Question: I am in my third year in a tenure-track position and am thinking about applying to other institutions. What are the particular pitfalls and problems to consider in trying to change jobs? For instance, from whom is it best to get letters of recommendation? And at what point should you tell your colleagues that you are job hunting?
Mary: The difficulty of this situation is that you may need letters of recommendation from people who, for various reasons, you don't want to ask to provide them.
Julie: You may be able to get around the problem by securing up-to-date recommendations from other sources: the university where you earned your Ph.D.; other colleges where you may have done some part-time teaching; and colleagues on other campuses with whom you've collaborated on research, or who at least know your research very well. It will be easier to line up the recommendations if you've stayed in touch with these people, periodically updating them on your work and staying current with theirs.
Mary: If you haven't, however, it's time to send out materials that will bring your potential recommenders up to date and allow them to write letters on your behalf with some degree of knowledge of your current activities. Among other things, you might send your CV, reprints of articles, and course syllabuses.
It's best to send this supporting material after you've had a conversation in which you ask if they'll be willing to recommend you. Make sure to let them know that you're trying to keep your job search private, and ask them to hold it in confidence. It's usually a good idea to indicate that you're entering the job market selectively, so that, if word does leak out, at least your current department doesn't think you consider any job in sight better than your current one.
Julie: At some point, however, you will need to tell your department about your search. It's possible that another institution will be very interested in you but will not be comfortable making an offer until the search-committee members have talked with your current department head. Take some comfort in the fact that you will not be the first person to leave a tenure-track position after a few years. It happens. Sometimes what initially looked like a good fit just isn't. Sometimes personal issues necessitate looking elsewhere. Whatever your particular circumstances, prepare carefully what you are going to say to the chairman.
Mary: There is absolutely no way to be certain that word of your search won't spread before you want it to, but you can do things to shift the odds. When you apply for positions, indicate in your cover letter that you are applying selectively and have not yet discussed your plans with others in your department, so you would appreciate it if you were notified before your current department was contacted. This will give you a chance to break the news yourself, which is preferable to having it come through a third party.
Julie: When you have to break the news, do it in a way that will cause the least bad feelings possible. Acknowledge the positive aspects of your current job -- there must be a few -- as a way to balance your reasons for going to a new place. Instead of saying, "I'm not happy here," talk about the attractions of the prospective new job that really aren't available at your current one. The department invested a lot of time and energy in hiring you. Depending on how things have gone, your colleagues may not be surprised that you are looking.
Question: I've just earned my Ph.D. and am preparing to go on the market next year, but I'm worried about getting a good letter of recommendation from my adviser. Our relationship has been stormy. Do I really need a letter from him?
Mary: If you are applying for academic positions early in your career, hiring committees are going to look for an adviser's letter. But what if you don't have one, and are scared to ask? As difficult as it may be, it's usually best to begin with a frank, calm conversation with your adviser. Acknowledge the adviser's negativ e opinion and right to hold it. Then ask what are the areas in which the adviser feels he or she can honestly recommend you.
Julie: You might even want to take the adviser's negative opinions into account when you go about choosing where you want to apply. Maybe your adviser was extremely frustrated with you because you routinely turned in materials long after agreed-upon deadlines. If that's the case, you may not thrive in a position in which your success depends upon your ability to conduct research under unstructured conditions. If you routinely got poor student evaluations and kept the department busy handling student complaints about your classes, another teaching position, at least before you have strengthened your teaching skills, may not be in your best interest, either. Perhaps, more than you suspected, you and your adviser agree on your strengths and weaknesses, and the fact that you acknowledge your weaknesses may make your adviser happier to acknowledge your strengths.
Mary: Another reason to work up your courage to talk to your adviser is that things may turn out better than you expect. I recently worked with a Ph.D. who felt certain that his adviser would not give him a good recommendation. After a conversation where the candidate tried to mend fences, he was surprised to learn that the adviser was willing to write a good recommendation. By letting communication languish, the candidate had built up a fantasy that his adviser hated him and would never recommend him strongly.
Julie: What if, despite your best efforts, you feel that you can't count on a fair recommendation from your adviser? Your best defense is lining up a lot of other positive recommendations. We have even known of rare occasions when a department has agreed with a student that, for whatever reason, an adviser has been unfair and the department has designated someone, such as a graduate chair, who will write on the adviser's behalf, recommending the candidate and explaining why a letter from the adviser is not being offered.
Mary: Get strong letters from other faculty members who know your work well. If this means including a letter from someone at another institution, try to balance it with two from your doctorate-granting institution if you are just a few years out from completing your degree. You will probably have to talk frankly with your recommenders about why you don't have a letter from your adviser so that they can address that concern if a hiring committee raises it, which it most likely will. You may need to help these recommenders put as positive a spin on the situation as possible. It's not ideal, but you will not be the first person to succeed despite this predicament. If other people can recommend you strongly, you may well proceed with no other obstacles.
Julie: Finally, bear in mind that people whose names you do not provide still may be asked about you, if someone knows them well and information on your vita places you close to them. This was the experience of one of our students whose department had a well-known authority on her area of research, although this individual was not her adviser nor on her committee. People interested in her work frequently asked him what he knew about her, so she needed to acquaint him with her work and goals just as she would have done if she'd volunteered him as a recommender.