academic in covid-time filter: when/how to resign?
September 14, 2021 11:50 AM   Subscribe

I've decided to resign from my tenure-track position. I aimed to leave at the end of this year but, largely due to continued pandemic circumstances, I'm increasingly inclined to give notice now and just finish out the fall semester. I am confident that leaving sooner is best for me and my family. But I fear that leaving mid-year will burn bridges with my colleagues. I'd rather not do this - in part because I like them, in part because I'm not yet certain that I want to leave academia altogether, and in part because I'm not sure how I'd spin a mid-year departure if I did luck out and manage to get an interview for a position in home country this year. My question: is there a way to leave mid-year yet maintain good relations with my colleagues? My situation is a bit complex and unusual - snowflakes inside...

...and here is the saga. My family (myself, spouse, and our young child) moved to a neighboring country in fall 2019 so I could take a tenure track position there. The move turned out to be much more challenging than we'd imagined. University and departmental culture, working and living in a non-native language, adapting to another country's granting system, my kiddo's school, spouse's job prospects - all proved to be more difficult than we'd thought/hoped it would be. And then came Covid. We weren't remotely settled yet, our extended family was on the other side of a newly complicated border, and my spouse's (mostly remote) work is based in home country. So we returned to our previous town in our home country, and are very glad to be here. I taught online through last spring.

This fall I am teaching online once more, with an agreement with my chair that I will return in person for the spring semester, family in tow, presumably to continue on the tenure track. But privately I've decided not to continue in the post after this year (for a bevy of reasons that aren't relevant here). Our private plan has been to move back and put kiddo in school there for just for the spring semester, I'd give notice in March or so and teach through the rest of the year, then we'd return to our home country/town. This would be, I think, a way to leave on good terms: I'd basically be teaching the courses I'm scheduled for, finishing my initial contract, and informing my department that I'm not going to apply for contract renewal.

In that brief window over the summer when the pandemic was looking quieted, this seemed like a perfectly reasonable plan. But now it's clear that Covid continues for the foreseeable future. It seems very possible that come December circumstances will be such that we can't easily move back, or don't feel safe moving back, or will become completely depleted by the work of moving back (I'm already depleted energy-wise these days - more easily overwhelmed than usual.) I also feel increasingly that slogging across a border with my family in a pandemic to relocate temporarily to finish out a job that I know I don't want, well, it is basically just ridiculous. It is exactly the kind of self-negating over-performance on someone else's terms that has me ready to leave academia in the first place.

But I can't see the future! I don't know what things will be like in December! Given that my predictions have tended towards the overly optimistic, chances are that come January, moving back will be as or more difficult than I'm imagining right now. And if that's the case, it seems wiser on a personal level to give notice soon and not move back at all, thus freeing myself and my family from what has become an unduly complicated and wearing situation. However, leaving mid-year is far less elegant than the through-the-year plan. I would leave the department with a small situation - they would need to hire someone to cover my spring courses. However however, it is surely better to give notice now than to get to December and then realize that returning to teach in January is infeasible...

I'm burned out and I'm done. But I'm not well-practiced at quitting, and I know that leaving now would not be not great for my colleagues. Is there a way to leave mid-year, but do it gracefully? Or is leaving mid-year - even during crazy Covid times - such bad behavior that I should somehow find a way to suck it up and rally a little longer and take my family back and work through spring, come pandemic hell or high water? Lastly, if I did leave mid-year and then managed to get an interview for a position in home country (I'm applying to just a couple posts here), how might I explain a mid-year departure to interviewers?

My decision-making powers are exceedingly low at this point in the pandemic - a good moment to lean on the hive mind! Thanks for your advice in this strange situation.

(Oh - and I know I haven't mentioned next jobs or what my career trajectory will be after quitting - suffice it to say that I'm working on that, and it's not what I'm asking about here.)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
1) Are you 100% sure that your course(s) will be delivered in-person during spring semester? My university has just begun discussions for "expanded" on-line offerings for next semester. If you're ok with continuing to teach remotely, making a strong request for on-line course(s) for spring might be a way to avoid the move.

2) What are your university's provisions for taking an unpaid leave of absence? If you have a faculty union, they can probably provide you information and advice about this. A former colleague took 2 years of unpaid leave while transitioning to a job at a different institution. The purpose of unpaid leave is that the original job is still there if things fall through.
posted by heatherlogan at 11:57 AM on September 14 [9 favorites]

How much notice do you need to give your current job? Do you know anyone else who has left mid-year? I think those are things that matter - the kinds of contracts people have and the precedent that other people have left.

In terms of explaining a mid-year departure, I think a sanitised version of the truth should work fine. Essentially the ongoing pandemic is why you left mid-year and why you're applying for whatever jobs you're applying for.
posted by plonkee at 12:14 PM on September 14

Yes to both of heatherlogan's suggestions above.

I think your best bet is to make an offer (sooner rather than later, if there are online course slots that will be assigned soon) to continue to teach online in lieu of leaving mid-year.

Having been a department chair and dean, I can tell you that scheduling can be a total nightmare, and you're much more likely to stay in people's good graces if you avoid forcing them to rejigger your colleagues' schedules or hire adjuncts to cover courses.

If your goal is to be hired in your home country, and that's where you are now, I'd stay there and continue to teach remotely if you can swing it.

Another thing that might help sweeten the pot is that you'll be telling the department early enough that they *should* be able to get started on hiring a replacement for you for the 2022 academic year. If you announced your departure next year, they might struggle to get the approvals necessary to hire another faculty member to replace you before September of next year.
posted by yellowcandy at 12:17 PM on September 14 [9 favorites]

Another option would be that just you would come over to teach in-person in the Spring, with the understanding that the separation from your family would be temporary (i.e. 4 months). It's so much easier to get an academic job when you have an academic job, and so I'd hold on to what you have if you are indeed looking to stay within academia.
posted by coffeecat at 12:49 PM on September 14 [16 favorites]

I think leaving your family behind in home country for the year and finishing out your contract might be easier - don't take your kid out of school/care for 4 months, and don't uproot everyone again. Get an apartment or even faculty housing.

You could talk to your department and say that you will finish out the year but could use some help with temp housing. I would hope they would be sympathetic/helpful and grateful that you are completing your obligations, and sorry to see you go.

Of course, you are the best judge of the level of sympathy & understanding you are likely to get, here, but sometimes expecting fair treatment and understanding is the best way to get it.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 1:07 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]

I'd also put it as a choice to the university: "Family circumstances combined with covid have made it impossible for me to be in the country during the Spring semester in a way I did not expect. I understand the position this puts you in, and would be willing to either submit my resignation now for the Spring semester so that you can find a replacement, or to continue teaching online during the spring if that is a better solution for that university." (not verbatim, obviously. And with two caveats: I am not in academia, and this may depend somewhat on your relationship with your department and university.)
posted by trig at 1:21 PM on September 14 [17 favorites]

In my view, you should stop after the fall semester. It's fine. A university is a large workplace and must be able to handle this professionally. By giving notice now, you will give management time enough to handle the situation. If you explain your reasoning to your colleagues and tell them directly that you hope to work with them on future international projects, there is no good reason they should not wish you good luck. International collaboration is a very good thing.
I wish you good luck.
posted by mumimor at 2:26 PM on September 14

I know you're trying to say anonymous, but this is so hard to answer because it depends on the cultures of the countries in question. For example, at my southern United States midsized Regional University, the budget situation is Cthulhu-awful and they're slashing everywhere they can, and TSR (temporary salary money) is one of the first things to go, because it's not attached to a tenured/tenure track line and they can actually cut it. (You'd think they could just redirect a portion of your salary, and if you gave notice NOW at my school they might be able to get the approvals for a one semester visiting assistant professor, but most academic institutions are not super nimble. But, it also depends on how well liked your chair is. If I got hit by a bus tomorrow, my program director is pretty well liked and could probably get someone paid on the rest of my contract. Other chairs would have trouble. But I'm NTT. It just gets so complicated so quickly).

On the other hand, if you were at my school and gave notice in May, the department would just lose the line, because of the budget issue; they're looking to cut the budget by not rehiring. Your chair would likely be relieved (annoyed that they're having to figure out the class schedule jenga again, but relieved that they don't have to lay someone off).

I could go on and on with difference scenarios, but you get the point - all this depends on where you're at, how they budget and staff and allocate, etc. And there's also you to consider - while you may not want to stay in academia, it is your path of least resistance for making money for the next 7-8 months while you figure out what the next thing may be.

Go ahead and talk to your chair. Either 1) they'll figure out a way to work with you about remote delivery of instruction for the spring [and be relived that they're not having to find a mid-year fill even though they've probably got a slush pile of adjuncts ready to go]


2) they can't, and you can cut bait and they can start their process (if they can find the funding, they can find someone to teach your classes unless you're the only advanced nuclear engineer or whatever in the country) and you can be the mid-year fill where you're at (because there's somewhere near you looking for a mid-year fill, particularly if you're willing to teach things no one else is, like the first years or that crappy majors class everyone fails or whatever). If it's option 2, reach out to your social network too and find out about schools who need folks to teach online - not everyone can or will do it. Any chair in scenario #2 that looks down on you for walking in these circumstances (instead of thanking the stars that they found a competent mid-year fill) is not someone you want to work for.

Either way, talk to your chair. If you've got family in a nearby country, you're already tagged as a flight risk and they're expecting this conversation. Oh academia, and yet, here we are. Me to work BFF this morning: "I think "going to die salty“ is the new lifer motto, and yet, we keep doing the thing. :-)"
posted by joycehealy at 3:10 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]

If you want an academic job, you should tell your current dept that you might have trouble relocating your family again and that you want to work remotely and/or take leave, their preference.

If you don't want an academic job, you should just do whatever you think is best, because non-academics aren't likely to care at all in a way that justifies spending 4 mos away from family (yikes!)
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 5:23 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]

I think you should let your chair know now that you won't be returning to neighboring country for spring term and (if this is the case) you are willing to teach online for spring if they'd like, or else you'd like to finish up at the end of fall term.

I'm not generally a huge fan of giving notice so far in advance, but for higher ed, this means they can hire in this cycle if they're going to fill your position next year, and it means they have time to find someone for spring. They might also have some flexibility for spring term for teaching online.

Slate's What Next podcast has an episode just out about higher ed and why so many people are leaving, and they talk to someone who gave notice for the end of fall term. I recommend you listen to it, as you might find it validating.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:54 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]

+1 that your university may well be already expecting this conversation. I know our uni lost some faculty who went home in the first lockdowns and then just didn't want to come back.

I would kick this can down the road a little while by offering to teach online in the spring, citing how difficult it will be for you to move back given covid, family situation, blahblah, online education buzzwords, blahblah, make it sound like something they WANT (expanding engaging online pedagogy in these precarious times!) rather than doing you a personal favor? IDK.

It seems like the issue is that you don't want to build a new life in Neighboring Country, not that the working conditions online are so toxic that you need to quit ASAP or you're gonna lose your mind. IMHO, as long as you don't have any better options, take your salary for as long as you can and network like hell in the place you want to be.

Honestly, it seems to me like a lot of this is actually kind of "normal" given the huge changes that higher ed just went through in the past 18 months. I do NOT think you would need to explain to a new institution why you didn't want to relocate your family across the border during a pandemic, nor why you didn't want to leave them for 4 months with childcare being also in crisis these days.
posted by athirstforsalt at 11:24 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks to all for your suggestions. It is immensely helpful to see the range and nuance of ideas regarding how to proceed. I do realize it's difficult to advise in such generality about which countries etc. - academia is a large world after all - your comments are helpful regardless.

I will share that there are two things I swore I'd never do again as an academic. One: commute long-distance for a job (with a young kiddo at home). Two: teach a practice-oriented course online (that's my spring semester course). Both things are highly recommended here, and I do see why! Sigh. It is under consideration...
posted by loup (staff) at 1:53 PM on September 15 [1 favorite]

Hey OP, given these options, I say prioritize your family over your job. You might be giving up your job soon, but you won't be giving up your family. Talk to your chair and see what ideas they have. Teaching online certainly is harder for some classes than others, but at this point, there should be ideas out there on if you can realistically achieve your goals for that class. Good luck!
posted by bluedaisy at 9:06 AM on September 16

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