Summary: I am a successful tenure-track assistant professor, but want to move to another department/institute or industry

I’m an assistant professor about halfway through my tenure clock at one of the top universities in my field. I am good at my job: my group publishes, my students are doing great, I’ve raised millions, and have delivered above and beyond in terms of department service and teaching. My tenure case would probably sail through.

However, I deeply dislike where I am. The administration is totally dysfunctional, my department is consumed by feuds and grievances, academic standards are almost nonexistent, immoral behavior among the faculty is widely tolerated, etc. Plus, my spouse and I don't particularly like where we are living.

I like being a professor, but don’t see a future in this department. The only question is what to do.

I understand the norm is to wait until ~tenure, then try and move universities. This has an element of risk: while I'm reasonably well-regarded, I'm not a "superstar," so can't just write my ticket anywhere, and it's not guaranteed some other equally strong department would want me. Also, I don’t know if I could stand another 2-3 years here.

I could go work in industry immediately and get paid 3-4x more than I make right now, and live in a more desirable area. But, this would be a one-way ticket out. Also, if I wait until tenure to try and get an industry job, I’m worried I’ll be seen as a 39-year-old washed-up assistant professor.

I wonder if any academics who experienced my situation, or a similar situation, could comment on what they chose to do and how it worked out. Or, any advice in general would be most welcome.

(throwaway account for obvious reasons)

  • 8
    "I could go work in industry immediately and get paid 3-4x more than I make right now, and live in a more desirable area. But, this would be a one-way ticket out" Please downplay your expectations, otherwise it makes financial and ethical sense to take the industry position immediately, then in 4-5 years you open your own research centre or at least you fund research positions out of your pocket (because, roughly speaking, you earned the same you would earn in your academic life so the additional money are free money, in comparison). Plus: depending on the field, you may re-enter academia .
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 10:39
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    I'd guess that if you can raise millions for research that you would be a pretty hot item in the academic marketplace.
    – Buffy
    Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 14:03
  • 10
    @EarlGrey That's highly dependent on field; if you're a pen-and-paper mathematician, sure, but having enough money to fund your salary for a couple years does not mean "have a research budget for a couple years" that includes equipment, bench space, students, etc...
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 23:36
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    What exactly are your concerns with just applying to faculty positions at places where you want to work?
    – usul
    Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 2:01
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    @EarlGrey That seems to have very little to do with OP's question, and I don't think it's fair to imply that OP should take a job they want less in order to donate to a fund to let someone else do academic research.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 15:44

7 Answers 7


I think Steve Jobs got it right in his Stanford commencement address when he advised that to do great work, you must do what you love and that if you haven't found it, you must keep looking. To his advice, I'd add my observation that the most important factors in all our outcomes in our lives tend to be all the other people in our lives. Only the most foresighted are able to choose their parents. But sometimes we do get to choose and it's important to choose wisely.

It sounds like you do love being an academic but you don't like where you're living or the people you work with. I would try to find new people somewhere you'd like better. Forget about your clock. A lifetime is a long time. Two or three years invested someplace you don't like is a sunk cost. And it's nothing out of a career of 45 or so. But why spend one more minute of it with people you don't like if you could spend it with people you do?

So, check out the alternatives. Maybe there's a dream school dying to hire you. Or maybe you look around and come to the dismal conclusion that there genuinely are no decent academic alternatives but discover Google is ready to make an offer you can't refuse, showering you with cash and a dream job in industry. Or maybe you decide that compared to the alternatives, where you are now isn't that bad after all.

  • 1
    "two or three years is nothing out of a career of 45" OP already dedicated 2-3 years to that department, if you add 2-3 years it is more than 10% of OP's professional life dedicated to that department, and let's not even take into account that OP is contributing to the success of that department and of its practices ...
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 13:49
  • 17
    @EarlGrey I was referring to the sunk cost problem, that people tend to focus on what they've invested and want to avoid losses, in this case, giving up the 2-3 years already invested and possibly having to start over on a new clock. Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 13:54
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    Note that the clock might be shortened at a new place. It is worth exploring.
    – Buffy
    Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 13:57
  • 2
    Thanks Nicole. This answer has helped to frame things in a constructive way. Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 8:36
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    Something implicit in this answer is worth emphasising: it's much easier to weigh up the pros and cons of concrete choices, rather than abstract ones. Get an offer or two on the table and then see how you feel - you can always turn them down.
    – avid
    Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 15:36

Treat finding a position you love like a research project. Do homework and be organized. For example, Think about what you like about being a professor. Is it mentoring students, research, teaching, academic service? Look for positions that meet those needs and possibly create your own new position.

I do not know your field, but consider a government research lab or center. On a regular basis, my center hires academics. The pay is likely better and possibly 1.5 to 2 times better than you currently position and work life balance is also better. I know people who work at DOE National labs or have gone back to academic from DOE labs.

Likewise, consider other positions that meet your needs. You have a job, in fact, a prestigious job, which helps you look for another position. For example, look for industry R&D, NGO, or government position. See what might meet your needs and then make connections with people at those locations. Lastly, I encourage you to read resources Nick Corcodilos who has a free newsletter about looking for and creating positions for yourself.


I could go work in industry immediately and get paid 3-4x more

Let's assume that's true.

You should leave at the end of the current teaching period, but after you have a new job.

Do not sacrifice your income and personal life for an institution you do not believe in.

Do not assume that high paying industry job will always be there when you want it. A recession can happen at any time.

  • 2
    I disagree on the recession aspect. Recessions hit even harder academics, especially if not permanent.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 8:44
  • 6
    Industry careers have their own challenges. Payment should not be the only consideration, for many academics it is actually a less important consideration. I'm pretty sure that many academics could earn more if they were in an industry career. That doesn't mean they would be happier.
    – user9482
    Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 10:01
  • @EarlGrey Rising unemployment leads to more students enrolling, which leads to more jobs for contingent academics. Commented Mar 23, 2022 at 0:54
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 23:58

Plus, my spouse and I don't particularly like where we are living.

So your spouse is staying with you in a place none of the two like, because of your career, while you are clearly not satisfied with it and the prospects are not good, apart from waiting 5 years and winning the professorship lottery (somewhere else, I hope for you).

All this because you feel you deserve to be a professor, your skills are what will bring forward progress and science.

In short: run!

You are just showing how selfish is the academia, you have only one life, technology and progress will move forward, with or without you, however the more you stay in that department the more you will become bitter and a-empathic like your dept colleagues ... and there is a good chance your spouse will became like you and like them, by osmosis.

Or, in turn, you will get fed up with all the immoral standards and you will immolate yourself. Most likely for nothing.

Run run run!

  • 13
    I think this answer is not useful. The OP did say "I like being a professor". Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 13:49
  • 2
    People are sometimes too eager to drop the "Don't walk, run!" speech. :/
    – Pedro
    Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 7:06
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    @PedroSEDOBETTER if you have no family, then usually you can walk away and take the time to mend your (mental) injuries and recovery from the daily micro-aggressions. In the academia and with a family, it's either you running, or your family running. Too many people realize it too late.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 8:48
  • 2
    You seem to be rather biased. For what reason, I cannot know, perhaps you have had a bad experience in academia, or are close to someone who has, or are projecting a bit. Since the OP is looking to make a major life changing decision, I think one should err on the side of caution when suggesting possible outcomes, which this answer does not do. You are jumping to conclusions about their life and forecasting dramatic outcomes based on little information, which is not helpful at all.
    – Pedro
    Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 9:02
  • 2
    @PedroSEDOBETTER OP's words "However, I deeply dislike where I am. " No human person says something like that lightly, no human person can bear this burden for long time without consequences, for themselves or for the ones around them. I am not biased: I know data nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00661-w or nature.com/articles/s41578-021-00367-z On the other hand, if someone says lightly "I deeply dislike where I am. " well, it is a dangerous sign of absolute narcisism.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 9:08

The state of the Department in which you serve probably answers this question but have you broached on any of the issues of your present job with the current Head of Department ?

If the answer to this is negative or "no point" then you have to go as soon as a viable alternative shows.

Going into industry may or may not be a good thing for your subsequent return to academia: a lot depends on the next university's approach to industrial experience - some desire it, others do not though they may fall short of admitting this - plus the research you do in industry will normally not be publishable.

Going to work in a government lab offers better publishing opportunities and this would help your resumé enough to get back to top-rank academia as a Research Professor at least, if not as a tenured staff member.

Going to work for a lower division university in your own country - preferably a young department with a dynamic new Head - whose research and teaching ethos embraces your own would be wiser for you (and Madame) on a personal level. It is easier to be a big fish in a small pond. Obviously it is hard to say how top-rank universities will regard your term in such a post should you want to return to one of these.

These options apart, maybe the best thing is to consider opportunities in foreign universities that are consistent with your present (or preferred) research interests. We don't know which country you are in so I can't suggest which countries would be options language-wise.


File this one under general advice and observations:

There are several assumptions in your outlook, the two main ones relate to salary expectations in industry, and administrations in academia:

A 3X to 4X jump in salary sounds really high, and finding that kind of a salary increase is probably quite difficult, depending on your field. In the US, you're more likely to get an extra 50K to 100K / year, unless you find a role at Google or some other (bio)tech giant.

Your other main assumption is that the administration at an other academic institution will not be totally dysfunctional, that there won't be feuds and grievances, etc. When the budgets are small, people fight over the crumbs. Are administrations and department politics all that different between universities?

Your "work-lifestyle" will be very different as well: summers are regular working months, your manager will keep closer tabs on you, and your projects will likely have many short term milestones. It's a different kind of pressure than academia. If it's an R&D role with emphasis on Development, you'll have less freedom to pick what you want to work on, and how to work on it, and you might miss that.

Being half-way through tenure at a top university in your field is outstanding, so there are good reasons to grind it out a few more years, depending on the toll on your mental health and relationship. You could also try to improve the culture at your current institution.

Find out where the top 50 universities in your field are, intersect that with where you want to live, visit, and look at the price of housing there and other quality of life factors that are important to you. Then combine an industry search with a search for a position in academia in that area. There are no guarantees that such a move will improve all factors, but you probably won't regret it. Make sure to talk to current assistant professors about the environment in their university.

If you end up happy at a new institution, restarting the tenure clock is an acceptable price to pay. You'd regret restarting the clock in an equally unpleasant environment.

  • "there are good reasons to grind it out a few more years, depending on the toll on your mental health and relationship. " Great how it is taken for granted the toll on mental health and relationship.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Mar 24, 2022 at 13:37

I think the other answers are great advice. I'll just add one thing that I didn't notice in them:

To start your search, talk to some senior academic (or more than one) whose advice you respect. This might be your thesis advisor, or someone you've worked with, or contacted at a conference, or someone in your current department. Express your concerns as you did in this question, and ask if they know of any other department they think you'd like better who might hire you. They'll know something about what's going on in other similar departments, and they'll be able to spread the word that you're looking if you want them to.

In my experience, academic hiring at your level is very calendar-driven. It's probably too late to be considered for jobs that are open this year, so you've probably got until near the end of the year to decide what to do.

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