Academic scattering

Katie Mack, smiling for the cameraKatie Mack has been training as a cosmologist since about the age of 10 when she decided she wanted Stephen Hawking’s job. She got her bachelor’s in physics at Caltech, PhD in astrophysics at Princeton, did an STFC postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge, and is now a DECRA postdoctoral researcher in theoretical astrophysics at the University of Melbourne.

Her work focuses on finding new ways to learn about the early universe and fundamental physics using astronomical observations, probing the very building blocks of nature by examining the cosmos on the largest scales. Throughout her career, she has been working on the interface between astronomy and particle physics, studying dark matter, black holes, cosmic strings, and the formation of the first galaxies in the Universe.

Katie is also an active science communicator, participating in a range of science outreach programs such as Scientists in Schools and Telescopes in Schools. Her popular writing has appeared in Sky & Telescope,, and the Economist’s “Babbbage” tech blog, among others. She occasionally co-hosts a YouTube astronomy chat series called “Pint in the Sky.” 

Katie blogs at The Universe, in Theory and tweets as @AstroKatie. Her ORCID is 0000-0001-8927-1795.

A couple of years ago, I was gathering my things after a seminar at a top physics research institution when I overheard two of the senior professors discussing a candidate for a senior lectureship.

Professor A was asking Professor B if the candidate had a partner, which might make him less able to move internationally.

Prof B replied, happily: “No, he has no family. He’s perfect!”

I doubt any selection committee would admit on-record to thinking a family-free candidate is “perfect”. Nonetheless, the traditional academic career structure is built around an assumption of mobility that is hard to maintain with any kind of relationships or dependents. I’m still trying to figure out if I can manage to keep a pet.

Scattered (Image courtesy of Jonathan O'Donnell:
Scattered (Image courtesy of Jonathan O’Donnell:

Right now I live in Australia, working as a postdoc in Melbourne. My first postdoc was in England. Before that I was in grad school in New Jersey, and I was an undergrad in my native California. Halfway through grad school I studied for a year in England. I’ve done two- or three-month stints in Japan, Germany, Australia and the UK. Each of these moves or visits has been, while not strictly required, extremely helpful for my career. And in a field where competition for jobs is so fierce, if you want any hope of landing that coveted permanent academic job, how many of these “helpful” moves can you really consider optional? If mobility is such an advantage, how does having a family or a partner affect your chances?

A couple of months ago, Slate published an article with the headline, “Rule Number One for Female Academics: Don’t Have a Baby.” The point of the article wasn’t actually to discourage women in academia from having children (though backlash from the community may have contributed to the change in title to the somewhat vague, “In the Ivory Tower, Men Only”). The article provided statistics and anecdotes to illustrate how having children, or being suspected of the intent to have children, could harm a woman’s progress in academia – from the necessary pause in research output, to the unconscious or explicit biases that act against “working mothers” but have no similar effect on “working fathers”. Personally, I found the piece deeply disheartening, but my dismay was of a somewhat detached variety. In order to worry about the effects of having children, one has to be in a position where that seems like even a remote possibility. As a single woman with a short-term contract and no idea which hemisphere I’ll be in two years from now, children are not exactly at the forefront of my mind. At the moment, I spend a lot more time thinking about the two-body problem.

In this context, the “two-body problem” is the problem of maintaining a committed relationship between two individuals who are trying to have careers in academia. When the two-body problem proves unsolvable, it’s sometimes called “academic scattering”. It is by no means unique to academia, but the international nature of the field, the frequency of short-term (1-3 year) contracts, and the low wages compared to other similarly intense career paths make it especially bad for academics. In the sciences, the gender disparity adds a further complication for female academics: when women make up a small percentage of the discipline, they are much more likely to be partnered with other academics.

Of course, solving the two-body problem is not impossible. I have many colleagues who have done it, either through spousal hires, fortuitous job opportunities, extended long-distance relationships, or various degrees of compromise. It takes sacrifice, luck, and, often, institutional support. But couples just beginning a relationship while building two academic careers might find the odds stacked against them. Even ignoring for a moment the fact that a no-compromise work-obsessed lifestyle is still considered a virtue in many institutions, academic careers are structurally best suited to people with no relationships or dependents, who travel light and have their passports at the ready.

It varies by field, but for physics and astronomy, a “typical” tenure-track career path looks something like this: 4-6 years in grad school, a postdoctoral fellowship for 1-3 years, then usually another (and maybe another), all followed by a tenure-track or permanent job, which may or may not be the job you end up in for the long-term. There’s no guarantee all these steps will be in the same country – very often they are not. For me, it’s been an international move every time so far, and it’s very possible the next one will be, too. When I took up my first postdoc, I left my country of origin, most of my worldly possessions, all my friends and family, and a committed relationship, to start all over in England. When I took up my second postdoc, I left my newly built life in England and another committed relationship to start all over yet again on the other side of the world. I’ve moved internationally several times chasing the prospect of permanent academic employment. I have yet to convince anyone to come with me.

I’m not trying to convince anyone that avoiding academia or refusing to move around the world is the key to solving all relationship problems. Anyone can be unlucky in love, even if they stay in the same city their entire lives. But academic shuffling is particularly hostile to romance. The short-term contracts mean that when you arrive in a new country, if you’re interested in finding a long-term partner, you have something like two years to identify and convince a person you’ve just met to agree to follow you wherever you might end up in the world, and you won’t be able to tell them where that will be. If you happen to have different citizenships (which is likely), you have to take into account immigration issues as well – your partner may not be able to follow you without a spousal visa, which can mean a rather hasty life-long commitment, or, depending on the marriage laws of the country in question, a total impossibility. I had a friend in grad school who, at the end of her PhD, faced a choice between living with her wife in Canada, and becoming a tenure-track professor at one of the most prestigious research universities in the USA.

The timing doesn’t help, either. The postdoc stage, when you’re doing your best impersonation of a human pinball, usually comes about in your late 20s or early 30s. It’s a time when it seems like all your non-academic friends are buying houses, getting married, having babies, and generally living what looks like a regular grown-up life. Meanwhile, chances are you’re residing in a single room in a short-term rental, wondering which country you’ll be living in next year. If you’re a woman, you might be keeping an eye on the latest research on fertility in older mothers, and mentally calculating how long you actually need to know someone before deciding to reproduce with them, because by the time you’re in one place long enough to think about settling down you’ll be, at best, pushing 40.

There are lots of ways to make it all work out, of course. You could refuse to date other academics, and instead make sure you’re spending enough time on hobbies outside of the university to attract someone’s interest, while making sure you have a REALLY good pitch about the joy of imminent mystery relocation. You could date another academic, and resign yourself to a relationship that will probably be long-distance for far longer than it was ever face-to-face, with no guaranteed reunion in sight. For this option, make sure that you have lots of disposable income for plane tickets and that neither of you is committed to spending too much time inside a lab. You could swear off serious dating altogether until you’re getting close to landing a permanent job, then negotiate with your future employer for a spousal hire, with the necessary career compromise that will be required of one or both of you to be at that particular institution. Or you could just wait till you’ve scored a permanent faculty job somewhere, probably in your mid-to-late 30s, and (if you’re a woman) hope that you meet someone soon enough that starting a family is still an option. (As a side note, my late-thirties single straight female friends tell me that men who want babies won’t date women over 35. Obviously this is an unfair and unscientific generalization, but the point is that there are societal pressures that women face when they choose to put off the prospect of families until they have permanent jobs.) If you choose this option, you might also want to keep in mind that a tenure-track job isn’t necessarily permanent, and having a child before having tenure is one of those options that the aforementioned article had a few things to say about.

Or you could decide to prioritize where you want to be (or who you want to be with), and, more likely than not, end up severely limiting your career progress and/or leaving academia altogether. If one or the other partner does have to make a big career sacrifice, gender norms will suggest that, if you’re a woman, the one to make the sacrifice really ought to be you.

As for me, I confess I haven’t figured it out. I have two years left on my contract in Australia and no idea whatsoever which country I’ll end up in next. I’m applying broadly, and there’s no guarantee I’ll have a choice about location if I want to stay on the path toward becoming tenure-track faculty at a major research institution. When it’s not unusual for a single postdoc job to have 300 applicants, and faculty jobs are even more selective, getting even one offer is considered a huge win.

I don’t know if there’s a solution. Having a pool of early-career researchers who move frequently to different institutions unquestionably advances research and keeps the ideas flowing. It is also usually great for the development of postdocs’ research abilities, exposing them to new ideas and work styles. But the prospect of a nearly decade-long period of lifestyle limbo between graduate studies and the start of the tenure track is, understandably, a significant discouragement to many fine researchers who might otherwise bring their unique insights to the field. And, statistically, more of these lost researchers are likely to be women. It may not be the dominant force keeping women out of science or academia, and it may not affect all women, but any slight statistical skew that disadvantages women more than men contributes to the inequality we see. And that makes academia a little bit more lonely for everyone.


  1. Sadly all too true.. and while you’re absolutely right that it statistically weeds out women more, it does suck for men too. Maybe virtual reality telecommuting will someday make it more commonly acceptable to take a job at institution X while physically at Y. And we spend so much time on planes as it is, what’s the minimum fraction of the year you have to be physically there for the institution to get the benefit of you?


    • I certainly think telecommuting can help, though I’m a little biased, as I’m a theorist and therefore don’t NEED to be in any particular place to get work done. But I also know there’s a huge advantage to being physically surrounded by the colleagues you work with, so there’s a limit to how much working remotely can be a solution.


    • Actually, I think that academics use telecommuting to make their relationships work, rather than to work remotely. I know many, many more people who work remotely from their partner than work remotely from thier employer. Perhaps because pay cheques hold power.

      We’ve been hoping for a telecommuting revolution since the 1990s. It has happened for some people – people with physical disabilities; short-term contractors in foreign countries; carers and parents who work at home some days; and people who do it temporarily when they can’t be at their desks for some reason, such as travel. A few others who have made special arrangements with understanding workplaces.

      But for the rest of academia, if it hasn’t happened now it won’t happen until the MOOCs take over.

      In the spirit of Katie’s article, turn your final question around. What’s the minimum fraction of the year you have to be physically there for a family to get the benefit of you?


      • I’m an experimental physicist, and the activities I have to be physically present for are often rather rare. But at the same time, it helps to be face-to-face with the people you’re collaborating with. It helps you explain things more clearly. It helps build up ideas less formally, so you can build teams for new projects. It helps you really know who you’re working with. And, little by little, these things add up to a big difference in the effectiveness of your work.

        For related reasons, making a relationship work by telecommuting is even tougher. My wife and I have been “remote” for as long as we’ve known each other, and it doesn’t get any easier. Lots of academic couples probably do it for a while – 6 months, a year, maybe more? – at some point. But I think the people who are willing (able?) to live that way in perpetuity must be few and far between.

        I definitely don’t see easy solutions either. It’s worth saying that we as academics are lucky people with a lot of choices, and perhaps we should be better at accepting (a) that we can’t always have everything go the way we planned in all aspects of our lives, and (b) that doing something other than academia is obviously not a failure. Of course, the fact that the compromises fall disproportionately on women is not acceptable — and should be acknowledged and fought against at every level where decisions relating to the two-body problem are made.


  2. It’s awful. It is a huge sacrifice to follow an academic career, or just doing grad school, and I had no idea when I started. I can’t say I regret it or that I wouldn’t do it again, because I always were and still am very much passionate about science and researching. But especially the post-docs, and the never-ending temporary contracts taking you to different cities, this is a modern invention that is extremely perverse, and must be fought. Society must rethink graduate schools and doctors. What do we win by putting so much good people in these bad life conditions?

    I am lucky to have studied engineering, so now I am still able to work in the industry, and the title isn’t even a waste of time. But me and my associated body, a gorgeous particle physicist, have striven to stay together since undergrads, tied by some spooky romantic action at a distance. We have both transitioned to the doctor state now, but none of us are still in the perfect job — where perfect actually means satisfactory. We still look forward to the day we will be living and working in a single city we might stay in it for a whole semester. No idea what hemisphere we will be living in a couple of years from now. And that’s because I gave up from academy as “plan A”. Not sure how much that ruined my chances of it still being “plan B” or “C” for me.


    • Thanks for sharing this, Nic. Can’t help thinking that paired moves often require a leap of faith that the next place will allow each to find some career zen. ‘Spousal hires’ do still happen, but they’re pretty damn rare, and usually the domain of established profs (?).

      Just wondering: do you find working in industry a different kind of satisfying to working academia, or do you consider it a real compromise?


  3. Writing from the humanities/social sciences end of the spectrum, I can only confirm that I frequently find myself having similar conversations with my female academic friends, all too often. These conversations are absolutely about the need to be able to make important life decisions that will structure much of the rest of ones life, and the frankly hostile atmosphere to make them in, plus costs of not being able to make them. These can be, and are often interlinked questions about long term partners/spouses, babies or being able buy a home – both practically put down roots, and frankly, with endless fixed term/temporary contracts, to convince a bank to lend you the substantial amount of money to do so. Add in the fact that university towns are often in locations where the student population has pushed both rents and house prices up, raising the local cost of living..

    All this translates to getting ‘stuck’ in the rut marked postdoc: temp job=questionable wisdom of pregnancy/kids (both financially and being able to get back onto the academic hamster wheel)=can’t put down roots in an area, which costs not just women, but their spouse too, who may not be an academic. The loses are not just to women either, men can want to have children too! It might also be worth pointing out that academic salaries, being low compared to many non-academic professional salaries, don’t exactly help, when trying to make a practical argument about how to make career decisions in a partnership.

    What is striking about all of this though, is that I only have these conversations with my female academic friends who are asking themselves the same questions, in careful, quiet corners. With the increasing length of time between finishing a PhD and a permanent job, is not clear to me that the consequences of this are adequately recognised by older generations of academics, men or women, who got permanent jobs much earlier in their careers. Add in the lack of tenured jobs (and too may, even if very good, PhDs produced), and staying in the ivory tower seems to be frankly a risk, for building a career outside of the academy, where academic experience is not, in my experience valued (denigrated, in fact for being overly secluded), and a change of industry, means graduate level entry jobs, somewhat galling after the better part of 10 years professional work.

    Thank you for writing this, this is a conversation that needs having.


    • “not clear to me that the consequences of this are adequately recognised by older generations of academics, men or women, who got permanent jobs much earlier in their careers” — Yes, I think that’s a definite factor.

      Also I appreciate your comment about the timespan of postdoc work. I really think it would help make academia more appealing/humane if the major bottleneck in the academic pipeline occurred earlier — say, immediately after the PhD — so people don’t end up doing potentially highly specialized, not-very-transferrable professional work for so long before leaving the field.


      • Good point about the bottleneck. Astrophysics works on a pyramid system, with many more PhDs than junior post-docs, and less jobs the higher you go. This is not only bad for relationships, it’s also bad for astronomy as researchers can’t take risks in such short term posts, and one bad project can ruin a career. The pressure to publish and get the next position doesn’t make for good scientific training.

        A column would make a lot more sense – so that the first post-doc is very hard to get but after that it is less competitive.That would reduce the competition at higher levels and give more choice to the scientist.


  4. I agree with Jonathan that there are many alternatives for encouraging the flow of ideas that don’t require relocation. From my experience, there are huge benefits for people feeling connected to their communities and family. They are your ‘safety net’ when things inevitably go awry. Not to mention the huge amount of energy investing in new relationships for every move. I want to see universities spearheading these discussions. The ratio of insightful blog posts by intelligent women like Katie, to action by university leadership is just not balanced enough!


    • Thanks, Hedda

      The discussion around this, both here and on Katie’s Twitter stream, has mostly been personal. In part, this is because it is a very personal article. In part, because there arn’t many DVC (Reseach) and Uni HR people following us.

      However, it would be good to know what Universities are doing in this area.


    • I think there needs to be a shift from considering the highly mobile academic sphere as *always* a positive to considering the benefits of a happy and consistent group of staff. Mobility can be valuable and good for all parties, but for it to be compulsory (if you want a longer-term career in academia) seems skewed. People argue that depts and research centres benefit from new blood, and I would agree, but this model often presupposes a resident staffing population that is in danger of becoming ‘incestuous’ or insular. My suggestion: Have processes and culture in place that means your staff do NOT become insular. With the connectivity that we can have these days – staying in once place – this should not be so difficult?


  5. Is the amount of international travel you’ve done typical for physics? I’m more cog/neuro and plenty of people stick to the USA/UK axis. Not that moving all the time isn’t still an issue.


    • I think I have probably moved internationally more than most, but it’s not that uncommon. Also, many of these issues come up even if the move is within the same country but over a long distance.


    • Bashir, my career in astronomy began in my native UK, took me to Japan for a postdoc, then ended in the US. Such mobility isn’t uncommon.

      One difference between my experience and Katie’s: Thanks to being educated in England where degrees take less time to complete, I was 26 when I finished my PhD and 28 when I finished my postdoc.


    • Clearly Katie doesn’t need anyone to defend her against trolling like this, as her post and response show she’s more than capable of handling herself – but seriously, wtf drugmonkey? It’s exactly this sort of completely inappropriate comment, most often made by senior academics, that contributes to many of the problems she writes about, and continues to marginalise women in science – especially physics. She’s put herself out there in a quite personal way in writing this post, and deserves respect for that. What we say matters, including (especially, even) offhand quips like this.


      • Before we all start sharpening the pitchforks, let’s give drugmonkey a chance. Despite the seemingly smug nature of the comment, I’m going to defend it.

        I do think it would be better to clarify, especially to a mate, what one’s interpretation of “committed relationship” means. It may mean different things to different people, but the plain common meaning implies long term commitment, which the author’s definition excludes.

        I raised an eyebrow too when I saw multiple committed relationships , but then assumed she incorrectly uses the term “committed relationship” when she really means “serial monogamous relationship”. The former implies one mate, the latter implies one mate *at a time*. Subtle, but important difference, especially to the mate in question. No judgment meant or implied, only pointing out sloppy terminology.


      • Cats Eye:

        Perhaps there is some ambiguity in terminology. If your interpretation of the word “committed” is such that any relationship that does not end only in death is by definition not “committed” then I could understand feeling that the term had been misused. However, given that the intended meaning of the term was clear in context (possible raising of eyebrows notwithstanding), pointing out a difference in personal definitions seems unnecessary, unless the aim is to publicly express disapproval of a stranger’s life choices.

        Either way, I think it is clear that the article is not meant as a solicitation for relationship advice, but thank you anyway for your concern.


    • Hey, that’s wildly inappropriate. These choices are highly personal. My husband and I have been married for over ten years, and we just finished spending five years on opposite coasts. If we hadn’t each taken the best jobs available to us at the time, our new, prospectively permanent two-body solution would not have been possible now.

      Don’t you dare suggest that a committed relationship can’t possibly include a dedication to both parties’ careers. I have known many people in my field who have had long-distance stints across much greater distances or spans of time than my husband and I had to do. No one thinks it’s ideal, but they do it anyway. Wish we didn’t have to do it so much or so often. Or that teleportation was a thing.


      • Thanks, Jessie

        Some people just don’t get it (and some people are trolls).

        I’m glad that it is working for you. Five years apart is hard.


  6. @bashir: That number of international moves is not uncommon in astronomy. I’m not sure about physics. It largely comes down to small numbers: astronomy is a small field, so it’s uncommon for there to be multiple jobs on offer in the same city at the same time. You need a job when you need a job, so you often have little choice but to apply for jobs around the world.


  7. I’ve had to leave research because of the two body problem. When my last postdoc ended, I couldn’t move to take a new one. I couldn’t take a new position in my current city (New York), because I knew I was moving in less than a year for my husband’s job. He’s a medical student and in spring, he will match. Only then will we find out where we are going–so I couldn’t begin applying for jobs in our destination city either. Scattering isn’t an option for us, as we have two kids. I ended up taking a break year, and I’ve been exploring some other avenues. It seems a little silly. Between grad school and postdoc fellowships, hundreds of thousands of dollars was invested my training. But because of this timing/location problem, I can’t put that training to use as I would like to. What a waste. It seems like everyone loses!


    • “Between grad school and postdoc fellowships, hundreds of thousands of dollars was invested my training. But because of this timing/location problem, I can’t put that training to use as I would like to. What a waste.”

      I hear you. I hope that you’ve been able to transfer some of that training to other areas, but I share the feeling that there is a lot of wasted academia-specific training when so many people have to leave the field.


    • I’m another person who’s on the point of leaving academia for a spouse (among other reasons). We’ve been long distance nearly twice as long as we’ve been face-to-face, and I’m tired as heck of it. We’re both in the same field, and spousal hire is near unheard of in the universities we can look at, given how rarely other jobs come up. My partner’s much better established in my hometown (near my family), has better prospects, and isn’t at a university that’s draining his lifeforce (nor includes his subfield, and never will), so I’m planning retraining for high school teaching. At least I’ll be able to put all the training and experience to some use, and I’ll be more mobile if my other half has to go somewhere else.

      In my case it’s not a gender thing – I’m male too, which makes international job searching more difficult, because not only does it make spousal hire more complicated, but our relationship may not even be recognised.


  8. What a dilemma. Being married to a fellow teacher made things easier when I taught. I always found it interesting how our interviews differed. I was always asked how I would deal with my pre school aged children. Not once did John have to ask that question. Good luck.


  9. (As a side note, my late-thirties single straight female friends tell me that men who want babies won’t date women over 35. Obviously this is an unfair and unscientific generalization, but the point is that there are societal pressures that women face when they choose to put off the prospect of families until they have permanent jobs.)

    That depends at least partly on whether those women want babies, too.

    I have seen a number of females work their way diligently through graduate school and onto the tenure track and suddenly become concerned with their prospects for motherhood. If it was tunnel vision, I understand. But it is asking a lot of partners and potential partners to adhere to a stressful career course that suddenly veers into stress about declining fertility.


  10. “end up severely limiting your career progress and/or leaving academia altogether”

    Pray, tell this wasn’t intentional, but combining the lack of career progress and the horror of leaving academia into a single sentence implies that the latter is as bad as the former.

    As someone who has gladly severed all ties to academia, I can only say it’s been great so far. And it is not even the usual suspects that score – salary rises, promotion in years, not decades, family friendly hiring policies, etc. — but fresh perspectives of “non-geniuses”, better cooperation, the lack of arcane workplace policies(2 day campus visits as a part of faculty search — who has the patience, honestly?) , lack of many hour long, totally useless seminars and research group meetings, more appreciation, focused job descriptions ( i.e., lack of teach X classes, write Y papers, and sit in on Z committees and do yada, yada, because we don’t really know what we want and you are supposed to have sacrificed your life and stuff anyway).

    I could go on. Honestly, I “do” more science now than while sitting inside the stifling ivory tower. Give non academic jobs a chance. Try it, challenge your own predefined notions of what constitues good research (hint: it’s largely not the stuff that postdocs are working their backsides off), and you may even enjoy and appreciate the larger fabric of life alongside (i.e., helping a homeless person now) that academia entirely excludes.


    • I think that this misses the point of the post, somewhat. For those that do want to build their professional life in academia (for whatever reason), there are some significant issues to overcome.

      Having said that, I do understand that leaving academia is an option. This is Katie’s personal experience, and she isn’t looking to leave academia. So, for her, “…the latter is as bad as the former.”

      Your comment is on a divergent topic, but an important one. It sounds like it deserves a Research Whisperer post all by itself. We’d be happy to look at a draft if you are interested.


    • In this post, I was intentionally focusing on the challenges faced by people who do not want to leave academia, for whatever reason. In no way would I want to imply that there’s anything bad about leaving academia — I very much wish there were less stigma attached to it by those within the academy. In that sentence, I was talking specifically about career progress *within academia,* and including the fact that leaving academia altogether is sometimes a solution. It is in no way a bad thing to do, but, as Jonathan rightly points out, it is not what I want to do.


      • I was speaking of leaving academia in general, not specifically to solve the two-body problem. The former is choice, the latter could be construed as sacrifice.


    • While I wholeheartedly agree with the gist of what you are saying (give non-academic work a chance), I have to also point out that in some fields it might be harder to leave academia and find meaningful employment where you can do research, once you have been specialized with a post-doc or multiple short-term hires. It is misleading to talk about it as if it is just a matter of someone deciding to give it a try… Finding a job outside of academia can be very challenging, too, if there is no industry for you to transition to.


      • I do agree that some fields may have a challenge – but here’s a list of at least “STEM” alternate professions I can imagine:

        Math/Statistics – Finance sector, hedge fund performance prediction
        Physics/Biotech – Especially if it is solid state physics or biology, Intellectual Property/University Tech transfer can be viable careers.
        Engineering – Any of the above listed ones, plus R&D industry positions.

        And I can’t even start listing the number of non-profit organizations (*paid jobs*) that would love to have any of the above — a quick look at MIT Tech Review should give a handy list.

        So no, I do/did not base my comment on my own seemingly off-handed experience. FYI it took me about 4 months after a PhD and a short term academic job to find my current job. The transition itself was super easy, because believe it or not, you do have transferable skills (logical thinking, analysis, good writing skills), and admittedly I’m better at working outside the academy (but working *with* academics) than working from within the academy. I did not even contemplate (even 1 month before graduation) that I’ll leave the academy. But opportunity came along, it was a good fit, so I took it and never returned.

        But yes, you have to be creative to find a job that pays at least 30% more than a post doc salary.


      • Cats Eye, leaving academia at or shortly after completion of a PhD is one thing, doing so after 2 or 3 full length postdocs is another. At that point you would be facing the prospect of trying to break into a different career path where other candidates of around your age would have a decade or more of job specific experience that you don’t have. General purpose transferable skills will only get you so far and the idea of starting from scratch in an entry level position would understandably be unappealing for someone in their mid-late thirties.

        This issue isn’t that some people embarking on an academic career will have no choice but to leave academia at some point, it’s the ever longer timescales over which this can happen. Dumping people after they’ve dedicated as many as 15 years of their lives to academic research is a pretty cruel and exploitative way to treat people.


  11. “You could refuse to date other academics, and instead make sure you’re spending enough time on hobbies outside of the university to attract someone’s interest, while making sure you have a REALLY good pitch about the joy of imminent mystery relocation?”

    – Bizarrely, this approach worked for me. Three months into a relationship I began while overseas, my engineer boyfriend was sufficiently enamoured to commit to an inevitable move back to Australia (i refused to contemplate yet another relationship without a future, as well as having become allergic (over the years) to long distance). Now – 1 year, 1 baby and 1 permanent job later (for me at least), we are lucky to be enormously happy, mostly due to my accommodating and supportive partner. But reading this post brings me back to the reality that was life post-PhD, the constant questioning and the severe disadvantage that being a woman brought with it. I am incredibly lucky, and sometimes it scares me how close I came to missing out on either the relationship or the job (or both). i was so unprepared for how tenuous post-phd life would be!

    On the flipside, this is all temporary. I’ve committed to a move back overseas, to a place where I’m unlikely to find a satisfying job. I’m just hoping that in 5-10 years time i’m either sick enough of academia to want to do something else, or have enough expertise to consider a career in consulting. It’s a constant compromise.

    In any case, great post. Thank you.


  12. My partner and I managed to live & work together for 10 years across two international moves, but now we’ve been apart for 6. This completely sucks. It sucks time, it sucks happiness, it sucks productivity, it sucks money. No one seems to talk about this, but it seems to me being apart for weeks at a time undermines the biological / hormonal aspect of the bond we’ve built & makes at least me susceptible to things like falling for other people. But my partner is determined not to compromise on his career, and the feminist in me questions whether I should be any more willing to reconsider mine, when I am more senior (though I might well have compromised was his job not in a godawful city with no or weak departments & seminars in my areas of interest).

    I’ve started to question the system I’m defending — why should I spend so much time in teaching and administration when I could write full time? Er… because I have a large research team with students smarter than I am and I want to be involved in the best research I can be. Should I do research in industry then, make as much money as we both do currently combined, in a city near good universities where he can idle his time? But chasing these options takes yet more time away from the research and other obligations I’m already neglecting for travel.


  13. The importance of international moves towards getting positions in astronomy (and presumably other academic positions) can be harmful to relationships even to non-academics. Although I am relatively lucky in that my partner is both willing to do a LDR (and can afford to) while he finishes his masters and is open to moving internationally, it would be next to impossible if he was a lawyer, physician or basically any other occupation with country specific licensing requirements.

    In terms of how this can be solved, I have no idea, although you addressed the points well. There is a strong perception that people that only work in one (physical) area may be less competitive for full time positions, so I hope that it is only a perception and hiring committees do consider why someone may not have taken positions overseas even if they then ‘lack exposure’ to the different means of thinking.


    • I agree! Although it’s hard for academic couples, dual-career can be even more difficult as you can’t negotiate with the University for an extra position. My husband gave up his career for 3 years whilst I did a post-doc abroad. Now it’s his turn to work, and I’ve given up the astronomy. There was no way we could both have careers as he can’t move easily and that isn’t compatible with astronomy post-docs.


    • The issue of jurisdiction dependent careers is an important one, Matthew. Thanks for bringing it up.

      There are also language and cultural issues to consider for spouses. The Research Whisperer mainly draws its audience from the English-speaking world, so most examples have referred to the USA, UK, Canada or Australia. It is even harder for spouses to transition to a country where the language is different. Think of the academics that you know from China, Iran, India, Pakistan…


  14. Thank you for writing this – I relate to all of it. I did my undergraduate degree in the US, moved to South Africa for an MA, and then to Australia for my PhD, and each time, I left behind someone who I loved dearly. Happily, I’ve just moved back to the US for a TT job, and this time brought with me the wonderful, Australian, feminist, academic man who is committed enough to gender equality to have decided that if one of our academic careers has to suffer, it should be his.

    Now for the potentially useful part of my post: While spousal hires might be rare, I don’t think that they’re reserved for full professors who are being poached. If you’re willing to go to a place that isn’t top tier and/or that is in a somewhat undesirable/rural location where other jobs are scarce, I’ve seen a fair number of places that will work out spousal hires for new TT faculty.


    • Thank you for sharing this, and for the heads-up about spousal hires. You’re right, it often depends on the new institution and how much they’re building their research/academic cohort. Good to know that they’re not just for high-flyers. The way people talk about them is often in whispers + nudges, as if they’re not quite kosher. I think this needs looking at, too, because it works on the assumption that the spouse hired is ‘less’.


    • Spousal hiring practice depends also on which country you’re looking at, for example it’s practically unheard of in Australia, at least officially. Australian universities operate under fairly strict merit based hiring policies and they are unable/unwilling to openly circumvent normal process in order to appoint someone’s spouse. This is not so much driven by the principle of the thing but by the very reasonable concern that they would be dragged before an employment tribunal if there were any evidence of them appointing someone for reasons other than their own personal merit.


      • Good point, Anthony. Some potential avenues for untangling this issue might lie in the areas where Australian universities can undertake preferential hiring practices. For example if spouses were able to apply for internally-advertised jobs, that would help.

        Staff who are in the ‘redundancy pool’ are another group that have access to preferential hiring practices. In fact, reconfiguring the redundancy program would provide a model for a spouse-assistance program. Specialist advice about reworking your CV for local hiring practices, confidential independent counselling on adjusting to a major disruption… Could be a major advantage to a university that wanted to attract the best and the brightest.


      • Some interesting suggestions Jonathan but I believe there would be a lot of resistance to any attempt to expand preferential hiring practices to include spousal hiring, from both university administrators concerned about an increase in complaints and legal challenges and from university faculty objecting to the use of their scarce funds to preferentially employ spouses rather than the best available candidate. These two issues already make both internally advertised jobs and any form of preferential hiring extremely rare for academic appointments in Australian universities, about the only form of preferential hiring with official status and general acceptance are Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander reserved positions. I do understand the argument that the ability to offer spousal hiring as an additional inducement to attract top academics would benefit the university but in places where open and equitable recruitment practices are deeply entrenched I think it would be regarded as more trouble than it was worth.

        I don’t really see spousal hiring as a great solution to the issues raised in this article anyway, the inherent inequity just doesn’t sit well with me despite the positive effects for the beneficiaries. I think that changes to the lengths of postdoc contracts, the ratios of numbers of PhD, 1st postdoc, subsequent postdoc and ongoing positions and the typical age/seniority at first ongoing appointment are better approaches to these problems.


  15. Seeing this intractable problem from the outside as a writer: you wonder how the situation ever got set up in the first place. The answer has to be that male academics had the jobs and their wives and kids were portable.

    It reminds me of an advisory group of academics, called Jason, which spends 6 weeks every summer in the same place solving problems. Jason was set up in the ’60’s, wives were portable, everything worked. Then wives’ portability changed and Jason now has to work to find and keep members.

    I think, then, that the existence of the two-body problem means that professional options for female academics have gotten much better. Which is unfortunately not news and no help anyway.


    • Thanks, Ann. Looking at the history and the roots of a problem is a good way to understand it. I think that a lot of this issue is based in a history of male privilege and the slow erosion of that privilege, as you have pointed out.

      Other contributing issues include:
      the ubiquity of air travel, which means that people can move much more easily;
      narrowing of research areas, which means that academics specialise in very tightly defined areas;
      tightening job markets, which means that people will consider jobs on the other side of the world;
      international hiring practices, which mean that universities will consider applicants from the other side of the world;
      some staff on limited term contracts, which means that the junior staff cohort is constantly renewed; and
      some staff on permanent contracts (tenure), which means that the senior staff cohort turns over very slowly.

      I’m sure this list isn’t complete, but it is a start. Thanks for kicking it off.


  16. Thanks so much for raising these issues Katie! I am a PhD student at the moment so the endless post-docs are still in my future at this point :). I actually took a slightly different approach to this – I had my son 2.5 years into my PhD (basically as soon as I was finished the course work and could control my time and work from home). I am an archaeologist so we also have the field work component to deal with but thanks to a huge amount of family and spousal support I successfully accomplished almost 4 months in the field earlier this year. It has most definitely not been easy and there have been moments when I seriously thought I was going to lose my mind, but somehow we’ve muddled through!

    I know quite a few women who’ve done the same thing as me and while it can really complicate things during a fairly stressful time in your life, I’ve also found it has provided me with some much needed perspective (like if I’ve just had a paper rejected – before it would have crushed me, now I just look at my son’s face and realize there are more important things in life and then I take him to the park to go play). I am also incredibly lucky to have a wonderfully supportive husband with a fairly portable profession (commercial photographer) who is looking forward to the adventure of moving for the post-doc. My son will be preschool age by then but the way we have looked at it is that it gives him a chance to meet some cool new people from a different part of the world (and possibly learn another language).

    I do worry sometimes about what will happen once he’s school age, but I am sure we will figure it out when we get there. My feeling on it was that if I kept waiting for the perfect moment, then I’d probably be waiting forever so we just went for it and I guess we’ll see what happens…


    • I’m very glad I started having kids while in grad school. It was the norm in the research group that I was in. Best time for it during the academic career path.


    • I have heard this piece of advice from several people by now. I see the point that a graduate student timeline and workday is flexible, and that later moves will be easier with older kids. As a current grad student though, the issue that is not well-addressed at least in the US is affordable child care. While my department would pay for a 3-month maternity leave for grad students (even that is not a given at many universities), even with a flexible schedule I can’t really see how we would make things work after that. My spouse is also a grad student, neither of our families are nearby, and the typical cost of child care where we live is the same order as my annual stipend. The “just-have-kids-in-grad-school” advice really seems to work better if at least one half of the couple has a job that actually earns enough to support a family, provides health insurance for dependents, etc.


      • Very valid questions Luna – I am sure that the experience varies widely depending on individual situations but am happy to share what has worked for me :). I really do work from home so my son does not go to day care (very expensive here in Canada as well!). This of course is aided by the fact that my research doesn’t require me to be in a lab so I can work from anywhere. I have actually been really amazed at how much work I can get done during my son’s 2 hour nap each day supplemented by getting a babysitter (she’s a local high school student who only charges $7/hour) to come in several afternoons a week to play with him while I work. Since I only have these narrow windows to work in, I have found that I have become much more focused and productive during those times. I don’t have the internet up and with no office mates to chat with I can actually accomplish a lot. Also, I often put in a couple more hours in the evening when my son has gone to bed. When my son was younger (he’s now 21 months) he slept even more, so I just got into the habit of working on my research every time he went down for a nap, and just needed to adjust as his sleeping patterns change (like hiring a babysitter). My husband has a pretty flexible job, so if I am working on something with a tight deadline I will often get his help with our little one so I can get a few more hours of work in.

        I am not going to lie – it’s not always easy and gone are the days of hanging out at the pub with my fellow grad students! Also, it took me a while at first to find the balance and to learn how to work in these blocks of time over the course of the day, but now I feel like I have a fairly good handle on things and have been really productive in recent months. One word of warning though, don’t ever try and pull an all-nighter unless it’s an absolute emergency as there is no way to ever get that sleep back and you will still have to get up at some ungodly hour the next morning when your baby decides it’s time to start the day :).


  17. Everything you’ve said here is spot on. Right now my husband and I are both postdocs. We met during our first postdoc in CA, but then his money ran out. Neither of us are US citizens, so we didn’t have the option of getting married so we could stay together, or the option of staying around to wait for another job to come up. Most foreign postdocs in the US are on J-1 visas, which means once you’re done, depending on where your funding came from or which country you are from originally, you might *have to* go back to your home country for 2 years, rather than any other country. So now I’m in the US, he’s in Canada and my current status means I have to go back to the UK for 2 years starting in October.

    I’ve heard people say “well you knew you’d have to move”, and it’s true, when we started our PhDs, we both did. But we didn’t know we’d meet each other. Neither of us were (are) experts in the immigration laws of all the countries we’d have to live in. Neither of us knew it would end up like this.

    We’re both applying for faculty jobs this year with the hope of ending up in the same country at least. Right now we don’t really care which country that is as long as we’re both there. We can’t keep going on like this. It’s miserable.


  18. “…my dismay was of a somewhat detached variety. In order to worry about the effects of having children, one has to be in a position where that seems like even a remote possibility.”
    Whoa there… remember that of one the many blessings of our modern age is that a child does not absolutely require a man. You can buy sperm, you can adopt… ok, so none of this sounds traditionally romantic, but how much of an academic career is traditionally romantic? Besides, with the amount of stuff we’re trained to juggle already in our careers, single-parenthood looks, if far from ideal, at least eminently feasible. Remembering this got me through that peripatetic PhD/postdoc decade, anyway. (For what it’s worth, I do now have a tenured faculty job, plus the sort of slightly fraught, semi-committed relationship with another scientist that seems typical of over-30 academics… and I’m still just the right side of 35. So there is hope that I’ll belatedly do the conventional thing and make my grandmother happy.) Nevertheless, I’m hanging on to the backup plan, if only for the sake of my own sanity. My chosen career may well have put me out of the running for a husband, but it need not do the same for the prospect of a child.


    • Adoption isn’t a simple process. Often there are age limits and the rules in most places favour those people in committed long term relationships. See here for an example: I’m not saying it’s impossible, but you may find that adoption requires compromise as well.

      As for buying sperm, firstly it must be said that this proposition does nothing for men in a similar situation. Secondly, not everyone feels the same way about the morality of that process. Even when adopting, a continuing connexion between the child and biological parents is preferred (see the link I posted above). The international convention on the rights of a child says that “all things being equal a child has the right to both parents.” Using technology and an anonymous process to circumvent that principle is questionable at best. Anyway, I’m getting off topic. My point in posting this wasn’t to start a philosophical argument, but just to point out that individuals have beliefs, aside from simply preferring a romantic coupling, that might rule this option out for them.


  19. Precisely the reason why I decided to leave astronomy when finishing my PhD: not to have to go through such choices. I felt that no job would ever be worth compromising your happiness, and I never regretted the choice. Thanks for sharing this!


  20. Thank you for writing this article. I’ve wanted to write something similar for a long time. A couple of years ago I attended an AIP Women in Physics session where the statistics on academic couplings in physics were shown. The speaker was recommending that women (in particular) seek partners outside their field for all the reasons you’ve just outlined. I thought this was terrible advice. Most people are happiest (and most productive) when they have a partner who shares their interests and goals. I think this is particularly true of people with enough passion for science to want to pursue it as a career. If you rule out the people you have the most in common with, that’s a significant compromise to make in your life. It’s a compromise that I know I couldn’t make, which goes part way to explaining why I’m still single at 34. It’s not only women in research who wonder if they are going to end up alone, and with such a significant gender imbalance in our vocation, as a man the chance of meeting someone you like who is still single is significantly reduced. More so if you’re reluctant for a relationship with a large age gap.

    I seriously don’t understand why we can’t do a better job of solving the two body problem. There are things that can be done. One thing we could do, is do less funding of individual researchers and do more funding of research institutes who can keep people on rolling grants. Keeping a central pool of money that can be redistributed when you have two researchers who work in the same field would help too. That won’t work in all situations, but there is a lot of physics and astronomy research that doesn’t require you to be in a specific location. The current grant schemes, by attaching the significance they do to institutional support, are unhelpful in this regard.


    • Thanks, Daniel, for your comments.

      If a university really wanted to distinguish themselves in this area, they could advertise a ‘spousal research program’, which aims to attract the smartest _couples_ on the planet, rather than the smartest individuals.

      To a certain extent, the European Research Council grants work this way.
      By funding an individual and allowing them a lot of latitude in building their team , they can allow scope for spousal hires.

      But grant programs only help a tiny fraction of the people affected. As you have suggested, this problem needs structural change.


      • I agree that scope to hire couples or for spousal hire would be of benefit if done properly. There are a couple of issues to negotiate here.

        In general women tend to be younger than their male partners, and therefore often not as far along in their careers. Women I’ve spoken to about this have been apprehensive. They, understandably, want to be seen to be hired on their own merits, and they worry that it will look like they’re getting the gig because of their husband.

        The other issue is going to be the perception of the general public. I’m not sure politicians are going to be that sympathetic. The current Australian Prime Minister has just told all his MPs that they need to fire their spouses and any family members who work in their offices to avoid any perception of nepotism (and I believe something similar occured in the UK a few years ago). (Personally I think it is an outrage that (mostly) women are losing their jobs because it might look bad for their husband, but I digress.) Research money mainly comes from government, who answer to their constituents, and it’s going to be hard to convince people who don’t work in our field that this is appropriate.


  21. Thanks so much for this heart-wrenching post Katie.

    I did a big move (Aus to UK) for my PhD and prior to that I had already sacrificed a relationship for a career opportunity that involved lengthy travel.

    I made my decision at that point that I would not sacrifice a committed relationship or my happiness for my career again and that my career was going to have to adapt to me. Like Katie, I wanted to stay in academia if at all possible.

    I’m just going through the transition from first post-doc fellowship to my next move, and while I don’t want to write in a public forum about my next move without the contract signed and sealed, the key thing that worked for me was to think about it early and start talking to people about it. Yes, it really took a big leap of confidence to walk into someone’s office and say “I want to work here, how are you going to make it happen?” but I was lucky to have a supportive network and a very supportive spouse!

    Sometimes, to get what you want, the hardest step in the process is ASKING for it.

    Once I made it clear to mentors, bosses, potential bosses etc that I was not willing to spend more than 50% of my time living in another country, it forced both me and the people I was negotiating with to be creative! In the end it produced two options and while it was heart-wrenching trying to decide which option to pursue, it was a lot less heart-wrenching than another huge relocation away from my partner, our house etc.

    I don’t want to detract from the fact that structurally this is a big issue in academia, but I do want to encourage people to talk about it. The ‘powers that be’ will only realise it is a problem if we talk about it. They are human too and realise that an unhappy employee is going to be an unproductive one!

    I’m trying to give a positive message here: don’t be quiet about this issue. Tell people it exists for you. Once people were aware of my ‘restrictions’ they worked incredibly hard to try and find a solution. For that I am immensely grateful.


  22. Thank you very much for this well-written essay, Katie. You frankly and thoughtfully faced the issues with questions instead of only complaints. I’m married to another astronomer, so much of this was familiar. But it’s hard to see how things could have worked out better for us. We’re both in excellent permanent positions at the same institution and have never had to be long-distance. We didn’t even have to compromise on our career goals, and managed to avoid the perception of me being a trailing spouse (I think anyway). We have a 2 year old daughter, and we managed to get that done before I hit 40.

    But I’m writing all this not to gloat, but to highlight what I see as the crisis point where we got really lucky. It wasn’t when applying for permanent jobs, but when we met in the first place as postdocs. Everything else after that was under our control to some extent. But when I think about the chance of us overlapping in the same city during our brief 3 year postdocs and hitting it off fast enough to make a commitment, I feel like we won a lottery. It’s almost scary to think about how easily that might not have happened. For me, giving up astronomy research was not an option; I need it to be happy as much as anything in my life. I’m just grateful I got the rest too.

    There is no advice to give about this, since we really did get lucky. The only thing I can say is that the postdoc situation has gotten out of control. The system has to go back to the old days (decades ago) when people didn’t commonly do more than one (or often, none). The suggestion above about moving the crisis point earlier (having fewer postdoc positions available) is an interesting one. I bet this might have the effect of slightly increasing the number of permanent jobs, since so much work is being done by postdocs. At any rate, good luck to Katie and all.


  23. Good article Katie, I think it’s clear that there needs to be some rebalancing in several areas, i.e. lengths of postdoc contracts, ratios of numbers of PhD, 1st postdoc, subsequent postdoc and ongoing positions, typical age/seniority at first ongoing appointment, etc.

    The rise of short term contracts and decline in permanent employment is an unwelcome trend in many employment sectors but the combination of short term contracts with small, highly specialised fields is particularly disruptive to peoples’ lives. It’s one thing to go from short term contract to short term contract when there are half a dozen potential employers in the city you’re living in, quite another when there are only half a dozen potential employers scattered around the world.

    As other commenters have mentioned the two body problem can be just as problematic with partners outside academia. In many careers experience/certifications/qualifications are not readily transferable internationally so finding work overseas is difficult and without a suitable job to move to it is often significantly more difficult to obtain a visa to live in the country the academic partner is moving to.

    Personally I’ve been very, very lucky, I’ve only had to make one major move (UK to Australia) and I was fortunate to get a permanent job by the relatively young age of 34 (helped by the fact that I got my PhD in the UK system and so started on postdocs earlier) . Even so the uncertainly and insecurity of the 7 year period during which I had 4 separate short term contracts (admittedly 3 with the same employer) caused me to delay buying a home, getting married and starting a family. Once I got my permanent job I was fortunately in a position to do all those things in fairly quick succession but as my wife is a few years older than I am the delay could have easily prevented us from having any children and may still prevent us from having a second.


  24. I moved from Australia to the UK for my PhD (4 years) then back to Australia for a very short and ill-fated Postdoc (1year). Then to the US for a much more profitable (scientifically, not personally) 2 year postdoc. Then back to Australia (a third Australian city by this time) on a fellowship. At each of these places, relationships began, faltered, broke. Relationship problems didn’t end after securing the 5 year fellowship because I chose partners very unwisely (lack of practise?). Eventually I met my life partner at age 42 and we married three years later. We don’t have children, but that has never been a big issue for me – I am the oldest girl in a family of 9 kids and so had lots of childcare responsibility as a teenager. Not something I desperately wanted to repeat as an adult. My mum’s advice (and she had it much tougher than most) during my sad/lonely times: life is a journey, follow your passion, aim high, enjoy the ride. There are no guarantees, but if you reach for the stars and miss, you never know what other shiny bright thing you might find on the way. Hang in there.


  25. I don’t think there is a solution unless you deal with the way universities are run. The problem is that universities are run, more and more, like corporations. In a world where profit is king, an oversupply of relatively cheap, highly trained PhDs and post-docs is seen as a good thing by university administrators. They don’t care about the human costs: you are just figures on an excel spreadsheet to them.


  26. The best thing to do would be to have at least one robot avatar on each continent, that way telecommuting would have a fair chance of working, more so than having everyone sit in front of a screen on Skype. It would actually look quite hilarious, someone in their local pub with a load of VR kit on drinking beer and apparently talking theoretical astrophysics to themselves while controlling a robot having post-seminar drinks with colleagues somewhere else.


  27. It’s good to see another Californian in Melbourne, especially an astronomer! I can relate very much to this, though my husband and I managed to make all of our international moves work, despite having met as undergraduate students. We’ve also somehow managed to only spend a combined total of about six months apart, even though we’re from different countries. Of course, this has been manageable for us largely due to the fact that I did not enjoy working in academia and ultimately left astronomy, making the two-body problem a bit less complicated. If you ever feel like catching up with another Californian with a close connection to astronomy, let me know. I’m actually quite sure that you already know my husband. Best of luck in your next job round!


  28. I was a little offended by the author’s idea that you’d be 20s-early 30s in your first postdoc. We don’t all rush straight through. I got my PhD just past 40. You want to talk about fertility issues and friends who are settling down and doing the adult thing? Try being at least 10 years older than you are, then imagine it. Perhaps going straight through is common in the sciences, but in my cohort I was in the middle of the age range.


  29. Great article. Heartbreaking, even. But I think this idea: “Having a pool of early-career researchers who move frequently to different institutions unquestionably advances research and keeps the ideas flowing” is actually at the heart of why academia has the shitty career structure it has. It’s simply not true anymore because internet.

    As long as doing undergrad, postgrad and finding a job in the same city brands you as a research lightweight, being mobile will be a selection criteria, with all the negative effects that has for men and women who want families.


  30. I know the issue is common in academic community, but my conclusion after watching the comment stream is that people could negotiate harder(with themselves and with prospective employers) but rather, they’d prefer “raising awareness” and nod in agreement to each other and protest loudly when someone(ahem, me) challenges their thought (how very scientific to protest or sound defensive when someone offers alternatives — this closemindedness is really your problem).

    Look, if I were higher administration at the University, I don’t want to know what the problem is, but what you would want to get done. Then let’s evaluate the likelihood and reach a middleground. If that is unacceptable let’s negotiate tougher, harder. I mean, come on, you are idea people, walk into the University president’s office, tell them you’d like to take them for coffee and talk about your perspective (no, it really works. Try it before you deny it). Don’tbe so passive aggressive and whine about things.a) you chose this; b) propose a solution, no one gets the prize for redefining the problem, c) stop having to sound lame and defensive, no one is trying to minimize your suffering, so get over it , understand the framework you are trying to operate within, its limitations and propose possibilities.

    /rant over.

    Devil’s Advocate


    • (a) Nobody ever tells you about the potential personal hardships after you graduate, and to be fair this wasn’t so much of a problem for the previous generation. All the outreach that is done focuses on the joy of research and learning something new. Those of us who attempt academic careers have graduated with this at the core of our identity.

      (b) If you’ve read the comments you’ll have seen people have proposed solutions. I talk about this to any senior academic who will listen.

      (c) Among the limitations here is that the ratio of permanent positions to postdocs to postgrads is out of proportion, further the term of a postdoc is short. Decisions about these two things aren’t made at a university level (at least not where I am), but rather at a government level. Most funding for postdocs is provided through government grants. There are quite a few links in the chain between postdocs and government. We’re such a small part of the community that it is hard to be heard.


    • There are solutions – but fact is, in the vast majority of cases, in certain fields of study, the basic choice is either leave academia or do the post-doc run-around (and quite often *then* leave academia).
      You can negotiate with individual heads of universities, but the problem doesn’t surface in the institutions You’re working in at the time – it will surface at the time of applications for (more) permanent academic positions, or the next short-term contract.
      In the field I’m working in, a PhD and at least two post-docs of 2-3 years duration each are necessary to land a faculty position of any description (at least I am not aware of anyone who has obtained one without). Brownie points for doing Your PhD in a different institution from Your first degree, and definitely all post-docs in different institutions from PhD (as told me by multiple different senior people involved in recruitment). Given the distribution of research groups working in the field, this is usually a different country, often a different continent.
      Saying this is not being defensive – this is just how the system works, and no negotiation will make it different (a post-doc or applicant junior faculty is in a very weak negotiating position anyway). It has its advantages, it has its disadvantages – I personally found the strain on relationships one of the bigger disadvantages.
      It is also true that it’s a pain in the backside to try and find a job after a post-doc or two. Straight out of a PhD is all right, but the longer You’re in the academic grind, the more difficult it gets to get “real companies” to hire You, and the more frustrating it is that You’re mostly applying for jobs that You could have gotten straight out of undergraduate, never mind PhD – effectively annulling well over a decade of Your life in terms of pay and career progression. (In some countries, e.g. Australia, it’s more common to do a complete career change or three through Your working life – in some other countries it can get You long-term unemployed.)

      I’m not writing academic apologia :-p – I left academia, now leading a happy life in industrial R&D. I’m just looking back, and around, and noting how things actually work.

      I do find these kind of articles useful, because it makes people think.
      Academia can be great – it does have amazing advantages. But, many people I encounter who embark on the life are shockingly unaware of some of the disadvantages, career progression, opportunities, grant success rates, etc.
      The system will not change in the foreseeable future (maybe when the current generation is senior faculty ,,,), and fresh graduates should walk into the life with open eyes. (Or walk away from it whenever they encounter a point where life makes more sense outside. Ideally without guilt-tripping from colleagues.)


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  32. In my field, higher education policy, the mobility factor you mention is regarded as a strength of the system itself. When professors move around early in their careers, their perspectives become enhanced and their instititions and research fields benefit. For female professors who want children, having only one child right at the time of gaining tenure seems to work best. I wish there were an easy way to solve the issue that you raise. As the the maitre d’ character at the Chinese restaurant on the Seinfield television show said so succinctly: “relationships are difficult.”


  33. I don’t know the answer either. I decided to do the opposite – prioritise family and stability for a while, and because of that I think I’m going to have to leave academia in the near future. Luckily I’m in Engineering where the move to industry is fairly easy, but I still feel a bit frustrated that I can’t see a way forward in academia! I’ve tried talking to people in the university (some of whom are very senior with influence), and no-one has solutions. Still, I don’t regret my choices as I have two lovely kids, a great husband, and lots of choices in industry 🙂


  34. This is very true. My wife finished a masters degree and started working a job in the industry, (she is not a scientist), and she realized then that following an academic path with a family is extremely difficult. At the time I was finishing a PhD in particle physics and considering what to do next. The people she worked with had a simple undergrad degree and earned more than a junior faculty member, not to mention that those people were 25 and not 40. Thank goodness she opened my eyes, and thank goodness I was able to transfer my skills to the software industry. I got to say we are lucky to have found jobs in the same city (however with 6 months difference).
    Had I been accepted to postdoc, we would be divorced now.


  35. I fell madly in love 34 years ago, and am still madly in love 34 years later. Something gave to make that work, and yes, a good part of that was the prospects possible in my academic career. I remain working in the most miserable, miserly, 4th rate institution in a rain sodden town in England’s North West – like Seattle, but much more rain, and much less fun.
    I am a full Professor – which is the highest rank a researcher/teacher can become in England – but my institution pays around £20k less than most of the others.
    Initially it was my partner’s training, then came babies and house prices. After that the children,who once they were over the age of 5 really did refuse to move away from school and friends. As they started to leave for university, it was elderly parents. Now it is my age and health – approaching 60, with a chronic, unexpected, health condition.
    Even though we could now move (but only in England, as the kids are all here, and are now having their own kids) nobody will offer an interview to someone of my age.
    I have juggled children, parents, partner, and work throughout those years, always feeling there was never enough of me for any of them individually, and certainly not together. I have regularly slept at my desk as I struggled to finish an article, When the children were babies, I fell asleep and slid down a blackboard to the amusement of my students. Always tired, always behind, always with a house in chaos, always piles of paperwork to be supposedly read, but instead thrown away after 5 years of laying untouched., and never havign enough time to do all of the ironing.
    Has it been worth it? Well – yes.. The 34 years of enduring love have been more than I ever hoped for in my life, Our 4 children (we had twins for no.3 which wasn’t the game plan) were the biggest, and most exciting adventure we could have ever jointly undertaken. And though my career has been somewhat stunted, I am, at least, looking forward to a secure pension. My partner is now also an academic, at the same miserly institution I hasten to add – and though in a completely different field, we enjoy intellectually stimulating conversations about everything from the politics of health care to the idiocy of current UK university policy. And we still make glorious love together, whether simply holding hands in the cinema, or with a sense of sacredness in the splendour of our well worn bed.
    And – I am a man. Truth is, neither of us quite got what we wanted out of our work lives, but we both very much got what we had hoped for from our love life.


  36. […] as an early career scientist. Every week I seem to read a new article about the sucky nature of being a postdoc, and how hard it is to find work in research. That terrifies me into thinking that I’m […]


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