Should I Stay or Should I Go?

October 24, 2017

Ours is a field where open positions can abound, as we see this year, and where faculty roles, expectations, opportunities, and challenges can vary substantially across different types of institutions (e.g., public v. private, R1 v. teaching) and programs (doctoral only, specialist only, combined). Some scholars will spend their entire careers in a single institution, but many will not.

Readers asked that the ECF tackle the topic of how to make the decision to remain in one’s current position or move on to a new one. We reached out to several early and mid-career scholars to discuss how they’ve dealt with this decision, sometimes repeatedly.

When you made the decision to leave, what were the primary factors that motivated the choice?

Professor A: Leaving for a new position was a really difficult choice. I was fortunate to be at a university where I was both happy and productive. I wasn’t looking to move, however my current position was one of those dream jobs we all have somewhere in the back of our minds. I decided to apply to just this position and see what happened. When offered the job, my spouse and I had discussed at length the pros and cons of the move, and if the short term pain (e.g., moving, starting new jobs, selling/buying a home) would be worth the long term gain. Ultimately, the opportunity to be at a really strong program with collaborative colleagues and research supports, an ideal geographic location with low cost of living, and career opportunities for both my spouse and I solidified the decision to leave.

Professor B: There was a combination of personal and professional factors that lead to the decision to leave my previous institution. When I took my first assistant professor position, I was geographically-bound.  My spouse and I moved to be near family to assist with a family business in a rural area.  There were two institutions with school psychology training programs within a commuting distance (i.e., 50 miles), both of which were hiring the year I was searching!  I was thrilled to be offered a position. The position came with heavy teaching load with high service expectations (which is typical of a teaching-focused university) and I wished to have more time for research and writing, but I learned so much from my fellow faculty while there and greatly appreciated the experience. 

After teaching at the institution for four years, my spouse’s presence in the family business was no longer essential so we made the decision to move.  We hoped to move before our children (three under the age of 8) reached middle school when moving could have been a more difficult transition. Professionally, I wanted more time for research and sought out positions that valued and protected time for research, primarily R1 institutions.  Though I expected to be in the first (teaching-focused) institution for my whole career, I enjoyed writing and research so was able to be productive despite the high teaching and service expectations, which allowed me to be a competitive applicant.  Overall, the decision to leave was not motivated by dissatisfaction with the position, but a personal change that enabled a professional goal to come true. 

Professor C: My first position wasn’t my ideal for many reasons (e.g., administrative issues, local political and economic climate), but I had amazing colleagues and great collaborations with some of the local school systems, so it was somewhere I could do the work I was passionate about and feel supported by the people I worked with directly. Quite unexpectedly, the opportunity came to join my current program. It wasn’t actually anything I’d ever even thought about, but there were several compelling advantages: the program orientation and vision were a great fit for my own ideals as a school psych trainer and scholar; the research infrastructure is exceptionally researcher-friendly; students were highly dedicated to research; upper administration was heavily invested in the program; and the faculty seemed genuinely welcoming and supportive of me as an early career scholar; there were numerous resources to support my professional development that I didn’t have available in my first institution, among other things. Ultimately, it was the potential join a program that could really elevate my scholarship and overall professional development that drove my decision to move. Despite the inconveniences that came with moving, my partner was onboard because of all the advantages it conferred for my professional advancement.

How did you navigate the processes involved in applying for positions, interviewing, and eventually leaving with your immediate colleagues, administrators, and others in your previous program?

Professor A: Having already secured an academic position, many of my application materials needed to be updated but not completely rewritten. Before applying, I reached out to trusted mentors and colleagues to get as much information as possible in determining if my perception of the new job was consistent with theirs. I was under no illusion that the grass would be greener (just a different shade), and I wanted to gain an understanding of what “quirks” existed as they do at all universities. Interviewing was a bit more challenging as I had to work around my teaching schedule and various meetings. Fortunately, my new university was very accommodating in working around my commitments, and I was able to make a relatively quick trip. Notifying colleagues and administrators was much more difficult. I was upfront in notifying a trusted colleague or two when I received the invitation to interview, as I did not want any decision to come as a complete surprise. I was also in communication with these colleagues as I deliberated, and they offered advice and support when weighing my options. Informing and “negotiating” with upper administration was a miserable, but unavoidable experience. I recommend to anyone in a similar position to only engage in discussions with administration if there is something they can provide (e.g., large raise, different program role) that may change your decision. The most difficult conversation was informing my graduate students on my research team. I emphasized that I would always be a call or email away, and that I expected (and do!) maintain collaborative relationships with them. Because grad students may take the decision the hardest, I pre-arranged with colleagues opportunities for student meetings to debrief and plan for the eventual transition.   

Professor B: Since I enjoyed my colleagues at the first position, the process of applying, interviewing, and leaving was very difficult for me.  I felt guilty about leaving and the strain it would be on the remaining faculty, so much so that I would get nervous anytime I was around my fellow school psychology faculty or department chair.  For me, personally, I felt much better once I told them I was searching for a new position and explained the reason.  They all wished me well and two of the senior faculty even wrote letters of recommendation.  I received advice that there was no need to tell other faculty and the chair beforehand, but I felt great relief once I did.  I suspect I felt relieved because I had solid, friendly relationships with them and felt as if I was withholding a great secret. 

During the interviewing process, I tried to schedule interviews on non-teaching days. On one occasion, my interview trip overlapped with a teaching day, so I created an online lecture and assignment so students would not miss content that week.  Once I accepted the position at the new institution, I notified all the other (non-school psychology) faculty in my department.  As I finished out the academic year, I was sure to finish up all service obligations and notify department, college, and university committee chairs that I was leaving. The months between when I let my colleagues and students know I was leaving and the time of my departure were a bit awkward and bittersweet. Awkward because there were discussions about who would do the things I was involved in, bitter because I was going to miss my colleagues and it is stressful to move a family of five, and sweet because I had such a great experience there but was simultaneously looking forward to a fresh start in a place where research was more valued.

Professor C:When I left my first institution, I was open with my immediate colleagues from the outset of the process and they were very supportive. The administrative issues in our college and university meant we’d long been discussing the implications of various decisions for our program and our individual professional trajectories, and they’d been concerned about what certain constraints meant for me as the most junior member of the group. Thankfully, that meant that they were great sounding boards when I was considering other opportunities. They were able to discuss the process and how I could handle things with students and administrators. Ultimately, I decided not loop in anyone beyond my program until I handed in my letter of resignation to the dean because early in the process, I realized I was not going to stay. 

The process of being on the market was time consuming, but my teaching schedule made it possible to accommodate lots of travel without much rearranging of commitments (and resultant sharing with others). In addition to interviewing in my new program, I applied and visited a few others, so there was a stretch at the beginning of spring semester where every week I’d teach my classes at the beginning of the week and fly out for the 2-day interviews during the second half of the week. Things didn’t slow down when the contract was signed because in the later part of the semester, I was preparing for the move, including trips out to my new city for house hunting, and trying to graduate as many of my advisees as possible. One of my biggest reservations about the move was leaving the doc students I’d been working with and creating considerable burden for my colleagues since we were a small program. Thankfully, I was able to negotiate with both my old and new institutions support to finish the remainder of my students in the following year (e.g., non-salary appointment and travel funds). 

When you made the decision to stay, what were the primary factors that motivated the choice?

Professor C: Now in my second institution, I’ve had opportunities to go elsewhere and each triggers really careful decisions of what I might gain professionally, and to a lesser extent, in my personal life, from the potential move, as well as what I would be giving up. I have to ask myself how it could elevate my scholarship, teaching and mentoring of students, and other professional activities. What resources and opportunities does the new position have that my current doesn’t? Particularly when faced with opportunities outside of school psychology programs, I’ve had to consider what it would mean for me as a scholar and teacher/mentor not to be involved in the preparation of future school psychologists. In multiple instances, that was the deciding factor for me, because despite considerable additional resources to support my scholarship, the move would mean not being a graduate educator in school psychology, and I realized that was a part of my professional identity and activities I did not want to give up. 

Professor D: I went on the job market with every intention of leaving my current institution. However, in the end, I chose to stay. Although I was happy in my position, there were some significant problems at my institution that led me to look elsewhere. I received another offer, and I planned to accept it. However, after honestly explaining my reasons for wanting to leave to the administration, I learned that they had already begun to address some of the concerns and committed in writing to addressing others. There were already major departmental changes underway that I was previously unaware of. This changed the context of my decision. In addition, my college offered a competitive counter-offer, which, in the end, I accepted.

Sometimes staying where you are can nonetheless come with changes or added benefits. What benefits, if any, were there for you in staying?

Professor C: The tangible benefit was in salary, but through conversations with my unit and college administrators I gained better understanding of their values and goals, appreciation for my professional contributions, and a feeling that my voice was heard and respected. Discussing potentially leaving was a very uncomfortable experience, but after the process, I felt much more empowered to speak up not just within my program, but in the department and college as well, and when I have concerns about leadership and policy I can go to the administrators and speak very frankly about my concerns and be candid about what I need to be successful in order to continue my career here. 

Professor D: I was able to negotiate a variety of perks (e.g., salary, course reductions, and additional in-kind supports to fund graduate students on my grants). I also received additional mentorship and support in the tenure process which was something that I needed. Overall, I am happy with my decision to stay. It is important to note that I had grants, and I had done a significant amount of service to support the administration in reaching their goals before going to them for a counter-offer. If that were not the case, I expect that the outcome would have been different.

What recommendations or observations (e.g., lessons learned) would you like to share with others who face the decision to stay in or leave their current position, including those who might be considering other opportunities right now?

Professor A: Moving can seem daunting, especially if you are happy and comfortable in your current position. However, the inconvenience and difficulties of the process can absolutely be worth it when considering a long term move where you can grow as a professional and person. I recommend to communicate often with trusted colleagues to obtain objective opinions on anything from research opportunities to cost of living. Consider the non-job related costs of moving (selling a house, changing kids’ schools, potentially losing a retirement match if you are not vested). Most importantly, we work in a small and connected profession so always remain positive and collegial throughout. 

Professor B: Ultimately, though I felt guilty that I was leaving holes that needed to be filled, I knew the decision to move was the best and I had to keep that in mind.I found it very helpful to have colleagues outside of my institution that I could call on with questions and support.  A graduate school friend was my sounding board because she had gone through the process of leaving her school psychologist position for academia the previous year.  Former professors helped me keep the big picture in mind and talked through the “politics” of leaving. I would recommend tapping into your social support network as you make these big decisions. 

I do not have other fabulous recommendations that would work for all situations, but recommend that you face the process of deciding to move in the way that works best for you.  For me, I felt “icky” about not telling my close colleagues I was searching (thus the nervous feeling and stomach knots I felt when in their presence) and I felt such relief after telling them. For others, they would want to keep that information to themselves until everything was finalized.  I do not think there is a right or wrong way to do it, but of course you should notify your supervisor as soon as you have decided so they can begin the process of filling your teaching and service obligations.  

I found “The Academic Job Search Handbook” by Vick, Furlong, and Lurie to be a wonderful resource for the entire job search process.  There is also a section in one chapter focused on how to gracefully leave a job after you have accepted a new position, which was helpful as well.

Professor C: I’ve tried to adopt a long term perspective in considering any moves. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a perfect position or a perfect institution, and even a near-perfect position can be less so as contextual issues change. I try to consider whether the things that might motivate my openness to move are short-term or fairly intractable issues. For instance, in many institutions, an unsupportive administrator can be a problem for a few years assuming there are term limits, but the institutional culture and infrastructure is less malleable. The sheer abundance of open positions can make it hard not to wonder if things might be better elsewhere, so having a broad network of colleagues at all career stages where we can discuss experiences and challenges is helpful. There are so many potential commonalities and nuances across institutions that makes it difficult to know what to expect from one place to another, to say nothing of all of the interpersonal factors that can contribute to a wonderful or dreadful professional experience. My biggest recommendation is to talk to others – peers, mentors, colleagues, search committees, administrators – to gather as much data as possible to understand the opportunities and challenges in your current position and elsewhere.

Professor D: I think that it is important to be open-minded but also to realize that the grass is not always greener on the other side. Each institution has its strengths and challenges, and it is important to consider the extent to which the priorities and mission of your institution are consistent with your own career goals. Also, never go to your administration to ask for a counter-offer unless you are ready to walk and accept the other position. Sometimes, the administration will make a competitive counter-offer. Sometimes, they will not. Be prepared either way. 

Thanks to all our contributors for sharing their frank perspectives.

Early career scholars and others considering going on the market the first or second time in 2018-19 may be interested in the NASP mini-skills session, Navigating Job Searches: Finding Your First -or Second- Faculty Position.


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