Academic nomads, academic settlers

Image: moving van © Artaxerxes via CC BY-SA 4.0

A few weeks ago my Twitter feed was, for a couple of days, full of complaints about how often early-career academics move, and the toll that takes on our personal lives.  In particular, there was a lot of discussion of the difficulty of putting down roots, becoming connected with the local community, when you’re both recently arrived and soon to be leaving.

I’m going to make myself unpopular by pushing back a bit.  Not, I hasten to say, against the idea that repeated moving is difficult.  It is!  I remember well my nomadic days.  While it was exciting to experience life in new places*, it was also hard on my pocketbook, on family connections, on relationships and friendships, and more.  So: moving is hard; stipulated.  But I don’t know that there’s anything all that special about the amount of moving involved in an academic career path.  (I’m talking here about the grad school to postdoc to professorship career path that I know the best; there are of course other academic, and non-academic scientific, paths for which details will vary.)

My father was a church minister.  As I grew up, we moved every 7 years like clockwork; he continued to move regularly for his entire working life.  A few of my friends serve in the military; they move more often, and farther, and often on much less notice.  Other friends are engineers, sales managers, accountants, and the like, and many of them have moved across country or between continents when they’re transferred within a company, when they leave one job for a new one, or when they’re laid off and thrown back on the job market.  Once upon a time, it was common for someone to graduate from high school, get a union job at the GM plant down the street, and keep that job for 45 years until they retired.  I don’t think it’s all that common any more (and it doesn’t sound very appealing to me).  If academics move a lot, maybe that makes them just like everybody else.

Except academics aren’t actually just like everybody else, because the moving stops (or, at least, it can).  I’ve now been in my current job and lived in Fredericton, New Brunswick for 16 years – longer than I’ve lived anywhere anytime in my whole life, and longer than my father (once he started to work) ever lived anywhere.  I never plan to leave**.  At least in my own department, I’m not unusual: most of my colleagues are in their first and only academic jobs.

So perhaps academic careers require more moves, early on, than some (not all) other careers.  But at least for those who settle into professorships, they require fewer moves later than most other careers.  It feels odd to me that I’ve lived in one place this long and that it’s my non-academic friends who are likely to pull up stakes – but I have the thick bundle of 16 years of water and sewer bills to prove it.

What about community connections?  It’s true that I had few local connections early in my career.  Now I have many.  And it’s true that those have accumulated after I stopped moving.  It may sound like I’m arguing that I could build those connections only once I’d settled down in a permanent academic job.  But such an argument would be wrong.  I serve on the “Group Committee” for my son’s Scouting group, alongside several military friends who could be posted elsewhere at any time.  I also serve on the Board of Directors for our local Botanic Garden, alongside a colleague who just finished her PhD, is searching for jobs and postdocs, and might only be here for six months.  In hindsight: I could have grown those local roots at any time; I just didn’t.  I regret this, in part because earlier in my career I had more time to offer my community than I do now.

I know this sounds a bit like “stop complaining, you don’t know how good you have it”. So I’ll acknowledge again: moving is hard. It’s hard for early-career academics; it’s hard for ministers and military personnel and bankers and engineers; it’s hard for their partners and kids and parents.  I do get that, really: I’ve moved a lot.

Many career paths involve mobility and insecurity; what’s unusual about academia may be that we nomads settle down.

© Stephen Heard  February 15, 2018

UPDATE: Manu Saunders has a nice counterpoint, arguing in part that what distinguishes academia is that many early-career moves are unreimbursed, and that we shouldn’t normalize the expectation of moving.  You should read her post too.

*^For me: undergraduate in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario; graduate work in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with summer research in Norris Point, Newfoundland; a postdoc in Vancouver, British Columbia; and my first job in Iowa City, Iowa.  I could have settled there, but instead left for my current job in Fredericton, New Brunswick.  That’s 30,000 km of moving – and I didn’t even hop continents, as many do.

**^I am completely aware that I’m able to “never plan to leave” because I’m tenured.  I’m fully aware that I’m lucky to be tenured, that many universities rely increasingly on the teaching effort of non-tenure-track academics, and that many early-career academics will end up careers other than tenure-track professorships (a defect in our university funding model, to be sure).  None of that materially affects the argument I’m making, although someone will rip me to shreds on Twitter on this basis anyway.


18 thoughts on “Academic nomads, academic settlers

  1. Richard

    Rather than the act of moving itself, is the ‘problem’ that ECR’s feel obliged/pressured to move? Can’t ignore the obvious and major advantages of broadening experiences and working in different environments, and there are benefits to not being too comfortable – but should there be stigma attached to being good enough to be retained in one place – or not moving due to personal reasons? It feels as though there is sometimes – linked to the sexiness of sacrifice in an academic career (e.g. recent discourse on working hours).


  2. Ambika Kamath

    “In hindsight: I could have grown those local roots at any time; I just didn’t. I regret this, in part because earlier in my career I had more time to offer my community than I do now.” Exactly. As a postdoc, I think it’s tough to enter a place where you know you’ll live only a few years and see it as a “worthwhile investment” to put these local roots down anyway, but I’ve been trying that out a little bit and have seen all the upsides to really trying to feel like part of something. A year is a long time to feel unmoored, and it doesn’t have to be that way. Plus with everyone moving so much and social media to stay in touch, who knows when you’ll run into these people again!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. sleather2012

    My father being a tropical agricultural scientist, initially working for the Colonial Service and latterly for FAO, meant that we too moved every 3-5 years, although once we reached secondary school age we were shipped off to boarding school which gave some continuity in friendships and education. In terms of grown up moves, I had 3 years as an undergraduate at Leeds, 3 years PhD at Norwich (UEA), 1 year Finland, 9 months back in Norwich (post-doc), 10 years Scotland (Forest Research Station) (2 house moves), 20 years at Imperial (same house the whole time) and now have been 5 years at Harper Adams in Shropshire and now partially living between Bracknell, Shropshire and France 🙂


  4. atmurre

    Many/most of the jobs you mention offer financial (whether directly funding moves or paying higher salaries) or organizational (i.e. the military) support for moving. There is some financial support in academia (especially at the upper levels) but it’s not the same.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. katiesmadagascaradventure

        I think this is my biggest issue with all of the moving from grad school to faculty job. The move to graduate school is fine, and the one to a faculty job is fine. But the ‘postdoc’ or adjunct moves are the problem. That as a graduate student typically making >$30,000 a year, you’ll need to save likely $1,000-4,000 to move for your first postdoc (moving costs, security deposits, potentially time between paychecks), and maybe against for your next postdoc before you might get re-imbursed for your ‘last’ move to a faculty position. Add that financial stress to the stress of leaving your old support network and moving to a place where you have no support network, and likely little incentive to build one because you know you’ll leave again soon. So as you arrive to a postdoc you’re broke (or in debt), with no friends, trying to put together all new projects that will succeed within >3 years so you can move on. Altogether, academic moves are synergistically stressful on multiple fronts that some (not all) other types of moves don’t face.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Jeremy Fox

    For broader context (perhaps too broad to be all that useful for this conversation): Americans these days move house a lot less than they used to decades ago. Long-distance moves have dropped in frequency more than short-distance moves. At least in part because moving to seek, or take up, a better job is much rarer than it used to be:

    For further context: there are countries in which academics move less than in the US and Canada. They’re countries like Italy and Spain, in which many academic positions are controlled by a few powerful senior people and doled out to favored insiders who’ve worked with them at the same place for years (at least, that’s my understanding; please correct me if I’m wrong!).

    So I guess my question is: if you wanted to create a world in which academics and prospective academics move less, how would you do it? And would that world be preferable on balance to our current world? Honest questions, not rhetorical ones; not trying to imply that improvement on the current North American state of affairs is impossible.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Jeremy, those data are surprising and fascinating (and that’s the best kind!). Perhaps the cradle-to-grave GM job is an urban legend. The Census Bureau must have stats on mobility by employment sector, and that would be interesting, too – I predict high variance.


      1. Jeremy Fox

        “Perhaps the cradle-to-grave GM job is an urban legend.”

        Hmm, careful, that gets into different issues. “Moving house to seek or take up a new job” is one reason why people move house, but far from the only one. You can’t infer from the data I linked to about the fraction of people who spend their entire lives working at one employer, or how that fraction has changed over time.

        For reference, the percentage of US workers (private+public sectors) in a union was never higher than 35%; the peak was back in 1954. But I have no idea what fraction of union workers stayed with one employer their whole adult lives, or what fraction of non-union workers did so.


  6. Ahgf778

    I think there’s a substantial difference between these situations:
    1. Having an ostensibly “permanent” job that sometimes requires you to move (e.g., military)
    2. Having an ostensibly “permanent” job that you choose to leave for a better opportunity elsewhere (e.g., switching companies)
    3. Being a postdoc on a series of two-year contracts who is forced to move biennially to whatever location on earth has a job opening for which you are qualified, especially since a postdoc–academia exit is not guaranteed so there is not necessarily any end in sight.

    It doesn’t really seem fair to compare #1/2 with #3, which is obviously more emotionally taxing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      That is a good point – and I’m glad you’re pushing back – although I did also mention layoffs, which are I presume *more* taxing that (3)? Also, don’t forget that my main point here was about putting down roots; I stipulated to moving behing difficult and taxing.

      More generally, I completely agree that there’s a whole range of ways in which people have to move, in different career paths; they are hard in different ways!


      1. Ahgf778

        Being fired is traumatic, I’m sure.

        However, I would be surprised if there were many careers other than academia in which one could expect to be fired (and therefore usually forced to move) every two years until they eventually become unfireable (should one be among the lucky few to receive such a position).


  7. Jeremy Fox

    Ok, here’s some data on trends over time in job tenure of US workers:

    Click to access EBRI_Notes_02_Feb15_Tenure-WBS.pdf

    Headline number:

    -as of 2010, the median job tenure of US workers was 5.5 years, up slightly from the early ’80s.

    Money quote from the summary:

    “The data on employee tenure—the amount of time an individual has been with his or her current employer—show that career jobs never existed for most workers and have continued not to exist for most workers. These tenure results indicate that, historically, most workers have repeatedly changed jobs during their working careers, and all evidence suggests that they will continue to do so in the future.”


  8. Jeremy Fox

    Stephen, it occurs to me that there’s a connection between academics moving a lot early in their careers and putting down roots later. A tenure-track faculty position is a really desirable job for lots of people. So perhaps it not surprising that many people would be willing to move repeatedly early in their careers from one short-term fixed-term position to another in the hopes of eventually landing one of the few jobs in the world that, if you land it, will allow you to never have to move again unless you want to.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. angela moles

    It’s really quite common for Australian academics to do their undergrad, honours and PhD studies in the same university, then go on to get a postdoc and academic job in the same university, or to only have one move – but I don’t think that’s a good thing. While I get that some people have to stay in one place for personal reasons, I think there are massive benefits to moving – both personal and professional. Getting to know different ecosystems and different taxa can really help us to understand which things are unique about our part of the world, and which things are universal. Working with a range of people who approach things differently and focus on different things is invaluable. Finally, experiencing different cultures is just good for a person. So yes, moving sucks, but I think it is worth it.

    It’s interesting that you mention Scouts as one of your links to the local community. The thing that really got me involved in my local community wasn’t a stable position, but having kids who do local activities.


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  11. cinnabarreflections

    I did my undergrad in Sweden (and a 2-year stint as a failed graduate student). Most of the people I got to know at the institutions I attended (Umeå, Uppsala, and the College of Forestry, which is now part of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences) stayed at those institutions. In part that was due to the almost complete lack of permanent, tenure-track positions. When such positions did come up, folks would move, but otherwise there seemed to be a system by which you could hang on by teaching, attracting research grants (from which you paid most of your salary), and generally making yourself indispensable. For example, a friend and colleague of mine has spent his entire career, which is longer and much more distinguished than mine) without having a TT position. When I last talked to him about this, he said he was a “Titular Professor”, but that gave him only 15% of his salary! He did have to move from Stockholm to Uppsala (about 50 km), but that is hardly what this is about. I don’t know whether or not it still works that way in Sweden.
    It was only when I came to North America that I experienced the nomadism that characterizes the careers of most early career academics (and some that go into administration later in life). I was lucky, being able to stay in Vancouver, with only a close to mid-career move to my TT position at a very small institution. Which brings me to an issue that has not been discussed (except to some extent by Manu Sanders in her post ( In small communities such as Prince George,BC, where my institution was located, the spouse of the hired academic often has a very tough time. Universities often have a no spousal hire approach, and the job market for professionals is frequently thin. If the spouse is also an academic (which is more and more common), it may lead to the candidate turning the position down, or leaving after only a few years. Most spouses of UNBC faculty that I know of spent 3-5 years trying to gain employment. Being out of the job market that long may really damage future career prospects. So I do think that the situation is very different for academics. The few that land TT jobs are eventually fine, but for the majority, I would think the nomadic life can leave scars.

    Liked by 1 person

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