I am starting a permanent position this year, and while I am very happy here, the admin part seems a bit overbearing. I know from my previous positions as a postdoc, that other places are not that bad.

And it made me think about changing universities in some ten years or so. But that raises the obvious question. If I were to look for a new job now (not that there are any, with the global recession), I'd just apply like everyone else, and go through the usual hiring process.

How do senior faculty change universities? Do you apply for a job ad, or do you talk to your colleagues at another university, or does the department hear that you're unhappy and they make you an offer directly? Do you need to get recommendation letters at all (I know mostly these things happen "in secret until they're public") or would that be just a formality at the end?

I've seen a handful of people change universities immediately after being tenured, or even when they were full professors. And I always found it a bit odd.

  • 3
    This may vary by country and field, so please provide some details.
    – Thomas
    Sep 14, 2020 at 17:47
  • 2
    Note that being a postdoc and being a professor give you two very different views on the administration and the administrative burdens. As for the how-do-they, it covers a broad gamut from being recruited to having to respond to job ads.
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 14, 2020 at 17:53
  • 4
    Normally one applies to job ads, just like at the junior level. Lucky/exceptional people also sometimes just get invitations, just like at the junior level.
    – Kimball
    Sep 14, 2020 at 18:52
  • 1
    @Thomas: The field is pure mathematics; but I'm asking not just for my current position, but in general. I've seen this in different countries, on different continents.
    – Ink blot
    Sep 14, 2020 at 22:02
  • Could you at least tell us if this is US (you use the words "tenure"), EU/UK, or some other academic system? At least in the EU/UK, junior and mid-level faculty is also considered "tenured" -- their positions are permanent (even before they become "Full Professor").
    – penelope
    Sep 15, 2020 at 14:23

4 Answers 4


In the US, universities are normally bound by rules that require public announcement of all positions and and open process. You occasionally see announcements in professional academic publications of senior positions. If you think you meet the criteria you can apply. You can also be encouraged to apply by colleagues at your own or other institution.

But all applicants are supposed to be fairly considered "on the merits", just as for employment at any level. Sometimes an Associate Professor who realizes that promotion is unlikely (budget constraints, conflicts with colleagues, ...) might want to seek such a position.

Senior people might also want to change institutions for personal reasons. The economist Paul Krugman, for example, moved from Princeton to City University of NY, at least in part, because he wanted to live in NYC. Of course, creating a position tailor made for hime didn't hurt. But their rules probably required that others be considered if they had applied.

I moved twice as a Full Professor. Once because the institution was having serious problems and I needed escape, and once for personal reasons.

But, there are normally fewer openings for senior faculty than there are for junior positions.

  • When you needed to escape, how was the process for you? Did you tell your chair in advance, did you use some academic jobs site, did you let the word out through the grapevine that you're looking for a change? Did you need reference letters, etc.?
    – Ink blot
    Sep 15, 2020 at 15:54
  • @Inkblot, this was long ago, so no internet. I used announcements in ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) journals. I let people know, but the place was in turmoil. I can't remember about letters, but most likely from colleagues and other professional contacts who knew my "qualities". The hiring process was fairly long with a couple of visits and interviews with a bunch of people. I think letters are generally needed, though not necessarily from administrators.
    – Buffy
    Sep 15, 2020 at 16:20
  • 1
    My university occasionally allows departments to recruit a specific well-known researcher without a publicly announced search or considering alternative candidates, so I don’t think this answer is factually correct. The term that is used when this happens is “search waiver”. Perhaps it’s true that some special criteria have to be satisfied in order for such a waiver to be granted. For most “normal” recruitments, we do have to follow a public search process. By the way, when you say “bound by rules” are you referring to any laws or to internal university policy?
    – Dan Romik
    Sep 16, 2020 at 0:26
  • That's correct - in my experience mid-career and higher is more often not a competitive hire. It's rare in my experience to see postings although right now they're a larger part of the job market (since the competitive postings for assistant are all gone).
    – user128815
    Sep 16, 2020 at 2:32

My UK University just recently started a completely new research lab - they got a very large grant that can support a lot of personnel (academic and admin) for 3 years (at which point they are hoping the lab will become self-sufficient), so they had three senior academic positions to fill.

The way they had approached filling the Professor positions (EU equivalent would be "Full Professor" but I am having a really hard time finding parallels between EU/UK and the US system as this side of the pond, all academic positions from entry-level upwards are permanent) was through a recruitment agency. The call was not open to the public and instead the agency would contact Professors with matching profiles and encourage them to apply.

  • This would probably be ok in US, provided that anyone could apply and that there was a proper public announcement. But encouraging is fine. Exclusion is not fine. The "proper public announcement" seems to be missing here, of course.
    – Buffy
    Sep 15, 2020 at 14:51
  • I was not involved in most of the steps of this hiring process, but as you correctly noticed, I do not think the position was publicly announced. I might have gotten some detail wrong, but this is the process I have observed.
    – penelope
    Sep 15, 2020 at 15:01

Usually, they do not. But occasionally, all the possibilities you asked about do happen. As Kimball mentioned, exceptional faculty receive invitations to move, which are usually declined. In some cases, senior faculty change universities by applying for an executive position, which sometimes involves an executive search consulting firm employed by the hiring university.

In other words, there is no unique or rigid method.

  • I knew about the executive movement, but that sort of seems like giving up on the research part, to some extent (at least temporarily).
    – Ink blot
    Sep 15, 2020 at 15:55

They might get a direct offer from another place (free agency model; most common in my experience), they might apply to an advertised position and negotiate to keep some advantages (v.g. tenure), or they might move up and change place via the administrative route and then remain at their new place.

Few people change for a worse position if they can avoid it; some do it anyways for personal reasons.

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