Be the Boss Over Cancer

Hi there. I need advice on managing my current job/career trajectory.

I am an assistant professor in a graduate school program in a small college. I have been in the job since 2007 and held the title as Asst. Professor. I have a contractual obligation to pursue a PhD. Last year I started my PhD program while I also held the administrative director role for my program on top of teaching.

Close to the end of last academic year, I was diagnosed with Uterine Cancer and had surgery. Since I am contracted yearly teaching only 9 months of the year, I was able to recover of the summer months without taking time away from my job. I withdrew from my PhD program because I can not take that on right now on top of my teaching load and getting better. I had asked my college to give me time to get better before pursuing my contractual obligation of the PhD. They responded that since I am contacted yearly, they will have to evaluate this on a year to year basis. Additionally, since I will no longer be pursuing the doctoral program, my title and responsibilities will no longer be considered as a faculty member and I will be considered solely as an Instructor. My core teaching responsibilities and salary will not change. It has been conveyed  that this will not be seen as a demotion. I am concerned that it will look like one and be perceived as one despite senior administration in my institution saying it isn't.

My college environment is changing from a teaching institution to a research institution where faculty with PhDs are valued over those without PhDs. With my health, I can't do the doctoral work on top of my teaching load so I have begun to look for work elsewhere. I will continue on with my position at the college until I have a job offer in hand.

In my job search and discussion with future employers, how do I handle the questions on the job title changes without disclosing Cancer and my health as what was the cause of the change? How do I also handle the questions from other faculty on campus, students and alumni, asking about why I am no longer the director for the program? The only reason I am no longer the Director of the program because I got Cancer. But I want to answer questions about why I am no longer the director honestly without discrediting my colleague who is essential now my boss (when I was his last year)?

I am trying to figure out how best to protect my personal brand separate from the Cancer diagnosis. Or do I come clean about the impact of Cancer in my career? Any resources or advice would be welcome. 

Thank you,


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  • Margot Larson

    Margot Larson on Jan 23, 2012

    Career Coach Comment:


    There are a few
    ways you can approach this.

     First, let me say
    that I am not familiar with the type of contracts at Colleges.  So, I suggest that you speak with a colleague
    you trust, perhaps someone who used to work at the same College or similar
    College so that you can get a good perspective of your options and the
    perceptions in the Academic community. 
    It might be helpful to get an objective view to help you with a strategy
    rather than assume what others will think.

     Next, how to
    explain the changes to a potential
    without divulging your personal health:

    You could say
    that you are exploring other opportunities because the college is changing from
    a teaching environment to a research environment and that you feel that is not
    the best fit for you.


    You could say
    that because of the changes to a research environment, the college is
    revisiting their criteria and that a PhD is required and that you are still
    working towards that and do not anticipate getting it for a few more years.

     You can also
    indicate that you have had to drop out of your role of Director because of time
    constraints to deal with a family health issue and that the College has
    supported you and maintained your core teaching responsibilities and salary as
    an Instructor.

     As to the perception on campus, ask them to
    approve the memo you would like to send to your peers and students indicating
    that you will continue as an Instructor but have withdrawn from Director and
    other responsibilities at this time because of a personal family obligation. 

    Draft your memo
    first, before you ask for permission. Make it brief and to the point.  When you show them your memo, let them
    address what they want changed rather than getting permission to do so.

     The strategy that
    I would employ is to use all the information at your disposal to spin it and
    project it in a positive manner.  If YOU
    view it in a positive manner, it will be reflected as such.  This is probably the most important
    point.  “What you think about – expands”.  If you are concerned or view it as a demotion
    so will others.  If you project it as a
    positive, a good fit, most will respond accordingly.  There will always be some negative people who
    see it differently.  Do not spend time
    with this.

     Please note: I am
    not suggesting you lie.  I am suggesting
    you take the positive points and work with them.  You are lucky that the College was so flexible
    and responsive to your current needs. Play it up.  Make them look good.

     Also remember when
    searching for your next job, do it first through networking.  Make them like you before you have to submit
    your CV, Resume or Application.

     I hope this


  • A. R. D.

    A. R. D. on Jan 23, 2012


    Thanks very much for your insight here...good food for thought and yes, a positive spin/outlook is indeed paramount; for my health and my job/career. Thanks for your help.


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