Recently, Nature published an article titled ‘Why you should move country‘, about the advantages of moving countries as academics. A study has shown that those who are more mobile get more citations, better collaborations, etc. This article sparked a discussion on Twitter about advantages and disadvantages of moving for academia, and there were many opinions and thoughts about it.
While I agree that there are advantages to moving labs in order to work with new people and learn new skills and make new collaborations, I disagree that it’s something that should necessarily be done by all, and I hate the fact that academia seems to require and reward movement and mobility. There are some very good reasons for people not to want to move cities/countries/continents, not least because it’s disruptive, expensive and difficult. It’s mentally draining, and sometimes does more harm than good if you end up in a lab that you’re not happy in, far away from your friends and family. I have moved continents once, and cities within the UK once, and I have little to no desire to do it again, and I will share my personal story here.
*long, personal information post alert*
I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and had no desire to leave until I met my husband. We met while we were undergrads at the University of Alberta, and he convinced me that we should go elsewhere for grad school. We both wanted to pursue PhDs, so we shopped around to see where to go. We had a few places in mind, and applied first to the University of Bristol in the UK, where we both were accepted – me to the MSc in Palaeobiology, and Josh to a PhD in physics. The UK was a good compromise – he was born here, so has lots of family, and meant that only one of us had to do go through immigration fun. So after spending some amount of money (I honestly cannot remember how much) for a visa, we were ready to go.
And then, shit hit the fan, metaphorically speaking. My mom was diagnosed with cancer a few months before I was meant to leave. I was forced with one of the most difficult decisions of my life – put off the move for grad school and delay the start, or leave my mom. We knew that the cancer was bad, but we thought she’d have more time. After discussing with the University of Bristol and the head of the MSc at the time, I decided to go. The rationale was that if I wanted to start that year, I needed to do the courses in the first term, and then I could defer my research until the next year. My mom told me to go, she didn’t want me to turn down the opportunity, knowing how much it meant to me. We didn’t think the timing would be too difficult, so I packed up and moved to the UK in September, with the plan to come back at Christmas. Depending on how my mom was doing, I’d come back again in April. And then, rather suddenly while I was home over Christmas, my mom’s health deteriorated, and she passed away on January 3rd in the middle of my MSc.
I felt like the worst daughter in the world. I stayed home for an extra month or so to be with my family, but I couldn’t help but feel I made the wrong decision. I was selfish. Why had I moved? The university and my supervisors were all fantastic, and I eventually came back, and continued with my MSc. I became depressed, and couldn’t function for weeks at a time. I would go to uni and watch shows on my computer for hours. I listened to people who thought I couldn’t hear them talk about how lazy I was. I didn’t really talk to anyone about what was happening, just 1 or 2 close friends. I saw a counsellor, and I was a mess. Eventually, I got out of it, and despite being denied an extension of my thesis writing, I got a Distinction. This is probably the single biggest achievement that I am most proud of to date. But I still think about it every day. Did I make the right decision? Depends on when you ask me. Do I regret moving? Sometimes.
Now fast forward a year to 2013. I’m trying to get a PhD, and failing at finding funding for international students in Bristol. So instead, I decide to go to the University of Southampton where I can get some funding. I won’t go into details, but as many people know, that didn’t work out fantastically (you can read a bit here). Not only did I have to move away from the city that I have grown to love, but I also had to be away from my husband for a lot of it, which was particularly tough when everything was going wrong. And then my PhD nearly destroyed me.
So far, 2 moves, 2 disasters. Doesn’t really make me want to move and work in a new lab again… I left all of my friends and family behind in Canada, something that I think about daily. I’m missing my nieces and nephews grow up, which hurts a lot. I don’t get to see my extended family really anymore. I’ve paid probably close to £10k in immigration fees, moving costs, etc, money that I would rather put towards something like a downpayment on a house. After putting that much money into moving to the UK and then within the UK, the thought of moving country (or even city) again any time soon is nightmare inducing. On top of that, I like living in Bristol. It’s a great city, and it feels like home. I’m 31 years old, my husband has a post doc and is doing very well in his field and with his group, and we own a company together. We’ve got good friends here, and we’re both enjoying what we’re doing. Why would we want to move, especially for a short term contract?
Finally, I find the idea that you have to move, and especially that you have to move abroad, in order to gain new collaborations and work in new labs a bit narrow-minded. My partner wanted to stay in his group at the uni, so instead of moving, he did a 3-month fellowship in Japan last year, where he got to work with a new group in their lab. It was an amazing experience and opportunity, and he learned a lot. Other friends I know have done something similar. I’ve spent the last year working in a zebrafish osteoarthritis lab learning new skills I never expected to learn. I’ve made the most of conferences by establishing collaborations with people unrelated to my current post. There are ways of doing these things without moving halfway across the world.
I think that there are many reasons why people are hesitant to move that are more than just being lazy or avoiding inconveniences. There are sick loved ones, families to consider, money to think about… And above all, your mental health to think about. Being separated from your friends and family in a city you hate in a lab you don’t like isn’t going to make you a better scientist. Forcing people to move just because it looks better on a CV is harmful and I wish that academia got out of that line of thinking.
Since this post was pretty negative, I wanted to add a little bit saying that not everything was all bad about my move. I think that for my career, it was absolutely necessary (though I’m still struggling to get post docs, so there is that…). I met and have worked/still work with some absolutely brilliant people that have helped shape me as a scientist (My MSc and PhD supervisor Colin Palmer, PhD supervisor and current manager Emily Rayfield, collaborators like Mark Witton, Dave Hone, Darren Naish, Charlotte Brassey and many more), and these things would not have been possible if I had stayed in Canada. But part of that is because I chose to work on a group that isn’t well represented in Canada, and there’s no one who really works on them. If I wanted to work on pterosaurs, I had to leave. And although I’ve certainly had some downs, I’m now pretty happy – our company is doing well, I finally have a good group of friends that I can be myself around, we have a nice flat, and most importantly, we love Bristol. It’s just taken 7 years to get to this point, which is longer than most people have if they move for a post doc or PhD. So yes, moving did help my career, but it’s not always worth it, and it would have to be an amazing offer to get me to do it again.