by Charles R. Middleton, Ph.D.
When I was completing my Ph.D. In the late 1960s the career advice I received was based upon the world as it then existed. You would graduate, take a position at the best university you could land, and then after a few years at that institution, you would move to the “real job” where you would earn tenure and have a long career. That pattern pretty much summarized the experience in those days.
Then, in 1970 or thereabouts, the bottom dropped out of the job market and the premium was put on finding any job and then sticking to it, as there probably would not be a second one. Careers spent in one location have much to be said for them, although there are problematics as well when moving becomes difficult, to impossible, for most of us.
These days, however, we sense and are beginning to experience a sea change. It is driven by many factors but among the strongest is the ongoing retirement of the baby boomers. Job markets are complex, but this fact alone has the potential to disrupt decades-long career patterns. Put simply, there aren’t enough people in subsequent generations to replace all of those who are retiring, especially in the premium mid-level and senior positions.
We may, therefore, be entering a new era of changing our institutions in order to advance career opportunities. If so, how you navigate your transition from one institution to another will be key to your future success. I have already written about how to depart graciously. This essay is focused on how to arrive at your new institution successfully.
There are both personal and professional aspects of this process. Briefly, the personal. Leaving the institution where you had your first job, especially if you stayed there a long time, will disrupt your social life. In fact, the friends you have — your “made” family as opposed to your biological one — will not be easily replaced. A wise colleague once told me early on in my career that the biggest downside of moving up and moving out was that you would never again have such a close network of friends. He was right.
All else follows. You will be in a new community but not really of it for a very long time and it may never be otherwise. It certainly won’t if your career is advancing and you are changing institutions every three to five years or so. Therefore, when contemplating a major career move it is wise to factor this likelihood and its impact on your family and friends into the decision on whether or not to go on the job market. Too many of us plunge in and only later fully assess the personal consequences of success.
Perhaps more important, however, is how you manage your professional arrival on campus. You will be entering a new culture, not just a new institution. Your prior experience will be important, but the details of how things work may be very different. Cultures are enduring and evolve slowly. As an example, institutional protocols on all sorts of administrative and instructional activities are highly varied and sometimes bear little reference to your past experience. You are surrounded by the creators of those protocols. It is not wise to begin your observations about such matters with the phrase “Well, at University XYZ where I just came from, we….”
Which brings me to a key point. It’s best when you arrive to say little and listen a lot. Ask questions. This can and probably should go on a fair length of time. Depending on your position and the complexity of the institution and urgency of the issues, it might even take as long as a year. I recall the news conference when I was appointed president. One of the first questions was, “What are your strategic goals for the University?” I had several ideas, of course, but I wanted to signal the community that I wasn’t coming in to engage in disruptive actions, at least yet. So, I said, “I’m not sure what is best at this time because I haven’t had an opportunity to listen to what others in the community aspire to accomplish in the future. I’ll have more to say about these matters.” after I know their hopes for the future.”
Finally, it is wise to keep in mind that you are always being observed, both on and off campus. This was driven home to me when shortly after arriving at one institution while walking across a mostly deserted quad in the summer I picked up a discarded wrapper on the lawn. Within an hour, people were calling me to say that the campus was abuzz about it. It gave me an opportunity soon thereafter to enunciate publicly my view that our built environment conveys an image of how important the work we do is and thus should be representative of our pride in those activities that distinguish us (ie cleaning up the trash is everyone’s responsibility ).
Easing in over time after you arrive at a new institution is a strategy that works better and better the more responsibility and authority you have. Patience and fortitude are allies in helping you be sure to take the time to fully understand a place and its rhythms before you make too many fundamental changes in how it goes about its daily business. Taking time now to listen will give you time in the future to do many new, good, and enduring things.