startup negotiations.