Unwilling to Relocate Again

Multiple moves continue to be the norm in academe, and it creates many problems, argues Margaret Kosmala.

April 15, 2016

Long gone are the days when the academic was usually a hetero white male who was either single (and a highly eligible bachelor with his Ph.D. in hand) or had a family of one or more dependents who would follow him hither and yon to new jobs in higher education. And yet, academe still acts like this is how things are. Multiple moves continue to be the norm, and it’s now a major structural problem that gets in the way of diversity and other initiatives, as well as creates many other problems, such as the following.

Moving causes the one-body problem. Single people may rightly not want to move to places with job openings for numerous reasons. The potential destination may be small and have few options for dating. That 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 male partners rather than the plus it is for men. In addition, 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 also only be able to obtain it in specific, limited locations.

Moving causes the two-body problem. Whether your partner is in academe 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. Institutions provide no assistance to postdocs who need to find jobs for their partners. Help for tenure-track faculty ranges from nonexistent 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. Families with children face the additional challenges of finding affordable child care and/or appropriate schools. Like adults, children may need specialized care that can only be provided in certain locations. 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 in particular need extra support from outside the nuclear family, and moves sever the connections with friends, family and the community that they desperately need, 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 of 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 parents can cause guilt and sadness.

Moving causes mental-health issues such as depression and anxiety. Academe 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 another 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, a move 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 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 logistically complicated. Academics already work long hours, and the additional complications of moving can eat up time devoted to self-care, like exercise. Upon moving to a new place, a person needs to find 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 continuing medical care, which can be difficult to resume. (It took me four months to transfer one set of medical documents to my new provider, and my care was on hold during this time.) 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 no one is there to help? What happens to the dog when its single owner ends up in the hospital for an extended stay and no one is there to help? What happens when your apartment burns down and you have no one to stay with?

Moving is ridiculously expensive. Young academics are underpaid relative to their skills, abilities and credentials, and academe doesn’t absorb moving costs like it should. A single person moving across the United States 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 across the country can cost up to $10,000 or more. A budget of $3,000 to $5,000 is reasonable for many moves. And guess who pays for that? Yes, the academic.

I’ve heard other people defend academic moving by saying that other professions move regularly, too. Yes, but, those other professions often pay for the moves. Military? The federal government pays for the move. 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 institution that is getting their services pay. (Dear academe, you need to fix this. And principal investigators, 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, whether it be a moving allowance, start-up fee, hiring bonus or other budget line item.

International moves magnify the above problems and complicate the process enormously. In addition to the added expense and logistics, there may be a language barrier that increases a sense of isolation for the academic and family members, a legal prohibition on bringing a long-term partner, a prohibition on the partner working if allowed to accompany the academic, variable health care standards and a lack of care options for very young children.

Finally, moving isn’t just hard on individuals -- it also quite detrimental to institutions and higher education in general. Many things can 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.

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 eight places since I left college almost 16 years ago.) But, between 2010 and 2014, academe forced three of those moves, when 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 more than $20,000 in direct costs, scary at times, sad, and it has sapped way 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 must stop being the norm for early-career academics. It’s harmful in many, many ways. For me, such 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 are opting out of academe because they can’t -- or don’t want to -- move.


Margaret Kosmala is a postdoctoral fellow in the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Department at Harvard University. She previously resided in Germany, Maryland, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Texas and Virginia before returning to her home state of Massachusetts. You can find her at @margaretkosmala.


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