Am I making the right decision? (Plus bonus negotiation questions)
March 18, 2014 10:37 PM   Subscribe

I am an academic in Australia, in a social sciences/humanities field that I have mentioned before but would rather not repeat here for googleability reasons. I am currently employed until the middle of this year. I have a job offer in another city that I think I'm going to accept. I'm worried it might be the wrong decision.

I am at a university ranked among the top 10 in the world in my discipline. My husband is a scientist also at this university, who has managed to cobble together contracts here of between six months and three years continually since 2004, is currently unemployed (since November) but expects to be able to put together more short-term contracts in the future if he hangs around.

Australia doesn't really have a tenure system (any more). The best you can get is a "continuing contract", which means your contract has no fixed end date. Usually a new appointment to a continuing funding line would be fixed term for three years or so, with a performance review followed by a confirmation of continuing status.

The offer
The offer I just got is at a university elsewhere. It is for a fixed term contract of five years, with the "possibility" that it would be converted to continuing at the end of that time, subject to performance and available funding. It seems like a great department, an exciting role, with just the right mix of teaching and research.

They are offering me nearly twice what I currently earn, at an academic level much higher than my current appointment (high enough that I could apply for promotion to Associate Professor within three or four years.) They are also willing to offer me a generous start-up package of research funding.

The cons
There is nothing at that university for my husband. They don't even have a department for his discipline. There are, however, six or so universities in that city, of which at least two do have small groups of people working on things that are at least tangentially related to his research. I doubt they'll be able to offer him paid work, at least at first, but maybe eventually. And they'd probably be willing to offer him visiting fellow status, so he can use an office and a computer. We are not willing to live apart or do a weekly commute between here and there, especially since he doesn't actually have a job here either.

The university is ranked low, low down the rankings. Like, 600th or so in the world. However, they are really keen to increase their research profile, so are pumping money into research, and the specific people in my discipline there are good. (They pretty much all got poached from my current institution!). I don't care about rankings purely in terms of prestige, but I care if it will make me unemployable later, especially since this position isn't guaranteed to become continuing. Also if it makes it impossible for me to attract good PhD students or to get external grants.

We would have to move cities. We bought a house here a few years back. It's not a huge deal to move: I know people do it all the time. But it does mean that all else being equal (which it's not), we'd prefer to stay here. The new city is one I would like to live in, but the university is in a part of the city which is not so nice, and traffic/commuting etc in this new city is pretty horrible.

The alternative
I applied for a postdoc at my current institution back in October. In November I was interviewed, along with a few other people. Their first choice turned them down. They told me I was the best of the rest of the candidates, but that they wanted to readvertise to try to get a wider pool to choose from. They told me to reapply, in case they "can't get anyone better". I reapplied and they are holding new interviews late next week.

The selection committee confirms I am still definitely in the running. They only have five applicants total who are at all viable, and they won't be interviewing them all. Some of the committee thinks I am the strongest applicant. But the chair of the committee gets the final say, as it's his research funding. I asked him if he could hold the interviews any sooner due to my job offer from Other University, and he said no. So I take that (and the fact that he wouldn't hire me back in November) as evidence that he is, at the least, unexcited about my application.

If I got it, this job would be a lower academic level, at about half the salary of the other job, a four or five year fixed term with no possibility of continuing afterwards, and working for someone who is unenthusiastic about employing me. The actual work would be fun, and actually very similar to what I'd do at the other university. And it would be continuing at this highly ranked university where my husband has a better chance of getting future employment.

My questions
So what to do? Should I even wait and attend the interview next week and then wait to find out whether I am successful, given that this means delaying my acceptance of the other job by longer than they would prefer? (They initially asked me to make a decision by early next week, but I might be able to persuade them to wait.) I'm tending towards thinking that the other job is so much better in so many ways that I should just accept it and withdraw my application for the postdoc here. This is what my husband says he thinks I should do too.

Secondly, am I really screwing up my husband's career here? He is willing to make the sacrifice for me, but it is a big sacrifice I am asking. It's kind of his turn (I came to Australia for him), but I don't want to ruin his life.

And finally, I haven't mentioned this other job possibility to the university I have an offer from, because (a) I don't actually have a competing offer, just an interview, and (b) it is a worse job on paper in every way, so it doesn't seem like great negotiation fodder. Is this a mistake? I am currently still negotiating the details of salary with the other university. If I mention the postdoc, and they ask about the salary, I'd have to admit it's ridiculously low, which would seem to work against me. But I know that being (perhaps) about to have a competing offer is traditionally something someone brings up in negotiation.
posted by lollusc to Work & Money (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think the cost of living in New City is rather higher than Old City (if I'm reading you correctly) so the higher salary won't necessarily go as far one might expect. That aside, your position at Old University sounds precarious. The committee chair is unenthusiastic about you, so your long-term future isn't really secure there. And your husband has been trying to find a permanent place at Old University for some years, so he's probably exhausted all current possibilities; New University will at least offer the chance of finding something more stable.

I'd go with New University and its New Opportunities. Best of luck, whatever you do.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:00 PM on March 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

The alternative doesn't sound like a viable option. That's kind of offensive that they were like, "You're OK but we want to see if we can find someone better." I absolutely wouldn't count on it and I wouldn't mention it, personally.

This is obviously a big decision and it sounds like you've discussed it with your husband, which would be my first advice. I think you need to think about how happy you are at your current university and how long you reasonably hope to stay there, or how long you hope to stay at your current job. Also, do you sense your current gig could be up soon? If you want your next job to be something that lasts a few years and not forever, it's less risky. But are you looking to start a family and settle down at some point? If you absolutely love your current job, I'd say don't go -- money is never worth leaving a situation where you are really happy, since you never know what a new job/city will feel like -- but since you're interviewing around, seems like you're keen to start a next chapter. Double the money is compelling, but is that enough to cover your husband's salary he won't be making anymore?

I realize this offer is from a lower-ranked university, but if they are poaching good people and investing a lot of money, you may come away with some good talking points. "Increased x by x," "initiated new x" etc. It sounds like there is room for you to gather some accomplishments for yourself. Do you think you'll be able to play a role in expanding and introducing some big new stuff for the university? And if it's a new team, you may be able to help shape things and take a leadership role -- do you think you'll be able to take on more responsibility and ownership for the research than you can now? Sometimes being a big fish in a small pond isn't so bad (although it sounds more like it's just an empty pond and they are bringing in some big fish!).

People often start threads asking about moving to certain cities. I have moved many times in my life and honestly, cities always take me by surprise. Cities I was excited to move to because I thought they'd be great were the ones I hated. Cities that seemed dumpy on one end of the spectrum or overwhelming on the other end were awesome. Cities I thought were fun to visit, I hated living in and vice versa. And even though I loved some cities and hated others, when I really think about how happy I was, nothing affected my happiness in each city more than how much I liked my job/co-workers and my social life. The city is a bit secondary and it's something you can't predict anyway. Focus on the job, your career and your gut feeling...

Gut feeling is big. Make sure you visit the new job, meet the people, see the facilities, etc. See how it feels.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:24 PM on March 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

My husband sacrificed his career for mine when we moved about a year ago. It's working out okay now but it was really rough for a while. What makes a huge difference for us is that we both vastly prefer living in our new location over our old one. Do you like where you live now? Do you like the new city?

Is there a third option, such as at another institution that would offer more possibilities for yourself and your husband? It sounds like you have options abroad too if you're a citizen of someplace other than Australia. Because your current institution sounds less then enthusiastic but the new one sounds like it will end your husbands career. That is huge. He will likely become your dependent and his career may well never recover from multiple years of unemployment in his field. Does your husband enjoy his field or was he wanting a career change anyway?
posted by hazyjane at 12:45 AM on March 19, 2014

If the city is the one I'm thinking it is, isn't it a possibility there might turn out to be *more* employment opportunities there for your husband than your current location, not less?
posted by dontjumplarry at 12:46 AM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Some more clarification in response to people's comments so far:

1. My husband loves his work and he wants to stay in academic research if possible. The new city has two universities that do his sort of research, but the groups are smaller and worse-funded than our current one. So there aren't exactly more opportunities there.

2. He loves where we live now. He is not thrilled about the prospect of the new city, but he doesn't like change in general. I think when we are there he will like it as a city.

3. The cost of living doesn't actually seem to be higher. Rental properties seem to be cheaper on the whole (in the suburb where New University is). Buying a house would be similar or maybe slightly more expensive than buying here. There is a much wider range of shops in general, so most things (and food and services) are cheaper.

4. I didn't mention it above, but I have been applying both here and abroad for various positions for about four years now. This is only the second one I have been offered. (I turned one down a few years ago because it had similar cons to this one, but also didn't have the correspondingly higher rank/salary, and because at that time my husband still had a current contract at our current university.) So although there might be possibilities elsewhere eventually, it could take years to find one. I am not going to turn this opportunity down without another offer in hand. The only question is whether I should wait and see what happens with this postdoc.

5. In response to appleturnover's points, my current job is only until mid year. Then I too will be unemployed. So loving my current job (which I don't, actually) is irrelevant. And the new university is definitely an opportunity to make things happen. My role would be to develop a whole new graduate program, and help build up a new research group in my area.
posted by lollusc at 1:11 AM on March 19, 2014

I say do it. You're getting double the pay and an offer that ensures at least five years of stability (with the possibility of more), and you get out of the postdoc cycle. Without knowing too specifically what your husband does, for twice your current wage he can probably can make do for another few months of spinning his wheels before he finds another way to fit in with the local science scene, figures out a way to collaborate long-distance, or just gets into another field entirely. If you're serious about wanting into academia, and your career is going well while your husband's is (relatively) stalled, I reckon it's time he puts his aside and helps you get into the next part of your career.
posted by barnacles at 1:13 AM on March 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

It looks like the choice is between one viable academic career plus one screwed up academic career or two not very viable academic careers. I think the first is better overall but it is asking something of your husband.
posted by plonkee at 1:32 AM on March 19, 2014 [7 favorites]

I'm not in academia, but I've known a lot of researchers. Almost all have had to travel for work, and all academic couples have had to make hard decisions in order to live near each other.

Your husband will be making a sacrifice to move to New City, though given that he's only had short term contracts for 10 years, I can't see that it'll be a huge career sacrifice. Funding in science isn't looking like it'll improve anytime soon.

Don't do a post doc with someone that doesn't want you!
posted by kjs4 at 3:03 AM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

My guess based on Australian geography and universities is that you're considering an offer from one of the universities in Sydney, probably western Sydney. If so, Sydney rent is ridiculous near the city, but probably tolerable out in Western Sydney. That's the main cost of living difference.

Other things to think about: does your position include teaching? If it does, are you happy to teach students that are on average less able and/or enthusiastic than your original university? Similarly, yes, you will on average not get as many strong PhD students as you would in your original university.

On the other hand, if it doesn't involve a lot of teaching, and you have decent grant money, publications and research tend to count for far more than teaching or PhD students.
posted by Ashlyth at 4:01 AM on March 19, 2014

It seems to me that neither you nor your husband have a viable future at your existing institution. Your husband has never been offered a continuing contract. And from what you've said, it's clear that your department are not taking your application for the postdoc seriously. "You're top of the list, but we want to re-advertise to make sure the process is transparent" is passive-aggressive academic speak for "we are currently assembling the usual shortlist of personal friends of the HOD, former PhD students of personal friends at other institutions, and flashy Oxbridge types with impressive degrees but no actual research programme whom we will inevitably consider for this position over you." For all intents and purposes, the postdoc "opportunity" doesn't exist as a viable option for you. They've already made their position clear by saying no to you in the first round.

General rule of thumb in academia: if you ever get mixed messages like this about a new internal position or a contract extension ("oh, everyone in the department thinks you're great, and we're all on your side, but let's just see what the final application pool looks like, shall we?"), RUN.

You have a golden opportunity in one of the world's best cities (a five-year contract with the possibility of permanency is gold in this academic economy), and if Ashlyth is right that this is UWS we're talking about, it has a rapidly rising research profile and you will not suffer professionally by association with it.
posted by Sonny Jim at 4:34 AM on March 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

Take the new job and try to grow their prestige with your contribution. This will NOT hurt your resume but in fact improve it. "Worked at top ten university for x years. Moved to 600th university and in x years based on projects xyz grew rankings to top 200 worldwide"

If the latter doesn't happen that's the university's fault. If it DOES.... Hell that was all you. Take the new opportunity. The salary bump alone will place you further afield for future jobs and negotiations.
posted by chasles at 4:48 AM on March 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think you should take it. It sounds like a great step for you, and that the downside for your husband is not that bad, since he's not currently working and it doesn't sound like there's much immediate prospect of permanency for him where you are. Also, even if Australia doesn't have tenure anymore, if you do decide ultimately to go abroad, it sounds like it will be much easier to move into a tenure-track position from New City. Plus sometimes being in a bigger city with more universities can help open up opportunities that wouldn't necessarily have been an obvious fit but end up being really good.

The postdoc sounds like a complete non-starter if they weren't willing to offer it to you after the first candidate dropped out and instead decided to start the application process all over again.

The two-body problem is a perennial issue for academic couples, but I think there's not an obvious downside here to moving other than the threat of the unknown.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 5:33 AM on March 19, 2014

If you want a viable academic career, I think you need to take the offered position and your husband needs to suck it up and make the best of it as a trailing spouse. Honestly, it's about that simple and binary, because modern academic life almost always means first giving up control over where you live and being willing to deal with the uncertainty of that, and second finding your own imperfect solution to the two body problem.

I wouldn't use the post doc as a negotiation tool, since it's obviously so much worse than the offered position (on status as well as salary) -- negotiate the new position on its own merits. The current place is clearly not all that excited about you staying, so a chance to leave is a good thing and should be embraced. Even if you got the post doc renewed, with only two offers in four years that is a fairly high-risk option.

World-wide rankings usually aren't as important as national or regional rankings, but something to remember is that there are a lot more low-ranked schools than top-ten places, and they all need faculty. If that becomes your niche, embrace it and get good at it, rather than always thinking about how you would rather be at Harvard (or its Australian equivalent). We all know that person, and it's not dignified.

Five years with a chance of continuation is only one year less security than a US tenure track position, for what that's worth (and even then you are usually on a two or three year contract during the pre-tenure time, and those get cancelled with some regularity -- people exaggerate the job security). That's long enough to develop your research, see if the new place is a good fit, and to relax a little. It's also long enough for your husband to use the support of your higher salary to look for work in his field or, if that fails, to look at his other options.

And of course, congratulations on the offer!
posted by Dip Flash at 5:56 AM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

The postdoc isn't viable. You were their top choice, and they reran the search for someone else. They know you have an actual real offer, and they have no intention of speeding up the search.

You have the chance at a high paying job for 5 years. And a school that is really into increasing its research profile is actually quite capable of making a visible difference in that time.
posted by jeather at 6:01 AM on March 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

Take the job in the new city. Sell your house and rent. That way you're not "stuck" if better things come along for you or your husband in the future.

I'd much rather grow something new and exciting in a new place, than be tolerated anywhere, no matter how prestigious.

Your husband can rub shoulders at the institutions where his discipline is and perhaps pick up some work there. Or continue to seek a position elsewhere.

You can't do a postdoc at a school that has clearly told you that you are not their choice for the position.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:07 AM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

If it's UWS, sure. If it's something like Notre Dame, however...
posted by inkypinky at 7:11 AM on March 19, 2014

I would take the new job.

I'm not totally clear on what your current position is, but if you're an Assistant Professor whose contract is not being renewed and who is being unenthusiastically considered for a postdoc instead, then you're likely on your way out at your present institution even if you do get the postdoc. I think it would hurt your career more to move backwards in terms of position even if the institutional prestige is higher than it would to move forward at a lesser-known university.
posted by vegartanipla at 10:56 AM on March 19, 2014

Another vote for taking it. Good luck to you both.
posted by ravioli at 7:20 PM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone. While it's not quite a consensus, the vast majority of you are suggesting I go ahead and take it, which is what I was planning to do. It's reassuring to know that my plan doesn't seem stupid to more objective outsiders.

Clarification for vegartanipla: I have just finished a (first) postdoc a few months ago and currently am teaching as a casual lecturer (aka adjunct, although adjuncts aren't exploited here quite as much as in the USA). This new position is a big jump forward, but a second postdoc wouldn't be a step backwards either.

Thanks too for the memails from those of you who didn't want to comment publically. Very much appreciated.
posted by lollusc at 7:26 PM on March 19, 2014

Mod note: folks, the OP has not specified a school. Please don't make this super googleable.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 7:12 PM on March 20, 2014

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