Not that Kind of Decision: Tales of Debating a Pre-Tenure Switch
One of the hardest questions that has recently come up in my professional life is debating changing institutions pre-tenure. I came to my medical school not that long ago. Over the past year and change, I have set up my laboratory, hired personnel, committed to thesis committees, taught, and submitted some grants. I have made personal and professional connections. I have long proclaimed my love of being a basic scientist in a clinical department. But there have been some issues, some large enough to consider a change. Advice from my Chair and faculty mentors is sincere, but how much of it is biased by their tenured positions? Faculty from other institutions are starting to ask if I am happy where I am. My optimism and “make it work” attitude is waning and Twitter’s daily wave of new tenure track postings is alluring. Today’s post is dedicated to figuring out what could come next. Unfortunately, n= me and maybe you too.
Stay in the department: The easiest solution is to, of course, stay in the department. No department or institution is perfect and it is better to know the limitations of a place than have to rediscover them all over again. The goal should be to write the papers, get the grants, and do the science. My funding is secure and grants are pending review. If the environment does not improve, perhaps I can contemplate a move when I am more competitive. Another consideration is that some of these feelings are normal and likely coincide with the end of the “new job honeymoon” phase that some of my colleagues have warned me about. Objectively speaking, our lab is beautiful, we have everything we need, and the resources of the institution are considerable.
Change departments: Another option that I can explore is changing departments. This may allow me to keep my start-up and equipment, provide me more protections through teaching, and keep the valuable connections I have made. Whether basic science departments will be interested in this departmental refugee, how much space I would be given, if I can take all my equipment, and whether this will be workable in the long term is unknown. Moreover, some of the institutional issues with which I struggle will not be resolved by changing departments. This has also resulted in a bit of an existential crisis: I have always been in clinical departments. How am I going to adjust to life in a basic science department? Am I ready to make it even harder to collaborate with our clinicians? How do I make this change without alienating my current department?
Change institutions: Another option is to change institutions. I still have a couple years on the R00, and grants that are pending review. Do I make discrete inquiries or go all in and start applying to job postings? The siren call of other institutions with smaller salary coverage, greater access to clinicians, and stability certainly are tempting. But can they really be immune to today’s dismal funding climate? And where would I apply? Am I ready to give up on clinical departments? The major downside to all of this, is the total disruption of my laboratory. We have spent so much time setting up, getting our breeding colony to size, optimizing protocols, and the thought of all that effort and money wasted makes me ill. I have also made commitments to employees and trainees. Will they move with me? Can they? Leaving our beautiful space and lightly used equipment is also depressing. Of course, all of these events are occurring on a backdrop of life. Can we survive another year on the job market? While we are still fairly portable as a unit, do I really want to move us again? At what point do we get to finally settle down? Has life in science transformed us into nomads? Will I ever be able to just do the science?
If you are wrestling with a similar choice, be it changing mentors in graduate school, moving to a different postdoctoral fellowship lab, or changing institutions, know that these changes are more common than you think. Also, these decisions are never easy. I have been trying to work through this impossible arithmetic for months and all I can do is recommend reading Simone’s Maxims. For those of you on the job market this fall, good luck! I might be joining you. Stay tuned for more tales!
Advice and thoughts welcome. Feel free to send some electrons my way in the comments, via Twitter @PipetteProtag, or through traditional electronic mail firstname.lastname@example.org