Image: moving van © Artaxerxes via Wikimedia.org 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.