December 06, 2023

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Finding your next job: Keeping secrets

By Robert Talbert (The Chronicle)

I’m currently at MathFest, and I’ll be speaking in our panel discussion on Issues for Early Career Mathematicians in Academia in a couple of hours. If you’ve been keeping up with this series on Finding Your Next Job then you know about the first half of what I’ll be speaking about. If not, then come to the session! And if you’re coming to (or went to) the session, the blog posts here will go into more detail.

Last time we looked at the importance of not being a jerk and making a commitment to act with integrity and graciousness in the upcoming search process. This time I want to bring up another issue that continues to come up for many throughout a search process: Confidentiality. Should you make your search public? Should you make it a state secret and not talk to anybody except your stakeholders? Or something in between?

In some situations there’s no need to keep a search secret. Maybe you’re entering year 3 of a three-year visiting position. Or maybe you’ve been denied tenure. In some way, it’s obvious that you’re looking for a new job, and it would be pointless to act otherwise. But this isn’t usually the case for people seeking a next job, and in any event the details of your search are probably best kept somewhat private — if not entirely so.

There are no real rules for just how secret your search should be kept. If you are in tune with your stakeholders and are not acting like a jerk, you will have some sense of people’s feelings and whether releasing details of a search are helpful or hurtful. But I would keep these principles in mind:

Release information about your search on a need-to-know basis — and realize that most people don’t need to know anything about your search. Depending on your situation, you might choose to let your department chair now, discreetly and through a private face-to-face (not email!) conversation that you’re looking, and why. (Remember determining “why” is the first thing you did in this process. By now you should have some sort of back-of-the-napkin description of your “why”.) Or not, if letting your chair know wouldn’t help. In one of my past searches, I was in a two-person department and the other guy was my chair, and he was one of my references, so it was a no-brainer. In my most recent search, I did not let my chair know, mainly because I wasn’t 100% certain I would be leaving the place at all, and the details of my search would just be distractions. (I did discuss this with him when the search turned into an offer; see the next post.) Again, there are no rules for this except don’t be a jerk and act with integrity.
A special case of not being a jerk is not blogging or tweeting about your search, not even anonymously. (Anonymous blogging never stays anonymous for long.) Impose a “social media blackout” around your search unless there is some compelling reason to do otherwise. If you really feel the need to document your search, keep a notebook and release it serially once the search is complete.
While I think it’s best to impose a strict cover of secrecy around your search, at the same time you need to confide in other people during this process — because you’re a human being and need human interaction in this important time. Obviously your stakeholders should be kept reasonably up to speed as to how things are going. They may (as my family did in my case) give an outright veto to some ideas you thought were great. Another group of people to keep in the loop is a trusted core of 2–4 colleagues, including at least one at your current institution. You will need some of these folks to write letters of reference; having a colleague write a letter of reference may reassure some potential employers that you’re not fleeing the scene of an academic crime. And you’ll need at least one person in your department to be able to cover your classes in case you end up getting interview offers that require your absence.
While trying to keep things quiet about your search, don’t lie either. If someone asks you outright whether you are looking for another job, give them the truth — up to what they need to know, and no more. This is an instance of acting with integrity. And remember sometimes all people need to know is that you are looking — not why.

It can be a lot of work to manage this level of information security. There will be days where you just want to go around and tell everyone what’s happening. But keeping the information flow to a minimum helps preserve the feelings of other people and helps you maintain control over your situation.

So what about you? Do you have any more suggestions about confidentiality? Or, if you’ve been through a “next job” search, how did you manage this?

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