In my last transition I broke a cardinal rule of the #SAsearch: I left at the worst possible time. After having my eye out all spring, and saw a job posting over the summer that was too good to pass up. The search timeline worked out that I both interviewed and announced I was leaving during RA training, and my last day was Residence Hall Opening. Had you asked me before if I would ever place myself on such a schedule, I would have told you “no one does that.” I continue to learn that life does not always happen on my ideal timeline, but you can still set yourself and your department up for success.
I was ready to leave my Resident Director role, and still wanted to maintain a positive relationship with my office. Just because I was changing institutions did not mean that I would never desire to come back to my former campus, or that anyone in that office would not move on to someday be the hiring manager for a future position I wanted. Regardless of your personal interpretation of the “it’s a small field” language, it is a reality. A poor transition early in your career can have surprising impacts later down the road. This led to my FT: “Leave on the best note you can. When you burn bridges on the way out, you are the one who suffers most.”
I have watched many friends and colleagues change jobs, leaving a spectrum of narratives behind them. It is heart-breaking to watch an otherwise excellent professional tarnish their own reputation by leaving a department in a lurch. The department will eventually move forward and fill the position, but an employee cannot undo the damage to their reputation after they leave. After watching many of these transitions, I have noticed three themes to make your transition out successful:
Tip 1: Talk to your supervisor early and often.
Conversations about new opportunities should happen long before you bring up a job search. With busy calendars we know that discussing professional development weekly is not realistic, but you can still take initiative and make it an active part of your supervisory relationship. As an RD, I worked with my supervisor to discern my next steps. Through these conversations we were able to structure my committees and “other duties as assigned” to move me toward my goals. Because I had been open about my vision from the beginning, they could see my trajectory over three years and my eventual search was not a surprise. The department was able to plan ahead to minimize the impact on both students and staff knowing I was likely to leave. Had I waited until I was offered an interview to announce that I was searching, the stress of my departure would have been much harder on everyone else.
Tip 2: Stay present until the bitter end, and the end won’t be so bitter.
Especially if you are unhappy with your current position, it is easy to focus on greener pastures and begin letting your current responsibilities slide. In extreme cases, employees can actively disengage and even intentionally take away from office productivity. I have watched people share inappropriate information with students, shirk responsibilities, and even take university resources they claim to be “owed” over their last months on the job. In one office, I watched a mess of poorly managed paperwork still being untangled more than 10 months after an employee had left. Colleagues and students alike can tell when someone has disengaged, which makes them support your transition out for all the wrong reasons. Not remaining present can shift the narrative of who you were as an employee, regardless of your previous accomplishments. Make your last impression honor the good work you have previously done.
Tip 3: The exit interview should not be the first time you air a complaint.
We have all experienced that feeling of sitting in a performance review and hearing a piece of constructive feedback we could have addressed months ago if someone had only been upfront earlier. I view exit interviews as a different spin on a performance review of your department, and believe they should be treated similarly. When conducted correctly, an exit interview is a great chance for you to tell HR what is best about your office, and areas where they can improve. It can be intimidating to share constructive feedback and not know if it may be linked back to you. For me, this fear subsides when the suggestions I offer are nothing new to my supervisors. By communicating concerns well before you are planning to leave, you give your office a chance to make adjustments. Using your exit interview to air a laundry list of previously secret complaints makes you look bitter, which can invalidate any legitimate concerns you might have.
Higher education is a field of frequent hellos and goodbyes. We constantly see students graduate and colleagues explore new opportunities. Changing roles and institutions is a regular practice, and navigating this transition gracefully can only have a positive impact on your professional future. No one expects you to stay in a position indefinitely, and your department will adjust to your departure. So go forth, seize your next great opportunity, and do your best to end your current one on a high note.