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I am unwilling to relocate again (and it will probably cost me my academic “career”)

Multiple moves are the norm in academia and it’s a major structural problem that gets in the way of diversity (and other) initiatives. Long gone are the days when the academic was (only) a hetero white male who was either single (and a highly eligible bachelor with his PhD in hand) or had a family of one or more dependents (in the true sense of the word) who would follow him hither and yon. And yet, academia still acts like this is how things are.

Moving causes the one-body problem. Single people may rightly not want to move to places with job opportunities for multiple reasons. The potential destination may be small and have few options for dating. This is obviously a difficult problem for people looking for same-sex partners. It is also a problem for women, whose advanced degrees are often a minus when seeking opposite-sex partners rather than the plus it is for men. For people who come from minority cultures or who identify as racial or ethnic minorities, finding a place that feels safe and welcoming where there is also a job may be quite challenging. Those who need specific types of medical care may be limited in geography to where they can get adequate care.

Moving causes the two-body problem. Whether your partner is in academia or not, moving is logistically difficult for families that depend on two incomes. Finding a second job for a partner can be difficult to impossible. No help is provided for postdocs who need to find jobs for partners. And help for tenure-track faculty ranges from non-existent to moderately helpful – but it’s impossible to know in advance what institutions offer what level of support.

Moving causes the three-or-more-body problem. In addition to the challenges faced by couples, families with children face the additional challenges of finding affordable childcare and/or appropriate schools. Like adults, children may need specialized care that can only be provided in certain locations.2 And when a family starts containing multiple individuals with different needs, finding a location that will work for everyone becomes increasingly difficult. Parents with young children, especially, need extra support from outside the nuclear family, and moves sever the connections with friends, family, and the community that are desperately needed, especially in times of illness and injury.

Moving causes tension within extended families. Most people do not move around the country or world every couple years and it can be hard to explain why you can’t afford to visit for that special holiday or event, especially when you keep missing them. For those with aging parents, the prospect of never being around to help siblings with their care can cause conflict. The prospect of rarely being around to even see these parents can cause guilt and sadness.

Moving causes mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Academia has a mental health problem that it has so far been unwilling to acknowledge and seriously address. Part of this has to do with academic culture. But part of it has to do with the relocations. Regardless of family status, when you move, you face the very real possibility of having no friends, no relations (of any kind if you’re single or outside your nuclear family if not), and no social safety net. For people who have chronic depression or anxiety, this is a disaster and can (literally) destroy lives. For those who don’t, moves can trigger depression or anxiety. Moving and changing jobs are major life stressors. Without a social support network of some type, too many young academics have a very hard time coping with their lives.

Moving causes physical health problems. Moving – especially if you’ve got more than one or two people to move – is incredibly time-consuming and logically1 logistically complicated. Academics already work long hours and the additional complications of moving can eat up time devoted to self-care, including exercise. Upon moving to a new place, a person needs to find new venues for self-care, such as new running or biking routes, new gyms or studios or athletic clubs, and new partners or groups for engaging in these activities. New routines must emerge, and until they do, such activities are often neglected. Moving also causes an interruption in ongoing medical care, which can be difficult to resume after a move. (I have been working for three months to get one set of medical documents transferred to my new provider, to no avail so far.) Not having a long-term relationship with an established primary care provider can also lead to substandard care.

Moving causes small emergencies to turn into catastrophes. When you don’t know anyone, something that normally would be simply inconvenient or difficult can turn into a nightmare. I am so thankful that the emergencies in my life have occurred in the places where I have an established social network. What happens when newly moved parents are too sick to care for their children and there is no one to help? What happens to the dog when its single owner ends up in the hospital for an extended stay and there is no one to help? What happens when your apartment burns down and you’ve got no one to stay with?

Moving is ridiculously expensive. Young academics are underpaid relative to their skills, abilities, and credentials and academia doesn’t absorb moving costs like it should. A single person moving cross-country in their car with all their possessions packed into it and planning to camp on the way can probably manage to do so for several hundred dollars.  Moving a family that includes children cross-country can cost up to $10,000 or more. A budget of three to five thousand dollars is reasonable for many moves. And guess who pays for that? Yes, the academic. This is crazy. I’ve heard others defend academic moving by saying that other professions move regularly, too. Yes, but, those other professions PAY for the moves. Military? The fed pays for the move (up to $18,000 back when I worked for it). Contractor who requires moving? Company pays for the move. Companies that hire people who live far away? You get paid for the move and/or you get a hiring bonus. I have made many friends who move frequently. But only the academics absorb the costs, instead of demanding that the organization getting their services pay. (Dear Academia, you need to fix this. And PI’s, that means you need to include at least a few thousand dollars for moving in your budgets when you write postdocs into your proposals. Work with your administrators to figure out how to do it properly – moving allowance, start-up fee, hiring bonus, whatever.)

I have had all the advantages, privileges, support from others, and luck you can imagine. (And I’m good at moving. I’ve lived in 8 places since I left college almost sixteen years ago.) But academia has forced three of those moved: between 2010 and 2014, my then three-person family hauled across country for academic jobs (both mine and my husband’s). It has been hard, exhausting, stressful, anxiety-producing, lonely, expensive to the tune of $20K+ direct costs, scary at times, sad, and has sapped too much of my time and energy. I now have a family of four, and I’m done with moving. My last move brought me back to where I grew up, and I have remembered how wonderful it is to have family and old friends nearby and how important it is to have a social support network that can show up in-person in an emergency.

Frequent moving needs to stop being the norm for early career academics. It’s harmful in many, many ways. For me, the harm has gotten to the point where it outweighs the benefits. The more I talk to other scientists, too, the more I realize that those who don’t fit the traditional mold of scientist are opting out of academia because they don’t want to – or can’t – move. There are many things that hold back underrepresented groups. Some of those things are structural and should be addressed head-on. Moving is one of them. If we really want diversity, we need to change the system so moving is optional, not required.


1. Update 2016-03-23 5pm EDT: spelling fixed ^

2. Update 2016-03-23 9pm EDT: added link to blog post that opened my eyes about needing access to health care and how that intersects with 3+ body considerations. This post influenced my writing of this piece, but I had neglected to link to it. ^

Permanent link to this article: http://ecologybits.com/index.php/2016/03/23/i-am-unwilling-to-relocate-again-and-it-will-probably-cost-me-my-academic-career/

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