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.