The hardest part of academia? Moving.

There are a lot of things I love about academia: the freedom to work on topics that are of interest to me. A large amount of control over my day-to-day schedule. Seeing the lightbulb come on for students. Data kittens.

But, of course, there are downsides. An obvious one is dealing with rejection regularly. But, for me, there is no question about what is the biggest downside: moving. Moving is hard. I am someone who really needs close friends, but who takes a while to develop those friendships. So, the regular social upheaval of moving can take a big toll. And it is very hard to be in academia and not move regularly (at least in the early part of one’s academic career.)

To recap my moves: after graduating college, I spent a semester working in Antarctica as a technician. I then moved to East Lansing for a year before moving to the Kellogg Biological Station for most of my graduate career. Then I moved to Madison, WI for a postdoc, then to Atlanta for my first faculty position, and then moved to Ann Arbor for my current position. Compared to my non-academic friends, that’s a whole lot of moving in the 15 years since I graduated college. Compared to my academic friends, it’s totally normal (or maybe even on the low side).

When I moved to Atlanta, I was really fortunate to connect very quickly with a few people who became very close friends. That made that move so much easier, and made it so that Atlanta very quickly felt like home for me. Giving that network up was my biggest concern in terms of a move to Ann Arbor. When I considered a move, it was clear that Michigan had a lot going for it professionally, but I couldn’t transport my social network with me.* I actually applied for two different positions at Michigan at the same time. I thought I stood a much better chance at one (an “evolutionary ecology” position) than the other (a “biological networks” position**). When I heard that I was not on the interview list for the evolutionary ecology position, I was actually relieved that I wouldn’t have to make a hard decision about moving (since I didn’t think I stood much of a chance at the networks position).

In the end, though, I interviewed for and was offered the networks position. While we were negotiating, I read a new (at the time) blog post by Cackle of Rad. She’s taken down her blog, but was kind enough to send me a copy of the post and give me permission to repost parts of it. The title of the post was “The academic’s guide to making friends”. Here’s a lengthy excerpt from it:

In general terms, I can speak to the difficulty of moving to a new place and finding friends – I moved, on average, every three years while growing up. I know how this works. Your first year you are just getting used to getting around, the new streets, finding the grocery stores that stock the random foodie items you use that no one in your county would recognize as food items, figuring out the traffic, where you can go for a jog without getting killed, etc. You might meet and hang out with people within your first year that seem alright. They’re nice enough, mostly. But within the next year or so, you realize that you in fact have nothing in common with this first group and you were really just trying them on. So you move on to another group, and generally it’s within the 2nd to 3rd year that you establish the life-long friend set. You know, your peeps. Finding real friends is just like dating – you keep trying until the right set of friends comes along.

When I was younger and child-less, at least, the above was the general pattern. For the above to happen, tho, you have to be around people, and this is the problem. We’re not the church-going type. The kids are little enough that they’re not yet doing a lot of extracurricular activities. We haven’t integrated into our new community, really. And work, well, people there are great, just not very social.

A recent book published by the Gallup Press breaks general wellbeing into five areas – career, social, financial, physical, and community wellbeing. Each aspect of wellbeing will have positive and negative aspects, and at certain points in your life some axes might outweigh the others in terms of positive versus negative influence. It’s not about perfectly balancing between the five (from what I can gather from a review on the book, I haven’t read it yet) – and your overall sense of wellbeing is rather subjective in how you weight each area. I could just be making this up at some level. In any case, I’m not trying to sell a book – but giving terms to these potential axes of wellbeing is interesting. The general rec from the authors to improve social wellbeing is to spend six hours a day socializing with friends, family and colleagues.

Six freaking hours? How in the crap is one who wants their career to continue its upward trajectory supposed to divert six hours per day to socializing? I’ve been making little changes where I can – having coffee here and there with colleagues, sometimes beer, etc, but certainly I have not made the kind of commitment to the process that I know it will take. Not to mention that I think making friends outside of work is a good idea, specifically for those times you need to complain about work.

In short, the question that is banging about in my mind is how should one go about developing their social network when serious focus and energy is required to keep that career trajectory moving steadily up, and, how important, relatively, is social wellbeing versus career wellbeing?

— Cackle of Rad

When I read that back when I was considering the offer from Michigan, it really gave me pause. I was really lucky in Atlanta to find my lifelong friends right away. And I knew that she was right that it was going to be much harder to find those friends in a new town with young kids. And it has been. That’s not to say that I haven’t made friends in Ann Arbor – just that, when my social interactions with friends are limited to roughly 1-2 hours per week, it’s a lot harder to establish those really close friendships. When I first moved to Atlanta, I would run with friends Friday morning, then go for coffee with them, then see them Friday and/or Saturday evening, then go for another run with them on Sunday, often followed by breakfast. In other words: what I could do in terms of setting up a new social network in Atlanta in three days takes me at least 6 months here in Ann Arbor, especially since most of my friends here in Ann Arbor also have young kids (and some of them have jobs that require non-9-to-5 hours, which increases scheduling difficulty).

The question at the end of the quote above is one I wonder about a lot – especially the last part, about how to weight career well-being vs. social well-being. I have no idea, really. Overall, my career well-being improved with the move, but my social well-being took a hit. So, for this reason, I always completely, totally understand when someone says they are geographically restricting a job search (which often means leaving academia) to avoid another move and the resultant social upheaval. For me, I do think it’s really important to keep in mind that my career well-being is only part of where my happiness comes from, and that my social well-being is really important, too. Now if only I could magically find a way to make it easier to get together with friends while still feeling sufficiently productive at work.


*This hasn’t stopped me, however, from occasionally daydreaming about how nice it would be if I could!

**I only applied for the networks one because, after learning I was planning on applying for the other position, someone in the department suggested I should apply for the networks position, too. I really didn’t think I stood a good shot at it.

46 thoughts on “The hardest part of academia? Moving.

  1. I suspect that if we took the admonition to “never eat alone” we’d do a better job of developing friendships on the job and developing collaborations. But then again, who has the time? 🙂

    • Good point. I wonder if that’s an area where a small change could make a big difference — for example, eating lunch with a colleague once a week.

      Something that was really nice about being a grad student at the Kellogg Biological Station was there was a lunch room where lots of folks ate — grad students, postdocs, and faculty, for the most part. People would come and go, and it was a great chance to get some social interactions mid-day.

      • At the two institutions I’ve been at as an Assist. Prof., I’ve held to the “we need a lunch room (or at least a table)” battle cry…with little success. KBS was like that, as was the Cary Institution – I think largely because they are geographically isolated with few options for dining out. So the culture developed to bring your own and talk over lunch. At both places, I credit the lunch table with a substantial portion of my education. And I’ve never seen it again since leaving those places, and think it is rather uncommon…which is unfortunate. It was a win-win: social interactions with the option for mentoring/discussion of “soft” skills (e.g., reviewing) that are also hard to make the time for in our crazy schedules. Bring back lunch tables!

        Also – excellent article topic. It seems you’ve downloaded what’s going through my brain with this most recent move! It’s another part of the job that makes it difficult for “normal” people to relate to us – for example, we’ve now bought and sold more houses than our parents have, just due to our academic moves. Or, as another example, I just met our new neighbor and gave her our move rundown (5 states and 7 houses since 2007) and she said she’d lived in her house since 2005. It’s a little hard for others to relate to – except perhaps military folks. But even then, you’re being told to move (reassigned), generally, so that’s a striking difference. We appear to do this voluntarily. And it’s logistically so much harder with kids, especially infants in need of daycare. And moving a lab (with the exponential growth of samples you can’t possibly throw away) is also cumbersome and challenging in a totally different way than moving your personal life. Hands down – moving is the worst part of being an academic.

        The only upside is that moving every 2-3 years helps you keep the junk from accumulating in your house.

  2. Beautiful post, thanks! I’m only at the beginning of a scientific career, but I fear my ‘wanderlust’ might not be big enough to survive. I am happy to give up some things, but there are off course other people in my life that get a say in this :).

  3. love this – one thing it didn’t touch on but is VERY relevant, esp to the little kids part, is how moving institutions resets one’s eligibility for FMLA (in US) — the ability to have and care for those kids changes as more moves as “required” to stay in the academy

  4. I have moved across the country three times in the past five years chasing academic jobs for my husband and myself. We are now a family of 4 and we live close to family and friends (and a good job market). My five-year-old has lived in four states and attended six different daycares/schools. We are never moving cross-country again. I’m fed up with it. This decision will probably mean I leave academia. Academia’s loss, I say.

  5. Oh, and you haven’t even mentioned the financial cost. Each move has cost us $3,000-$8,000. We’re lucky to have a hefty savings from when I worked in the “real world” after college and generous parents who can afford to help us out.

    • This. I have several military friends (some married to my academic ones) who are baffled by the fact that you’re expected to move as often (if not more) than them but not offered moving services like they are. Most moves (except for those TT positions) don’t even offer any relocation money. It’s a big complaint for those talking about the need to increase diversity in academia…

      • I can definitely relate. Try $14,000 to move a family of 3, 1200 sq. ft., for ~700 miles. That hurt, and my family is still feeling the pain of that move.

      • @rastommy: $14,000 seems high, but depends on how you count. Our last move was a family of 4. Cost us ~$8,000. But I’m not counting the $8,000 I needed to have IN HAND to rent an apartment in Boston (first month, last month, security deposit, and unavoidable realtor fee). So I could call this $16,000 I suppose…

      • @Margaret Yeah, I didn’t even include incidentals; the $14,000 was just the move itself. 2-month deposit on rental, along with vehicle standard compliance, for the most part, turned this move into a ridiculous mini-loan.

        And according to statistics, I was supposed to this as a post-doc 2-3 times, moving cross-country. In the end, I’m not working in the field for which I trained for 8+ year. Definitely a blow to my ego, but not a complete waste, I guess.

    • Excellent point. We moved five times during the post-PhD time. Each move costly on a single postdoc salary. With each move, the truck size (and cost) went up. Final move to a permanent job also didn’t include any moving costs. Will be paying off those expenses from the credit cards for some time.

    • FWIW having moved a lot of times (for all the reasons discussed in the post), I have learned several tips for controlling moving costs the hard way. This is sort of the opposite of the post topic, but there’s not many places to get guidance on this, so I thought this was a good place to throw them in.

      If you’re going to do the rent a U-Haul and pack it yourself, that is pretty straight forward just a lot of hard work – definitely ask for help from friends (and if you’re a long distance move, make sure they don’t give you the worst van on the lot to get rid of it – drive it on the freeway before you start loading it – and yes there is a painful story behind that advice!).

      If you’re going to pay a company to do the move:
      1) Ask for fixed price bids – they will scare you with talk about how they have to overbid and you’ll come out ahead if it is just an estimate, but I’ve never heard it work out that way – they way it usually works is when you’re half loaded and a hostage they’ll start talking to you about how it was underestimated and the price can go up by 50% (which it did the first and last time I didn’t get a fixed price)
      2) Get quotes from 3-4 companies – prices vary by 30% or more
      3) My family has found the packing services well worth it (albeit not cheap), but the unpacking services, even if my future employer is paying for it, is not so worth it (I recall one unpacker who placed the stapler in a kitchen cabinet next to the canned goods).

      None of which obviates Margaret’s comments about what a burden this is and how many people it is prohibitive for.

      • Brian, the moving cost itself is big, but there are other costs that folks don’t think about. For example, we’ve needed to take a trip to each new locale ahead of time to look for a place to live and look at daycare facilities. You need 3-5 days to do that. Flights + hotel + rental car = easily $1000-$2000. And for our last move, we lost $5,000 because we had to break the lease. Ouch. We had crappy landlords.

        But more learning tips from those who have suffered:

        1) Never hire a full-move moving company unless you see and speak to a real live person, preferably with a local office. Do not hire online. We got royally screwed on move #2 when the movers just didn’t show up! (They refunded us in the end, but we overstayed our lease costing us $, plus we had to hire a rental truck at the last minute, and pack and load it solo at the last minute. Very, very, very stressful.)

        2) As Brian says, check out 3-4 moving companies. But don’t just hire the cheapest one! We learned that the hard way in move #1 when they showed up with too few people to pack in too little time without the proper equipment (enough tape, flashlights). Major headaches.

        3) Corollary to #2: hire small local highly-rated (yelp is good) companies to do your packing/loading and unpacking/unloading. We have had superstar local companies help bail us out at the last minute from our mistakes #1 and #2.

        4) Agreed with Brian on the unpacking. But having a company unload you at the end of a long drive/flight is priceless.

        5) Never sign a lease that doesn’t have a broken-lease clause. You should expect some pain if you break the lease, but you should be able to get the landlord to agree to a 1-2 month penalty fee. We ended up without a broken-lease clause and our landlords wouldn’t release us from the contract. We had to pay rent on two places for three months until they found new tenants.

        6) Carefully read lease renewals. Our original lease had the broken-lease clause. They left it out of the (10-page) lease when we renewed, and we didn’t notice until it was too late.

        7) Rent from individual landlords if possible. Management companies are only in it to screw you and make as much profit as possible. We have had wonderful landlords with whom we’ve had good personal relationships and who have always been reasonable and helpful. Our one experience with a management company meant long delays in fixing big problems (including water leaking through the floor/ceiling!) and #5 and #6 above.

        8) Hire a realtor to help find a place to live. In much of the country, the realtor fee will be paid by the landlord, so it’s free to you! (Note that this does not apply in Massachusetts, which has some really old and odd rental laws. There may be other exceptions, as well. Ask.)

      • Definitely more costs than just the movers! Beyond the ones you mentioned, there’s all the little stuff of buying curtains or towel racks or whatever doesn’t replicate your previous place, etc. I just haven’t found any tricks to cut those costs.

        One more moving trick I didn’t mention – even if you decide to move yourself with a U-Haul, you can hire day laborers through a temp agency for rates like $15/hour to help with the loading & unloading. Way cheaper than paying movers and probably still within a grad student/postdoc budget. We had good luck with that a couple of times.

      • Jesus @Margaret, I should have spoken to you before the move that did my family in! Points 5-7 are exactly what did us in, with a horrible landlord who didn’t even live in state…

  6. Great post! I’ve always felt incredibly lucky to have gotten to stay in the same zip code for the last 18 years (undergrad, grad, post-doc, & tt position- all at different institutions). Of course it helped that we live in Atlanta where you can throw a rock and hit a college or university, but I did take a fair amount of flak for it, particularly as I started looking for post-doc positions. I was told by several people that if I didn’t move, I would be seen as putting personal things above my science and people wouldn’t take me seriously when I started applying for jobs. This always made me really mad, especially since I think there’s real truth there. Sadly, I think that for some people when they see a CV like mine, they don’t take my science seriously. But, for me that’s what I wanted and that’s what I did. Not everyone can pick up and move every few years. It wasn’t easy to stay in the same area and be continuously employed doing what I wanted by any means, but I’m glad I did. I have lots of friends and social networks here and it really does help socially and very often professionally. Though so many of my friends from my time in grad school have left, and that also sucks. We miss you in Atlanta!

    • > I would be seen as putting personal things above my science and people wouldn’t take me seriously when I started applying for jobs.

      Ugh! This culture has got to change…

      • It’s interesting to me now that many of the same people who told me I wasn’t putting science first now tell me how lucky I am to be near my family (mine and my husband’s). And I am very lucky, but I find the judgement very interesting. I think on a personal level, face-to-face, we understand. You have aging parents, your husband can’t move every 3 years, etc., etc., but in the culture of academia and science, these things are not supposed to matter. When they do, well you should probably leave academia then. It is very much a cultural thing. But, that’s a different discussion isn’t it.

  7. Thanks for this excellent post, Meg.

    After being a visiting faculty member for several years, I was offered a tenure-track position last year at another college that was out-of-state. There were several reasons why I ultimately turned that position down and decided to remain at my current institution, including most especially that I really like working at my current institution and they were (thankfully) able to offer me a continuing position that fits many of my skills/interests. But during the decision process, one of the biggest issues that came up was this idea of moving. My husband and I, while still struggling to make as deep of friendships as we had before our last big move, are generally very happy in our area. And while his career is flexible/mobile (real estate), he is well networked-in here – and the thought of moving and building our lives up from scratch was nauseating.

    Ultimately I’m really happy that we decided to stay. But I just hope that I’m not limiting my career options by going with my heart on this one – I’m in a strange but nice hybrid faculty/staff position at an institution where pretty much everyone is either fully staff or fully “traditional” faculty (tenure track or temporary/visiting). That sometimes makes me nervous but oddly enough I feel more free to pursue my various interests now (diversity/retention in STEM, STEM faculty development, pilot teaching initiatives, etc) than I think I might in a defined tenure-track position. Only time will tell.

    But based on my experience, I do wonder how many people sacrifice the more “prestigious”/stable academic possibilities for other opportunities – either outside of academia or non-traditional academic – because of the issue of moving. And I wonder if they remain happy with their decision because they are ultimately happy in their area, friendships, family situations – or if the thought of “abandoning” the highly-regarded traditionally-defined academic positions leaves them feeling torn about their decision.

  8. Another aspect of moving to consider is work permits/visas. Potentially very costly, a huge headache and so much stress. I’ve done 5 cross-country moves and had 9 different visas. Fortunately I’m Canadian so I’ve had it relatively cheap and easy but ugh.

    I’m really jealous of the people who end up near family and friends. At this point I’d just like to end up in my country.

  9. I too am daunted by the thought of ever moving again (never say never, of course…). And in an old post I noted that, had I not been hired at Calgary, I would’ve quit academia to remain in London, which my wife and I loved. And my wife and I tend to have a pretty small social circle that we’ve struggled to rebuild every time we’ve moved. But on the other hand, as I recounted in an old linkfest (, we’d never have moved to London in the first place had I not been an academic, and our time there was four of the best years of our lives. We were hesitant to go, and I’m so glad that family and friends nudged us to do it.

    I don’t know that this is a virtue of academia, exactly. I don’t know that academia gives you more opportunity to live in great cities or move overseas than other careers do. Just wanted to share my own experience.

    Amy Parachnowitsch has a nice post on the pluses and minuses of her move from Canada to Sweden to take up a faculty position:

  10. My last move was executed w/ u-haul trailer and ford Ranger, one load. I returned about $500 worth of carefully chosen furniture to the Goodwill store from where it came, unloaded clothes, books, sports gear and everything else I could bear to part with, and disassembled everything I kept that was larger than a bankers box.

    My advice to aspiring grad students is to live like you expect to move until you know you won’t have to. You’ll save *many* thousands. Don’t brother buying nice furniture – you’ll spend twice its value hauling it around.

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  12. Another great post! For me, this is hands-down the hardest part of academia. I have a non-academic husband, and in some ways, this has made all the moving much harder. I realize how challenging the “two-body” problem is to coordinate, but to expect a non-academic to pick up and move 4-5 times in 15 years is crazy! Now being in a TT position at a research university, I have promised my husband that our next move will be his decision!

    Also, on a different note, there are some urban downtown universities with excellent lunch-room cultures (University of Toronto comes to mind), so I don’t think its restricted to places in smaller communities.

    • expecting ANY kind of working partner to be able to have perfectly synced up life to move that often is not realistic. and most often ends up hurting the careers of female partners.

      • our partners and families should basically be getting military spouse benefits and base services from the university, as Dr. Freitag alluded to.

  13. Thanks for an excellent post. Your list of things that you love about academia really resonated with me, but I’m at a point in my career where I’m trying to decide if those aspects that I also love are worth having to endure yet another move, or if I’d be better off leaving academia. It’s such a tough decision, especially given how much I’ve already sacrificed in pursuit of my dream career as a professor. It’s nice just to hear that others have also struggled with this aspect of the academic career path.

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  15. “My last move was executed w/ u-haul trailer and ford Ranger, one load.”
    Jim, I was doing EXACTLY this on the day you posted that. Last week I drove from Regina, SK to Kitchener, ON for my post-doc with my Ford Ranger pulling a U-Haul. Everything worked quite well, even though n=2 (at the moment) I’m going to go ahead and conclude that it’s a winning combination.

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