• November 24, 2014

The Good Goodbye

Careers Illustration -- Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

Enlarge Image
close Careers Illustration -- Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

You are never too old in academe to experience what you advise others about. In recent months, while The Chronicle was publishing my columns on job offers and contract negotiations, I was offered and accepted a new position as a dean.

Then I confronted a truism I had observed time and time again in other people's searches: The academic-hiring process was not yet over.

I had many more things to do—and not just checking out Cobra coverage and selling our house. After signing a contract to start a new job in academe, you must complete certain actions, rituals, and statements that will "seal the deal" for your future. This month's column will focus on post-hiring etiquette at the department you are leaving; next month I'll tackle what you should do for, and say to, your new colleagues. If you are a doctoral student, then just thanking everybody who helped your education and job search is enough, but if you are already an assistant professor, or tenured and beyond, you have much to do internally.

Inform your colleagues and institution—quickly. When I wrote about "how to be a happy lame duck," I noted that, unlike in the corporate world, where the transition from hiring to starting a new job might be weeks or even days, the academic-hiring cycle can result in your giving 10 months' notice to your department. The point: Your obligations to your employer do not end when you accept a position elsewhere, no matter how short or long a lag time between exit and start-up.

For one thing, your chair and colleagues have to plan ahead. At many universities, the concept of a faculty "line" that automatically stayed within a department when someone left has disappeared. Now, if a faculty member leaves or retires, a whole new proposal for a new position often has to be generated.

Second, there are many dominoes that will be affected by your departure. Classes may need to be canceled or rescheduled, or another instructor found to teach them. Advisees need to seek new advisers—although in some universities, like mine, even if you leave you can sit on a doctoral committee for a specified period afterward. In addition, there is the ethical obligation of making sure your colleagues find out you are leaving directly from you rather than a third party.

Help make the internal transition smooth. It's imperative that you lighten as much as possible any negative impact of your exit. Meet with the chair to review your research, teaching, and service obligations, and discuss how best to withdraw from them, on what timetable, and in what sequence.

You will need to have other conversations with colleagues you collaborate with on research (especially on grants), graduate students, and staff members. You absolutely must help your advisees find new advisers if that's what your institution requires, and what you and they decide is the only option. A colleague in the sciences, although now in midcareer, still remembers how his doctoral adviser announced at the end of a year that he was leaving, abandoning his lab assistants and advisees with a cavalier "Good luck." Take seriously your exit duties—to students most of all.

On the other hand, don't overpromise. In your zeal to be a good citizen, avoid overcommitting yourself. Be realistic about what you can do before you leave. A colleague of mine at another university pledged to complete an important curriculum review before his departure. In all the bustle of moving and preparing for the new job, he put it off until he finally admitted the task was impossible. It would have been better for everyone involved, including him, if he had just assessed accurately at the start that he wouldn't have time to finish.

Research projects, especially those involving external grants, are particularly prone to unrealistic promises. Certainly there is no reason you might not continue a research track with colleagues at Institution 1 even if you are moving to Institution 2. But you owe yourself and them a sober calculation of what exactly you can do, when and where, and who will do what for whom, now that you will no longer have the bond of proximity.

Don't try to guide after you are gone. Trying to alleviate any negative wake caused by your departure can become intrusive meddling if taken too far. For example, suppose you are allowed to continue as adviser to your graduate students. Would it be better for them to instead find a new adviser who will be more readily available and close by? To some extent, that should be mostly their decision, not yours. Be careful about heavy-handedly indicating they should avoid a certain professor or definitely choose another.

Likewise with departmental projects. I heard about one case in which a particular faculty member had developed a "signature" course. On announcing his leaving, he tried to variously demand or negotiate that certain elements of the class would continue unchanged ... forever. Unless you are making a substantial financial donation to the department that is guided by donor intent, once you leave a position, nothing of what you have created or influenced is still under your control. So as you walk away, give it up mentally and perhaps reinvent it in your new place.

Stay positive. My new job is in Lubbock. More than one wag has repeated to me the famous remark attributed to Davy Crockett after he decided to emigrate southwestward from Tennessee: "You all can go to hell; I'm going to Texas." In my case, I leave with no regrets, grievances, or grudges. But many, many people, upon changing jobs, yearn to settle scores, at least orally, before they saddle up and ride out of town.

In a word: don't.

First, parting shots reflect badly on you. If you have indeed chafed in your position, leaving is the best revenge. No need to add insults to your escape from injury. Furthermore, your enemies will never give you the satisfaction of admitting they wronged you. In fact, they will take your departure as proof you didn't belong there in the first place. No professor ever left a job with a trail of crying colleagues begging him to stay.

Second, telling people off or noting the negatives that drove you to leave rarely has any practical value. A social scientist recalled being asked by his dean at a small college why he was quitting. His main gripe had been the quality of the students, who were, as he described it, "rich, spoiled kids who only wanted to party." When he said that to the dean, the response was pragmatic: "So, you would have stayed if we got rid of all our students?"

Finally, remember that academic disciplines are a small town. You never know when a colleague at one institution will resurface sometime down the road as, say, a new dean where you work. You can further expect that former colleagues will attend national conferences, serve as reviewers, and generally not disappear from your life just because you don't live near them anymore.

So leave on a positive note—which I think is as much a good entrance strategy to the new job as exit etiquette for the previous one.

I have met more than a few faculty members who can't let go of past wrongs, indignities, or frustrations. Such attitudes will undermine your success in your new position. Conversely, you can be too positive about that past: No institution is completely better in every way than another. Along those lines, don't build up the new job to be so superior to the previous one that you set yourself up for disappointment.

Taking a new academic job should be a happy time, although it is perfectly natural to have sentimental twinges—as I do—about leaving wonderful colleagues, students, and friends. But whatever you feel about your present institution, you owe it a professional and minimally painful exit.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor at the University of Iowa. He writes the "Career Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His book on promotion and tenure was published by Harvard University Press in 2010. On July 1, 2013, he will become dean of the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.