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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  1. Koen

    Nice write up, touches on most things I’ve experienced during my travels. And indeed there comes a point after which you do not want to travel anymore. I guess I’m getting close to this point.

  2. Peter Anderson

    I have lived in over 50 places in 9 countries on 3 continents. Would quite happily move again too. Yes it is not cheap and gets more expensive as the years go bye. It is not easy to hitch hike at sixty and my worldly goods fill more than a back pack. My education was crap but hey. I have dined with a Sultan, as well as some of the poorest people on earth. Slept under nothing but the stars, in two stately homes as well as lots of places in between. Met and talked with fabulous people. Live now on the South Coast of England. Poor, no income. Knowing what happened, and the results. I would do it all again.

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      Great. (And I did lots of those things pre-kid too.) But no one should have to do them in order to be an academic.

    2. John

      Exactly. If you embrace these wonderful benefits, it is easier to become content and enjoy the adventure.

    3. Loren

      I love traveling and adventure, and have had some of the best times of my life while exploring new places. I hope to keep exploring for decades to come. None of that changes any of the arguments in this post about continuity of health care, logistical difficulties of finding dog sitters or child sitters in a new place, caring for family members, or any of the other points.

    4. Travis

      That’s awesome! How has your family liked it?

  3. Emily

    I totally agree with you, and have experienced it first hand! My academic spouse and I are hoping to break our record of only 4 consecutive years in the same city… but I am applying for jobs across North America, so who knows what could happen. I have also seen people opt out and choose to live closer to family first and then have jobs as their next priority. I think that works more frequently with MSc but once you have a PhD it’s pretty hard to just get a job where you want to be, as opposed to the other way around.

    That being said, any ideas for solutions? I feel like once I get a TT job I would like to start the process of changing these things but this problem in particular seems pretty hard to tackle…. I really can’t think of any reasonable solutions off the top of my head. 🙁

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      I think there are a suite of partial solutions. Some cultural (e.g. don’t look down on people who did ugrad, grad, postdoc in one place), some institutional (e.g. look inside before looking outside when hiring). I’m hoping to write a ‘solutions’ post as a follow-up in a few weeks.

      1. Chris

        I’m feeling ^this myself right now. I’m currently a research associate and contract instructor (a.k.a. sessional) at the university which just happens to be where I did my PhD- mind you, I left it for 6 years (3 x 2-year positions) during which I gained R1 research experience, industry research experience, and undergrad-focused research and teaching experience. During the 2 years that I’ve been back at my alma mater, there have been 3 tenure-track hires, 2 of which were not only in my very department but also within my exact niche of expertise. I was not invited to so much as a Skype/phone interview! To make matters worse, it is in clear black-and-white writing within the contract instructors’ collective agreement with the university, that contract instructors “shall be evaluated in the same manner as all other candidates when the University advertises for a faculty position […].” In other words, no worse, but no more favourably; certainly not looking inside BEFORE looking outside when hiring.
        I may be a single white male, but I still feel the pain of the one-body problem, and depression and anxiety, just like anyone else. And given that I’m not being considered for any positions internally, I’ll be feeling it all over again when I have to relocate anew in the next few months.

      2. David Mellor (@EvoMellor)

        All great points in an important conversation! I’m looking forward to the follow up.

        That solutions post will be so tough- to me it seems like the ultimate cause is a supply and demand issue in the academic labor market. These issues (may?) arise less in the private sector because jobs are either less specialized, or because highly specialized industries tend to cluster in geographic regions. When relocation does come up, the limited supply of talent gives the employee easy room to negotiate. None of this is true in academia- there are many people so happy to get any job, and the risk of saying no is that the offer will simply go to someone else, instead of compensation to alleviate the burden.

        There are of course things that individuals can do- such as providing relocation expenses- but asking people to do that out of the goodness of their heart when the money does not have to be spent in order to get the required talent I think is unsustainable. I hope that advocating for the policy changes can affect some change. For example, requiring these expenses when grants include hiring.

        As I write this- I’m reminded of the decades long decline in labor collective bargaining, which is showing no signs of decline. I expect that these issues were not “better” during the height of the labor movement, because of the different academic job market and the institutional sexism that “solved” these issues by pushing half of the population out of the market. However, any increase in collective bargaining would include quality of life issues as they pertain to untenured academic positions, including this one.

      3. Margaret Kosmala

        Insightful. I think this — “ultimate cause is a supply and demand issue in the academic labor market” — is spot on. Perhaps we’ll need to consider two tiers of solutions: one band-aid fixes that make things moderately better and one long-term restructuring of academia.

      4. Koen Hufkens

        Echoing some of Chris’s remarks. I’m trying to return home and I have to compete with the “stay home” (in) crowd. In this respect, my foreign experience adds to my skills, so it should be counted in some way I say. I did good science while being in a foreign environment and all the juggling that came with it. So, I agree, looking down shouldn’t happen. But, hey, my experience abroad adds to my skills, compared to someone who stayed home and has the “network”. Sadly, especially in Europe they try to play safe and often hire within their ranks.

      5. Margaret Kosmala

        We’ve got to figure out how to make this work for everyone. I have another friend who did a lot of fieldwork abroad. She found that when it came to interviewing for TT positions, other candidates were “better known,” because they’d been to U.S. conferences, etc. What do we do so that the in-crowd is not favored and the moves-around-crowd is not favored?

      6. Koen Hufkens

        I guess that it has to be a holistic approach as the problem isn’t limited to recognizing these skills either. Also, there should be a chance to escape the system if wanted/needed and to do so in a successful way. In a lot of ways I feel trapped. This goes back to your 12 hats post. All scientists wear those, but there is little time (either not desired by the PI or just because) to invest in translating those 12+ hats into something which is of use/recognized in industry. There should be time to back out of the system, without taking a potential pay-cut (or status quo) and being treated as junior (again).

  4. Martha

    Thank you for this. This is exactly why I refused to apply for visiting positions my last time on the market and had a non-academic backup plan ready.

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      I’d love to hear more about your non-academic backup plan. How did you develop it?

      1. Ezra Schwartzberg

        Hey Margaret, Just tweeted you. Check out what I am doing here in Saranac Lake: http://www.adkres.org

  5. Gus

    The real key is in the “no one should **have** to”.

  6. I.P.Freeley


    One more to add to the list. You can end up moving somewhere you don’t want to live long term, and then something happens (like the global economy crashes), and you have trouble landing a new position somewhere else. Chasing the academic career means you risk ending up unemployed, living in a place you hate. And isolated from friends and family who would be your natural network for finding a new job.

    1. NyP

      Exactly! Or relocating with a partner to a place temporary, while trying to find a better institution, and then breaking up the relationship, and finding yourself in a bad place without the friends to support you through tough times in a bad job.

      If academic jobs would cover the expenses in a more fair way, we would not be struggling trying to find a better place to work and live.

  7. Bryce G

    I know this article speaks in the context of academia, but I feel it’s pretty closely aligned with industry, too! I will say that yes, relocating several times now has really helped me advance in my career. Having a family could CERTAINLY hamper that opportunity, which is why I’m trying to do it now, while I’m young.

    As a gay man, moving to 1 tiny town, and 1 larger town that is notoriously homophobic SUCKED. I get it. It’s a matter of priorities for sure. I think, for the most part, it’s a matter of how highly you value advancing in your career (yes, again, speaking from industry, so I apologize) versus being “comfortable.” In general, stepping outside of your comfort zone on a regular basis in different aspects of your life is very beneficial and allows you to grow as a person, and continue to learn.

    I’m not sure I can relate with the subheadings that say “Moving causes…” I think you can say that moving CAN cause depression, anxiety, physical health problems, etc., but the all-encompassing notion that it DOES cause those things is a bit far-reaching. Moving actually improved my physical health and put things into perspective for me. As someone who suffers from depression (but not anxiety), it took some pre-planning before and immediately after moves, but it certainly didn’t exacerbate anything.

    The one area that I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention was your talk of this relocating hampering diversity. I disagree completely. If industry OR academia DIDN’T push for continued relocations, we’d have the same people, who grew up in the same area, who think similarly, all agreeing with each other all the time. There would be no innovation ever. When you talk about diversity, think about diversity of thought and diversity of background, and how transplanting someone into a new environment can force “old ways of doing things” to be reconsidered. Also think about how the person relocating can not only BRING ideas to the table, but glean new ideas at each stop along the way!

    I don’t think all of your sentiments are wrong by any means, and again–I’m speaking from industry! However, I think there are benefits AND challenges, for sure. I hope to relocate at least once more in the next 5 years or so. I’m happy where I am, but each time I relocate, I learn and experience so much more. It makes me a better professional but also a better person.

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      Back when I was single I might have written a reply like yours. But as life changes, you gain dependents, and you realize that your well-being depends on the connections you have with other people, moving becomes increasingly burdensome and the costs increasingly outweigh the benefits.

      “If industry OR academia DIDN’T push for continued relocations, we’d have the same people, who grew up in the same area, who think similarly, all agreeing with each other all the time.”

      I don’t think things are as black and white as you paint them. I think people would still move around — especially when they’re young and single — and there would be a fine mix of ideas. There’s also short-term visits and, um, the internet for spreading ideas. Most of my collaborations have been with people who are not in my physical location. Those who want to move wouldn’t be prevented. But the diverse group of people who can’t move (or for whom the costs outweigh the benefits) shouldn’t be forced to choose between relocation and their career.

      1. Bryce G

        Agree, nobody should be forced to move for the sake of keeping their work.

        Also, I’m not single, and haven’t been for a while–we just don’t have kids. We will eventually.

        Thanks for your reply.

      2. Margaret Kosmala

        Thanks for your comment. And congrats on making the 2-body problem work. (I probably should have written “young and/or single”.)

  8. Postdoc

    Thanks for writing this – I’m probably in the same boat (moved too many times, probably won’t make it in academia despite wanting to). I’m glad that you wrote this, and I hope others speak out in the same way. I share these concerns, but I also don’t know how to make it better. Funding certainly helps, although I don’t see that happening any time soon.

    I don’t mean to quibble, but I don’t think inside hiring is a good solution, either – that would close (or make harder to open) more doors than it would open for me and everyone else. I also appreciate the push for diversity, which academia needs. But I also think it may be better to cast this not only as an under-represented minority issue but also a 99% vs. 1% kind of issue (and I’m not saying this post is written only emphasizing diversity).

    If there’s a solution to this that helps diversity, great – I’m all for it, and I will help support it. But I would also like it to help people like me who aren’t members of any under-represented group but are not wealthy enough to move constantly. Academia is putting up walls that keep out all but the wealthy. I’d like to see real, structural change that simultaneously bolsters the diversity we often think of (frankly, I think most people use ‘diversity’ to mean ethnic origin and gender) and also economic diversity. I have this ridiculous optimism that we can, but I honestly don’t know the steps to make it happen. Your post helps, though.

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      Thanks for your comment. And I mean to include economic diversity when I write ‘diversity’. And I agree that that means people who aren’t wealthy — not just those that are poor. According to my tax software, I’m in the 87% bracket of income earners the U.S. — upper-middle class! But repeated moves have strained my family’s budget to the breaking point.

      1. Postdoc

        Wow – I suspect the 87th percentile would surprise just about all tenured academics. That’s probably why they are so clueless as to suggest hiring cleaning help to advance your career, or other such out-of-touch, if well-intentioned, ‘advice.’ I wish you the best – I don’t want an academic culture with walls that exclude voices like yours.

        [on a sidenote, I’ve thought about starting a twitter account that would post links to jobs that are entirely off-limits to most, e.g., a postdoc in Berkeley for $44K and no moving expenses; a visiting teaching gig at Stanford for $50K. It wouldn’t fix anything, but maybe it would help publicize the issue.]

  9. anon

    incredibly time-consuming and logically complicated –> probably you meant logistically?

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      Yes! Fixed. Thank you. (I need an editor…)

  10. drjuliebug

    I hear you. My husband and I are both science professionals, and to complicate things even further, we’ve both been career-changers at a non-traditional age. We made those decisions and pursued advanced degrees at a time when they made lots of sense, both financially and for personal satisfaction. And then we both landed in postdoc limbo when everything went down the toilet in 2007.

    We don’t have children, we don’t have debt, and we were able to sell the one house we’ve ever owned at a small profit when we had to relocate to another city for my first postdoc. Those situations simplified the finances somewhat. But in the intervening years, we’ve lived in three different cities that are quite far apart. None of them are near our families or large concentrations of longtime friends. None of those situations were stable in the long term. At one point, we endured two years of commuter marriage; if we hadn’t had to pay two rents to keep our careers afloat, we’d have a lot more money than we do now.

    We decided a long time ago that neither of us would be happy in a conventional faculty job, but our specialties aren’t really in demand in industry, and research institute positions are much harder to find. (If it helps, faculty jobs in our areas aren’t exactly common these days either.) We’re still working on the next step, though, which is at least mildly amusing while more and more of our high school and undergrad classmates are retiring! And we still have no idea when and where we’ll move next.

    So, as we like to say: The adventure continues!

  11. Squirrely Red

    Thanks for this great post. I have a post up on TSW about the three body problem (TSW has lots of related posts about the horrors of moving for all number of bodies and situations) – specifically when the third body is a child with a disability or long term medical condition.

    I was heartened (and disappointed) to receive a number of comments and follow up communication with academic parents who opted out – or felt forced to- because not all third (or fourth or whatever) bodies are the same. Yes, all parents care about good schools etc. But not all parents have to worry about which states adequately fund special education or how far away they are from the appropriate hospital / medical team. This is true of parents in all professions in some ways BUT compounded in academia in large part because of the stigma of NOT moving for each new position. Students and postdocs are told they won’t be considered (or won’t be considered serious scholars) if they stay in the same institution or geographic region.

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      Yes! Shoot, should have linked to your post. Thanks for putting it in the comments. It was your post that opened my eyes to the complications of healthcare needs (and the interaction with the 3+ body problem) that I included here.

  12. Kaley

    Thanks for this. I’m doing my PhD in a fairly small college town and the program is perfect, except the town. I’ve already decided that my next job, academic or not, will be in a large city with an LGBT population, because honestly, I don’t want to live in another town where there are only about 20 other lesbians on online dating and most of them are young enough to be my students. Most of my friends have gotten married in the last few years and suddenly I’m the only single one, and I’m not quite sure I could find a girlfriend even if I was actively looking.

    I’m also dreading my next move though, because while I hate this town, it took me over a year to really feel comfortable here and I don’t really want to go through that again.

  13. Jeremy Fox

    Nice post Margaret. Moving is rough on a lot of people. I’ve been there, having decided that I wasn’t going to move again for a second postdoc and would rather leave academic science, only to get lucky and have Calgary offer me my current position and so change the calculation for my wife and I.

    Like Chris, I wonder about solutions to the ultimate issue, which is supply of and demand for people seeking careers in academic science. Warning: what follows is amateur economics by someone who only reads econ blogs. So nothing I say may actually make sense.

    For instance, at the micro level: you mention lack of moving expenses. To the extent that those are provided and factor into people’s decision-making, surely they *increase* the frequency with which people move, right? And to the extent that people leave academic science because they can’t afford to keep moving around, making moving cheaper for them surely encourages them to keep pursuing an academic career and so increases the supply of people wanting those careers, right? Thereby exacerbating the supply-demand mismatch, right? The point is that well-intentioned micro-level bandaids to treat the symptoms of the underlying disease might make the underlying disease worse, at least in a small way.

    At the macro level: I think Chris is right that it’s ultimately a supply and demand issue. And I agree that currently, supply and demand for PhDs are badly mismatched. But it’s not clear to me how you would engineer a situation that guarantees balance of supply and demand, because there are often feedbacks between the two, especially at longer time scales. For instance, imagine that universities miraculously start hiring more tenure-track faculty. In the short term, that raises demand to more closely match the supply of people wanting to become academic scientists–great! But in the longer term, I suspect one effect of that hiring bump would be to encourage higher supply that would otherwise have been the case. I’m thinking of a somewhat analogous situation with grant funding, the doubling of NIH funding over 5 years back in the late 90s or early oughts if memory serves. The intent was to increase grant applicant success rates by increasing the supply of funding. And in the short term, I think it did. But at the end of the doubling, if memory serves success rates were either flat or down slightly, because the bump in funding attracted lots of people into biomedical fields–indeed, funded their entry!

    Turning to the supply side, one model is medicine and dentistry. Entry into the field is tightly controlled at the level of graduate admissions–which displaces the severe supply-demand mismatch, and associated stresses on position-seekers, to the level of premed students (many) and spots in medical school (few). Even leaving aside the practicalities of how one might get to that sort of world for academic science, it’s not clear to me that it’s a better world.

    Another approach is to make academic science a less desirable career, so that fewer people ever want to go into it in the first place, and more people currently in the field start quitting to do something else! Ok, I’m kidding, obviously. It’s a deliberately silly example to make the point that it’s not easy to engineer a supply-demand match without having any seriously undesirable side effects.

    I guess the supply side reform I’d like to see would be to somehow move grant funding to a model in which it supports more full-time technicians/research associates/lab managers/etc. and fewer graduate students. So that there’d be an increased supply of viable middle-class career paths in science (though not tenure track faculty careers), and a reduced demand for them because there’d be fewer people getting graduate degrees. Importantly, I don’t think that model would come at much if any cost to the per-grant-dollar productivity of researchers, because an experienced technician or research associate can be much more productive than a graduate student. That’s important because I think funding agencies like NSF rightly see their primary job as buying as much good science as they can for their money. I don’t think NSF does or should see it as it’s job to make sure that anyone who wants to go into academic science can find an academic science job without having to move around too much…Anyway, it’s probably easier to move towards this model in some countries than in others, depending on the broader science and higher education funding mix. And I’m sure there’s a lot of devilish details I’m not thinking of.

    As I said, very tentative thoughts. I have no answers.

    1. Jeremy Fox

      p.s. Just found some blog posts from Sergey Kryazhimskiy, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, San Diego, on the topic of moving to more staff scientist-type positions. Short version: the obstacles to this shift are formidable, at least in the US. Focused more on biomedicine, but I think the broad points apply outside of biomedicine.


    2. Postdoc

      If providing moving funds encourages academics and increases the supply, I suppose the corollary is that offering no moving funds discourages academics and decreases supply – helping the problem. But I don’t have the money to move without funds, so your scenario just bumps out me and the rest of the poor (and middle-income) folks. So it seems like it’s a way to eliminate competition for limited spots with heavy directional selection. We could reduce competition by putting up walls for different groups of people, also, but we just realize that’s unethical.

      I’d argue it’s the same way here: we could reduce competition by discriminating against those without financial resources. I just think this constitutes unethical discrimination in the same way as if we stopped paying postdocs on the theory that this would also reduce demand. If universities paid for moving expenses, it might keep some good scientists in the game when they’d otherwise be sent packing (essentially a debtor’s prison for academia). The supply and demand problem arises when universities decide how many students get in to PhD programs. As an incoming PhD student, my decision to enter the program and to earn my degree were entirely unaffected by the amount of moving expenses offered to postdocs. I can’t see how withholding moving expenses changes the basic supply and demand problem.

      I’m okay with thinking out loud and considering unintended consequences, I just don’t think that solution is a good one.

      1. Jeremy Fox

        Yes, many ways of trying to limit the supply of people obtaining advanced degrees and wanting to go on in academia likely will restrict supply in some biased way. That’s a big downside of many ways of restricting supply.

        I agree that for most people, moving expenses aren’t likely to be a major factor in their decision whether to pursue (or continue to pursue) an academic career.

    3. Margaret Kosmala

      “To the extent that those are provided and factor into people’s decision-making, surely they *increase* the frequency with which people move, right? And to the extent that people leave academic science because they can’t afford to keep moving around, making moving cheaper for them surely encourages them to keep pursuing an academic career and so increases the supply of people wanting those careers, right? Thereby exacerbating the supply-demand mismatch, right? ”

      That logic makes sense to me (as an admittedly less-than-amateurish economist). But my concern is with equality, not with absolute numbers. If by not providing moving funds, you disproportionately force out under-represented groups, then I see it as a bad thing. (As an ecologist, I’d say I’m interested in community evenness, not overall abundance.)

      “But it’s not clear to me how you would engineer a situation that guarantees balance of supply and demand, because there are often feedbacks between the two, especially at longer time scales.”

      You’ve convinced me that it’s very hard. But I think we ought to try anyway. (Ooh, ooh, I feel some modeling coming on…) I think a broader conversation about this is necessary. It may be that we don’t want to limit incoming students, but rather create viable and desirable career tracks other than academia and maybe not even in ecology. (It seems to me that astrophysics does this well.)

      “Another approach is to make academic science a less desirable career, so that fewer people ever want to go into it in the first place”

      I don’t think this is crazy. Academia is one of the few vestiges of a “job for life,” and the job security that goes with a tenured position makes it a rare and distinctly valuable thing. Blanket removal of tenure is obviously not a good thing (see Wisconsin), but it may be that turning academia into a more normal profession would relieve some of the pressure (or maybe not — I haven’t fully thought about it yet).

      “a model in which it supports more full-time technicians/research associates/lab managers/etc. and fewer graduate students.”

      I think this is definitely worth exploring more. Importantly, I think the usefulness of this model will vary across fields. For fields that need to produce a lot of non-academic advanced students for industry jobs (engineering, computer science, biomed, etc.) it may be a bad one. But for fields like ecology, it may be a better model. Can universities and funding agencies support different models across fields? Probably?

      Thanks for your tentative thoughts and for throwing in an economics viewpoint.

      1. Jeremy Fox

        “But my concern is with equality, not with absolute numbers.”

        Ah, ok. Apologies (if apologies are necessary) for taking the thread in a different direction. As I said in reply to Postdoc, I agree that many ways of trying to engineer a supply-demand match might well have the undesirable side effect of increasing structural biases against certain people.

        Just remembered that I have an old post talking a bit more about some of these issues. Still without any firm conclusions or easy answers:


      2. Jeremy Fox

        p.s. I agree that getting rid of tenure probably would reduce the number of people wanting to go into academia (though maybe not, I’m just guessing). And that that’s probably not a sufficient reason on its own to get rid of tenure.

    4. Mina

      I agree wholeheartedly with the notion that it’s a supply and demand issue. If well-trained scientists are willing to take the job and move for it, it is difficult to imagine the system being re-engineered to accommodate those that don’t want to move. If equality is the real problem rather than absolute numbers, then college hiring could take the same tack as college admissions (or government hiring) where ‘diversity’ candidates are given preference.

      I emphasize that moving is hard (I’ve done it a lot for my career and sacrificed greatly). However, academic positions are well-paid and relatively luxurious thought-work type jobs (although stressful, sure). When I consider the great spectrum of the American workforce, they hardly seem like an under served group.

      One solution would be to have better access to career counseling or materials that educated young scientists on the potential challenges of sciences as a career choice. Although, before I would hope before students invested years into graduate work, they would have done a little research on the nature of the academic job market.

    5. Jessie

      I agree that a mis-match in supply and demand is clearly a big part of the problem. Which is why it is interesting that we (as a society) keep telling kids and teenagers that we need more people in STEM. Young people who go into the arts expect a tough job market because everyone tells them that it’s hard to make it professionally in the arts. I would argue that going into academic, curiosity-driven science is not *that* much easier (although there may be more and/or better alternative career paths). However, when you’ve heard constantly, over the course of your entire life, that America and the world need more scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, it is surprising to find out that this isn’t exactly true.

  14. invalidusername

    “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.”


  15. Nie Kapai

    Essentially you can summarize with: WE WANT WAAAAY MORE MONEY.

    Also, you forgot to talk about language differences. Many move from non-English to English speaking country following the money.

    Question goes: can you demand more?
    How are things working in sectors other than academia?
    “It’s capitalism, baby”, take it or leave it, that’s the point.

  16. Sasha Wright

    Thank you Margaret. This post is really great. This is exactly what has restricted me to my current region for the past several years, and ultimately resulted in the TT position I now have that is… pretty non-traditional. Teaching Ecology at a fashion and design school. 🙂

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      “Teaching Ecology at a fashion and design school”

      Wow!!! That’s got to be an interesting story. I’d love to hear it sometime. Hope you’re doing well.

  17. Paolo Salucci

    I much agree with the content of post and I sympathize with the writer.

    However, there are a couple of aspects that bother me!

    -In the more advanced economies there are many other kind of careers and jobs with a similar pattern (e.g. in arts, in cultural activities, in military and security, in teaching, in managing industry, in banking and financing, in some industrial jobs, in some engineering jobs, in fashion industry etc) Millions of people have jobs (some of high level, some others also not) for which , apparently, to have a family and a social life seem to be at odds with advance of even with a continuation of a carrier. But all these people cope with that, and they consider it as part of the life, which is complex for all . Why only academics do complain?

    – On the same line . 30 years ago scientists , expecially in physics , were truly lovers of freedom , citizens of the World and the fact that one has to move around the world was considered a plus. Today, young scintists do not want to move even once or even more than 100 km from home ! This is in a tendency totally contrary to the rest of population, where mobility is appreciated or at least considered a term in the equation of life . Why today scientists are so little motivated , why are they much lesser motivated that e.g. some of the ordinary workers ?

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      On your first point, I argue that no, most other jobs are quite different. Artists are quite free to live where they like and pursue their art as they can. Those in jobs that require moves (military, some industrial and engineering jobs, etc.), they are either paid very well (e.g. engineering) to help compensate for the life upset or have a lot of logistical and social support built in (e.g. military). Those in jobs like teaching, banking and finance, etc. have a large job market. They can choose where to live and be pretty sure that they’ll be able to find a job. I know people in all these fields. They are flabbergasted by how much young academics move on their own dime.

      On your second point, 30 years ago society was very different. What’s different now is that families require dual incomes — and moreover women are a part of the workplace. There are more opportunities for under-represented groups. Thirty years ago it was easy for scientists to love their freedom because they were mostly white men who had armies of support people — women, minorities — who did all the work to make their lives easy. If I had a three full-time people who worked for me for free (equivalent of a 30-years-ago wife) to take care of my children, cook my food, clean my house, set up my appointments, and help me with my science, I think I might feel different about moving.

  18. Sara L. Uckelman

    It’s not clear from the post whether you’re in the US or outside, but I’m surprised that you’ve paid for your moves for academic jobs. Since obtaining my PhD, I have moved three times, once across the country (which, given that the country was the Netherlands, meant only 2.5 hours away), and twice to another country (from NL to DE and DE to UK). The first two positions were post-docs, the third was permanent. All three I had a relocation budget; in fact, because I was coming either from about as far away as you could get in the country or from out of the country, I had the max possible relocation budget. (In the first case, we ended up doing the actual in-country move on a shoe-string budget, and using the relocation allowance to have all our books still in storage in the US boxed up and shipped to us!)

  19. warbler

    Thanks for this post! I’m surprised more people don’t talk about this.

    I’m lucky to have a spouse who has followed me from our college town, to another country where I had a fellowship, to the city of my Ph.D. program. But after this, I don’t want to ask them to move to random places with me any more. At least I have built-in social connections: my grad school cohort & professors. But my spouse has been isolated since we moved away from our old friends, and though they’ve tried to stay positive about the situation, it’s been hard. I’d rather give my spouse a say in where we live next than to follow a scholarly career — which would probably be a series of short-term, under-paid jobs anyway.

    I love my Ph.D. program, all that I’ve learned, and the experiences I’ve had. But I’m not ready to hand over decision-making about where I live for the rest of my life. When my program ends we want to buy a house, have kids, and develop deep ties in a location of our choice.

    To prepare for this, I’ve been building up skills and work experiences related to my field that will be relevant in the non-academic world. I want to be ready to parachute out of academia when the time comes.

  20. pellegrino

    I can absolutely relate.
    Research (in Physics) has been my life since I started University. 5 years courses (in italy) + 4 years PhD (in UK). I suffer from generalised anxiety, which was officially diagnosed. This causes two main problems:

    1) it is very complicated for me to think about moving again to another place. Rebuilding a social net, relations, habits etc. is undoubtedly difficult and worsen by my condition.
    2) having suffered from this disease will nevertheless prevent me from applying anywhere else, since my supervisor is not willing to write a recommendation letter. However, my PhD went very well, I had several publications and gave many seminars at Conferences

    I totally agree with the article. This situation is sad and unbearable. Having to quit one’s passion is among the most depressing things one can face.

  21. justhere

    There are so many things I can relate to here, having moved back and forth across the world several times now. On the financial side of things, there’s even more that hasn’t been mentioned yet. Even if you get a relocation allowance (in my case, a generous one) there are always unforeseen costs and costs that are not covered by the allowance, so you’ll almost always end up out of pocket. Visa costs, getting documents translated and certified, cancelling subscriptions and insurances and setting up new ones and paying all the additional fees, applying for a driver’s licence and registering your relocated vehicle in another country, living off one salary until spouse finds a steady job, and the list goes on. In addition, what about retirement and superannuation? If you’re lucky enough to have worked in countries that have generous systems in place, it is often really difficult to have accrued funds transferred from one country to another, so you end up getting short-changed in comparison to people who stay in the same country.
    I do consider myself very lucky in that my contract duration is extremely long for a postdoc position, and I have a partner who has been very supportive even though things haven’t been easy for him. Nevertheless I suffered from major anxiety during my first year in this position. Although I love my job and love seeing the world, I now feel that enough is enough. I am expecting our first child and I sometimes wonder about what would happen if disaster struck, and I would lose my partner or our child would have a severe illness or disability. In honesty I believe the only option would be to quit my job, which means having to move back to our country of origin and having to live with family. Of course a major thing like that would put anyone’s life upside down. I just feel that what is seen as “normal” in academia are in fact outrageous demands.

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      Thank you for the international perspective, which is lacking from my post. I lived and worked abroad for two years prior to having kids (and prior to starting a PhD), so I totally understand the added logistics, expense, and risk. I turned down a high-quality postdoc position overseas after my PhD. I had a kid by then and was planning a second. And while I even have extended family living in the overseas country, it just seemed like it would be *too much* to do, for many of the reasons you give.

  22. Adam

    Relocating has become an important part of most of US citizens and for other country also. I think anyone who need help or suggestion on relocating or moving, i may request you to visit @ http://www.moveassistonline.com for better guidance.

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      Logistic help is always nice. But most of the issues I note in this post are far beyond what a website can help with.

  23. MeTOO!

    I really enjoyed reading this post and I am taken aback by the quantity of comments it received: good job, Margaret! Keep the good work!

    In the last 5 years, I have moved country, university, bank and house with a frequency of 6 to 12 months – all for good reasons! In fact, I have been lucky enough to have worked/studied in Australia, US, Italy, Germany, and Netherlands, and I am also very proud of my little achievements and the academic network I managed to build. To be honest, I can say I know a bunch about different types of food and wine, I have seen lots of new places and talked with lots of very interesting characters. However, I do not think I would have manage to do all that if it wasn’t because I managed to go to all of those places with my partner – who also happens to be an academic.

    My partner has now managed to get an professorship position in yet another country. Everything looks promising and permanent and I have followed my partner, although, I have had to manage with job seeker’s allowance for some months (bringing the money from yet another country!). Luckily, it seems that after having accepted an unpaid visiting fellowship, the sun is finally rising and I will start being paid not much for one year, although the prospects are to start being paid more under another non-permanent position for 3 years after that, which may open the door to a permanent position – that is what I was told when I ask. Unfortunately, at the moment I cannot go to the many conferences I used to go, but I managed to still travel around and keep networking by joining academic associations and working closer with other academics from my direct and indirect network.

    Also, having moved to another place has made me have to change my topic of interest in my research, but I do not see this as a bad thing: the more things I learn how to do, the better! The more rounded I am!

    So yeah, so far the situation is not the best, but it does not seem so bad despite the fact that I have not been paid for a while, and I turned down offers at top universities. I guess in my case it all boils down to living by the so-called “gold-in-the-middle” and accepting that a position that may not be the highest in the ranking I could possibly reach is probably good-enough provided that I can’t live by my partner! Once again, for me it is: first my partner and then my job! (I said!).

    I think one of the issues that has bothered me the most about travelling around non-stop is not being able to have my own things or to buy good quality things and pass with cheaper stuff, as I had to be throwing and giving away lots of things with a regular frequency. For example, cutlery, beds, bikes… Also, I have not been able to make very close friends, although I am very glad there is Whatsapp and the Internet so I can still talk with my friends from childhood that I try to visit once or twice a year, even though I leave far away from them…

    Another thing that has bothered me a lot lately has been applying for jobs in industry and realizing that I am not fit for it, or that at least I would have to do a master’s in business and administration or be able to sale something to someone before I even dare to apply for any jobs. Before getting this small job at the university with apparently really good prospects, I applied to a meeting from a big consulting firm, I have tried to join other companies, sent lots of CVs, and you know the result? NO RESPONSE or “Wow! You have an impressive CV but you are not fit for this job or the competition was really strong and we decided to go on with other candidates”. I do not know how much it would have taken me to get a job in industry if I could not have gotten that small job at the university. However, I am now well acquainted with the fact that I better work hard on all my skills to be a great academic but also to do things on the side or on top or the bottom that may allow me to jump to industry, if necessary! And, hey, speaking many languages does not help – I speak many and no one seemed interested in my profile.

  24. Simon

    I am one of those who decided the game isn’t worth it. I recently took a stable, well paid academic support job which allowed me to live in the place I love with my friends and family. I chose it over an offer of a 2-year academic post in a place where I knew nobody except my department colleagues and which was, frankly, much less culturally interesting. So far I don’t regret this decision. There is, however, a lingering feeling of shame for ‘giving up’, and a general impression that I’m looked down on by the academics in the department I work in as support staff.

  25. Einherjar

    A great read, I can agree with most points.

    However, I take issue with

    “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.”

    Is this perhaps only true about the US? Anecdotally, I don´t know any female academic who has trouble finding suitable men, I have never heard about a woman being turned down because of her high educational status. Statistically, it should be easier for women to find male partners in academia since academia is still dominated by men, many of whom are single.

    Conversely, it is surely not easy for a male academic to find suitable female partners. Firstly because academia itself is so male, and second because the low pay in academia often scares off suitable women who want someone who earns more than them. That´s just my experience and that of some of my peers though.

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      Research has shown that men generally don’t want female partners who are perceived to be smarter or more accomplished than they are, which limits women’s prospects to a small pool. Women, on the other hand, are happy to “marry up”, meaning that men can find potential partners from a much wider pool.

      See for example:
      and many others. ..

      For fun, too, you can play with this visualization:

  26. anonymous

    Hi Margaret,

    This is a great piece and resonates with my own experiences. I have been fortunate enough to find both a post-doc and then a faculty position without moving myself and my family from the same town in which I did my PhD (though each at different institutions — I was commuting 5 hrs one way during my post-doc).

    I wanted to comment on your advice regarding faculty covering moving expenses for post-docs. Sharing your views entirely, I attempted to do this in hiring my first post-doc. Despite having adequate start-up funds over which I normally have wide discretionary control, I was told that I would need approval from our Dean to officially allocate funds to a post-doc as ‘moving expenses’. I went forward with this, only to be rejected by the Dean on the grounds that I had not adequately demonstrated that the post-doc would only come if I could pay these expenses. (The Dean also observed that my request was highly unusual).

    Though I tried to compensate by offering a salary much above the recommended rate by our HR office (which needed no special approval to do), I was nonetheless surprised how difficult it was to request moving expenses.

    1. Margaret Kosmala

      Ugh. It shouldn’t be that hard. Thanks for sharing your efforts. There appears to be a wide range of ability to provide moving expenses, depending on the institution.

      1. Squirrely Red

        interestingly, I’ve been told the same about asking for postdoc hires to be EEOC/ADA compliant (in their wording of the job ad, if not in practice). Most PIs refuse by saying that postdocs aren’t ‘real employees’ under HR, so not same process (aka not same protections). But others have explained that HR actually won’t let them, say, list a HR contact for questions about accommodation in interview/hires (as legally allowed), rather than just put the PI’s name (explicit and implicit bias leads them to illegally discriminate against applicants asking for accommodations). This is obviously intersectional with pay rates + moving, as many in this thread have pointed out that inadequately funding scholars to move (or work) results in a privileged few doing science, which often leaves out the same populations EEOC and ADA are designed to protect. Postdocs get screwed in many ways – and this part of one’s “career” could be seen as a bottleneck that weeds all but the most privileged to be academics in the long haul.

  27. Packers5th.in

    Its true that multiple relocation affect to the academic career,either due to of cultural diversity or due to of living standards.well said by the bloggers.Thanks for this post.

  28. George

    This is going to sound harsh, but the reality is there are few academics who have a long term spouse with a “demanding” career. I don’t see any academics married to successful doctors or business CEOs or politicians etc… spouses are often teachers or employed in admin or temporary positions in the university. Occasionally, an academic might find a spouse with another equivalently demanding career after they’ve got tenure some place, but that’s rare. This is related to the two-body problem, but to me it’s more about the career or the spouse than it is the moving itself. If you’re unwilling to ask your spouse to sacrifice their career (as you undoubtedly will have to in a post doc or even more so a faculty job), then you will need to move on to build an alternative career.

  29. d_137

    FWIW here’s (part of) my story..

    After having a very hard time during the least year of my Ph.D. (intense social isolation, anxiety, etc), and then failing to get the type of industry job I wanted after the Ph.D., I took a post doc. I took it in a large city which is quite nice, but there are not many industry jobs in my field here.

    I was single for the last 4 years of my Ph.D. and it was quite rough. I was constantly searching for a partner, spending many hours on OKC and chatting with women on Tinder. Nothing worked.

    There are many single young professional women here, but it nobody wants to go on a second date. I think it is largely due to the fact that women my age (I’m 29) are looking to settle down into a long term relationship, and they know that I’ll be moving after a year or two.

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