Why would anyone leave a permanent academic position at a research-intensive university?* After all, for many (if not most) PhD students, post-doc researchers and temporary lecturers, this is the ultimate dream. Openings for permanent posts don’t arise very often and competition for them is fierce. Once you’re ensconced in your own office with your name on the door then to most observers outside the ivory tower you’re living the dream.
And yet academics do move. Although it happens relatively infrequently in the career of a given individual, at least once they become permanent members of faculty, at any time all departments have a turnover of staff departing and (usually) being replaced. When this moves above a trickle it indicates problems, but there remains a background rate, even if on the surface everything is going well.
Having completed such a move just over a year ago, the rest of this post explains my thinking in doing so. I won’t mention who my former employer was, not that it’s hard to find out. That’s simply because I don’t want this post to even carry the suggestion of hard feelings or criticism of any individual or institution. But first: a story.
Two years ago I completed a job application on a flight home from the US. The flight was delayed and the deadline was the same day, which meant that on arrival at my parents’ house I rushed through the door and submitted online with minutes to spare. Recovering from the jetlag or even showering had to wait. A few weeks later I received notification that I had been shortlisted, then not long afterwards found myself back at the airport flying over to Ireland for an interview.
This had only been the second job application I had made that academic year and the first response.** That I only made a handful of applications was in part through being selective but also because mid-career positions don’t come up very often. There are often places at the bottom of the ladder for junior (tenure-track) lecturers, though nowhere near enough to meet demand, but by the time you’ve been in the business for over a decade, your skills and experience are so specialised that you either need to be lucky enough to find a opening for someone exactly like you or a call so broad that you can engineer your CV to fit. I also wasn’t going to risk moving for anything other than a permanent position.
Given all this, I went to the interview with the intention of treating it as practice and continued applying elsewhere. It’s always worth having several lines in the water, even if you don’t end up needing them. I wasn’t desperate for a job because I was in the fortunate position of already having that security. Maybe this relaxed, open-minded approach helped, because I got an offer.
There’s a slightly embarrassing element to the next part. When the phone call first came through to offer me the position I hung up. At that precise moment there was a tearful post-grad in my office who had come to see me for help. I will always put supporting a student in distress ahead of any phone call, however important. Luckily UCC weren’t offended by my rudeness and called back later.
To end the story, here I am. There are lots of great reasons for being in Ireland right now, and specifically at UCC. These include a growing focus on my field, national investment in forestry and agroforestry, and a booming higher education sector. The reasons for leaving UK Higher Education would surprise no-one.***
Why though did I leave a permanent academic position at a global top-100 university with international recognition? Several junior colleagues were aghast at what looked like folly. I had invested 13 years in the institution, built up a research group, developed teaching materials that were tried-and-tested, and no-one was trying to get rid of me. On the contrary, at the same time as I was trying to leave, they gave me an award and a performance bonus. I loved my colleagues in ecology and evolution; they’re a wonderful group and remain friends. The opening to replace me attracted a host of well-qualified applicants and they had no difficulty recruiting someone brilliant.
Why then did I leave? More generally, why would anyone disrupt their stable work and family life to move mid-career? These are my reasons, which may not translate to everyone’s circumstances, but perhaps might help clarify my thinking for anyone in a similar situation.
- I had gone as far as possible in the context of my existing position. After 13 years without a sabbatical the lack of respite from accumulated responsibilities left no space to reflect or develop. The backlogged manuscripts weren’t getting written; new projects were grounded; every year the expectations rolled over and incrementally increased. The thought of spending another year (or more) doing the same thing in the same place filled me with existential dread. Had I felt as though an alternative was within reach then I would have stayed. There’s no complaint implied here; the job had just became one that didn’t fit me any more.
- This was a quiet period with several major projects recently completed. Although I had four PhD students on the books (all with co-supervisors), actually the group was at a relatively low ebb, and nothing new was on the horizon. This was partly deliberate; having made the decision to go, I didn’t want to leave too many people in the lurch.
- It was time for a new challenge. When I returned to the UK from Malaysia in 2002 I had no intention of staying for long. That it took 16 years for me to leave again was simply because the opportunities lined up that way. Life had become comfortable but also a bit boring.
- I wanted to shake up my perspective. After over a decade working in the same place you know your colleagues well and if collaborations haven’t sparked then there’s little chance that they will. Working with new people is the best way to expose yourself to new ideas. This either means moving yourself or hoping that fresh recruits will restore energy in the place you’re already based. It had been a very long time since the latter had happened (after 13 years I was still the youngest permanent member of staff in the building) so I left instead.
- We were starting a family, which prompted reflection on my approach to work-life balance. Long hours, working evenings and weekends throughout the semester, were not compatible with the life I wanted or the parent I hoped to be. Nor was I going to be taking extended trips overseas to visit field sites and collaborators. The fieldwork had been one of the compensations of my old job; if that was being scaled back then I wanted the possibility of stronger research interests at home.
I can’t say just yet whether the move has been successful, and at any rate there’s no way to know for sure without a controlled comparison of some partial metric. But what I can say is that I’m enthusiastic about science again, enjoy coming into work every morning, and optimistic about getting some projects I care about off the ground. On that basis alone it’s been worth it. In fact, the department will be recruiting more people very soon — if you want to join us then keep your eyes open for forthcoming positions!
* For ‘permanent’ you can read ‘tenured’ if you like, but the truth is that tenure doesn’t mean quite the same thing outside North America. Universities generally can’t fire us for no reason but the level of protection isn’t equivalent. For ‘research-intensive’ you can read R1 in the USA, or Russell Group in the UK, or whatever your local class of prestige universities is.
** I’m not telling you how many failed applications had gone in over the preceding few years, but there were plenty. These had however been rather speculative; what changed was that I put serious effort into developing much stronger applications.