Saturday, March 28, 2015

Mid-career mobility

In my last post I mentioned one of the ways that the precarious job market affects even tenured and tenure-line faculty; in this post I want to talk about another: mid-career mobility.

Just as many of us were told that there are always jobs for good people or that we'd be fine as long as we went on the market with a couple of publications, many of us were also told that there was such a thing as a first job: that if we weren't happy somewhere (or were perfectly happy for a time, but later wanted new opportunities), we'd be able to move if we were working hard and publishing well. At least, I was told this, and the careers of my grad school professors seemed to bear it out: although a few of the senior faculty were still on their first job, most of them--and usually the most accomplished--were on their third or fourth or fifth.

Now, I'm not expecting the plight of those seeking a second tenure-track job to wring tears from the eyes of those still a long way from that kind of stability. But this affects them, too: the scarcity of jobs means that most grad students and recent PhDs are advised to take any job they get offered--and then "write their way out." Obviously, it's foolish to turn down a decent job in the hope of a better one, but what about the job that sets a candidate's Spidey-sense a-tingle or that seems like it might be unworkable for a single person or a dual-career couple or a minority or LGBT applicant? What is the likelihood of moving elsewhere?

I don't have an answer to that. I do know at least a dozen people who moved before tenure, which leads me to believe that the odds of such a move are decent--but of course the nature of the game is that those who are on the market don't usually advertise it.

The mid-career move is even more of an open question. Just as the contracting job market means many tenure-line jobs are themselves worse than they used to be--fewer TT faculty means a heavier service burden on those who remain, which frequently comes alongside higher course caps and increased teaching loads--it also means mid-career moves are harder to pull off. The two together can lead to the kind of post-tenure malaise that Notorious Ph.D. has blogged about.

I haven't seen many mid-career moves, though it's possible that I'm just too early in my career. Maybe they too are a casualty of the job market, or maybe they're in a temporary lull--or maybe they were never as common as the careers of my grad school professors led me to believe.

Although lots of people at midlife and in midcareer experience some kind of a slump or wonder whether they can bear to be doing the same thing for another 20 or 25 years, most highly-educated professionals can at least move companies or cities, if their specific working conditions are displeasing. In academia, this is rarely possible.

And I think it's the possibility, more than the reality, that matters. I've never yet taken a job that I was eager to leave or one in which I didn't think I could be happy long-term. But I've also never wished to believe that any job was my last job; it's useful to believe that other opportunities lie ahead--and that in a hazy ten years or so, or after the next book or the next, I might make another move.

Whether such an opportunity actually presents itself is less important.


Frances Altvater said...

This seems right from my observation--at my own institution, we're looking at the upcoming retirement of folks who have been here 20+ years. And I think that a lot of folks look for change at their own institutions--a stint as director of a program or as a dean. Inertia is a powerful force--if you can have a little change without having a BIG change, that looks desirable enough.

Flavia said...


Yes, agreed--and I already feel this myself: that remaining somewhere long-term (even a place that I very much liked!) would require finding new challenges, within the institution, as well as developing my life outside it.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I, too, heard the "take the first job/write your way out" advice a lot -- mostly from survivors of the '70s Ph.D. glut who had taken that route and eventually landed on their feet in a pretty prestigious department(and who no doubt meant the advice sincerely and kindly, but were perhaps unaware of just how many of their original colleagues had fallen by the wayside, or of the steady downward overall trajectory of the job market in the humanities).

If there is a decline in mobility (and I'm not sure whether there is; I've seen some in my department, mostly in the form of people leaving for jobs in lower-cost-of-living and/or nearer-spouse/family areas right around the time of tenure), I suspect another reason may be two-career (especially two-academic-career) couples: if two people manage to get tenure at the same institution, or even at two institutions in reasonable proximity to each other, they're likely to stay where they are, perhaps especially if they also have children (or at least until said children are grown). On the other hand, as your own case (and some of the ones I mentioned above) show(s), some people put up with long distance relationships until tenure/getting the book out, and then try to move closer. So maybe that one works both ways.

Personally, I'm curious about mid-career mobility for those of us who never made it onto the tenure track (either voluntary mobility, or -- the worse case -- involuntary when the needs of the institution change and the NTT position is eliminated, which is, after all, the point of keeping it contingent). My sense is that it's probably possible if we can keep up the sort of publication schedule which makes anyone more mobile (the old "write your way out"), but doing that, of course, is quite difficult (especially if the NTT job has to supply the only or primary income for an individual/household, in which case summer teaching or other income-supplementing work will almost certainly be involved).

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I'm really interested in seeing how this plays out, both in hiring new people in my department and in my own future job searches. I'd be happy to hire someone who has been a struggling adjunct, like I was. Or someone who is midcareer and wants to help build our program. Then again, it's pretty exciting to tap into youthful energy and idealism. It'll quickly get crushed at a place like HU, and then that person will leave. This happens all the time at HU. But maybe if we gather a critical mass of people all demanding better support ... maybe... maybe it could change. I dunno.

The funny thing to me is that I've applied for jobs every year that I've been at Heartland U and never even gotten an interview. So while I've been doing more than basically everyone in my cohort of young folks, I'm still not in the echelon that would get me an interview elsewhere. A book makes all the difference, I'm told. I have to figure out time for that!

JaneB said...

From my (UK, STEM, 'squeezed middle' regional institution) persepctive, the mid-career mobility option is disappearing fast. IF you have a lot of grants, you can move at the most senior level - but if you work in the 'squeezed middle' type institutions you won't have the facilities you need to do that unless you totally and deliberately neglect all your other duties. We have some horrible colleagues who have managed to move to other, 'better' places, and some very disillusioned ones who are great scientists who feel completely trapped. If you got your first job at a 'top' place you have more potential for mobility - both more c.v. points and just the gloss that comes with it - plus it's easier to move 'down' the foodchain (hence my current head of department got the last tricky promotion by moving from a 'Russell Group' place to our place) - it's difficult, it really is, because I guess tenure makes a difference in the US but here if you don't move you;re seen as 'part of the problem' or a 'stick-in-the-mud' after more than 5-10 years in one place. Loyalty to a place or personal reasons to stay or not being able to/choosing to move apparently make you worse at your job, less valuable to the institution and not worth investment. Yeah, guess I'm kind of bitter about this one!

Susan said...

My sense is that mobility is highest at the top and the bottom: that is, it's pretty easy pre-tenure, because you go into another TT job as an assistant professor; but when places are hiring with tenure, they tend to want full professors, who have a significant track record. There are, needless to say, hierarchies at all these levels.

When I didn't get tenure, a few places wanted to offer me a TT job, and I wouldn't take it. It took a long time for me to get the book that provided for the next promotion to a point where I was a candidate for full professor in various places. And that's when I was finally able to move.

Flavia said...

Thanks for these thoughts, all.


Your question about how this plays out for NTT faculty is interesting, and increasingly urgent at this point in the history of the profession--though I certainly have no answers! As Susan's history shows, it's possible to move later in one's career from a NTT job to a tenured one, but it's harder to speak of a well-defined path or strategy.


Yes--I was just saying on Twitter that I suspect that *late* career moves are still possible, even if the mid-career move is less common than it used to be. (If indeed it actually was more common; I'm still wondering if that perception is just driven by the outliers.)

Of course, at the full level the moves are all so individual and particular--sometimes the positions are advertised, sometimes they're targeted hires, but either way it's usually about one specific person's strengths and one specific department or institution's needs or desires--that it's hard to generalize and certainly not something to count on.

But I suppose it boils down to the usual: keep doing good work without expecting any fulfillment other than the work--and whatever opportunities are going to come, will come!

Historiann said...

Flavia & all--Sorry to be late to the convo, but my department has lost FOUR Associate Professors (all men) in the past five years. Three are American historians, one a South Asianist. It's anecdata, but I've seen a number of jobs advertised in recent years as Assistant/Associate, or Associate/Full. I tend to think that Susan is basically right--that's it's easier at the lower end and the higher end to move--but the experience of my (now former) colleagues suggests that there are other jobs out there if you're even moderately productive and happen to be the right person at the right time.

(I'm speaking as someone who moved from one TT to another as an Assistant Prof, and would be willing to move again for the right opportunity in future.)

Flavia said...


Wowza! That's really striking. I'm not sure English has those kind of numbers; I think in my subfield there were just 2-3 jobs at the Associate level, and a few more if you're including jobs that are primarily administrative or include a major administrative component (chair; director of a center). Indeed, most of the mid-career mobility I hear about these days involves people moving as administrators.

Historiann said...

I think that's right. I have friends who are busy accumulating admin experience in order to enhance their mobility at Associate (or even Full).

Yeah, four out of 19 or 20 of us is a major chunk. It would be one thing if I were in a department of 50 or 70 or 80, but I'm not!

Natori Moore said...

This part of your post is exactly why I stopped at an M.A. and chose a career in private industry rather than go on for a Ph.D.: "...most highly-educated professionals can at least move companies or cities, if their specific working conditions are displeasing. In academia, this is rarely possible."