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I'm currently deciding whether to take up a tenure-track faculty position. It's a good position (R1, top-50 department in USNWR ranking), but I'm not very excited about it. In particular, the location is not to my liking. So I would seek to move elsewhere if I took up the position. That is, I would conduct another job search in 2-5 years.

This seems to me to be potentially unwise (as I have been told that it is hard to move between TT positions) and it also seems potentially unethical.

My alternative is to do another postdoc and try the job market again in 2 years or so. That also seems potentially unwise, as I have no idea what the job market will be like then and I may end up with even worse options. I'm also worried that I'll start to look "old" as a candidate, as I'm already 2 years out of my PhD.

I have talked to a few people. They have given me conflicting advice and they are not particularly able to relate to my situation, so I want to ask for some other perspectives.

My specific questions:

1) Is it unethical to take up a TT position with a desire to leave it? I.e. would it upset people when I end up searching for another job.

2) When evaluating TT candidates, does it look better to have 2 more years of postdoc or a few years as an Assistant Professor?

3) In general, is a second job search usually more/less successful than the first one? What factors might determine this?

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    I'm not sure what's unethical in planning your future? Is it ethical for an employer to expect you to work for him forever? Then again the academic world is somewhat insane. – freakish Jun 18 '18 at 10:08
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    Related, also see linked questions: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/109557/… – Dawn Jun 18 '18 at 10:41
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    @freakish: “Is it ethical for an employer to expect you to work for him forever?” — It’s reasonable for an employer to have their own long-term plans, and to prefer a candidate who seems likely to stay with them longer. And it would be unethical for a candidate to mislead the employer about their long-term plans. So it’s about what the implicit expectations of the candidate’s long-term plans are, if the issue isn’t discussed. My rough impression is that on the 5-year timescale there’s no assumption, but on the 1–2 year timescale, I wouldn’t expect the candidate to plan to move on. – PLL Jun 18 '18 at 10:59
  • @freakish (cont’d): This may seem “insane” by the standards of industry today, but it would have been perfectly normal in many industries until a couple of decades ago. – PLL Jun 18 '18 at 10:59
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    @PLL I wouldn't expect anyone to do anything that is not a part of an agreement. No one should be forced (even emotionally) to do things that other expect. You are only obligated to do things you agreed to do. If the agreement doesn't prohibit you from quiting (and it can't, at least not in a civilzed country) then how is that unethical? Actually the unethical thing is trying to convince people that quiting is unethical! Indeed, academic world is quite insane. And it should finally catch up to modern standards. – freakish Jun 18 '18 at 11:28
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No, it is not unethical. When you accept a job, in academia or anywhere else, you imply a commitment to do the job in the immediate, short-term future, and nothing more. What that means exactly is somewhat context-dependent, and in academia that minimum period is usually interpreted as one year.

Leaving a tenure-track job after only one year may leave people at your department a bit disappointed and potentially sour your future relations with them a bit, but I have never heard anyone argue that doing so (or even having the intention of doing so) is unethical, and don’t believe a reasonable person would adopt such a position. All the more so with a plan of leaving after 2 years or more; I simply cannot see how this can offend anyone’s moral sensibilities.

As for whether such a plan would be wise: it may or may not be, but your explanation of what’s driving your doubts about this makes me think you are overthinking the matter. It is no harder in general to move from one tenure-track position to another tenure-track position than it is to move from a non-tenure-track position to a tenure-track position. Depending on the precise circumstances, it may be harder, or less hard, or (most typically IMO) would be exactly as hard. Everything depends on how attractive of a job candidate you will be 2-5 years in the future, which is a function of how attractive you are now and what you’ll be doing between now and then. One particular factor that could actual play in your favor is that already having a tenure track position in an R1, top-50 department could give you a stamp of legitimacy that would make other departments of equal or lesser (or even slightly higher) stature more inclined to view you as a strong prospect for hiring.

Finally, another thing to consider is that, while you think you don’t like the location of the place where you have the current offer, your opinion about this might change in the future. People generally tend to overestimate the extent to which they can predict what their future selves will want. Which is another reason the whole ethics question here doesn’t really apply in my opinion - you should reserve your ethics-based doubts to actual actions (which in this case are also okay ethically given what you are considering doing), and not to tenuous intentions that may or may not ever translate into actions.

Good luck!

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    This is a great answer. A personal anecdote: I know several colleagues who planned on staying "just a couple years" at my current institution. Now several are tenured or going up for tenure. Their life circumstances changed and so did their priorities. – Dawn Jun 18 '18 at 15:08
  • Thanks for your answer. You say already having a tenure track position in an R1, top-50 department could give you a stamp of legitimacy, but my alternative is a postdoc in a top-10 department. Surely this also conveys legitimacy, although I would gain no teaching experience. – Sam Jun 18 '18 at 15:25
  • And, yes, it is possible I might stay. However, my dislike of the location is based on bitter experience with similar locations, so I'm reasonably confident I won't grow to really like it. – Sam Jun 18 '18 at 15:33
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    The job search in 2 years is also a function of what I might broadly call "timing." I have observed that in some years there are more attractive positions available and in some years the pickings are a bit more slim. You might consider which position gives you more control over timing. If the post-doc is 2 years hard stop, then the TT position would allow you to leave in 2 or 3 or whatever, depending on the available options, that would be a consideration. – Dawn Jun 18 '18 at 16:55
  • @Sam yes, both of those options convey some legitimacy. It’s hard to say for sure and all of this is speculative and based on very incomplete information, but if I had to guess, I would think that as a general rule a tenure track position at a good school conveys some legitimacy that even the most prestigious postdocs cannot match. At least in the eyes of the average person, that is - for some people the specific name of the top-10 place might trump that effect. (Sorry if that’s not what you were hoping to hear...) – Dan Romik Jun 18 '18 at 16:56
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There is nothing unethical about making your life choices.

However, a tenure track role usually involves a fair amount of teaching and more importantly, preparation of teaching materials and administration of the teaching process. Preparation of your own course is a big time investment. Unfortunately, when you move places you often need to make significant adjustments to the courses you teach or basically start from scratch. You will of course benefit from the experience of preparing your own course, and hence you will be more successful in your second job, but pragmatically it is more effective to prepare a good course once and improve it through many years, rather than change places and courses every now and then.

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