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Jumping the Tracks: Applying for a Job When You Already Have One

September 5, 2008, 11:43 am

The Tenured Radical gmail account has been receiving a few gentle prompts asking when new installments in the job market series will appear. “Hey! What happened to the job market
posts?” one faithful reader writes. Well, I must confess that the lure of national politics and the beginning of the semester has kept me more than busy (although I have nothing — NOTHING– to say about the Republican convention. I have no words to express my dismay that the Republicans have finally been brought to their knees by their right wing. I couldn’t even pay attention to Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech for all the shots of that poor baby being passed from hand to hand in the gallery and the crowd shrieking maniacally when she delivered the line about the pit bull and the lipstick.)

However, today the series continues with:

Applying for a job when you already have one.

About a year ago there was a significant kerfuffle in the academic blogosphere that I unwittingly stepped into by suggesting that when writing a job letter you should, if you are actually employed at the time in a teaching position, use your employer’s letterhead. “No!” many shouted. “This is fraud! Stealing!” It struck me as odd that anyone would have such strong feelings about what was, after all, an inexpensive piece of decorated paper. But they did. And I then came to understand, as readers linked to other posts, that there was a raging battle out there about whether, once you have stepped on the tenure track at one institution, it is ethical to jump to another track elsewhere.

May I digress for a second? Academics are so weird. They will have high-falutin’ ideas about something like this, and then explain that it is ok for Professor Wingnut to be dating his teaching assistant because “lots of people in the department do it, and many of them are now happily married.” I know, you never would say this, dear reader. But others would. I’ve heard it.

I found it bizarre that trying to change jobs could be framed as an ethical problem. I mean, after all, this is why they call it a “job,” right? As opposed to, say, indentured servitude? It’s why the students call you “Professor” as opposed to, say “Sergeant,” “Kulak Bastard!” or “Prisoner #447865.” It’s why we talk about the job market — the word market implying some degree of free agency on all sides. In fact, having once been fired from a job at an institution other than Zenith in the midst of a political squabble (when the person who fired me was deposed, I was actually re-hired) I learned something very important. A letter of appointment is not actually a contract that guarantees you a job for the period of time stated in the letter, despite the fact that we refer to these documents as “contracts.” All untenured faculty are employed “at will.” This means that in exchange for giving you, the employee, the “right” to break the contract, the university also has the right to break the contract. This leads me to what I would call the two major fallacies that dominate the discussion about people who already have jobs going back on the market.

1. Applying for a job elsewhere is disloyal to your current employer and to your colleagues. Loyalty is a tricky concept to impose on a probationer to whom the university has made no commitment other than the promise of a tenure review in seven years. What it suggests is that because you have had a job bestowed on you, you must never want anything other than what that institution should provide. I would put this in the category of “like it or lump it” sentiments that would include: make a bad marriage work; don’t have sex if you don’t want a baby; because you have always gone to Stop N’ Shop you must never buy at Costco; and you have to love your parents even if they were horrible to you. Furthermore, everyone goes “ooh!” and “ahhh!” when Big Ivy comes rolling around to rip off one of your colleagues who just wrote a prize winning book. But somehow the people who have the least — assistant professors — are supposed to remain grateful forever that they even got a job in the first place.

Not.

2. Going back on the market adds undue pressure to an overloaded system with too few jobs; furthermore, your current job gives you a “credential” that is an unfair advantage over others. Yeah, and that article you published in a prestigious collection puts other people at a disadvantage too. Let me just say: that there are so many fine scholars without the good jobs they deserve is one of the great tragedies of intellectual life right now. But let’s blame the people who need to be blamed: the federal government, and state governments, that have slashed higher education budgets, and with them, tenure-track lines. The majority of tenure-track jobs were never in the private sector; they were created in the great expansions of public education that have been occurring since the 1850′s (most prominently since the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890); and again after World War II. The government gaveth, and the government tooketh away.

My point is: if you go on the market you are not ripping the food from someone else’s mouth. And if you get the job, presto! Your job opens for someone else! First a visitor, and then as a beginning assistant professorship.

So let’s forgo judging people who might want to go back on the market, since there are as many reasons to do so as there are people, including that you might be a basically flighty person who can’t commit. So what? And there are lots of serious reasons too. You might want to choose where you are going to live, rather than have it chosen for you; you might have taken a job that you knew wasn’t a good fit, but your obsession with eating and paying rent got the better of your good judgement; you may be living too far from people, or a person, who you love. Perhaps your colleagues seemed nice, but turned out to be uncontrollable monsters. Who knows? Your reasons are personal, and they are yours: you don’t have to explain this to the army of the unemployed. The only thing I would say is that putting your energy into a job hunt is something you need to weigh against another priority, which is getting on with your scholarly career. I have known a very few people who are so obsessed with getting a better job that they have sold themselves short in the end.

But let’s say you have decided to go back on the market. What do you need to attend to?

1. Every time you apply for a job it exposes you in a way you can’t control. Some of your colleagues may feel betrayed, particularly if they worked hard to bring you there and went to a lot of trouble to negotiate a great start-up package. They put a lot of work into the search, and may not be able to hide their disappointment and resentment that you don’t want to be there. So you need to know that, although you can ask for your application to be confidential up to a point (and probably should), that can’t be guaranteed, and eventually you may have to deal with questions. Because of this, you will need to have a story to tell your current colleagues and your prospective new employer about why you are jumping the track, and this story may or may not be the same story you are telling yourself. My blogosphere colleague rightwing prof argued in comments to this post that applicants should tell this story right up front in the job letter. I disagree with that, but I would also say that if you are successful in your quest, eventually the story will have to be told, and possibly not on your timetable. So be prepared, and frame it in a way that leaves everyone’s dignity intact .

2. It is a good idea to get in touch with a friend in the department you are applying to, or with the search chair, to find out whether your application is welcome and what the implications would be for your tenure clock. When some ads say “beginning assistant professor” they really mean it, and it could be a waste of your time to apply. And if you are moving from a SLAC or a less prestigious public institution to an R-I, be prepared to turn your tenure clock back. My very own Zenith, a SLAC that has a high research and teaching standard, is asking new hires with experience to roll back the tenure clock so that they have plenty of evidence when the tenure case is eventually heard. This may not be something you are willing to do, and I think this emerging practice has particular implications for women whose baby clock and tenure clock are competing with each other.

3. Unless you are in an utterly hostile environment, you need at least one colleague as a referee to reassure your prospective employers that there is nothing worrisome about you. This might be the person to say, “We hope we can hang on to her, but her partner is employed in Big City and the commute is taking a lot out of her.” Or, “While we are excited about what he adds to our department and would regret losing him, the strength your department has in Latin American history is an obvious draw that we can’t compete with.” And let me say — either of these explanations could be real, or they could be cover. No future employer wants to hear that you are in flight from tenured mysoginists, or that a gay man from New York living in Nebraska can feel like a fish on a bicycle. In other words: you may be moving for personal reasons, but come up with a legitimate professional one too.

4. What if you are on the market because you feel, through no fault of your own, that your career is in danger where you are? This is a sound reason to go on the market, in my opinion, and a good place to highlight advice I have already given above. If you are lucky, you will have a colleague at your institution with whom you can discuss this, who will help you frame your strategy, who will act as a referee, and who will agree to talk to prospective employers about things that should never go on paper and that may be too painful or unprocessed for you to discuss (racism, ideological prejudice, anti-semitism, sexual harassment, an affair that went psycho, homophobia, a horrible divorce from a senior colleague.) That said, you will eventually need a story to tell, and you need to figure out how to be truthful without potentially exposing yourself to further abuse in your department. If you are already dealing with people who are unsympathetic or cruel, you don’t want it to get back to them that you are saying things that they will almost surely think are not true (when was the last time one of your colleagues self-identified as a homophobe?). But don’t, whatever you do, make any of these stories part of your letter of application. If all things are equal, the committee will want you as part of the pool, and as your application proceeds to more serious stages you will know how much of your story to tell and to whom. Remember: this is why we interview people. To find out more about them; to try to judge their level of maturity and intellectual depth; and to give people the opportunity to volunteer necessary information on their own terms.

Next week: For the committee — how do you evaluate your pool?

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