Friday, April 24, 2015

Moving backward to move ahead: should you ever give up tenure?

In response to my previous post, Nik asked what I thought about the wisdom of giving up tenure in order to be more mobile at midcareer, or, in her words, "moving backwards to move ahead." I responded in the comments, but since this is something I've rarely seen discussed (and since I know only a handful of people who have done it), I thought it might be worth a post in its own right.

Unlike some of Nik's mentors, I don't think it's crazy to consider giving up tenure for the right job, but whether it's worth it depends on a lot of factors, some of which can't be assessed when you're just scanning the job ads. For me, giving up tenure would only be worth it for a markedly better job--whether that meant prestige, pay, or a significant improvement in my domestic/geographic circumstances. Even then, the exact terms of the offer would be crucial.

I actually did apply to three assistant-level jobs after getting tenure: one a modest step up in prestige, the others basically lateral moves; all in the same geographic region as my spouse. I was privately doubtful whether any could make me an offer I'd accept, but since there's no sense worrying about offers you haven't received, I threw out some applications (saying, in the first paragraph of my job letter, "although I received tenure in 2012, for the opportunity to join such a talented faculty I'd be happy to negotiate an appropriate tenure schedule"). Two gave me MLA interviews.

Once you get to the interview stage, it's worth starting to think about your non-negotiables. Some departments can hire you with tenure, even if the job wasn't listed that way, and if you get a fly-back you can sound out the situation then (but don't try it at the convention interview). Many departments, though, can't--I mean, legally, CANNOT.

If you get an offer that doesn't come with tenure, here are the factors I'd weigh in making a decision:

1. Do you have to give up rank as well as tenure? This matters. First off, if you get hired as an associate, nothing looks funny on your C.V.--but more importantly, getting hired as an associate is a sign that the institution regards you as already qualified for that rank.

2. What's the tenure timeline? Some departments can't hire you with tenure but will put you up for tenure immediately upon arrival. Again, this is a declaration that the department has already approved you for tenure (sometimes literally--one friend was told that the department's vote to hire constituted its approval of his tenure case).

3. Can you go up for tenure more than once? Often a faculty member has to go up within a certain number of years, but can do so earlier. If you go up immediately and something weird happens at the college or university level, do you get a do-over?

4. How close are you to meeting the tenure standard? Whether your title is assistant or associate, if you've already met the tenure standard, you're in good shape (at least if research is a primary criterion; teaching and service may be more of an unknown quantity).

5. Will you have the resources to meet the tenure standard? If your prospective employer expects much more for tenure than you've already produced, you want to make sure you'll have enough time and support (research funds, course releases) to get it done.

6. How will giving up tenure affect your progress toward full? If you're several years past tenure, it's worth knowing if any of what you've already produced will count toward full, or if everything before you get tenure at the new department essentially disappears and you have to start from scratch.

7. Everything else: salary, location, reputation, the "feel" of the place. All the stuff you normally consider will obviously be relevant in deciding if giving up tenure is worth it on the terms you're offered.

Readers: what considerations am I forgetting? And what have you seen with those who gave up tenure in order to move--smooth sailing? cautionary tales?

Inquiring minds want to know.


Janice said...

I see a lot of people move institutions for some sort of administrative or research opportunity. Check and see where you will stand with regards to not only conventional research/teaching standards for tenure, but also administration/service. I know someone who moved to take on a research institution faculty position only to discover that the administrative responsibilities weren't counting as service. Fortunately, this was at the year one review and so she/he was able to add some items to the review next year that showed other service that counted for that factor and was good to go for the tenure review in year three!

Susan said...

It's also always useful to find out what is and is not negotiable. Where I am, an Associate Prof is *always* tenured - you can't get the title without tenure. We are in the middle of a recruitment (spouse of a hire in another school) where someone who is tenured will probably NOT meet our standards, but will shortly. When we appoint at the advanced assistant level, we get outside letters, and we tell people we won't hire at that level if we don't think we can tenure someone.

Flavia said...

Thanks, both--Janice, I can't believe that major admin work wouldn't count as service! But at least your acquaintance was able to get everything squared away in time.

I think the key takeaway from both your comments (and from my limited, secondhand experience) is that a candidate needs to ask as many questions as possible and learn exactly how the tenure processes work at his or her prospective institution. Every place is different (but every place assumes its processes are standard & totally to be expected...).

Still, the policies at Susan's institution align with my general perception of this phenomenon, which is that departments that are willing to hire someone who's past tenure for a pre-tenure job are usually doing so with the full intention and desire of tenuring him or her--the department doesn't regard the candidate as merely a very strong applicant whom they'll try out, but as qualitatively different from his or her entry-level competitors: a (nearly) sure bet who will be contributing to the life of the department in a major and way from the beginning.

Since so few institutions approve associate or senior-level hires, the opportunity to hire someone who's already panned out but who's willing to take a temporary step back can be a big win for everybody.

Still, I'm curious whether anyone has seen the reverse happen (a hire who ultimately wasn't able to meet the new standard; a bad fit; a department with buyer's remorse; etc).

undine said...

Flavia, these are great questions. About #6: if you had to start completely from scratch, I don't think anyone would ever make full under a system like that.