Once you get over the hump and actually get a long-term position as a college professor, it’s not all bread and circuses.
One of the classic problems is the same as for anybody else in a field with a relatively small number of employers and relatively low turnover – it can be hard to move. Granted, a very small percentage of faculty has portability because of their unusually successful research program (often on the backs post-docs, graduate students, etc.), but for the majority of us whose job is primarily teaching, not so much.
There are about 750 physics departments in the United States, with an average of about a dozen full-time equivalent faculty. When you throw out temporary part-time positions and term-limited full-time positions you are below 10 full-time long-term positions per department. There are additional “science” departments that might hire a full-time physicist, but even if those numbers may be relatively large, those positions often aren’t as desirable. If one already has a tenured position in a physics department with successful a 4-year degree program, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to go out of one’s way to “downgrade” one’s career unless there is a significant mitigating circumstance.
If there were 10% annual turnover in long-term faculty positions (which is probably too high given the nature of tenure and the difficulty in securing a long-term position in the first place), we’re talking about something like 700 available jobs per year. But, that includes all physics specialties, and since most physics departments actually have fewer than 10 full-time long-term faculty, a department has to be strategic about maintaining good coverage of the various sub-fields. Plus, if you are in a primarily research position, or a primarily teaching position, the other type of position is essentially impossible to get. Sometimes a department is filling more than one position, and you probably would only be an appropriate candidate for one. Often, a department doesn’t want to hire an experienced faculty member, but rather someone new. A small part of that is age discrimination, but a lot of it is financial, and wanting someone to grow into the idiosyncrasies of a particular institution rather than take the chance that someone will come in bullheaded and not fit in well. Realistically, in any given year the number of available jobs that would represent a practical “lateral move” might be a couple dozen. In the entire country.
At those numbers, the whole thing gets rather tricky. You are pretty much guaranteed to have to move to another state, and possibly a totally different part of the country. Tenure generally isn’t portable, except for the research superstars. So, you have to go through the tenure process again on an accelerated schedule. Granted, it is reasonable to expect an experienced faculty member to be able to ramp up to full speed much more quickly than a newbie, but the tenure process is always a bit subjective. Plus, ramping up to full speed rapidly at a new institution can be difficult and stressful. Oh yeah, you may have to take a pay cut. Even if you do land what seems like a good position, if it doesn’t work out, you are probably screwed. Remember, tenure is almost always “up or out,” particularly if you are on an accelerated schedule.
If you are unsuccessful in getting the new job in the first place, you are now known as the person who wants to leave, but wasn’t good enough to get another job. In academia, it is very difficult to get a new job without someone at your current institution vouching for you in a letter or phone call. This is not just a pro forma verification that you worked at the institution like it is in many professions. Your job search is probably not going to be a secret.
So, why does anybody leave a tenured position to go somewhere else? Why does anybody willingly leave any job and location? Toxic environment, bad management, harassment, non-standard workload, double standards, salary, benefits, lack of advancement opportunities, poor K-12 system, lack of opportunities for spouse, discrimination at work, discrimination in the community, scores of things.
This issue is becoming rather personal for me right now…