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Home Back Issues No. 17: Career Coach: Moving Institutions

Feb 22

No. 17: Career Coach: Moving Institutions

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Career Coach:

Moving Institutions?

Reader Question: I have been at my university for 1 1/2 years but I am interested in moving to another institution. Is there any impact in the PI career by moving to other institution after such a short time period? How do I protect my laboratory staff?

Expert Comments:

Moving so quickly from one institution to another can be to your advantage. An example would be if the new institution’s research environment and resources available are clearly far superior to what your current university has. It can be better to move to a new home where you can be much more productive rather than struggle to develop a research program at your home institution. However, there are potential costs.

A major move involving the changing of institutions is disruptive to any laboratory. You can easily lose months of productivity if the move is not managed well. Any major disruption in your research trajectory, especially early in your career, can be damaging to your reputation and productivity rate. This could negatively impact letters evaluating your promotion and/or the review of grant renewals. Additionally, you risk being criticized by colleagues at the institution you’re leaving if the general perception is that you did not really give the home institution a chance to support you.

In order to maintain productivity it is often important to retain and move key laboratory staff. This requires convincing the staff to move to the new location and to insure that they have appropriate salary support at the new institution. You should try to negotiate a good deal for your staff in addition to yourself at the new institution. If your staff is remaining behind at the institution you are leaving then every effort should be made to place the staff in suitable positions and insure that any negative feelings about your departure are not transferred to the staff members.

Comments by Gregory F. Ball, Ph.D., Dean of Research and Graduate Education, Johns Hopkins University

The preceding information is of necessity general in nature and may not apply to every case: obtain professional advice for your particular situation.

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Comments (17)
written by Heather, February 13, 2010
In today's stressful economic climate, with faculty and staff being laid off or cut back, I am shocked you would consider moving so soon. You practically were just hired. And you kept some stable PI from getting your current position. Shame on you!
written by Old Eli, February 15, 2010
Let's not forget some research Chairs overpromise (purposely or not) in their zeal to recruit PIs. So if the promised support doeas not materialize once you are on campus, what else can the PI do except bail out. If this is your situation, you have my sympathy.
written by SA, February 22, 2010
Depends on how unhappy you are. Greg's comments are right on the mark, but if your productivity is being hurt by your current institution and you are very unhappy you might as well move, because after 1.5 years the situation is not going to change despite what song people sing for you. You will have some trouble getting an offer, but not that much, especially if it is your first move. I moved 2 years after my first faculty appointment. It did have a negative impact in terms of all of the areas Greg discussed, but not as negative as staying would have had. If I had never made the choice to begin with (to go to the original institution) that would have been the best course, but of course I do not have a time machine. Take care and good luck.
written by new guy, February 22, 2010
You should seriously consider moving. I turned down a chance to leave at 3 years and regret it. Some institutions suck. They lie to you at every turn. Zero of the promises in my retention package have come to fruition. Zero! not the money, not the space, not the release from teaching. Some schools should be audited to non existence. If you're at an avaricious money laundering facility get out before it's too late. Talk to friends elsewhere and see if the problems you're having are really different. If they are, and if they represent an institutional problem at your school get out while you aren't contaminated.
written by Goomba, February 22, 2010
As Dr. Ball's response and the previous comments demonstrate, much of the advice on this issue depends on the circumstances. Do you already have a major grant whose renewal could be in jeopardy if your productivity is hurt by having to move? Would the new institution restart your tenure clock, or count any work accomplished at your current place toward your advancement? Have you already spent out one recruitment package and if so would accepting another so soon diminish your reputation among key peers in your field? In any new appointment, both the individual and the institution have (hopefully clear and explicit) expectations. Has one of you not lived up or are other circumstances driving your thinking? Would your interests be better met by a move now or after a tenure decision?
written by FrankM, February 22, 2010
Great opportunities come very infrequently in your scientific lifetime. If the new institution is offering more resources, or better career trajectory, then seriously consider it. Do be aware that it will appear up on your evaluations/CV as your undecided or difficult to please, but this can be remedied by outstanding productivity. You best have a good reason to change, dont go because the "grass is always greener".
written by RKS, February 22, 2010
Survival in academia is all about grants: build a wall of money around you and you will survive almost no matter what is thrown at you. If you have good grant support, you will easily get a good offer elsewhere and the only major impact will be research downtime and that will vary depending on how many trained staff move with you. I moved after 6 years in my first position. In hindsight, I should have moved sooner but I also realize that evidence for prior performance was not as significant 3 years into setting up my lab for the first time etc. so I may not have found the great position that I did at 6 years. In summary, if you get a great offer elsewhere with reliable signatures (check with faculty at new institution how reliable the promises are), then a move is a good thing. Of course, if your grant support is lacking, then you will have to compromise with new institution in your expectations and then you're likely to land in not so good a spot.
written by Giap, February 22, 2010
New Guy is right on. Loyalty starts at the top and there seems to be little to none given to faculty these days. Do what is best for you. I have also experienced lying and other deception by more than one institution. Maybe they will get the message if they lose their best people.
written by SeenTooMuch, February 22, 2010
The 'Plan' should be simple. Get your first academic job and burn through the startup to get your first grant. Make sure you spend grant $$ on equipment that can move with you and the remainder of your startup on salary. Then move taking the grant and the equipment with you. You'll be treated better at the new institution if only for the fact that they hired a current professor and not a current postdoc. Remember that the 'good treatment' will not last long. Tenure. Make sure you get a variable number of years credit towards tenure so that you can go up in a year that you choose. In any case, if you are at an institution that prides itself on the thouroughness and fairness of the review process... run like hell for the exit. If they have a history of not giving tenure to folks who "unlike you" "were not quite up to their standards"... run like hell for the exit. In fact, if your current institution does anything other than proactively get tenure for their faculty... run like hell for the exit. You have to look out for yourself because, God knows, there's nobody that will look out for you.
written by Mid career, February 22, 2010
Getting started as a PI is one of the hardest things in a scientific career. Things can go really slow at the beginning - recruiting people, getting anything achieved. It is very important to realize that this is a common phenomenon. Its not clear from your original message whether you have been asked to apply, or if you are just considering going on the job market. If its the latter - unless you are a superstar search committee's will look twice before interviewing someone who has given up on an institution so quickly
written by just in time, February 22, 2010
I concur with new guy and glap. I saw warning signs but hesitated too long and nearly got stuck in a dead-end situation when the institution's leadership and culture changed. It took a major career revision to get out. I've seen pretty much zero loyalty from most "leaders" to their employees - which I found surprising but obviously I was naive. I hope that I never treat people the way I was treated.
written by Sucker born every minute, February 22, 2010
I absolutely agree with new guy. Many institutions simply do not keep their promises in terms of space and start- up packages. In fact, even if you do have a contract,clever "changes" can often be made in favor of the institution. Even if you do succeed in bringing in a large federal grant, due to modular budgets, money can be unethically siphoned off at every turn. I agree that federal audits of departments and institutions are necessary. If you are experiencing ANY of these issues at your current institution- GET OUT before you are sucked in any further. I have been where I am for 7 years (due to personal reasons for being in area) and ALL of the above has happened-GET OUT while you have the chance early on!!
written by OldTechie, February 22, 2010
There still are some honorable places. My wife and I moved, and every commitment to us has been kept. That said, although institutional culture plays a role, it all depends on top leadeship. My former institution had a rep for being a faculty-oriented place, but that certainly changed as it moved purely to "bottom-line" values. My only advice is make sure that your contributions get value in return -- remember "What have you done for me lately."
written by jw, February 22, 2010
If you find out that your present department is not a good match, then move as fast as possible. As the saying goes,the first mistake is the cheapest. Staying and being unhappy --leading to low productivity-- would be a costly mistake. Remember, you spend most of your time at your academic office/lab. So you want to stay there happy and have some fun at your work -- isn't why you were in this position in the first place? The academic competition is hard enough anyway now-a-days, who needs unappreciated administrations/colleagues or unsatisfying conditions!
written by words, February 22, 2010
It sounds like you're just beginning to dip your toe in the water w/r to going back on the job market. Don't let on at your current institution that you're looking around unless/until you have a serious job prospect. Heather's judgmental comment sounds like it's coming from a place of insecurity: you have to ignore this sort of comment and do what's right for you. But, you have to try to be scrupulous along the way - SeenTooMuch's advice is just twisted. I have heard that universities rarely recover (in indirects) what they invest in a new hire. If your institution's startup funds helped you to get your new grant, you should at the very least leave behind the equipment, if not try to keep some of the funds there. I moved from one school to another after 3 years. It was a hard decision, and I know that I let a lot of people down. Ultimately, I think I made the right choice, and I still have good relationships with people from my old institution.
written by Sherlock, February 23, 2010
Thanks for these warnings to newbies. But nobody named NAMES. Does anybody have enough guts to identify the institutions which have been remiss? Public exposure in a place like this could have a salutory efect. And you don't have to label them "guilty". Just "Proceed with caution". Hey, this is all anonymous for Chrisakes, isn't it? Well?
written by midcareer guy, May 05, 2010
something to consider when looking at Seen-too-much's coments; Any material good purchased with startup are the property of the institution. You cant spend startup on equipment (or office supplies, or your laptop, or anything) and expect to take it with you when you change institutions. The new home can negotiate the purchase of your equipment, but then it becomes part of the next startup package. When I took my position, I was given a lab previously assigned to a researcher who quit to take another position. It was a time-capsule. All of the past users equipment and supplies stayed. When I began negotiating the startup package, they gave me a list of everything that was in the room ... it was complete down to the paper towel dispenser and eye wash bottle on the wall. It seemed as if the last guy announced he was taking the other position, and the chair sent a team in to itemize everything in his lab. Another thing to think about is whether or not you grant can move with you (see another post about this). You may be the PI, but the grant is held by the institution and they have to agree to give it up. I know at least one example where the home institution would not release the grant and a researcher moved institutions and had to reapply. Taken to an extreme, the date you generate in your position is the property of the institution. They are within their rights to forbid you to take data, cell lines, and intellectual property generated with your startup or grant. If you leave on good terms its generally not a problem - but if you dont ... well watch it.

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