Article In Brief
Moving to a new institution isn't always the best career move. Academic neurologists who have relocated during their careers share advice for making strategic, well-planned changes.
Geographic mobility—moving from one university to another—can be good for academic neurologists, and Jayant N. Acharya, MD, FAAN, professor and chair in the department of neurology at Southern Illinois University (SIU) School of Medicine, has the curriculum vitae to prove it.
After a brief stint as a non-tenure track assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Acharya moved to St. Louis University, where he earned tenure as an associate professor. A few years later, he moved to Pennsylvania State University as a tenured full professor and director of the epilepsy center, where he stayed for 13 years. In mid-2022, Dr. Acharya moved to SIU to become department chair and executive director of the neuroscience institute.
Every move brought new opportunities, more responsibility, greater financial stability, and better job satisfaction. “Fortunately, it's been all positive from an academic career standpoint,” Dr. Acharya said, “and every move felt just right.”
But moving to another institution is not always a good idea. He and other academic neurologists who have relocated during their careers say moves should be strategic and well-planned.
“Because of the huge need for neurologists, there can be a temptation for faculty, particularly on the junior level, to feel like ‘I can move anywhere,’” said Michel Torbey, MD, MBA, MPH, FAAN, professor and chair of neurology at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. “But if you're just moving because you got bored and you want to go to a new place, that will not likely be perceived in a positive way.”
Claire Henchcliffe, MD, chair of neurology at University of California, Irvine School of Medicine, agreed. “Having been in a position to hire when I was division chief and now as chair, it is a red flag when someone is jumping all the time,” she said. “But candidates who have made strategic moves can be attractive because of their experience in different systems.”
Dr. Henchcliffe took her first academic position at Weill Cornell Medical College, where she started and developed its clinical and research program in movement disorders. She stayed for 17 years, several of which she spent as vice chair of clinical research, before moving to UCI in 2020.
“Having been in a position to hire when I was division chief and now as chair, it is a red flag when someone is jumping all the time. But candidates who have made strategic moves can be attractive because of their experience in different systems.”—DR. CLAIRE HENCHCLIFFE
“I was so happy at Cornell, and I had the chance to grow all of that time, but there was a point where I needed to move because I couldn't expand anymore,” she said.
Why Do You Want to Move?
Before deciding whether—or when—to make a move, neurologists itching for a change need to know why and what they are looking for, said Hannah Watene, neurology recruiter and search consultant for RosmanSearch. Successful job searches start with well-defined priorities that reflect the specific nuances of a neurologist's career goals and personal situation.
For example, do you want to work at a big-name university that has a lot of infrastructure to support its faculty—but where you might be a cog in a well-oiled machine? Or do you prefer a smaller institution where you are more likely to have a voice? What type of workplace culture are you looking for? What do you want to do in the next phase of your career?
“When those have been concretely evaluated and understood so that you are making a move based on what personally makes sense to you in your career, that's the most successful outcome in any job search,” she said.
Dr. Torbey encourages junior faculty to create a roadmap for their careers by setting goals for where they want to be in five years, 10 years and beyond—and planning how to get there. For example, a neurologist who wants to focus on education might aspire to become a residency director and then vice chair of education.
“With that context in mind, repetitive moves will definitely advance you,” Dr. Torbey said. “If you stay at the same institution, there may be people more senior to you—“We have Dr. Jones who's been with us for 15 years, and he's done a great job, and we can only have one vice chair for education”—that will keep you from meeting your goals.”
If you're trying to escape an unsatisfactory job situation, moving to a new job may not be the only—or best—solution. “If you're leaving because you're unhappy with something, often you find that you're trading one unhappiness for another,” Dr. Acharya said. “Make sure that the grass is truly greener on the other side, because once you make that leap, you can't undo the decision.”
Watene encourages unhappy neurologists to remember what attracted them to their current position in the first place and work to resolve problems before deciding to leave.
“In many situations, if you're willing to have an open dialogue with leadership or administration, wherever that pain point is, there may be issues that can be worked through,” she said.
How to Time Your Move
Some neurologists see an impending promotion—from assistant professor to associate, for example—as a logical time to move on the idea they can be hired at the higher rank at the new institution.
That can work, but neurologists should remember that promotion requirements vary considerably from one university to the next.
“You may be eligible for promotion at your own institution, but you haven't met the criteria for the institution that you're really interested in,” Dr. Henchcliffe said. “It may be not having enough publications or not having enough grants. Or, what have been your contributions to equity and diversity? Those are areas that merit some attention.”
The best time to relocate depends on an individual's circumstances, said Tracey A. Cho, MD, vice chair for education and clerkship director in the neurology department at University of Iowa Healthcare.
“More important than the academic rank are the milestones in your career trajectory, which are not always reflected by academic rank,” he said.
Physician scientists will be more attractive candidates if they have secured funding—a K-level award or an R-level award, depending on the stage of their career—before they seek to move. Bringing grant funds to the new university puts the candidate in the best position to negotiate a good startup package.
“For those not on a grant-funded path, it is helpful to have some demonstration of your success and potential in your area of expertise,” Dr. Cho said.
Demonstrating that potential takes time. While it might be relatively easy for an assistant professor to make a lateral move, the new university may not give much or any credit for time at the previous institution.
“If you're two years into your job as assistant professor, they may reset your clock at the new institution,” Dr. Torbey said. “Most universities would want you to at least spend a good five years at their place unless you're a rock star who is super productive at all levels.”
In some cases, moving for increased responsibility will be somewhat tied to academic rank, Watene said. “If you're looking for a leadership role such as the division chief of a subspeciality division at a new institution, a lot of those opportunities require an associate-level faculty appointment,” she said. “So if you're at the assistant level, you might need to wait until you get that promotion to associate before making that move.”
For a researcher, the worst time to move is at the end of your current funding, even if you are likely to get more funding in the foreseeable future. “That new institution would be taking a risk on you, so you may not get the best deal from a financial perspective or space perspective,” Dr. Torbey said.
Prepare for the Next Move
If your career roadmap shows you are ready for a leap—becoming a residency director, section chief, or vice chair, for example—the timing of your move will depend on when the right job opens up. That means your CV needs to include the experience needed to make yourself a good candidate.
“There will never be a good time to make that kind of move if you're not prepared for whenever the opportunity comes up,” Dr. Torbey said.
That mindset has been key to Dr. Acharya's career success. Starting early in his career, he seized opportunities to gain experience in clinical care, education, and research. He volunteered for teaching activities in not only neurology but also other fields, such as humanities and the science of health systems. He also participated in clinical trials and other studies that involved working with physicians as well as engineers and neuroscience researchers.
“Because of the huge need for neurologists, there can be a temptation for faculty, particularly on the junior level, to feel like ‘I can move anywhere.’ But if you're just moving because you got bored and you want to go to a new place, that will not likely be perceived in a positive way.”—DR. MICHEL TORBEY
“I would reach out to more senior faculty and say, ‘Hey, I want to get involved in this,’” he said. “When people look at my CV, they say, ‘You've done a little bit of this and a little bit of that.’ That's the kind of person we want, someone who is proactive in reaching out to do new things rather than waiting to be told or saying, ‘I don't have time.’”
After completing a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Dr. Torbey stayed there for his first faculty appointment. He then spent about eight years at the Medical College of Wisconsin and another eight at The Ohio State University College of Medicine before moving to the UNM chair position in 2018.
He conducts preclinical and clinical studies pertaining to stroke, intracerebral hemorrhage, and traumatic brain injury, and he has found that moving as a researcher brings advantages and disadvantages.
At a major research institution, many faculty members will have significant National Institutes of Health funding, so landing a big grant does not necessarily mean you get the space and support you need.
“If you're someone who really wants to grow and become independent, moving to another institution may let you get more support than staying at a bigger institution,” he said.
On the other hand, moving to a new university may disrupt research collaborations with your colleagues. In Dr. Torbey's case, each move temporarily slowed his research progress.
“Unless you have a big team of individuals moving with you, you are going to have to hire people and train them to do the experiments and to get everyone on the same page like they were in your previous institution,” he said. “It takes some time to get established, so you need to plan for that accordingly.”
Avoid These Mistakes
Don't move too fast. “Many trainees and junior faculty assume that they must relocate to develop their independent reputation and increase their bargaining power later in their careers,” Dr. Cho said. “I am not sure there is any evidence supporting this assumption, and sometimes staying put is the best path.”
He advises young faculty to give research talks or grand rounds at other universities as a way to explore opportunities that might exist at other institutions, even if they do not plan to relocate. “This is a great way to learn about the culture and resources of a potential new institution but also a great way to expand your reputation and collaboration network,” he said. “It can also give you new ideas and more perspective for what to ask for at your current institution.”
Don't lose sight of your goals. When neurologists start considering a move, it's easy to get distracted by the wide range of options. “The things that are going to advance your career might get overlooked in a rush to see what's out there and what's the best deal you can get,” Watene said. “So be very diligent in evaluating your personal career goals and seeking out programs that have a culture and opportunity that will support what you're after.”
Don't underestimate the timeline of a move. Even if you identify your dream job quickly, getting there may take longer than you expect.
“Especially with a leadership position, there's usually a lot of people to meet within the department, across departments, and over at the medical school if you're looking for teaching engagements,” Watene said.
Even after a position is offered and accepted, the contracting process in academia can take several weeks.
Don't forget you are in a courtship that leads to a long-term relationship. “Make sure that there is a very clear understanding as to exactly what you're expected to do and what you're going to get from your new place,” Dr. Acharya said. “Besides the work and financial considerations, you want to make sure you land in a place where you feel appreciated, you can form new relationships, and [you can] feel comfortable calling it your new home.”