Key steps you should take after a midcareer move (opinion) | Inside Higher Ed
This article won’t cover strategies for making a midcareer move. We’ve all heard it: publish well, gain administrative experience and earn a reputation for being easy to work with. However, like the distribution of assistant professor job offers, mobility at the tenured ranks depends largely on chance. Some faculty do everything right but come up empty on the market. Others don’t, but they still manage to seal the deal. Meritocracy is a myth at any stage of career.
Rather, this article will address what happens after you sign the contract, uproot yourself and arrive at your new institution. Congratulations! Now what?
Know that your new institution needed someone to fill a leadership position. That’s why a senior — and not junior — line opened up. Even if the job advertisement to which you responded wasn’t written for one of those roles, your new institution will ask you to perform it in the near future.
For me, that future arrived much sooner than anticipated. I had just packed the last of my belongings into the trunk of my car and begun driving to my new home when I stopped at a cafe. While sipping coffee, I checked email and saw a message from my then-associate dean in the new job inviting me to take a directorship that would begin almost immediately.
Devote your first year to listening and learning. Colleges and universities value the insights that new senior faculty members bring from elsewhere. The fresh energy keeps them from becoming insular and stale. And as a new senior faculty member, you’ll receive opportunities to pursue ambitions that you might not have been able to achieve in your previous position. But you need to do your homework beforehand.
Get to know your colleagues. That means all of them — not just ladder-rank faculty and administrators, but also adjuncts, clerical staff, student services staff and librarians. Attend talks and other events. Read people’s work. Schedule coffee dates. Ask questions. You will hear multiple and, often, competing stories, all of which could be true in their own way. Respect the work others did before you arrived. Accept offers of help. Give people the benefit of the doubt, and allow others to give you theirs.
In other words, don’t be “that guy” who shows up, declares it all wrong and strong-arms unilateral decisions. I once worked with someone who made that blunder in his first week and kept on making it. He never regained his department’s trust.
Recognize that relationships with people at your new institution whom you knew before will change. This isn’t necessarily bad. For the most part, I deepened my admiration for people I already knew when I began working with them. However, be aware that unforeseen administrative pressures may put you and a friend in a difficult situation. Acknowledge that the sticking point lies in what your respective professional roles require. Reaffirm the strength of your friendship. Then figure things out.
Invest in your research without feeling selfish — even if you were hired at the rank of professor or with all requirements for full professorship in place. Every academic department is stretched thin with few hands available for service. Small departments feel the pinch most palpably. Junior faculty members’ service assignments should be minimal. Associate professors can do more, but they often shoulder so much that their research stalls. That is often true of associate professors who are people of color, especially if they are also women, queer, disabled and/or of a religious minority.
The rest of us need to ensure that service never impedes anyone’s tenure case or path to full professorship, which means doing the lion’s share. At the same time, commit regular time for your research or creative work without guilt.
Be a good ally. Your perception of your new institution’s resources may be skewed because of how you’ve benefited from the stops it pulls out to lure senior scholars. Often, salary compression and inversion, the so-called loyalty tax, affects longtime faculty. Remember that being better compensated doesn’t mean you are more valuable than your peers. All it means is that you didn’t have the “misfortune” of arriving earlier.
In addition, take supportive action, whenever possible — such as broaching the topic of equity raises with administrators if you have their ear. If you are a department chair, initiate the steps to make them happen. Improve the working conditions of adjuncts. Or, even if you can’t do anything in the moment, witness and empathize. You may be in a position to advocate for your colleagues — and they for you — in the future.
Prepare to disappoint people. Your new colleagues have big expectations of you. They see you as the solution to long-standing problems. Senior hires, unlike junior faculty, are rightfully expected to mobilize change.
You will make mistakes, as I did. Some of them may even have consequences, as mine did. Apologize, fix them and thank those who helped you learn. You will be able to accomplish certain things, but your power will also be limited. Most people will understand, but others will be let down. Don’t take anything personally.
Keep in touch with former colleagues. The relationships that were healthy and sustaining at your old job don’t need to end because you went elsewhere. Schedule time for lunch or dinner with a former colleague when you’re at a conference. Email, call or text on a regular basis. Meet up with people when they’re on your campus to give a talk, attend a symposium or visit an archive with them, or accompany their high school-age child as they tour your college.
You still might wind up collaborating in different ways: service for a national professional organization, co-authorship of a publication, partnering on editorial work and the like. Since my move, I’ve written reference letters for people I used to work with and had letters written for me. You can continue to rely on one another if you don’t burn bridges.
Finally, remember you’re adjusting not only to a new job but also a new home. Find ways of becoming more rooted in place. For me, that entailed reading books set in the area, going on local history tours, finding a community cause to support and exploring the great outdoors.
Above all, moving is stressful. Take a break when it’s over, and enjoy your new surroundings.
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