Faculty exit interviews: the when, how and why

There’s never a good time to say goodbye. But here, Eli Joseph provides tips and insights on conducting exit interviews for different types of faculty

Eli Joseph's avatar
Columbia University
21 Feb 2023
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In academia, staff members spend huge amounts of time improving the onboarding process of tenured and non-tenured faculty. HR departments highlight the perks and benefits of working at a university, emphatically sharing the diverse and inclusive elements of the academic institution, but most pay little attention to the off-boarding process of departing faculty members.

As the trends of quiet quitting, job cuffing and career cushioning continue to rise under the umbrella of the Great Resignation, faculty are feeling more confident in searching for a new job, leaving their current role, taking sabbaticals or asking for a payrise/promotion – despite the current backdrop of economic uncertainty and layoff concerns across every industry.


Exit interviews are now common in corporate settings, and it would be similarly advantageous to collect information from exiting faculty to understand environmental issues that contribute to lower faculty retention. Additionally, exit interviews provide departing employees an opportunity to voice concerns and make suggestions on how an institution can retain its faculty.

These exit interviews are typically conducted through face-to-face conversation, a questionnaire, a survey or some combination of those methods.

Although there is never a right time to say goodbye to a faculty member, below I provide the three traffic-light signals that academic leaders should look out for when considering their departing employee and determining the right time to seek closure from them:

Green light: professors of good standing

High-performing professors are leaders that consistently exceed expectations. They are often rewarded and given tenure within their institution. These faculty members are eager to take on new research projects that challenge them and improve their skills, and constantly seek and provide feedback among their peers on- and off-campus. They are also well-connected, having the ability to maintain a great network while cultivating new academic and professional relationships.

When good-standing faculty members leave a university, it is imperative that senior staff members and high-ranking academics conduct exit interviews within the last three to five days of employment. The sense of urgency to gain closure from high-performing faculty is important, firstly because it shows the university’s appreciation of that departing faculty. Secondly, because institutions can immediately act on the faculty member’s feedback, which may yield instant results.

The university should prepare to ask introspective and engaging questions to gain insight into the experience of these professors. Their exit interview should include thought-provoking questions such as:

What were your expectations when you came to this institution? Were your expectations met at this institution? What incentives would encourage you to stay? Were there any barriers that impeded your success as a faculty member at this institution?

It is never easy to let a high-performing employee go elsewhere, but academic leaders should prioritise exit interviews for good-standing people, so the university can continue to attract these types of employees at their institution.

Yellow light: professors and adjuncts of moderate standing

Middle-performing faculty members often make up the majority of the institution’s workforce. These academic employees are typically adjunct professors with a good work ethic and leadership potential. Yet, adjunct professors are often the most vulnerable employees in the institution. Most adjuncts are underpaid, they carry most of the burden of burnout and they are the most susceptible to termination. Moreover, these employees who are deemed to be “average” are most responsible for quiet quitting – while searching for opportunities at other institutions.

When a moderate-standing university employee quits, it is imperative to conduct exit interviews 30 to 60 days after the last day of employment. This period of deferment allows the institution and the faculty member to revisit the positive and negative aspects of the employee’s experience within the university. This timeframe also allows the departing employee to feel comfortable gathering their thoughts as they settle in at their new institution while exploring areas of improvement for the previous one.

They can often effectively explain what the institution could do to make this job work better, what the administration can do differently and what they wish they had known when they first started working at the university. They can also hypothetically explain what they would tell prospective faculty seeking a similar role at the university.

Red light: professors leaving on a bad note

Some professors are not fortunate enough to leave the university on a good note. These professors might have left without a formal resignation letter or notice period. They may have gotten into an altercation with other faculty or staff members. They may also believe that the institution was unpleasant and be willing to share their negative experiences with the public.

Professors that are leaving on a sour note are probably not willing to conduct an exit interview. Therefore, it may not be a good idea for university HR departments to conduct mandatory exit interviews with the departing employee in this instance.

Instead, institutions should construct an appreciative antidote that highlights the departing employee’s contribution to the institution despite the situation. Institutions can express their appreciation for the departing faculty in a detailed thank you letter that expresses how important they were within the department. Institutions can parse out positive comments, recommendations and testimonials from fellow faculty members and students that have worked with that faculty.

Despite the negative ending to the faculty’s employment, HR departments can salvage the overall experience by providing a tailored thank you note that lets the exiting faculty know they were valuable to that institution.

An inclusive approach to conducting exit interviews

As many people think about quitting their job before resigning, institutions and academic leaders may need to consider innovative ways to retain their faculty while also operating efficiently. For example, universities should consider conducting anonymous surveys on the overall satisfaction of staff members, faculty and programme managers within the departing faculty member’s department after their last day of employment. That way, the university can have much more context as to the overall experience of the department’s workforce on smaller and broader scales.

Though resignations and employment terminations are inevitable, academic leaders can use the situation as an opportunity to gain insight from and into departing employees and their departments and to gain closure for all involved. But to do this, most universities need to give much more thought to the timing and content of exit interviews.

Eli Joseph is an educator, author and professional speaker. He serves as a faculty instructor at Columbia University, New York University and UCLA and is the author of The Perfect Rejection Resume: A Reader’s Guide to Building a Career Through Failure.

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