Mid-Career Mentoring

Feb 07 2012 Published by under career issues, faculty

Although perhaps no amount of information, obtained online or in person, can remove the uncertainty and anxiety associated with being a graduate student, postdoc, and/or tenure-track professor, in recent years there has been an information explosion targeted at early-career academics. There are articles, books, blogs, forums, webinars, conferences and more on how to cope with graduate school; how to apply for postdoctoral positions; how to craft a CV, cover letter, and applications when applying for a faculty position; how to interview; how to negotiate; how to maximize chances of tenure, and so on.

As part of these efforts, many of us professors are increasingly called on to improve our mentoring skills, to participate in panels and committees devoted to mentoring and career development issues, and to demonstrate in our grant proposals that we have mentoring plans for our postdoctoral researchers. I support these efforts and consider such activities an important part of my job (as long as the paperwork doesn't get any more abundant than it already it).

But what if the mentors need mentoring? Note that I am not talking about how we can learn to be good mentors (although this is an important topic). In this case, I am referring to how mid-career and senior faculty can get information about career issues that may affect us at later stages of an academic career. Do complicated career issues evaporate after tenure and/or do we all magically know how to deal with everything that academe throws at us? No, and no.

Mid-career+ career issues that some of us have to navigate without a lot of information include:

  • whether and how to pursue tenured positions at other institutions,
  • how to use an offer of a job from another institution to negotiate an improvement in our current job, and
  • whether to pursue a part-time or full-time position in administration.

(Please add to this list! I am working on a new essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education about some of these mid-career+ issues and would like to be as comprehensive as possible.)

Just as an example, for discussion today and in an effort to use a blog to help bridge the Information Gap for mid-career and senior faculty: Let's say you go out and get another job offer, or perhaps you are recruited without being active about it. You have an offer or a hint of an offer, but you are not 100% sure you want to leave your existing institution. If you did want to leave for sure, presumably you would just take your offer and leave without trying to negotiate with your current institution. But let's say you want to try to improve your situation somehow and therefore possibly stay at your current institution.

I am surprised when people write to me with questions about this and assume that they have to provide the details of their new offer(s) to their current institution. Has anyone had to do this? In the cases with which I am familiar, no one has had to explain the details of the new offer and certainly no one had to show an offer letter; the fact of the offer (or, in some cases, the rumor of an offer) was enough to start the negotiations for a retention package.

OK, so you have an offer and you want to negotiate with your current institution. The key issues are: What do you want? And: Are you going to get what you want?

So, what do you want? A raise (sometimes this is the only way to get a significant raise)? More resources for research? A position for your significant other? More respect from your institution/colleagues? All of the above? Other stuff? I have heard of places that have a standard retention package -- e.g., a certain amount of $ added to the faculty member's base salary when there is an outside offer -- but the possibilities at many institutions are more open-ended.

Here are some suggestions, for discussion, for how to pitch a request for What You Want in your retention package:

If you are leaning towards leaving, but a really awesome retention package would convince/tempt you to stay, ask for the moon if that's what you want. This is probably only likely to work if your offer is from a more awesome institution, or at least one with which your current institution feels competitive in some way. Don't be a jerk about asking for the moon; just make your request, and the administrators at your current institution can take it or leave it.

If you really aren't sure and you feel that you could stay or go, depending on how things shake out in the negotiations, then you should still ask for what you want, but perhaps don't ask for the entire moon (and perhaps consult with senior colleagues who have gone through this process, ideally in this millennium). Don't undersell yourself because you are worried about being seen as greedy or disloyal. If you know that you are underpaid relative to your peers, or if you think this is your only chance to get more space/resources from your institution, go for it: make a case for what you want and need.

Similarly, if you really don't want to leave and just got the offer because you felt you needed to play the game, you should still make a reasonable request for what you want/need and see what happens. You don't have to give any indication of how likely you are to stay or go (although people will try to guess this). If you have an offer, the opportunity exists for you to leave, so you might as well find out what your current institution is willing to do to keep you.

If you got the outside offer because you are desperately unhappy about some aspect of your current position and want to use this chance to change things for the better without actually leaving (because, for various reasons, you don't want to or can't leave your current institution), I think you should keep your expectations reasonable (i.e., low) in terms of how much positive change you can wring out of a retention package. That is, you might get a raise, perhaps even an impressive one, but if you don't like your colleagues, chances are you still won't like them even when you are being paid more to spend time with them. They might respect you more (outside offers tend to have that effect), and that can help, but the positive results of that are unlikely to be experienced in a rapid, dramatic, satisfying way (correct me if you have experienced the contrary).

And that brings me to an important point: YOU DON'T HAVE TO LEAVE. If your current institution doesn't give you what you ask for or (worst case) doesn't even try to keep you, you still do not have to leave if you don't want to.

Of course you can leave if you want, but some people who write to me seem to think that just by entering into discussions about retention, they are implicitly threatening "Give me this stuff or I'm leaving." You are not (I hope) saying this, unless of course you are definitely set on leaving. If you are not definitely intending to leave, you may be just finding out what your options are, exploring the various opportunities, considering the pros and cons, and then you making a decision about whether to stay or leave.

If you think there is a chance you want to stay, and you keep the negotiations calm, professional, and constructive (i.e., don't rant to the chair or dean about all the things you hate about your department/institution/colleagues), you are not burning any bridges by entering into these discussions and negotiations. Administrators expect to deal with these situations; they may not welcome the chance to deal with such issues, but it is a normal part of academic life, for better or worse. Everyone does it isn't the greatest justification for seeking outside offers, but you can try to do it right (don't be an egotistical jerk, don't be a drama queen, don't issue an ultimatum etc.), and don't feel guilty (unless you are a habitual accumulator of outside offers) or disloyal.

Does anyone have any advice to add to (or contradict) any of that?




12 responses so far

  • John Vidale says:

    My last move, sharing salary offers was useful. I had three offers, and the outside one I didn't take initially had the highest salary by quite a bit, which was then matched by the other outside offer and the retention package.

    I don't see the point in not sharing the details of the offers. It gives the Deans ammunition and motivation to try to match or top the competition, and removes the possibility that one's maneuvers are just a bluff. There's some chance they know the details anyway.

    Personally, I think trying to get an offer with little inclination to take it just to improve one's situation is manipulative and wastes everyone else's time, but see that many others have no such compunction. Preferable is just to seek a raise when one deserves it.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Mid career mentoring? Isn't that what your blog is for? :-p

  • You should share the details if it puts you at an advantage, otherwise not. 😐

  • FemaleGeneticsProfessor says:

    My (state R1) university - like many others - has suffered budget cuts for the past few years. Raises for faculty have been few and far between, but there is a special fund for retention packages. In order to get one, at least for significant salary increases, an written offer from another institution is required! Of course, negotiations can begin without the letter . . .

  • Recently got an offer from another group in the same institute, with slightly better pay (and a more junior mentor than my current one). Dont know how to deal with that...may be i will know when I reach mid-level 😀

  • Anonymous says:

    My advisor once negotiated two new positions for our department when another institution tried to recruit him. He wanted more collaborators, I guess.

  • BugDoc says:

    "In the cases with which I am familiar, no one has had to explain the details of the new offer and certainly no one had to show an offer letter; the fact of the offer (or, in some cases, the rumor of an offer) was enough to start the negotiations for a retention package."

    When would you advise telling your chair that you are being recruited? Obviously issues of negotiation come up later as things progress, but if it's a reasonably well connected field, word gets around. If you were a chair, would you rather hear it from the person being recruited or from one of your colleagues elsewhere, or does it even matter?

  • 27andaphd says:

    Very interesting indeed. I look forward to reading your article on the Chronicle. Since I'm not a PI, or a postdoc, but a staff scientist I don't know what to say except that, during this stage of my career (early 30s, one (bad) postdoc, a decent staff position) I'd definitely wouldn't mind seeing more Benjamins. I (partly though) left my postdoc because the pay was not fantastic, especially after being in debt. And I also wanted benefits. I like where I work, but based on that sour experience I think I'm a bit more open now to considering other offers if I smell trouble. I already spent a good amount of time complaining and depressed because of my postdoc, and that's a place that neither my partner nor I need to see/be in ever again. And I totes agree that sometimes a slight improvement is good enough to keep one happy. That said, I do find it's a very tricky topic to approach and the amount of details to give. I applaud your efforts to make sure that mid-career researchers have tools to navigate the (sometimes) tricky waters of work/uni life.

  • Anon says:

    very, very helpful.


  • RQ says:

    One of the mid-career issues that I think it under-discussed (and I think this mostly because I am experiencing it...) is how to make decisions about the "rest" of one's career. Increasingly, there is more and more push at my institution to create rules and rubrics for being promoted to full professor. While the goals behind this are good (making it all more transparent), the effect seems to be to re-create many of the conditions of the pre-tenure process (without, of course, the possibility of losing your job). However, this expectation comes along with an astronomical increase in the expectations for service to the department, the discipline, the institution, etc. So, I guess I have two kinds of suggestions for writing about mid-career issues--one of which is specific to the post-tenure, pre-promotion to full period and one that is more general to the post-tenure period. What kind of advice should an Associate Professor be given re: planning the next six year period? Is it really a good idea to pursue potentially risky research paths at this juncture? More generally, what advice to give someone who is curious about something like an administrative track without being committed to actually doing administration? What about a more sustained focus on teaching in the context of a R1 institution? What about more involvement in one's professional associations and broader discipline? I guess this is really all about how to start shifting the intense focus on one's own career that is necessary from graduate school through tenure to a focus that is broader than that without losing the connection to one's specific research interests

  • Archie Holmes says:

    I would love to hear about the case where someone has an offer from University B, does not get a retention package from University A, but decides to stay. Seems to me like you have not stated that your situation does not need to be improved to stay and so will be ignored from this point forward...

  • [...] people are thinking about it, and even manage to do it for their students and postdoc. Check out Uri Alon, professor at [...]