Careers: Be portable

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The former president of my college was a well-published economist before he made the transition to administration (a smart financial move, his salary easily tripled). He was also the kindest and most thoughtful college president I've ever met. He was once asked by the junior faculty in the Economics department what his advice would be to faculty before tenure. He said:

Be portable

That comment shocked the junior faculty who expected him to say the usual platitudes about focusing on publishing, teaching, or collegiality (the codeword for making nice with senior faculty). But in retrospect, I think he really struck the core of what junior faculty need to focus on.

In other professions, careers are fairly portable. You can leave one job and get another one fairly easily, often in the same city. No one is expected to have any particular allegiance to their company. In academics, though, the mantra has never been about portability. Tenure is seen as the reward for faith and dedication to a single institution.

Junior faculty need to remember that until they get tenure, the college can dismiss them without any cause at any time. Third year and tenure-reviews are places where things can get particularly nasty. If you commit yourself permanently to your current location as a junior faculty member, you are potentially setting yourself up for severe disappointment. Yes, we all hate moving from one place to another and it does make our partner's careers and our children's education more difficult, but it is better to be prepared than to be unprepared.

You need to be portable. You need to understand that until you have tenure, you are vulnerable. It takes only one senior faculty member on the personnel committee who does not like your attitude, your politics, your dress code, your religion, your sexuality, your theoretical outlook or research topic, etc. is enough to torpedo your career at that institution. And even if your college or state or city has anti-discrimination protection, these are often not effective deterrents. Tenured faculty in colleges get away with behavior that would land them on the street (or in prison) in the business world. If you doubt this, ask senior women, gay or lesbian, or african american scholars. The Committee on Lesbian and Gay Issues in Anthropology (COLGIA) issued this depressing report (PDF) in 1999.

Portability means that your CV should be constantly updated. You need to remain an attractive candidate for other colleges to pick up. You should be publishing actively and attending a variety of conferences. You should have your ears tuned to the job market, sending out applications when positions open up. Depending on your department, you may want operate in stealth mode when doing this and not list other faculty at your college as references (this is a good reason to maintain a presence in national meetings, so other scholars can vouch for you). A sentence in your cover letter stating that you are pre-tenure and would appreciate discretion about your application would be honored by most search committees.

One of my mentors gave me a good piece of advice when I was on the job market: you owe only as much loyalty as you receive. Colleges can and will let junior faculty go for any cause -- including departmental downsizing. Unless they are promising (in writing) that you will have tenure, then you owe it to yourself and to your family to stay portable.

[Read other articles on Careers in Anthropology on]

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This page contains a single entry by Karen Nakamura published on May 5, 2005 3:01 AM.

News: Fewer children on Children's Day was the previous entry in this blog.

Links: anthropology is the next entry in this blog.

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