Why professors leave: elephant in the lab series

Why do professors leave one institution and go to another?

The reasons why say a lot about academia.

This is kind of a taboo topic in science, but very important.

Once upon a time….

Two decades ago when I was a technician in the Pathology Department at UCSD School of Medicine and then still when I was a graduate student in the same place, I had the naive perspective that with only rare exceptions, professors stayed put.

Hit the road

Once a  professor got their position in academia, so I thought, they did not move. They stayed at their “home” institution and lived happily ever after.

As time went on and I became a postdoc as well as now for 6 years a faculty member, I have realized how wrong I was.

Strikingly, most of my friends in academia have already moved once in the last 10 years. Some are contemplating a second move already.

The reasons my friends and colleagues have given for moving or for seriously considering a move are telling.

What are the top 10 reasons faculty pull up roots and start over at a new place?

10. They are isolated. Science is more than ever a team sport and too often faculty find themselves in a place where they do not have colleagues with whom to collaborate. They also may not have strong, enthusiastic mentors.

9. Personal/Family/Geography. Often academics are partnered with each other and it can be difficult to find good positions for both partners in one place, leading the couple to move. In addition, more often than people might think, faculty find themselves in a place that they can’t stand. Maybe there is a cultural clash. Maybe there is nothing to do. Maybe there is too much going on (big city). Whatever it is, they have just gotta get out of there.

8. Racism. It’s true. It still happens. Maybe things are better than they used to be on this front, but problems are still fairly common.

7. Sexism. Yes, it’s a sad secret of academia that sexism against women is still widespread. Yale published an article on why women and minority faculty at medical schools leave, which was disturbing but insightful. The top 3 reasons they left? Problems related to (in descending order) career advancement, low salary, and chair/departmental leadership issues. Yikes. I have a friend at another institution in a male dominated department where the women faculty are, seriously, referred to as “the flowers” of the department. Ugh.

6. They just generally do not like the place they are at. During a job search, faculty should be interviewing the place they are visiting as much as the people there are interviewing them. Faculty who are job hunting should be asking themselves like a mantra “do I like it here?” and “can I see myself happy here?” and “whom would I collaborate with here”? However, too often, especially these days with faculty jobs being so scarce, people are all too happy taking faculty job offers even at places that may not be a good fit for them and this often leads to a general feeling of unhappiness that can prompt a subsequent move.

5. Their home department or Chairs are not supportive. I can’t count how many times faculty have told me that their home departments and department chairs are not supportive. Chairs often have trouble finding a balance between giving new faculty too much versus too little attention. What’s just right? I’m not sure, but frequently the Chair doesn’t achieve that. The faculty member in question may have been placed in a home department that’s not good a match. Often times departments or chairs put very unreasonable teaching load demands upon faculty and in the end this can drive faculty to leave.

4. They find themselves in conflict of type 1: the puzzle. I’ve talked to numerous faculty who find themselves in serious conflicts of unknown etiology. Did they mess up somehow? Is someone out to get them? Do they have some mystery enemy in their own institution? They aren’t sure, but it is clear that life at U. of X. is not going well and they feel unwelcome.

3. They find themselves in conflict of type 2: they screwed up. Faculty are perfect, right? Wrong.

More often than anyone would hope, faculty make serious errors, especially when running their own lab for the first time or when they are more senior and viewing themselves as kind of invincible. What are these screw ups? They break serious rules at their institution such as discrimination against women or people of a certain race. They sexually harass someone. They get romantically involved with a student or postdoc. They use funds inappropriately. They insult and show disrespect to the powers that be. They break important institutional rules. Whatever it is, they make it impossible for themselves to stay and so start looking elsewhere, especially if they can read the tea leaves that their current institution may be readying to say to them “hit the road, Jack! (or Jacqueline).”

2. An irresistible start up package offer. Successful faculty stand out in the world of science. Intentionally or not, they attract the attention of other institutions. More often than not, eventually such faculty start getting “nibbles” or “feelers” from these other institutions, which sometimes evolve into actual offers. Successful faculty may be attracted to the new institution relative to their current institution for a variety of reasons (see above), but a key attraction may be a new plump start up package. Often as faculty transition from new faculty to mid-career they miss their start up packages. Oh, the days of discretionary funding, right? It’s a paradox of science that young faculty get these huge sums of unrestricted funding (i.e. start up packages), while it is older faculty who often lack such discretionary funding who arguably know far better what to do (and important, what NOT to do) with it. In any case, once faculty get offers from a new place, their home institutions will sometimes make efforts at so-called “retention”, but sometimes such efforts are too little or too late.

1. An offer of better career advancement. If you are an assistant professor, perhaps another place is offering you tenure and/or an associate professorship. If you are associate, perhaps they are offering you a full professorship or more likely instead they are dangling the directorship of some center or a chair or an endowed chair. These things can be hard to say “no” to for even the biggest fan of one’s current institution. Also, adding to this incentive can be a sense that at one’s current institution there is little opportunity for advancement. Of course, another component of this decision may be an outright failure to get tenure (hat tip to Drug Monkey).

University of Wisconsin has a very telling article on the general topic of why faculty leave that I found interesting as well.

The same Yale article mentioned above earlier in this piece has a table that describes reported reasons for faculty departures more generally and they are in order (with percent listed in parentheses):

Career professional advancement (29.7%, but only 0.2% for men)

Low salary (25.5%)

Chair/departmental leadership (20.6%)

Faculty development/mentoring (20.6%)

Personal/family reasons (16.4%)

Retirement (13.9%)

Institutional leadership (12.1%)

Workload (10.9%)

Space (9.1%)

Lost position/funding (8.5%)

Geography (2.4%)

Clearly there are many challenges in academia both for institutions to retain great faculty and for faculty to find an institution that is a good home for them and their research program.

1 thought on “Why professors leave: elephant in the lab series”

  1. Great article… I wonder if you considered “leverage backfire” for the top ten. I’ve witnessed faculty members who feel the pinch of resources that you describe and simply “explore” with no intention of leaving. This sometimes backfires and results in bad feelings amongst colleagues and admin.

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