Fall for academics means beginning a new school year while simultaneously deciding whether to stay put or take your chances again on the job market.
That decision is especially daunting for postdocs, contingent faculty members on annual or semiannual contracts, and untenured assistant professors. But even for tenured professors, it can be difficult to make the break and decide to give up the professional security of tenure for a chance to be at a place that is a better professional or personal fit.
Whatever your rank, fit is a key factor that should guide your stay-or-go decision (assuming you have a choice; many Ph.D.’s don’t). Here are some ideas on what you can do to improve the fit where you are. But first, a few warning signs that you and your employer may be out of sync.
Signs of a poor fit professionally.
People resign from their college or university for all sorts of reasons. A variety of studies indicate that academics quit because of geographic location, family obligations, or for professional opportunities — at least those are the macro-level reasons people give during exit interviews. But it’s the small, day-to-day struggles that can make a job unbearable. So no matter how grateful you are to have a job, be alert for these signs that your institution may not be a good fit:
- Too much red tape. An overwhelming amount of bureaucracy is a particular source of stress at public institutions, where state laws must be followed to a T. With little room for error, academics are often frustrated by the sheer number of forms that must be completed before, during, and after basic professional activities — attending conferences, requesting classroom space, ordering supplies, seeking reimbursement of travel expenses, taking field trips. The time lag between submitting initial forms and approval can be substantial and might delay your plans. And, of course, policies and laws change, and administrators rotate offices, so it is not always possible to anticipate everything that needs to happen for you to just do your job.
- Lack of professional agency. Similarly, many institutions suffer from formulaic practices that minimize faculty input. For example, it is common for departments to have syllabus templates with formatting guidelines and word-for-word scripts describing attendance, participation, and grading policies. In some instances you are required to use a particular textbook and must get permission to use different course materials. As an expert in your field, it can be frustrating to have your pedagogical hands tied for the sake of standardization.
- Lack of resources. Going into a job, you know the salary and benefits. But you may not be aware of the quality of other types of resources critical to professional success — office and lab space, research equipment, instructional supplies. You also need funds to support your professional development, including money for travel expenses to workshops and conferences, or for subsidizing part of your salary during a fellowship or sabbatical. Being an effective teacher, researcher, and community member requires the institution to invest in you.
- Too much service. For most academics, the No. 1 complaint about academic life is the number of meetings through which we must suffer. Spending six hours a week talking about what we are going to talk about next week feels like a waste of time that could have been spent writing, lesson planning, reading, grading, exercising, or sleeping. Especially at small colleges where faculty members serve on multiple committees and have dozens of advisees, service can and does impede scholarly productivity.
- Inconsistent or unsupported job requirements. Perhaps the biggest red flag is when your job expectations are constantly evolving. A week before the semester starts, you receive an email alerting you that one of your four courses has been cancelled; instead you will be teaching a section of a course you’ve never taught before. Or you are inundated with advisees because a colleague unexpectedly resigned or went on sabbatical. Or, worst of all, you have to publish to earn tenure but instead of receiving the time and money you need to conduct research, you are "asked" to teach an extra course and denied an early-career sabbatical. When the target is always moving, or when you don’t even have an arrow, there is little chance that you will hit your professional goals.
Signs of a poor fit personally.
Sometimes it’s easier to ascertain when a job may not be a good fit by how it affects you personally rather than professionally. As the higher-education landscape changes, academics report moderate job satisfaction but alarmingly high work-related stress. Among the signs that your job may be having a negative effect on your well-being:
- You’re in poor health. This is the most obvious and distressing personal indicator. Many of my academic friends report severe weight fluctuations, chronic fatigue, high blood pressure, frequent migraines, trouble sleeping, and, in some cases, anxiety or depression. Those are all indicators of long-term stress. You may fail to deal with such health concerns because they’ve become so common that you consider them a part of the job. But you should not sacrifice your physical or emotional well-being.
- You feel isolated. Academic life can be lonely, especially if you are a woman teaching in a STEM discipline, a person of color at a predominantly white institution, or just a stranger in a new city far from your family. It takes time to find your niche. But if after the first year you don’t feel a part of at least one social group, that’s a sign the place may not offer the social support you need.
- You feel undervalued. Relatedly, you may feel as if your presence is taken for granted by colleagues who don’t respect your intellectual expertise or appreciate your contributions to the department or the institution. If you are repeatedly defending your research agenda or explaining your pedagogical choices, you may need to find a campus where people recognize and reward your professional worth.
- You’re working too much. One of the most common misconceptions about academic life is that you have a lot of free time. People fail to realize that — because work hours are spent in class and in meetings — the preparation for class and meetings is done at home, often after regular work hours. That is also when we do the research and writing that we have to do if we want job stability in the future. If your job often requires you to work evenings and weekends, you won’t be able to create a healthy work-life balance.
But what if you have to stay put?
What can you do when you and your job don’t click? Clearly you can’t just quit an academic job and get another one next month — maybe not even next year. And you also can’t change the culture by yourself. No job is a perfect professional and personal fit. But there are things you can do to make the most out of the job you have.
- Plan, plan, plan. Start the paperwork at least a semester in advance if you know there are hurdles to clear before you can teach a new course, attend a conference, go on parental leave, or even change offices. Keep a binder of organizational charts for the departments and offices with which you regularly interact. Be informed about who approves what, and about what materials they need to act on your request.
- Clarify or revise job expectations. It is important to advocate for yourself — particularly at the start of your job, when you are establishing your role within the department. Meet with your supervisor or dean to learn exactly what is expected of you, along with your evaluation timelines and available support. Don’t be afraid to ask for things in writing so that you have a paper trail.
- Find external resources. When your institution can’t (or won’t) provide funding or mentoring, look beyond the campus borders. There are grants, scholarships, and fellowships that support teaching and research projects. You might also be able to participate in professional-development opportunities at neighboring institutions, often free or in exchange for a guest lecture. Finally, check into national organizations and small businesses that can provide job coaching and professional mentoring. Expanding your professional network is never a bad idea.
- Make friends outside of work. Cultivating relationships with people who are not affiliated with your institution goes a long way toward creating a healthy work-life balance. With those friends you are less inclined to seek fulfillment solely through work. They are also the people in whom you can confide when work is overwhelming.
Sometimes, no matter what you do, things just don’t get better. In those cases, it’s time to either go back on the academic market or decide to use your expertise beyond the ivory tower.