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?
I cannot disagree more strongly with this statement, “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”.
We argue so hard that diversity is important in every way imaginable. One of those ways is to experience a diversity of ideas, opinions, and perspectives that can only be gained by going other places and meeting other people. Every time I moved, I learned more in the first 6 months in the new place than learned in the previous years at the old one. I learned that there is more than one say to think about a specific ecological topic, more than one way to run an academic department, more than one type of life style and set of values than the ones from which I had just emigrated.
I’m sorry Megan, but I cannot agree with the most basic premise of this. Nothing is more valuable than experiencing, first hand, the cultures and creativity that one encounters in a move. It is especially true for ecologist because that move almost certainly involves a new type of ecosystem, a new set of organisms, and a new set of challenges. What could be better?
I disagree that “a diversity of ideas, opinions, and perspectives that can only be gained by going other places”. I am learning a ton of very different things while on sabbatical by interacting with colleagues across campus. If I chose, I could stay in my same building and develop completely different ways of thinking about some of the problems I work on by going to lab meetings of some of my colleagues in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology. Or, to use an earlier career example, for one of my grad students, doing a postdoc in the med school here at Michigan could give them a very different perspective on host-parasite interactions. There are lots of different ways to be exposed to a diversity of ideas, opinions, and perspectives.
Brent, while I agree that it is easier to expose yourself to a diversity of ideas etc. by going from place to place, we have to keep in mind that is not an option for everyone. So, to your point:
1) It might be the easiest way, but it’s not the only way (as Meghan has already pointed out).
2) Not everyone can move at every. single. transition point during their academic career. Excluding those people make science as a whole less diverse and hurts us all.
My current amazing PhD student was also an undergrad at the same institution. My close collaborator had an undergrad that continued for a Master’s and is now at Rockefeller doing hot shit as a PhD student. I did a postdoc with the same folks as my PhD. Guess what? I was able to build on momentum at that time. The most damaging advice I received and I’m glad I ignored was to follow someone else’s path. Other folk’s paths include working dumb hours and diversifying your CV at the cost of other forms of intellectual development and personal considerations. Thank’s for this perspective, Meghan!
I teach students who have never left this county. There is no way they could even move to another city in this state for school, due to family commitments. You are implying here that they do not deserve to go to graduate school if they can’t switch institutions. This makes me sad.
I also disagree with this perspective. I moved across the country between undergrad and grad, and switched labs at the same institution for my postdoc (though as a postdoc I am co-advised and technically split between two universities).
I am learning lots of new skills during my mostly home institution postdoc (pure field ecology -> molecular ecology) and working in a new system (montane -> desert). I am beginning additional side projects focused on pollination biology after spending my PhD working on ant thermal physiology and foraging behavior. All this change and exposure to new ideas without having to force my family to move across the country for a 2 year position. My wife has a career that she enjoys and has family in the area, so this was a very important factor in my decision not to move.
I still face criticism from many academics for not moving, despite these dramatic shifts in my own work. Let them criticize, I am happy and productive here. I firmly believe there are things we can do as scientists to gain diverse experiences and perspectives that don’t necessitate cross-country moves.
Before getting my postdoc I had decided I would leave academia before taking a two-year position elsewhere (temporarily leave or not, I didn’t know). Work is part of life, and while I immensely enjoy academic work, it doesn’t get absolute priority in decisions that affect the lives of those I love.
One of the most surprising questions I get when doing Skype a Scientist chats in rural communities is, “Don’t you miss your family?” Followed closely by, “How often do you get to see them?” I’m consistently surprised by this, but their teachers have usually briefed me in advance that their communities are tight-knit and most students have never left the state (or even the county!). I answer honestly, based on my own experience, but I always worry that this alone has discouraged some of them.
I saw science as a way out of the depressed, rural community I’m from and away from a complicated family. Having to move was a feature, not a bug. Those kids have just as much to offer as I do, but most of them will continue to choose careers that let them keep the communities and families that enrich their lives. All the while, my scientist friends and I lament our dispersed communities and suffer psychologically for our lack of strong bonds. We’re missing out on a lot of (probably slightly to much more well-adjusted) folks who could contribute not only to science but to scientific culture in innumerable ways.
Thanks you very much for this paper. I’m a french postdoc, mandatory to move from town to town, in my country or all around the world. And it’s a pain, it’s hard. Yes my view is broaden by those travels, yes i meet news people around, but my life is in my hometown, all my old friend, my family etc… And i think it’s unfair that most worker can continue to work where they live, but scientist need to move all around the world.
I think that can make us some kind of rootless human..
Constantly moving around also poses unique challenges for single postdocs. How much effort do I put into dating while I’m in a 1-2 year post-doc and will have to move? The time is often too short to find and form a deep enough partnership where you can ask your partner to move with you. Even just the loom of the uncertain contract ending date is highly discouraging for giving dating a go. It’s even worse for LGBT folk like myself, who have to navigate this with a very limited pool of potential mates, in often very small college towns. It’s lonely! I’m sure its worse for folks with families as that poses a ton of challenges, but just thought I’d give the single person’s perspective because I don’t think single postdocs talk about this a lot. I think it’s often considered more socially acceptable to talk about the challenges that arise while raising a family in academia than it is to talk about how it affects a single person’s love life.
Yes, I completely agree! The one body problem was part of my issue when I moved to Madison. It can feel sort of pointless to try to invest in relationships when you know you’re only going to be in a place for 1-2 years.
As someone who is asexual and not looking for relationships, but also introverted (and busy getting manuscripts and job applications out so I can get a faculty position!), I agree that moving as a single postdoc can be tough. I have only myself, and not a partner, to rely on for getting locally involved, making friends, and building a support network.
This entire post was a giant sigh of relief… As a graduate student, I chose to stay at the same academic institution for my Ph.D. as my M.S. and I’ve been criticized for doing so. However, I’m truly passionate about the system that I’ve been working in for the past 12 years. To give that up and move on to something else felt like I was abandoning something that I’ve worked so hard to learn about and protect. I’ve also been considering staying for my postdoc, despite knowing that I will continue to fall under scrutiny because it appears “easy.” But there’s nothing easy about it, I’m finding my own funding and building relationships and developing new ideas and new projects and growing. Additionally, I’ve found that there are many, many faculty members at my own institution (and a neighboring institution) that I can learn from and collaborate with.
I have built a community of people that I love here, and I don’t feel that it’s fair or necessary to give that up to move and do it all over again. I’d like to have deep roots in the place that I love and choose to live, and I don’t feel that I should need to sacrifice that. At least not yet.
Another aspect of academia that selects against the diverse majority… This way a really interesting read, as a white woman with a stable enough money situation and a love for travelling, it was interesting to hear such a different opinion from my own.
I am lucky enough to be in a position where I can consider moving elsewhere for a PhD, but I know plenty who aren’t. Furthermore, whilst diversity in our institutions is great, and bring in new ideas and expertise obviously contributes greatly to original research, there’s another issue I see. Another aspect of the international lifestyle of many academics is a huge carbon footprint- flying for fieldwork, visiting home and of course to attend conferences… Maybe if we can work on more ways to share ideas and work collaboratively without physically moving halfway around the world, we can also be a little less hypocritical about climate change issues too. I love travelling and am looking forward to moving to a new city to continue in research, but the environmental impact of my PhD choice (and the research it entails) is something I’m struggling with. How do we weigh up the individual sacrifices and the environmental impact of research with the good impact of new knowledge and solutions to societal issues?
Resonation: Being an undergrad at Cornell, just getting into some cool research and motivated for more . . . and then being told “Don’t even bother applying here.”
Of course every move I’ve made from my home in New York – to Virginia, then Pennsylvania, and ultimately Oklahoma – has given me opportunities to learn and grow. But it’s also ludicrous to presume that at 22 I had exhausted those opportunities at Cornell.
More important, the costs my career and my family have borne as I’ve pursued this career have been enormous. For example, to get home to see family over a 3-week winter break is for us ~$3000k by air or ~$800 if we drive. Driving is kinda dangerous, but the bigger issue is that it’s a 2.5-day straight shot. So for 5 days on the ground in NY I need to spend 10 days total. Add in 1 day of prep and 1 for recovery for such an excursion, and there’s 12 days of the 21 vaporized relative to my peers/competitors who can zip home for a long weekend without too much trouble. If other folks are doing in 4 or 5 days what it’s taking me 12, then they have an advantage in another week to revise manuscripts, prepare grants, etc. during an academic’s most productive time of the year.
Don’t want to whine too much as we have a good life and I get to do some cool things but there are real costs – emotional, financial, and opportunity – to our current model. As grad students, we used to joke about an exchange program of sorts in which faculty in similar positions could trade geographic locations, but there are probably dozens of problems with a model like that. So for solutions . . . I got nothing.
Re: what to do about this, I too would like to hear ideas about this, because this seems like an area in some well-intentioned reforms could easily backfire. I’m thinking for instance of how in some southern European countries, it’s common for people to stay at a single institution for many years before being hired as faculty (at least, that’s my understanding, someone who actually knows please correct me if I’m wrong.). So, great, you don’t have to move so often! But here’s the downside: that faculty hiring is incredibly nepotistic and cliquey (again, someone please correct me if my impression is wrong or outdated). It’s all about which internal candidate has curried the most favor with the senior people who control the hiring. And everyone knows this and complains bitterly that universities aren’t hiring the best people (see also: all the bitter speculation and complaints on ecoevojobs.net about “internal” candidates for US faculty positions purportedly having an unfair leg up on external ones). Obviously, I’m not suggesting that any attempt at reform in the US would turn the US into Italy! But I do think it’s worth looking around at other existing systems for both inspiration, and cautionary tales, as to what reforms would have the desired effects. Versus which would have perverse effects or be empty gestures.
“We also need to change the system, because the current system forces out really great people who would like to continue in academia.”
Can you elaborate Meghan? Because if more people want tenure-track faculty positions than there are tenure-track faculty positions, *somebody* is going to be forced out, right? And the people who aren’t forced out are great too; there are more great potential faculty than there are tenure-track jobs. So is the problem that people are being forced out for unfair reasons (due for instance to inability or unwillingness to move), implying that people need to be forced out in a fairer way? Or is the problem that people are being forced out, full stop? If it’s the latter, then how do you would engineer a world in which anybody who wants a tenure-track job, and would be competent at it, can have one? Personally, I don’t think it’s possible to or desirable to engineer such a world. I think the closest you could get would be something like the med school model (which involves keeping lots of people who want to become doctors from even taking the first step along that career path; i.e. you just shift the career stage at which you force people out).
My tentative suggestion here is a three-pronged approach:
-reallocating research funding support away from grad students and towards lab managers, technicians, research associates, etc (including technicians who are shared between labs). Those positions wouldn’t be tenured positions, but they would offer long-term stable employment in many cases. This reduces the supply rate of newly-minted PhDs who might want tenure-track faculty positions, and increases the number of research jobs for MSc and PhD recipients. So if you don’t want to move a long distance, that’s ok, you’ll likely be able to find a research job at or near your current institution. And it hopefully maintains or even improves the research productivity of US science as a whole. Because when it comes to many scientific tasks, experienced technicians, research associates, lab managers, etc. can be a lot more productive on a per-capita basis than many grad students. You have old posts and comments arguing for this as well, IIRC? (Aside: this bullet would come with some possibly-undesirable side effects. For instance, it might oblige a reduction in the number of TAs, since there’d be fewer grad students around to take up those TA positions, so you’d have to think about how to get undergrad classes taught with fewer grad student TAs. One partial answer to that might be to increase the number of undergrad TAs; many liberal arts colleges use undergrad TAs).
-culture change so wanna-be academics don’t feel so attached to academia as a career path. This kind of combines your two bullet points. Choosing to leave the academic career path rather than move a long distance shouldn’t feel like such an agonizing choice. If people no longer feel like academia is this narrow career path that you can’t leave (e.g., because that would mean you’d “failed” or were “wasting your degree”), or that it’s scary to leave, then some of them will happily choose to leave academia so that they can live where they want to live. Anne Krook is good on this: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/12/05/helping-grad-students-pursue-non-academic-careers-advice-from-anne-krook/
-better economic policy so that many non-academic career paths offer, and are seen to offer, many of the features that make tenure-track faculty jobs attractive to many people.
These are similar to my own thoughts. Other countries do the move requirements very differently. As you note southern Europe (I think also Latin America) is at the opposite extreme from the US. I think northern Europe is a bit in the middle but most people expect to long term settle within a few hours of their family. When I was in Quebec many francophones also had the expectation to remain in Quebec.
It certainly seems that the never leave end can lead to rewarding people who play politics well more than people who do great science.
But it does seem like some more intermediate approaches are viable (e.g. have to leave for postdoc, and strong culture/rules around meritocratic hiring for faculty including the notion of committee members having to rule themselves out with conflicts of interests)
But it also brings up another issue of geography. Many Europeans get to settle within a few hours of home because of the density of the population and the density of the universities. In the US or Canada you might have a chance if you grow up in a big city where there are half a dozen universities, but if you grow up in most places between the coasts you have to hit the lottery and get a position at often just one or two universities or colleges to stay close to home.
Its a hard but important problem.
The density of universities is certainly an issue that is hard to resolve. If my parter (an attorney) wants to leave his job he almost certainly will be able to find work at one of 100s of other firms/agencies in town. Building experience in one type of law doesn’t necessarily preclude him from any other future jobs. In contrast, for me, there’s maybe one or two research-oriented universities in the entire state (Western US). I think something helpful would be to find ways that training is not so narrowly focused and single-track. Grad students and postdocs are expected to not just specialize in academia, but also early on pick R1 or SLAC, etc. Deviating from that path (i.e. taking an industry or gov job instead of a postdoc) often implies the academic door is closed forever. If trainees feel like they’ll be competitive for industry, university, and government simultaneously they’ll have more options in a particular geographic area.
I had a similar experience: I often reflect on how lucky I am to have married a public school teacher. Not that I married her for her occupation, or wouldn’t have married her had she had a different occupation, obviously! But one fortunate-for-me side effect of marrying her was that it wasn’t too difficult (at least at the time) for her to move to many different places and continue her career. Heck, for my postdoc we even moved from the US to the UK, and she was able to get a great job teaching at the American School in London, a private school teaching a US-style curriculum and catering to American and Canadian expats. There were some annoying admin hurdles for her to jump through to get certified to teach in Canada when we moved here for the faculty position I still hold. But other than being annoying they were manageable.
Had I not gotten my current position, I’d have left academia and switched professions so that we could’ve remained in London (which we loved). I told that story in an old post: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2011/07/19/advice-how-i-almost-quit-science/. I would’ve been sad to leave academia had it come to that. But not too sad, and I’m confident I’d have gotten over it. Because there were a lot of other things in my life that mattered to me, besides being a prof. And in a weird way, the very competitiveness of the tenure-track academic job market meant I didn’t feel like I’d be a failure, or settling for second best, or wasting my degree, if I decided to leave academia. I’d gone into the academic career path with my eyes open, knowing that it might well not work out, and that if I didn’t get an ecology faculty job it was going to be because I was passed over for awesome ecologists. Just sharing my own personal experience, I’m sure others in similar situations have reacted differently.
Regarding hiring from within…and Latin American universities…I don’t think that hiring from within is always bad. But I do think that it should be a minority of hires. (I realize some schools have more options than others and geography matters. No chance I’m moving to North Dakota, even though I think it’s a pretty state.)
My first faculty position was at the Univ of Puerto Rico Mayaguez and I tenured there. More than 50% of the faculty were alumni of our campus or the UPR system. Most of our department got PhD’s off-island and then moved back, because there was no on-island PhD program in Ag/NR. Despite that, there was immense stagnation in research, administration, and programming within the department and more broadly (especially more broadly–the off-island PhD experiences did help). The academic senate was where all good ideas went to die because “that’s not the way we do things.” The students practically had to shut down the dean’s office just to get a class on organic and sustainable farming. In 2008! There were certainly plenty of faculty from PR who wanted to reform things but not enough to overcome the institutional inertia caused by hiring and promoting from within. Academic inbreeding was not the sole cause of stagnation, but it was definitely an important contributor. The university would be more vibrant and responsive to student needs with less inbreeding.
Similarly, academic inbreeding affected research too. For example, the overwhelming perspective on the island was that non-native species were always bad and should be eradicated, overlooking the reality that native species were not adapted to anthropogenic disturbances, alternate restoration pathways, biogeochemical ecosystem services, etc. The reality is that sometimes clearing non-natives makes it harder to re-establish natives, but arguing that point hit a brick wall every time (though maybe my former students will help tear down that wall).
One reason I hear for hiring from within (even at Clemson) is this: “If we hire someone from elsewhere, they won’t stick around.” So what? Some turnover is a good thing. It keeps things fresh. It pushes back at assumptions. If you are always losing new hires within 5 years, then you should probably do some very critical self-assessment, because there are probably some serious institutional shortcomings. However, if you hire primarily with the intent of assuring that someone will spend the next 30 years there, you are probably going to overlook your best candidates. Sometimes the alumnus candidate is the best option. So snap her up. But new blood is good too.
Just adding a bit of broader statistical context to Skip’s very thoughtful remarks above: it is currently *very* rare for N. American TT ecology positions to be filled by alumni of the hiring institution (or by people who currently or formerly were postdocs at the hiring institution). That remains true even if you restrict attention to hires at institutions in any particular region of the US (e.g., the south, the northern plains, rural areas in general), or restrict attention to hires at any particular type of institution (e.g., liberal arts colleges). Data here:
I add this broader context *not* to criticize or devalue Skip’s impressions and experiences. Systemic data and personal experiences are complements not substitutes. Some institutions do indeed worry that faculty they hire might not stay for the long term, and they do indeed take that into consideration when deciding who to make an offer to. And yes, they do sometimes consider “are you an alum” as one indicator (among many others) of whether you’d stay long term if hired. But there are other places that are wary of hiring alumni, and other places that don’t care one way or the other if a faculty job applicant is an alum. And of course, many faculty positions don’t have any qualified alumni applying for them. The net result of all this is that, at a systemic level, it’s very rare that N. American TT ecology faculty positions end up getting filled by alumni of the hiring institution.
I definitely agree that people are going to be forced out. The problem I was trying to highlight here is that certain groups of people are being forced out, based on things that are completely unrelated to their ability to do science. That leads to more homogeneity in who does science, which changes science (and not for the better).
In terms of your suggestions:
– I am 100% on board with the idea that we need to shift funding away from grad students and towards long term, stable positions. My main concern with calls for a move to a more Canadian-style funding system in the US is that I think it would lead to more grad students and fewer career technicians, which I think is a problem. (I also fully agree that there are major problems with the current US funding system.)
– Yes, we definitely need to do a much better job of not treating non-academic careers as second choices or failures or wastes! There are so many reasons why this is the right thing to do.
– I also agree, though I suppose right now academic paths and non-academic paths are converging, but not in the direction we’d hoped (given the adjunctification of academia).
With regard to non-academic career paths:
That culture change needs to happen so that students are exposed to a wide variety of career opportunities by mid-second-year undergrad. With that in mind they can tailor their upper level undergrad courses and choice of grad school to their career.
IMO all academic disciplines in science could probably help students and society as a whole by offering a few upper level undergrad courses that are tailored to non-academic careers.
These courses have side benefits in that they generate exposure through the department culture even for students who don’t take the classes. AS an undergrad I had no interest in the mining industry and never took any economic geology courses; but my undergrad institution had a heavy emphasis on industry and mining and I learned a lot about the mining industry through my fellow students, which gave me some basic knowledge to help me get a good job when opportunities in the mining industry caught my attention.
One additional suggestion as to how to address these issues: support and promote remote operations whenever possible.
What makes me uncomfortable about many of the comments about the challenges of making these moves is that they seem to come from the perspective of someone who is already in a place with a lot of resources and opportunities. I suspect that it would be good if one also considered people who are at much smaller institutions with much more limited resources. For example, consider graduate students or post-docs working at a state school in a small town who works in an area with a single faculty member. Such small research groups may also have people for whom moving would be a challenge, but it is likely much harder for them to find related scientific work nearby.
I would suggest that if faculty members at larger institutions want to address this issue, they not only work to create longer-term positions at their own institutions, but also consider “virtual” long-term positions that can be filled by people who live at remote locations. For example, a research group at Cornell could hire a person who lives and spends much of their time in a small town in another state. Of course, this won’t work for all positions in all fields, but I do think that something like this could help address this issue in a way that didn’t unduly favor people already at comparatively resource-rich institutions.
I fully agree about remote operations. Especially for postdocs. Or PhD students who have to move part-way through a PhD for family reasons. These are both eminently doable in this day and age.
Just a comment regarding southern European countries. I am from Spain and did my Masters and PhD in Barcelona. So far, I have done four postdocs, all of them in different countries (in three different continents). Of all the PhD students I met while in Barcelona, only some of those who chose not to do a postdoc remain in Spain. Most of us had even heard career choices other than Academia were possible after you finish a PhD. That was just what “we were supposed to do”.
Thank you for writing this post. As a married third year PhD student weighing my options for what comes next this really resonated with me. We live in California now but are both from Oregon and most of our family lives there. Apart from a number of short term field jobs, I’ve done three big moves since my undergrad in Oregon. First to a different city following my wife while she did her Masters, second to Chile to live/work for a year, and third to California for grad school. In each case we made a conscious decision to move to that location before finding a job, and I’ve been lucky enough each time to find a good job (grad school was a bit of an exception – I was very selective in where I applied, only applying to places we’d both be happy living in).
Looking ahead to post-docs and faculty positions, I wonder how long my luck can hold? As a couple we’ve decided we’re sick of moving and starting over in new places. We either want to stay long term where we are (either at my current institution or one of several nearby), or move back to Oregon in the next few years and stay long term up there. I’ve made the decision that I’m more willing to be flexible in my career path than in my living location.
I think we have a long ways to go towards improving work-life balance in academia, and I think this is one of the biggest problem areas. Maybe its because we tend to think of science as more than just a career, but we really expect people to put their lives on hold for a job, much more so than in many non-academic fields. I love science, and teaching, and research, but at the end of the day its still a job. I’m not sure how to fix it, but a good start is to start talking about how your personal life plays into career decisions – both for young people pursuing new jobs, and senior folks being honest about how they got to their current position. For example, the other day I saw on the publications page of someone’s website a year without any publications, that instead showed a picture of their newborn twins. Way more impressive to me than a couple more papers.
Hi Tyler. Thank you for your thoughtful post. I wrote a response and then realized it was too personal for my likely to post to the group. If you could like to see it, send me you email: I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org. Best, -Scott
One small fix I’ve made in my own little sphere of influence is that I no longer tell undergrads that they shouldn’t pursue master’s degrees here, nor do I discourage master’s students for sticking around for a PhD. Of my 15 students, 4 have had some double-tie to OSU, and that’s at least one less move and start-over for those four folks. All did/are doing great!
That’s a really interesting point. As scientists we should want data for our claims. And I don’t know of any data at all that suggests that changing institutions improves the quality of graduate output or the long-term career trajectory.
I do totally get the logic of being exposed to new ideas and people. What I learned in my postdoc was totally distinct from and complementary to what I learned in my PhD. But it is also true that moving wastes several months at a minimum just on the physical realities of getting a home and office setup. And probably much more than that on the emotional costs. Those impact productivity too (and that is stipulating that academic productivity is the only valid measure – there are of course many other factors)
In the end the claim that moving is “good for you” is an empirical question and we could and should measure and test that before forcing everybody to incur the burdens of moving just based on a hunch about how it should be.
I strongly suspect that the results of your little experiment would generalize – that staying in one institution from undergrad through PhD probably doesn’t have a huge downside (and an obvious upside).
Thanks for writing this.
I tell my grad students that the average successful academic has to send 100’s of resumes all over the country, and go wherever the job is. Maybe the very most successful of us, with a little patience, can choose which 1/6 of the country we live in (something like the west coast or the northeast or large-cities-where-your-husband-can-get-a-tech-industry-job but not even, e.g., large cities in the northeast…). I also tell them that the skills we have as population ecologists are very similar to skills you would need in many careers, these days most conspicuously as a data scientist, so don’t ignore other job options.
I don’t think we can change the fact that academic positions are rare. The obvious advantage of an academic career is getting paid to do solve interesting puzzles and pursue and tell others about our own ideas for motives like curiousity or making the world a better place. Not many other jobs are like that. The obvious disadvantage is needing to move to the rare job opening that picks you.
I do think we can change the attitude that moving is good in and of itself, and that staying in the same place for 2 degrees, or for a Ph.D. and postdoc is bad. As an advisor, I have recently had a couple students stay in place for multiple positions, and I have found ways for them to have new experiences without having to uproot their lives (e.g., short courses, field work with collaborators on the opposite coast).
I couldn’t agree more. On the one hand we have written and unwritten academic norms that may be changed, because they are rooted only in habit. On the other hand, we have characteristics that are inherent to each career, which are virtually impossible to change. Scarce jobs have always been a reality in Academia, especially in peripheral countries. Therefore, part of the requirements to get a stable academic position is to be willing to move at least a few times. That’s why we need to be honest with our students and prepare them for the world as it is, not as we wish it were.
My first semester in grad school (2001) the DGS sent around an article to all graduate students that showed and discussed study results about women academics not applying for jobs as geographically broadly as men. It mostly blamed women’s partners — they don’t want to move so the academic woman acquiesces and often takes a job at a nearby primarily teaching college to keep the family peace. The summary of the article was that if you were a woman in grad school, and you weren’t willing to apply nationally/internationally for jobs then you were taking up a spot that a man or a woman willing to do so could have instead of you.
I don’t remember any of the grad students discussing this, let alone pushing back on the DGS for sending it out. It succeeded in making me doubt whether I deserved to be a PhD student — so lovely when your DGS adds to imposter syndrome. What we’re already doing better is not seeing articles like these written now, and (I pray) no program’s DGS would send them around today.
It’s funny, I could imagine writing and circulating an article with the same data–women don’t apply as geographically broadly as men, and tend to take teaching-focused jobs to accommodate their partners–and using it to send a very different message! Like, the message that there are systemic forces that nudge women and men to different career paths, and that we should talk about how to change those systemic forces so as to produce a more equitable world in which everyone has as much choice as possible and as much freedom to flourish as possible.
Interesting discussion. Some thoughts below on both sides of the argument. Bottom line on advising students–mentors should understand student goals and needs first, then work with them to devise a plan.
The reality though, if you want an academic position doing research specifically related to some research topic, the options will be limited in any given year, so at some point you may have to make the decision to move or to reorient your career path. If I had a student who said they didn’t want to move more than 3 hours from home, we would have a long discussion about what jobs were present in that area.
Recently at an undergrad wildlife students event, I had a conversation with a student about this very topic. She had heard the “you have to move” mantra and was concerned because she has two kids. I told her that was a fine reason not to move and that if she were asked about it people would understand that reason and not hold it against her. (I think that’s true, because I think the culture at most universities is changing in respect to understanding there is more than one way to forge an successful academic career path. Yay for young faculty pushing oldsters into new paradigms!) She was interested in a branch of wildlife that Clemson didn’t really have expertise in, so she may have to make a compromise there, but U Georgia isn’t far away and there are existing collaborations between Clemson and Georgia, so she might be able to pull from expertise from both schools and combine both her interest and her location. I hope so.
Meghan and other commenters here noted that you can learn lots of things from changing labs/departments/colleges within a university. I think that is certainly true for skills. I’m less sure that is true for perspectives and in that case moving would have a big benefit. When I was an PhD student in polar research at Ohio State there was a clear perspective regarding holocene glacial history in Antarctica. All the professors shared that perspective. There was an alternate hypothesis that was promoted from Maine. Then there were other faculty from other universities aside from OSU and Maine that could express nuances and conglomerations of bits of each camp. So I think that students and mentors should look critically when not moving to ensure that shifting labs/departments would actually provide academic growth in terms of perspective, and not simply new skills. (Assuming there aren’t family, health, etc. reasons that really prevent a move.) Does the faculty have spirited, respectful debates about topics in science that clearly show a diversity of opinion? Or has the department/program simply hired/trained up a lot of people that essentially approach research from the same point of view? (By the way, I solved the problem of getting swept into the academic personality cults of polar research by shifting back to plant ecology, getting a terminal masters, moving to MSU, and as a happy by-product becoming friends with Meghan in “rural W Michigan”.)
On the other hand, I’ve had tremendous personal growth from moving around the country and overseas. Yes, it is a pain and it is costly but the benefits have outweighed the costs. When it started to become clear that living in Puerto Rico wasn’t sustainable long-term for the relationship we wanted our daughter to have with our families back home, we moved to South Carolina, near my wife’s family (mine is in the Midwest–one family was going to lose geographically no matter what). I’ve had a lot of “Wow, South Carolina eh? How’s that?” regarding cultural and political conservatism from my friends, especially from academics. Being here is a good reminder that most of the country doesn’t share the same liberal POV that most big college towns do, even the lefties. Clemson is a good employer.
I’m certain that there are numerous studies that show personal growth in perspective and acceptance of cultural and individual differences that is fostered by living away from one’s hometown in the social sci lit. So, all things being equal, I still advise students to move if they can, but I accept that all things aren’t equal and that many caveats exist.
There is some discussion of this post on Twitter. Starts here:
Thank you for this. In a time of PhD applications and writing my MSc thesis it is appreciated to have some of my concerns voiced.
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I was forced out. I went to the State University of New York at Buffalo. I started in 1978 and dropped out; received a paralegal degree; went back to UB and finished my BA in English. I wanted to continue my Masters but I would have had to leave Buffalo and go to another university in another city. When I asked why I couldn’t continue at UB, I was told that the English Department did not accept doctoral students or even masters applicants from their own undergraduate department. It was that cut and dried. My son was in his last year of high school and my parents were elderly enough that I wasn’t going to leave.
I have moved numerous times. As a child with my parents and as an adult. I have moved from state to state and from city to city. Moving sucks but learning a new place and finding new friends is great. But getting a doctorate isn’t about learning about how to move and get new friends. It’s about furthering your education. If a university can’t look at doctoral prospects on a one-on-one basis and make recommendations on those criteria, then something is wrong. It also seems to me that these “rules” are very arbitrary and treats the candidate like a child. “Moving is good for you! You’ll meet new friends!” I heard that all through my childhood. I don’t want to hear that from a university official or anyone else when I am an ADULT.