Erin Rinto is the Learning and Research Librarian at the University of Cincinnati Libraries, where she is the liaison to the English Composition program. Her research interests include information literacy instruction and assessment in the context of first-year writing courses, the integration of High-Impact Practices into library services, and strengths-based education. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
Seven years ago, when I was starting my career as an academic librarian, my only goal was to achieve tenure and promotion to associate professor. I spent five years cultivating a research agenda that furthered the goals of my department and institution, and when the day finally came for me to sign my new contract, I felt like I finally had some room to breathe. For me, tenure meant that I could jettison side projects and focus on research that inspired me. It was a powerful, liberating feeling.
So it may have seemed surprising when, a scant year after I had reached my ultimate professional goal, I decided to accept a tenure-track position at a new institution. This move was motivated by the opportunity to relocate closer to family, a pull factor so powerful that I didn’t even bat an eye at the prospect of going through the tenure process again. This time around, I had confidence in my own ability to navigate the faculty governance process, and I already had a well-established research agenda. I just had to figure out how to put all of my previous experiences to good use in a new context.
The “Five Year Itch”
If you are a new academic librarian (or really, a new professional in any field), there’s a pretty good chance that you will change jobs at some point over the next five years. This occurs with such regularity that it’s been dubbed “the five year itch,” and some librarians have investigated its impact on our field (see Markgren, Dickinson, Leonard, & Vassiliadis, 2007; Antúnez, 2018). I find it interesting that in the case of tenure-track appointments, the same five year period in which so many new academic librarians change jobs is likely the same five year period in which new professionals are navigating the reappointment, promotion, and tenure process. As a profession, we seem to (rightfully) concentrate quite a bit on how to start things–how to interview for a job, how to achieve tenure, or how to delve into a research project. But at this point in my professional life, what I’m most interested in is how to continue–how does transitioning to a new position or institution as an early- or mid-career researcher disrupt and/or enhance my scholarly pursuits?
“…at this point in my professional life, what I’m most interested in is how to continue–how does transitioning to a new position or institution as an early- or mid-career researcher disrupt and/or enhance my scholarly pursuits?”
As this is a question I am currently grappling with, there is little I can offer in the way of best practices for transitioning your research agenda to a new job. But I do think it’s worth sharing some of the ways that I’ve been approaching and thinking about this issue.
Trust What Works (To an Extent)
I keep having to remind myself that while I may be new at my institution, I’m not a new researcher. I have developed some really important skills over the last seven years, and this knowledge isn’t place-bound, but internalized. That may seem like such a simple notion, but when so many parts of your career and faculty status are in flux, it’s a real gift to know that you can bet on yourself. Just a few weeks into my new position, I was in a committee meeting in which the chair asked the group to start developing a research project that aligned with our committee’s charge. Though the research topic was unfamiliar to me, the process of outlining a project was not, and after that meeting, the committee chair asked if I would be willing to take the lead on the research project. This experience was a good reminder that I have many tooIs I can bring to the table. At the same time, I recognize that I have a lot to learn. It is important to me that I remain flexible and open-minded in how I approach research–just because I have a solid foundation doesn’t mean that my usual strategies will always best serve my projects and colleagues. I sometimes find myself overly reliant on the “typical” role I play on a research team; a new job with new collaborators is a good chance to reevaluate and step outside my comfort zone.
It All Counts
“The trick for me this time around, however, is to not overly rely on research that is practical but not necessarily the most engaging. I’m trying to intentionally balance one project that informs my work with one project that I find personally interesting.”
One of the things I was most worried about when taking on a new tenure-track position was the feeling that all the groundwork I had laid no longer “counted”–yes, it was on my CV, and it certainly was valued by my new institution, but it wouldn’t be included in a substantial way in my new tenure dossier. That was disheartening. But I am now realizing that tenure itself has very little to do with my status as a scholar–even if I hadn’t restarted my tenure clock, I would still want to work on the projects I’m working on now. Some of the best advice I received as an early-career librarian was to align my research with my practice: How can my scholarship inform an issue or problem I encounter in my daily work? Aligning my research with my practice doesn’t always lead to particularly innovative or exciting scholarship, but it gives me a starting point, and this has been especially useful as I transition to a different institution and have many questions about my new day-to-day work. The trick for me this time around, however, is to not overly rely on research that is practical but not necessarily the most engaging. I’m trying to intentionally balance one project that informs my work with one project that I find personally interesting. I’m hoping that this will not only keep a few projects in the pipeline and set me up for professional success, but will also inspire me and keep me engaged in my scholarship.
Embrace the Fresh Start
There is something to be said for the “research slump”, and I found that my new position gave me a much needed opportunity to take a step back and reexamine my research trajectory. There were definitely projects I had been working on that did not feel as fulfilling as they once had, but due to my circumstances, I felt I needed to see to fruition. Starting over at a new place made me take a critical look at my scholarly endeavors and ask myself why I was working on them–was it due to curiosity, inspiration, and passion, or was my involvement due to convenience, comfort, or a sense of obligation to colleagues and collaborators? Was there a better person to work on this? Did it make sense for me to continue? It was extremely cathartic to examine my research projects and think through which really engaged my curiosity or challenged me as a researcher and educator, and which felt “finished”. I found with some projects that there wasn’t anything new I could learn from them or anything I could add to that conversation. This can be hard to do when you are in the moment, but new circumstances brought the fresh start that I needed at this point in my career.
One issue I am still working through is that I miss my old colleagues and it’s fun and familiar to work on research projects with them. I am in the middle of projects that I started before I left, and it is important to me to see them through. But I also realize that when many of these projects wrap up, it will be time for me to make my exit, not because it’s too complicated to collaborate from a distance, but because it just doesn’t make sense within the scope of my new position. I’m not actively engaged in some of that work anymore, and there are new collaborators and projects for me in my current job that I’m looking forward to devoting more time and energy to. For me, the most valuable aspect of being a mid-career academic is the knowledge that I have a wide professional network that I can draw upon to give me feedback and bounce around ideas. I also need to be intentional about moving beyond my safety net and continuing to develop new collaborations.
My career change has prompted quite a bit of reflection on the cumulative impact of my research–and I don’t mean the impact my work might have made to the profession. Rather, I’m thinking about the impact my research has made on me. I have become much more confident in my ability to turn my questions and ideas into scholarly pursuits, and I am really looking forward to building on this foundation in a new context. Yes, it’s scary to think about “restarting” anything; our academic culture seems to emphasize the idea of onward and upward. But I am working hard to think conscientiously about the value inherent in starting over in a new place. On my last go-around, I was singularly focused on meeting the metrics required by tenure. This time, I hope to focus less on the final result, and more on what I’m learning in the process.
Antúnez, M.Y. (2018). Perspectives in Hiring Academic Librarians with Frequent Job Changes. Journal of Library Administration, 58(3), 205-229.doi:10.1080/01930826.2018.1436747
Markgren, S., Dickinson,T., Leonard, A., & Vassiliadis, K. (2007). The Five Year Itch: Are Libraries Losing Their Most Valuable Resources? Library Administration & Management, 21(2), 70-76 .
Many thanks to Chelsea Heinbach for her support and feedback during the conception and writing of this piece.
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