Recently, I’ve been hearing a recurring argument for why academic relocation is not a big deal compared to other jobs, usually in response to early career researchers discussing how often, and how far, they’ve had to move for work (e.g. this recent post over at Scientist Sees Squirrel).
Yes, the need to diversify one’s experience by moving locations is common to many careers. Most people will move once or twice, usually early on, to establish their future job or career path. Some careers demand continual relocation, even after establishment.
However, moving for academic careers is very different to most other mobile careers for one very important reason that is often glossed over: the mismatch between expectation and support.
Every academic should move at least once in their career. Staying at the same institution from undergraduate degree, through PhD, into postdoc and then lecturer position is risky, because it limits personal and professional development and reduces collaborative potential. This is especially important for people who follow academic career paths straight from high school. Academic research requires broad understanding of people, contexts and issues – this comes from diverse experiences working with different groups of people in different contexts. Moving institutions, especially as your knowledge and experience develops during the early stages of your career, provides huge benefits in broadening your mind and skills.
But…the expectation (not choice) of repeated relocation, without guarantee of a career progression, is not sustainable for most people. This is something that few other careers are characterised by.
Sure, there are plenty of other careers where moving is required for the job: police, teachers, military, bankers etc. The big difference between these careers and academia? They usually progress within a single organisation or government department. You already have a job, and your employer requires/gives you the option to move elsewhere. Hence, the move is often organised and subsidised by the employer. Military personnel, for example, have a whole internal department that help them pack and move house, find a new house at the new location, find new schools for children etc.
In contrast, if academics move location, they very rarely do it within the same university. This means that the burden of relocation costs and difficulties are covered personally by the academic and their family. Relocation assistance is often provided for senior-level or permanent academic positions, and some PhD scholarships also include limited reimbursement for moving costs.
But fixed-term postdoc contracts rarely include relocation costs. Yet this is the career stage that most academics are expected to ‘diversify via dispersal’, and the stage they most benefit from experiencing new contexts.
Unlike many other careers, relocation is typically the only option to pursue an academic career. In Australia, the Education & Training sector (including academia) has the highest percentage of people working on fixed-term contracts.
And it’s not like you can just find another suitable job in a similar organisation across town when your contract is done. Although, academics in large cities with more than one university have an advantage here – they have more chance of moving to new academic positions without having to move home, compared to academics in regional locations where universities are few and far between.
So no, academic nomadism isn’t just like every other career.
I don’t think it helps to push the notion that ‘constant relocation is normal, get used to it’. This attitude just perpetuates selection for a certain type of privilege…the financially-secure, the unattached, the able-bodied…people who have the will and ability to keep moving.
Cost of living is a lot higher today than in my parents’ day; moving town is now a significantly bigger financial and personal commitment than it was, say, 30-40 years ago. Even 20 years ago, when I first left home, it was a different story. Let alone moving overseas. Throw partners and children into the mix, and it all gets a bit too much for a lot of people.
As I said at the top, I think it’s critical that academics move at least once, especially at the early stages of their career. Most people can handle the financial commitment of one or two big moves. But beyond that, we should be talking about solutions for managing the constant relocation problem, not justifying its existence.
© Manu Saunders 2018