Welcome to LeafSpring, an anonymized advice blog by a group of scientists on the tenure track. Send your questions to leafspring.labcarpentry@gmail.com

Jan 03, 2017

When (and how) to move.

Dear LeafSpring,

I'm trying to decide whether to look for jobs elsewhere, or stay in my current job. Do you have any advice on when and how to think about moving institutions?

On The Move

Dear OTM,

There are any number of reasons why you might want to move. Even applying for other jobs can be a lot of work and the process should be approached with care. Changing institutions is a tremendous amount of work so the new situation should be clearly better than the old!

We feel that loyalty is owed to friends and colleagues, not institutions. Friends and colleagues will often understand your motivation, particularly if you explain why you are trying to leave. They can be valuable allies in retention. Our experience is that institutions will try to use loyalty as a cheap way to retain you. It is probably worth critically thinking about how far their loyalty would extend if your funding lapsed - generally the answer is, not terribly far.

Some of the reasons we've seen for moving, or trying to move, are:

  • Family or location issues (two body challenges, etc.). Maybe your family is unhappy with your location, your partner can't find a job, or there are legal restrictions that affect you. Many academic institutions are in communities that are somewhat isolated and it can be hard to find opportunities for spouses there. We've also seen situations where same sex partners made a family decision to leave a location because of the hostility of state laws to child adoption and family rights.

  • Resource issues. Perhaps the resources that you need to be successful are not being provided, which is preventing you from getting your work done. Problems may include a lack of lab space, access to core facilities, teaching obligations, etc. Looking for a better situation may end up prying loose necessary resources in a competitive environment. It may also help the chair/dean/etc pry loose those resources for you.

  • Tenure. You may want to go up for tenure early, or provide yourself with an alternative if you don't get tenure. Most places will seriously negotiate about tenure as part of a retention, especially if an equally strong or stronger department is offering you tenure on the other side. On the one hand, tenure is inexpensive to provide in the immediate term. On the other hand tenure can be administratively tricky with lots of rules involved. Changes cannot always be easily guaranteed. For example, one of us took an external offer with the expectation, but no guarantee, of tenure. That scientist did subsequently receive it; but was informed that if tenure wasn't granted, they could renege and not move.

  • Pay. If you feel that your current compensation (often pay, but potentially benefits, salary coverage, or other factors) is not competitive with what you would earn elsewhere, you could look for new positions. Salary changes are a standard part of many retention packages or external offers. Other factors (benefits, salary coverage expectations) may be substantially more difficult to negotiate. Many universities have programs that are available to faculty to help with specific challenges. It may be possible to negotiate for specific benefits that are important to you. However, this can be challenging so a dollar figure on salary that is equivalent may be easier to achieve.

  • Environment. Sometimes the environment in your current institution is problematic and sometimes there are exciting things happening at a different institution that make it more appealing. If you're working in a negative environment consider the fact that it is rare for environments to improve quickly, so the best thing to do may be to consider leaving. If you're feeling undervalued, try to talk positively about what you want to achieve in the future. It may be helpful to talk with your department chair/dean/etc and present yourself as if you were applying for a job as future you. Explain what you would like to achieve at your current institution. The chair/dean/etc's reaction to this may help you determine if you need to move, or if your goals are achievable where you already are. Sometimes environment is a positive reason for a move. One of us recently moved not because there was anything wrong at their old university, but because a different university was building exciting new programs in their areas of interest. This made the new environment more exciting with lots of potential for interesting colleagues, seminars, and collaborations.

  • Responsibility. Maybe you want more or different responsibilities. Perhaps you have learned that there is a particular aspect of your job that you don't get to pursue at your current position. Maybe you want a leadership position. Maybe you want to run a core facility, or maybe you do now but don't want to continue running one. Whatever the reason, a move may provide opportunities to change responsibilities.

  • Fit. Maybe you were hired at your institution for what you, and they, thought you'd do, but time has passed and that has changed. In addition to responsibilities, maybe your research program changed and you are now a better fit for a different department/institution/colleagues.

  • Change. Maybe you just want a change!

We suggest that if you want to move, you take the following three steps:

  • Say yes to invitations to speak. This is particularly true if you are invited to a place that you might like to move. These trips can lead to offers. Sometimes, you'll meet with someone and they will offer the opportunity to move outright. Other times, you might be meeting with the relevant department chair, dean, etc and you can ask about their hiring plans in your area. If you think that you might like to move, you may want to ask specifically about your suitability for such a position. In some cases an invitation to speak can even be an intentional move to pursue a hire. One of us moved after being invited to give a seminar, and we were later informed that it was actually more of a pre-interview.

  • If you have trusted friends at other institutions, you may want to tell them of your interest in moving and why. In combination with the previous point, this may lead to seminar invitations at goal institutions. Also, when they hear about opportunities at their own institution or in the field at large, they may either bring them to your attention or put your name forward. Some of us have previously recommended others, who we knew were looking for positions, to hiring committees. This may lead the committee to invite you, even if you don't apply.

  • Apply elsewhere. This is the easiest way to let a hiring committee know that you are interested in a position. It is a lot of work to send out applications again, but for a major environment change it may be worth it.

We are of different minds about whether or not to keep applying for new jobs a secret. In good environments if a department chair/dean/etc wants to retain you, they will actively look to keep you happy. However, in less positive environments it is possible that administrators or colleagues will be unhappy that you are considering leaving with potentially negative consequences. Of course you won't be able to keep being on the market a secret forever, so you will have to weigh the risks and benefits to decide when to share this with administrators, colleagues, and lab members.

If your leadership knows that you are considering other opportunities, they have probably already done some leg work to prepare. They may be able to get a retention package together in a couple weeks. If your request blindsides them, they may need a few weeks, if not a month, to do so. Your prospective new institution will of course be pushing you to decide to go there, so timing may become critical. As soon as you make it known that you have an offer somewhere else, you should expect the fact to spread. Your lab will probably hear about it. In our experience uncertainty is stressful for everyone involved, and it doesn't help (and may hurt) to try to keep it secret.

Once you have identified one or more opportunities and have received an invitation:

  1. Go on interviews & hope for an offer.
  2. Once you get some concrete idea of what the offer will be, bring it back to your current department chair. If you have any interest in staying, prepare to discuss what you need to stay at your current institution.
  3. When negotiating, make it clear what you're negotiating for and why. Asking for more resources without explaining what you want to do with them may make it harder for an institution to provide them to you. This can be specific to each institution (for example, some institutions have free compute clusters, others don't; so for the first type, you can simply negotiate access; for the latter, you need think about what compute you need and how much). If you explain why, then it helps the people at the institution justify the request up the chain to their chair, dean, etc.

When negotiating for retention, remember that:

  • Misunderstandings rule. Don't assume everyone (or even anyone) is talking to each other. We've seen situations where the chairs and the deans were thinking completely different things from each other, and not being honest about it.

  • Retention will be dependent on the personality and relationships and interactions of the chair, dean, etc. involved. Of course, if they seem unable to coordinate on retaining you, that might be a sign that you'd be better off elsewhere.

  • Your retention may be more generous if a lot of people have left recently. A large number of departures without corresponding hires can make a department or institution look bad. Alternatively, many departures may indicate that your institution is not in a financial position to match outside offers.

Moving is costly for everyone involved. Think about your current students, postdocs, and techs; your family; hiring new people at the new location to replace people who did not move; figuring out new admin situations, hiring and buying rules; etc. Consider how you can make this time less stressful for your team. Some of us have negotiated for moving expenses for our lab members as well as ourselves. Moving is also an opportunity to revisit the compensation that your team receives. It may be easier to give team members a raise during a move.

Whenever you take a specific external offer to your current leadership to negotiate over, make sure you're serious about your willingness to take it. We would advise you to never bluff over an offer that you wouldn't accept. This can burn many bridges, even outside of your institution!

Finally, OTM, we've got some questions for the audience as well. What situations apply for moving into a more senior or administrative position? Are there any additional tips that we should be offering? Feel free to reply in the comments, or submit your thoughts to leafspring.labcarpentry@gmail.com and we will put them into a new post without naming you.

More reading

Yikes! Your advisor is moving to another institution. Now what?, by Rosa Li. Read this to understand what your students are thinking!

Applying for jobs when you have a job, by hashb8ng. Some good specific advice for dealing with a two-body problem, among other things.

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