From the mailbag: ConfusedProf needs advice on resignation


Regrets? I’ve had few.

A reader left a comment on an old post that I thought would be a good question to ask the rest of you in the academic blogosphere, especially those of you who either 1) have navigated a resignation like this, either successfully or unsuccessfully!, or  2) have experience as a Department Chair or Administrator who has dealt with colleagues in this situation before, again either happily or most unhappily.  

Here we go:

Dear Historiann,

I would like to seek your advice about a tormenting situation I live in. I am a t.t. assistant prof who has been in her position for four years. I am unhappy for several reasons: being away from home and teaching courses that are not really in my field among other similar reasons. I have applied to other positions and did not get any interview. I am thinking now of resigning, going home to my hometown, and searching for jobs from there. If I don’t end up landing another academic job, I am fine with leaving academia. I would like to pursue other para-academic interests …..

What are the best reasons to give my institution for my resignation which will allow to keep good relations with them, and would be reasonable to ask them to give me a reference letter or is this an unreasonable request when you leave an institution?



Dear Confused,

First of all, no!  It’s not at all unreasonable to expect a collegial and positive recommendation from former colleagues, provided that you don’t leave a pile of road apples in your stall on the way out of the barn.  (Your question makes me think we’ve set the bar far too low for collegiality in academic employment if it’s even a question in your mind!)

I think I and my readers can help you resign a job without burning your bridges, but first, think whether leaving academia behind completely is what you really want to do.  That is, don’t take your lack of success on the job market this year as an accurate forecast for your relative value on the job market next year or for the rest of your career.  Could you live with your current job for another academic year beyond this one and give the job search another try?  (You don’t mention any unpleasantness at work, just that it’s not the right location or the right field for you.)  The job market has always been a b!tch, but if you’re at all interested in staying in academia, I would venture to say that it’s almost always better to apply for a new job while you’re still employed in your current position.  It’s not the kiss of death if you resign this spring and then apply for academic jobs in the fall–but it might raise questions in the minds of search committees that might work against you.

As it turns out, there is lots of life outside of and even after academia, and it sounds like the reasons you have for leaving your current position make sense.  If you’re leaving academia entirely, then the quality of recommendation or reference you get from your future former colleagues won’t matter as much.  So long as they can verify your dates of employment and say a few nice and accurate things about you (responsible, hard-working, effective teacher, a helpful team member, productive scholar, etc.), then that’s probably just fine.  (Readers:  please let me know if this sounds right, or if I’m missing something.)

So, if you’re sure that leaving academia is what you really want, then resign, and be (mostly) honest about your reasons.  First, don’t wait until the summer if you know you’re going to resign–if you let them know this spring, they can take your absence into account for future planning and make their lives a little easier.  (Also, let them know that you’re trying to make their lives easier.  Let them know you’re thinking about your department and how a resignation will affect them.  It will help them think well of you.)

Also, a nice touch is to try to communicate this information to most of the people you work with in person, and let them know how much you have appreciated their guidance and collegiality, or even their friendship, if applicable.  Most people understand that not every job is for everyone, and it’s likely that your colleagues have sensed that this job might not be a great fit for you, especially if what you say about the field you’re teaching in versus the one you trained in is true.

cowgirlgunsign1Finally, when I say be “mostly” honest, I mean I think your reasons for resigning sound understandable, and I think most reasonable people will feel this way, too.  On the other hand, you don’t need to overshare or go into excruciating detail about how much you’ve loathed the classes you’ve taught for the past four years, or how much you miss X, Y, or Z features of your hometown.  Stay positive, and try a spoonful of sugar.  Focus your comments not on your leaving but on how much you’ve learned from.  Although you were homesick, say that you enjoyed working with them as colleagues and with your students, and that you will always be grateful for the opportunities you’ve enjoyed there.  Most people can’t resist a compliment, especially if it’s sincere, and they’ll usually return the favor.

Readers:  what do you think?  What have you seen?  How have colleagues pissed you off while resigning?  What have I missed?  Giddyap!

25 thoughts on “From the mailbag: ConfusedProf needs advice on resignation

  1. I am going to underscore one of Historiann’s wise points above: please do your chair and others the courtesy of face to face conversations. While I was chair, I had a faculty member resign entirely via email and phone conversation and I am still angry about this. Needless to say, I would not give this person a good recommendation.


  2. Liz, I hear you on being pissed off, but surely you’re not suggesting that you’d give a bad recommendation purely out of spite? You must have some other reason than dislike of the manner of resignation in order to give a poor recommendation, some evidence that the faculty member was operating in bad faith beyond the emailed sign-off.

    But, yeah: your point is taken. Don’t anger people unnecessarily.


  3. Historiann–thank you for seeking clarification 🙂 My first response did make me seem spiteful. However, I do think that this faculty member’s behavior was symptomatic of a general lack of professionalism–that’s the part that angered me. He never once spoke personally with me, his chair, about this. So if asked to give him a recommendation, and aware of other examples of unprofessional behavior, I would comment on that.


  4. Liz: on the up side, he didn’t bother you for help with a counter-offer if he just up and quit? Silver lining!

    Shelley, you are correct. Once you announce a resignation, you’re as good as gone. (This is why so many people are cagey about retirement plans. As soon as they make an announcement, they’re not invited to meetings, they don’t get to see grad applications, etc.)

    (Although NOT being invited to meetings sounds like very heaven to me right now.)


  5. I’ve both resigned (for another job) and had colleagues resign (but haven’t been in a position of responsibility for them or their work).

    I agree with the face to face conversation. I think being honest if you can, and being politic when you must. (So if a vile chair is the reason you’re leaving, you probably want to be politic.)

    In my experience, most of us know when we live in an area that’s hard for people (far from family, weather, rural/urban, whatever) or in situations that are hard (high teaching loads, poor salary, etc), and while we may wish for valued colleagues to stay, we also wish them personal happiness. I think that’s especially true in these stressful times. In my job, I’ve had a number of colleagues resign, and everyone including the chair has wished them the best possible life.

    I never experienced resentment when I resigned, when I went back to visit and talked with the dean, chair, colleagues. People understood. Just my experiences with folks who were good colleagues in general, I suppose.


  6. I have no experience on either side of this situation, so take this with a grain of salt, but, given my general experience in academic culture, I’d second the advice to consider staying another year or two while you search, if you can possibly bear it. As I’ve heard from people who tried to do both, it really is a lot easier to leave academia than to return to it.

    I’m also a bit worried about your assumption that you’ll be happier if you move to your hometown; maybe that’s the case, but it’s also entirely possible that many of the issues you’re facing now will follow you, in one form or another, to your next location, and that trying to build a new life in a place from which you’ve been absent for at least four years will be harder than you think. Maybe giving yourself 18 months or to plan next steps, with the help of a therapist (to help identify/address any sources of unhappiness not related to your job), possibly some sort of professional coach/counselor (to do as well as possible on the job market, and/or to explore alt-ac options), and at least one more try at the job market would be a compromise solution? Another would be to give yourself permission to resign and move back to hometown if/when (and only if/when) you actually have a job lined up there.

    If you do resign, I’d also be inclined to stress professional “fit” much more than a desire to return to your hometown (this will, of course, be easier if you resign to take up another job). Reasonably or not, academics tend to take a willingness to pick up and move anywhere for the right job as a sign of dedication to one’s career/profession, and to look down on those who limit themselves geographically. If you need to mention the geographical issue (e.g. because a chair or other colleague is trying to talk you out of resigning), you might consider alluding vaguely to family “obligations” (though that might lead to more trying-to-talk-you-out-of-it). If you do, in fact, have a family situation that makes you eager to live nearer home — e.g. a need to help care for aging parents/grandparents/a disabled sibling — then I’d argue for stating that quite clearly; while it will undoubtedly get pushback/dismissal from some people, it will get respect from others.


  7. What about exploring the possibility of an unpaid leave of absence before you resign? You get to go home, the department possibly gets to hire someone to teach your classes with your salary savings, and you have a chance to test out being home/out of academia. You can explain the request as pressing family issues or whatever might be a justifiable rationale at your institution. If you don’t get paid/benefits while on leave, then you shouldn’t (at least as far as I know) owe any time back at the institution, and can choose to resign in six months, with some additional time to make sure it is the best decision for you, and a safety net just in case.


  8. That’s a really good idea, Shaz. Thanks!

    CC’s advice is also good in re: a longer horizon for resignation. Both of these ideas may give you a glimpse of an escape hatch without having to jump completely.


  9. My DH did an unpaid leave of absence (I had a paid leave of absence). They also increased his tenure clock by a year. And he did realize he liked not being in academia a lot more than being in academia, though it took a little while for us to have enough money saved up that we were ok with him permanently giving up a guaranteed salary in exchange for a potentially extended job search.


  10. Where is the fun in all of this sensible, professional advice? I say douse the office in kerosine and walk away throwing a match over your shoulder.

    But if we have to be sensible, I do think Shaz makes a really wise suggestion about the unpaid leave.


  11. Oh, GayProf, you know me: “Do as I say, not as I do!”

    I’m trying to help out a troubled soul who left a comment on a five-year old blog post! That blog post could go to kindergarten this year.


  12. I was going to make Shaz’s suggestion about unpaid leave. I also think that CC is right about emphasizing fit. If you go for an unpaid leave, you could be honest with the chair about using the time to explore other avenues: it could be that a year of exploration back home makes you realize you really want this teaching gig after all: the grass is no greener back home. And being positive is key, emphasizing as much as possible how your current colleagues have been supportive, and helped you grow as scholar/teacher/professional. You don’t have to go over the top, and make a direct lie, but that leaves good feelings, which would be reflected in a letter.

    Liz talked about telling people in person, and you have to figure this out. Depending on how big your place is, you will have to do this in stages, and you should tell your chair and any mentors first; then the gossip will start, so after a few days you’ll have to say, “I suspect you will have heard this already, but. . .”

    Ultimately, your chair and your colleagues will understand that you need to make your decisions. And they would rather not have an unhappy colleague forever.


  13. I’m late to the party but…I have both had somebody resign when I was head of department and resigned (when I was head of department).

    In the former circumstance, I really appreciated knowing what was going on from the start. The person came to talk with me more than a year before ze left about hir unhappiness and we tried to work toward improvements. In the end, what I was able to do fell short of what was needed and ze applied for, and was offered, a job that made a better fit. Thanks to the openness all along, I was able to give an honest and excellent recommendation for that new job. Why wouldn’t I want what is best for that person? That’s a two-sided coin after all. It seems like a good thing to support people trying to do what is best for their careers and themselves.

    I did have somebody leave without a lot of warning but with a lot of “baggage” to sort. That was somewhat unpleasant, as the process of departure created work without benefit for many people. But here too, this is just the way careers go. People move on.

    Things didn’t go quite so smoothly when I resigned. The timing was not excellent for my former department, so I did what I could to help out, both before and after I was gone. Most of my relationships with folks there were fine prior to my resignation but there was some unpleasantness in some quarters, in ways that made the transition different than I had thought it would be. I’ve mostly left it all behind but every now and then (today, in fact) somebody asks why I don’t ask so-and-so former colleague to get involved in such-and-such activity and I try to just say “that won’t work” and move the conversation on. But the unpleasantness had nothing to do with my leaving (I think) and more to do with issues that made me want to leave in the first place. And I do still interact with some excellent people at that former institution too.

    What I take from all of this is that what happened around the event of a resignation was already happening before that time.


  14. Lots of good advice. One counterish-example/thought: A friend of mine resigned from a job and the chair (who supported the friend) pointedly requested that the public reason given be location/family. This was surprising as friend had a number of reasonable professional explanations. But apparently the institutional politics were such that personal reasons were more amenable than professional ones. Which is all to say, know your institution and know your allies. Listen carefully.


  15. One more late note of caution. A few years ago I heard from somebody in a “right to work” state that hir Dean told everybody that evidence of application for a jobs at other universities would be read as letters of resignation.


  16. truffula: now that’s just f^(ked up. Apparently, the Dean thinks ze has iron collar workers, not free labor in hir state.

    rbg: also f^(Ked up!!! (Not your note of caution, but the insistence that the “public” reason be family. That to me sounds like a Chair who’s defensive. Ugh.)

    In the end, it doesn’t matter why in fact anyone resigns, or what the “public story” is. The institution that is left behind will make up its own narrative to explain someone’s departure. Saying that someone left to be closer to family is a pretty neutral story to tell. I resigned a job once because some of the key people I worked with were a$$holes, and I told them so, but I’m sure that’s not the story THEY told everybody else!

    BREAKING: all of the same a$$holes in that department are still there. They may be decisively outnumbered, though. Here’s hoping!


  17. I’m with Shaz on the year’s leave. Spend a year reading and writing, which may be why you got into this in the first place, and see if life is really so much better without teaching. One thing we don’t discuss much is that some people get a job and find out that teaching is like having to “eat all your meat or you can’t have any pudding,” to quote Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Maybe you wouldn’t really like to teach anywhere. And maybe your idea about being home is more romance than reality.

    Or maybe you are right, and if you quit your job and go live where you want to live and do something that is intentional, when you resign your job a year from now you will feel incredibly confident.

    When I resigned my job at Zenith to go to the job I have now, it really didn’t matter what I told them: everyone had already decided that of course I left because I had to live in New York. Which wasn’t true — although it was a bonus. Yes, I told all the most important people in person, and asked them to keep it quiet for a couple days while I made my rounds; the others didn’t matter to me.

    And Historiann is right — remember your pleases and thank yous.


  18. To follow up on TR’s point: think about relationships you want to preserve. Individual relationships. And make sure to tell those people face to face. Who would feel offended or slighted if hey heard the news from someone else.

    I certainly have a mental list of people I would need to tell one-on-one if I were leaving. (I have had to go on the job market in order to deal with my now-resolved two body problem, so that forced me to think these issues through.) Some people can hear the news that you’re leaving, and they will be okay with that (or they won’t, and no amount of diplomacy on your part would matter). Other people need to hear that you’re leaving from you personally. You already know who’s in which group.

    I would also echo everyone’s point about taking u paid leave, first. If you choose to return, the fact that you were clearly considering leaving should put som things into focus for you and your colleagues. If they didn’t know you were unhappy, they will have learned something important that they need to know if they wish to retain you. If the thought that you might leave makes some of them angry or resentful, you will have learned something important about whether it is possible to stay.


  19. Historiann: It seems all too common a tale that departmental a$$holes are immune to being “decisively outnumbered,” either because of a trump card played by an a$$hole who has risen to the rank of Dean, Provost, or President or because those departmental a$$holes are somehow promoted to those ranks themselves. Not all administrators are a$$holes by any means, but I’m always stunned by how much of the “incivility” (to use the administrative euphemism for a$$holery) is not only passively accepted by administrators but actually also encouraged and rewarded.

    As the old saying puts it, “if a$$holes could fly, this place would be O’Hare.”


  20. More great advice from TR and Cleveland, and a morning laugh from Joaquin!

    I live in hope about my former department. There are some decent people there who deserve to work in a positive environment. But Joaquin is right–numbers are perhaps less important than containment. A few a$$holes can have a destructive effect on the majority, but (I would add), **only if the majority lets them**. I know from experience that a$$holes are enabled by others who might not mean to do harm, but effectively harm others by their passivity or even tacit cooperation with the a$$holes.

    If you keep your a-holes contained and offer incentives for better behavior (or disincentives for poor behavior), then the majority can rule effectively.


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