Two things recently came across my twitter feed that relate to academics moving. First, there’s this piece by Dan Hirschman noting that academics often make multiple long-distance moves (in contrast to most Americans, who live close to family as adults), and asking what effect all this dislocation has on the research people produce. Second, there’s this piece in Nature on how academics navigate tenure denial, which includes advice to seek job offers from other universities while one is up for tenure.
At some point in an Ask Us Anything post, someone asked about things where our views have changed a lot over our careers. As usual, I didn’t manage to answer it, because, for some unknown reason, I stink at AUAs. But here is my very belated response: as an undergrad and a grad student, I bought the idea that I should be willing to move anywhere if I wanted a career in academia. Now I don’t.
First, let’s focus on my views as an undergrad and grad student. I didn’t really consider academic research until mid-way through college. When I did, I thought, “ooh, very cool! I want to go to grad school so I can keep doing research. How lucky for me that I’m at this great school with a great grad program and lots of great faculty doing really interesting research!” So, I was surprised and disappointed to learn that the expectation was that I should go somewhere else for grad school. Why couldn’t I just stay at Cornell, which I loved and which had so much cool work happening there? When I asked, the response was that it would help to broaden my intellectual horizons if I moved elsewhere. So, I applied to other places, and ended up moving to Michigan for grad school.
I moved very quickly from “this is annoying, why should I have to do this?” to “this is just the way it is, and if I am truly committed to this academic path, I will move wherever I need to”. As a result, since moving from my parents’ house (on Long Island) to college (in Ithaca), I’ve lived in Antarctica, East Lansing, a rural part of West Michigan, Madison, Atlanta, and now Ann Arbor.
Fast forward from when I was an undergrad to when I was a postdoc. When I first moved to Madison, I was incredibly lonely at first. It was hard. But at some point, I started to develop a network there, and Madison is an amazing town, so at some point I started to think “Wow, it’s really too bad I can’t live here forever.” I think the thought that maybe I should consider living there permanently flicked across my brain, but not for long. I had decided to pursue an academic career, and that required moving, right? So, I went on the job market and applied to jobs all across the country.
I ended up moving from Madison to Atlanta and, as I’ve written about before, was lucky to very quickly find a really wonderful support network there. I was happy living in Atlanta, and had mixed feelings about applying to my current position in Ann Arbor. But I did, and I got it, and we decided to move here.
That move was also hard. Hard, hard, hard. (Note: I don’t recommend moving, teaching a new, very large course, setting up new field sites, having a baby, and coming up for tenure all in the same year.)
Fast forward 6.5 years. I’m happy here in Ann Arbor. I like being a professor. My life is one that I wouldn’t have dreamed of back when I first started doing undergrad research and thought maybe I should try to pursue this as a career. So, you might think that I would still think that moving around to pursue an academic career is The Way. Instead, I think it would have made a lot of sense for me to say as an undergrad or a postdoc or an assistant professor “You know, I’m happy with living here, and I’m going to stay here, even if that means changing my career path.”
Some of that thinking is because, while I’m happy with my job, I also think I could be happy in a variety of other jobs, including ones completely outside science. I definitely don’t view the R1 academic path as the Right One.
Another reason for the shift in my thinking is because it’s really obvious that not everyone is equally able to move, and science as a whole suffers if we set up barriers for certain groups. To give just some examples: it takes financial resources to move and not everyone can afford to, people with kids may not want to uproot them repeatedly, people with chronic health conditions might not want to move away from their health providers, people might have family or other responsibilities that anchor them to a specific place (e.g., eldercare, access to resources for special needs kids), people may fear for their safety or that of their family if they move to certain places (e.g., due to racism, homophobia, or transphobia). We can’t just gloss over those very real considerations when we give career advice. If we do, as the Hirschman piece explores, we will impose a strong filter on who can follow that path.
Our current system is a holdover from a time when academics were primarily white men from well-off families. That’s no longer true (which is a very good thing!) but the whole academic nomad expectation hasn’t caught up with that.
All of this also reminded me of this really interesting twitter thread:
The whole thread is really interesting (definitely worth a read, IMO!), and includes this observation:
Research on gender and sex influences on decision making have often framed failing to explore as nonoptimal, and thus make an argument that females aren’t as good at decision making. However, I think this makes a hugely gendered assumption about what “good decisions” are.
The main reason I thought of that thread is because our current system views moving/exploring as good, but ignores that the cost:benefit ratio can differ enormously between groups. But another reason is that the really interesting, potentially paradigm-shifting research that Dr. Grissom talks about in her thread was surely influenced by the people who did the work, with people who have suffered the consequences of exploring in a harsh world more likely to realize the problematic assumption underlying the earlier work. To me, this is another example of how our science is stronger when we have diverse people contributing their perspectives and ideas.
So, I think there are two major problems with “this is just how it is, and if you’re truly committed you’ll move”. First, it assumes that people should ignore all the really good reasons not to move, and that, if they don’t, it means they’re not committed. Second, it assumes that it has to be this way.
I don’t know of one big solution to this. And, when we think about options and solutions, we need to acknowledge the realities of the current system while also thinking about how to change that system.
For those of us who advise students, we can help them think through the different options. Don’t assume that you know what is right for them. Two things I do with people in my lab are:
- When working on mentoring plans with folks in my lab, we often discuss how “life” factors might influence someone’s goals (e.g., the type of job, whether they move for a postdoc, etc.) I try to make it clear that I think it is 100% reasonable to be factoring those things in. Some students are visibly relieved when I bring this up.
- Help them prepare for non-academic careers. We always talk about how academia can be a goal, but it can’t be the only goal. Helping people develop skills that will prepare them for non-academic careers has lots of potential benefits. (Also, to hop on another favorite hobby horse of mine, this will improve grad student mental health: a major source of stress for many current graduate students is feeling unable to discuss or explore non-academic careers.)
We also need to change the system, because the current system forces out really great people who would like to continue in academia. I can think of some small things to do (e.g., offer moving allowances; if you are involved in grad admissions, argue against the idea that someone “should” go somewhere else if they were an undergrad at your institution). I can think of some intermediate things to do (e.g., developing regional mentoring networks that make it easier for people to connect across and move between institutions in a particular area). But those feel like drops in the bucket.
I would love to hear ideas from others about how to make it so that an academic career path doesn’t select as strongly for individuals who are able and willing to make multiple long-distance moves. This is not to say that no one should move — just that it should be easier to pursue a career in academia without needing to make so many long distance moves.
How can we change this culture?