Research and Mobility in Academia

Whoever has indexundertaken an academic career knows one very basic truth: it’s very difficult if not impossible to have a permanent position in the same University where you earned your Ph.D. Changing working environment, especially for those who aim for a bright scientific career, is a very beneficial and powerful way to increase your skills, create new links with other scientists, advertise yourself in a new University and a new scientific community and complement your knowledge with different expertise. This is the main reason why it’s so common to change working environment in the academia.

However, a very well known drawback of this mobility is that if you have a family then the continuous need to change city and, most probably, country is going to heavily affect your family too. I know of several people whose partners have decided to leave their (good) job just because it was impossible for them to find a decent job in the new city/country. (And guess what, in all cases I know, I count 12, it has always been the woman to sacrifice her career). I have even heard once a colleague saying “if you have a family problem than the academia is not the place for you”. (Then one wonders how comes there are so many nerds in astronomy…well, if many people think in the same way as my estemeed colleague, then there’s a sort of perverse “natural selection” in the academia that filters only those people which have no problem moving around the World, which several times are socially impaired nerds).

But there is of course a very serious problem here anyway, if we stay in the same University then it is certainly true that we do not absorb all the goods I was mentioning above. So what is the solution to this ? There is no clear solution, but I’ll make a provocative statement here: with modern technologies and an interconnected World it has become less and less important to move around and work in different Universities or research centres. Imagine the World in the ’70s or the ’80s. You have a new exciting scientific result and you want to show it to other colleagues. Or you want to make new links and create new collaborations. Or you want to share some data with another group on the other side of the World. What do you do ? Well, you need to wrap your new draft manuscript, fold a mail (without “e”),  send it by post, wait a week or so before it arrives, receive an answer after two weeks and keep going. Surely you can use the phone, but you can’t see anything. Or you want to share some data, well good luck !   Internet has made information sharing so easy and immediate that we tend to forget how different it was just a few decades ago. Also, today you prepare your brand new paper and in less than 24 hr it can be posted online on arXiv. Or you want to talk to your colleagues in Australia, US and the Netherlands and well, with Skype you can have a video-conference. Or with EVO you can share your slides and give a talk remotely. Or you can connect on the same machine from two points at the opposite extreme of the World and share the same data, or download them in less than 10 minutes on your hard drive. And the emails, how many emails do we send everyday ? And what about social networks, we can talk and communicate new ideas, opinions, ask for suggestions to hundreds or thousands of colleagues at the same time in seconds. What a difference…

In short, is it really true that moving in three-four different universities before you find a permanent job is such a fundamental requirement ? Or is this still a “left-over” requirement that was born in an era when the World was a very different one ? Has the new interconnected Globe increased or decreased the need to physically move around the World ?

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7 thoughts on “Research and Mobility in Academia

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  1. You had conferences in the 80s as well, so I completely miss the link betwee moving around and broadening your perspective since the dawn of effective transportation. And even then, the point ypu made are not based on research, but just on a hunch. Many people travel around and don’t pick up anything while others stay at home and broaden up.

    So I really see no reason why your point should be even remotely provocative.

    1. I’m not sure I understood your criticism. Many people in the academia (by far the largest majority) believe that if you don’t move around then you better switch to a different career. This is the dominant idea and I think it’s based on assumptions which are no more valid in our epoch. I’d be happy to know more details of what you think !

      1. I think you may be misinterpreting my comment. What I meant to say is that I don’t buy the reasoning why you should work in many places to broaden up in the first place. So I would even agree with you had you ‘posted’ this in the eighties. I know scientists who have never worked abroad but have a very broad professional network as well as people who did work abroad and did not really end up being that broad. The fact that for some working in multiple countries is of added value does not necessarily mean that this, and only this, works for all.

        So not only I agree with you, I strongly disagree with the original idea that you try to prove wrong based on the ‘modern time’ argument.

  2. I think it is important to move around 1-2 times, not more. Even if you have emails, Skype etc., as a young PhD you will have very few people to mail/skype. You need to move around for conferences, and also for new positions, to create your net of collaborators and to find what you really like to do and where is your interest. You can move one-two times, maybe change topic once, but I would not do it more than 2 times. The family is definitely going to pay the consequences.

    By the way, your statement is not provocative. I heard this suggestion already a few times.

  3. I don’t buy it. The most important things about moving around are the personal and direct experiences, like living in a new culture, interacting in person with new people and new languages, chatting at breaks and meals with new colleagues, learning new working styles, etc. None of these can be done via skype nor facebook. Of course this is not the only ingredient, it’s just one out of many. True genii will remain so even locking themselves in their offices, but everybody can gain something by opening the door and going out of their offices for a while.

    1. There is pretty much between locking yourself up in your office and being a constant nomad. You probably have to go to conferences early in your carreer to get in touch with people, plan work visits, have contact with colleagues (who, even if you don’t force them will probably be of very diverse origin anyway). Most science is done in collaborations and for collaborations you need (personal) interaction. I don’t per se disagree that moving around is good for you on a personal level (and I am very far from stating that people should be demotivated to do so), but I doubt that it automatically makes you a better scientist.

  4. Well, sorry for this reaction, but I cannot pass ;-)) Have you never thought about the fact that – thanks to the internet – individuals can have a scientific career as an independent researcher without being a member of the scientific community? Because the internet makes information accessible and opens the way to publish.

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