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Short version: For tenured professor in small and less prestigious universities. What are the factors to be considered and balanced when making the decision on whether or not to try hard to move to bigger and more prestigious universities?

Long version: I am a (recently tenured) professor in a small regional public university in the northeastern part of United States. I am fairly happy with my current situation:

  • I have an active research program;
  • I kept up with newest research trend and established myself as a leader in a subfield;
  • I have an NSF grant (for now) and, thanks to the PUI status, have good record of getting grants;
  • I don't mind teaching, and sometime even find it fun;
  • Service expectation is low; As long as my research is going well, I can usually pick some light service responsibilities that I enjoy;
  • I am well respected in the department and college, and (when I have a grant) even the provost seem to like me;
  • The politics in the department is quite simple; There are occasional problems, but the department is so small that, at the end, everyone needs everyone else;
  • My salary is not high, but with the low cost of living, living condition is pretty good;
  • The student body is such that I feel I'm actually making a difference in their lives;
  • And I have tenure.

However, one in a while, I also feel the urge to move "upward". To list some cons for staying in a small lower-tier undergraduate-focused university...

  • I have no chance to academically reproduce;
  • It hurts my ego (occasionally);
  • I won't get to work with the best students;
  • My salary is low and will probably remain low forever;

These are the cons I can see. My questions is: Are there other factors I should consider in such cost benefit analysis?

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  • Have you considered that workload in R1 universities may be significantly higher?
    – Bilbo
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 1:08

3 Answers 3

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The main difficulty of such a move is that you are in a "tenure trap": Most hires are at the tenure-track level and most places will be reluctant to hire a tenured person for a tenure-track position. There are ways to overcome this, but these require some serious work on your part since, chances are, when looking for a better position you will not be going through the "standard" process (checking job ads in your area of research and then applying to a bunch of places), even though, there are, less frequent "open rank" or, say, "associate level" job openings.

Here is my suggestion: If you have contacts in better universities, inquire discretely if they would be interested in hiring you. If you are well-known and liked in your research area, chances are that some of your contacts can convince their departmental colleagues to have and open rank hire (in your area) or a more targeted hire at the associate/full professor level. I have done this when I was already a full professor and, after having job interviews in several places, got a job elsewhere. (But I also applied for positions in places where I did not have contacts and which were advertised in my professional publication, Notice of AMS.) The main drawback to be aware of is that people in your department will likely find out. How it will affect your relations with departmental colleagues I cannot tell.

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Just one: are you happy at the place you are currently at or not. "Happiness" is a very composite notion though and different people place different weights on different factors when computing their overall "happiness score", so nobody can help you with that computation.

Some disadvantages you mentioned can be remedied by collaborating with people outside your university and taking active part in the supervision of their students (not necessarily formalized in any way).

As to "ego", you are what you do, not what stamp you have on your forehead (or your CV, or...). So, if you feel that you are involved in some interesting and meaningful activity and derive some decent income and fun from it as well, it doesn't matter whether you are known as "a distinguished senior professor of Harvard" or just as "some Springfield guy/girl". Actually it doesn't matter whether you are known at all.

My own idea of evaluating things is just setting a clear threshold and reject everything that is below it as "unsatisfactory" and accept everything that is above it as "good enough" without trying to engage into the wild goose chase for "the best" option. Yes, the grass is always obviously greener on the other side, but why should you care if you side is green enough for you?

If you just want to feel the general "hustle and bustle" of academic life, go to conferences and research workshops more often and make new acquaintances. The secret is very simple: people (with rare exceptions) are always eager to speak of what interests them at the moment and are not so much interested in talking about what interests you. So just let them talk and think of their questions in honest, and you'll acquire collaborators in no time. You'll also learn many new things as a bonus this way.

In other words, my advice is to move only if you feel forced to move. But if you do feel forced to move, indeed, you shouldn't hesitate to do so.

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There are more 'sharks'. Yes, students are better prepared, but they also have more options, meaning they are harder to retain. Further, there is no guarantee that you will get to work with the 'best students'. They may be more politics, though that's the same for any institution.

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