DrugMonkey has a poll up asking for reader reports of the science career advice they have gotten firsthand. Here’s the framing of the poll:
It boils down to what I see as traditional scientific career counselling to the effect that there is something wrong or inadvisable about staying in the same geographical location or University when a scientist move across the training stages. From undergrad to grad, grad to postdoc or postdoc to faculty.
First, if you’ve gotten advice on your scientific career, go respond to the poll. Then, come back and we’ll chat.
Now, if one’s goal is to become a grown-up scientist in an academic setting, there is certainly something that could be useful about gaining firsthand experience of a number of different academic institutions — if for no other reason that the cultures of various colleges and universities can vary quite widely (as can how secure or precarious their funding situations are, what this does to the state of facilities and administrative support, not to mention teaching loads, etc.). From this point of view, it can make a lot of sense to do graduate training someplace other than one’s undergraduate institution, and to do a postdoctoral stint someplace other than one’s graduate institution.
Institution-hopping ought also to connect the scientist-in-training to different mentors (potentially with distinct mentoring styles) and to help him or her establish a broader set of contacts (and collaborators, and advocates) in his or her chosen field.
As well, especially at the postdoc career stage, the ability to get new research started reasonably efficiently in a new institutional context might serve as something of a dry-run for the anticipated start-up in one’s own lab as a newly appointed faculty member. You’re walking the high-wire with less of a net if you’re doing it in an institution that’s new to you, or so the thinking goes.
However, in the career advice about changing institutions and cultivating “geographic flexibility”, it seems like there is sometimes another issue lurking in the background.
Sometimes, willingness to change not just institutions but geographical regions — and drastically so — at each career stage seems to be taken as an indication of greater “commitment” to science and to the scientific life. And the only interpretation of this fact that makes much sense to me is that commitment to science is, in these cases, being judged on the basis of one’s willingness to throw all non-career-centered considerations to the wind:
“See how much s/he loves science? No partner who wasn’t willing to act as a scientist’s helpmeet would follow that pathway, shifting hundreds or thousands of miles every few years. The only roots this candidate has put down are roots to this scientific field. Clearly, with what grad stipends and postdocs pay, it’s not like s/he could have purchased a home anyway, even if s/he wasn’t ready to pack up and follow the siren song of science to the ends of the earth. We don’t have to worry that this candidate will ever leave us because of a partner’s career, or family responsibilities, or to surf — see how much already has been sacrificed to the dream of being a scientist!”
This is not to say that most search committees would come right out and make rootlessness an official criterion for the successful job applicant, but that does not mean than it’s not part of what some search committee members are really looking for. (I’m surely not the only one privy to reports, from people in a position to know, that a candidate’s lack of traces of “a life” beyond the career gave that candidate an edge over others with similar educational pedigrees, publication records, and so forth who did have visible traces of “a life”.)
I’m not going to argue that combining an academic career and “a life” is not a challenge (especially as I’ve discussed some dimensions of what can make it challenging). And indeed, I’ve recently noted that having a partner who does not live just to further your interests, but who may have interests of his or her own (which you might work to further as part of your commitment to that partner), may complicate your decision-making landscape when it comes to your won career. Assuredly, these three-dimensional partners can make some prime candidates for scientific jobs harder to hire or to retain.
But it’s not clear to me that preferring the rootless candidate who is married first and foremost to science is always the best hiring move. Why, for example, would you not view such a scientist as a flight risk — the kind of person who might, at the drop of a hat, run off and do more exciting science with some other institution far away?