A changing landscape

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I often come across discussions around the issue of whether moving to a new job in a different university/city/country in academia is a necessary, worthwhile or positive thing, both in terms of your career and your personal life. It seems that many people think it is an essential undertaking in the early stages of an academic career, as it apparently shows you can be a researcher in your own right (i.e. independent of your supervisors) and helps to build collaborative links and learn new skills. Whether these sorts of arguments outweigh the challenges of moving to a new place and starting a new life there depends on a great many things (i.e. what sort of person you are, how far away exactly are we talking, is it a better university, do you have kids and so on). At the end of the day, I think sometimes you might not have much of a choice, say if your funding runs out.

As a first-year PhD student, I have a while before I need to worry too much about this. But since I joined my department about 2.5 years ago, I’ve seen a lot of young researchers making these sorts of decisions. In fact, an unreasonable amount of the early career researchers who were around when I first started here have now moved on somewhere else. What with it being the end of another academic year, this phenomenon feels particularly striking. PhD students are writing up, finishing their epic quests and perhaps moving on somewhere new, while new students are expected to start soon.

But it’s more than just PhD-related transitions. Research assistant and post-doc posts are generally short time-limited contracts. Projects, grants and funding end and young researchers are effectively made redundant. From what I’ve seen, some manage to grab a new post in our department if possible and prolong their time here with another 18-24 month contract, others move to another university and still others just leave academia for a more permanent employment situation. Those of us who stay behind watch the office/lab dynamic changing like a kaleidoscope. It sometimes feels a bit depressing seeing this lack of job stability and saying farewell to so many friends who are moving on. On a positive note though, there are plenty of opportunities to meet and make friends with new people. There are also continuing occasions for maintaining contact with and even collaborating with previous members of your research group, which is pretty cool.

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2 thoughts on “A changing landscape

  1. I enjoy your helpful and thoughtful posts. Back in the day (20 years ago) when I was a PhD candidate, we got our degrees in no more than 6 years, expected to do a 3-4 year post-doc and then would begin the process of settling down. I actually ducked out after 1 year of post-doc for a great job in industry. I do a lot of career advising and speaking for PhDs and post-docs and have noticed a disturbing trend regarding the 18-24 month “extensions” you mention. I don’t know how long PhDs are taking, but post-docs are voluntarily signing on for 5,6,7, even 8 years (!) in one lab. This delay the researcher even seeing the end of the transitory life on the horizon and can have a big effect on scientist, her/his partner and family. Moreover, many post-docs start thinking about an industry career somewhere around year 5. There is a real problem with this. One very important career skill needed for industry is the ability to manage programs and projects. An industry employer looking at a resume with a >6 year post-doc as the current experience sees that as a “poorly managed project”. It is a hurdle that must be overcome in getting interviews in for industry positions. I realize there aren’t enough academic jobs to go around, but post-docs and their advisors should be be working on exit strategy somewhere around year 2 at the latest and move things along, even if only to go to another lab and learn a new field–at least that can be explained more coherently.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts! I guess it’s a trade-off between a sense of stability and what’s best for your career. Would be nice if you could have both simultaneously…

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