The Transient Nature of Academia

I'm in Italy. Until I get back I've set up my blog to repost some old entries. Here's a post from last year.

Yesterday, while driving up to Ipswich to spend the day at Crane beach and watch the see the annual July 3rd Fireworks, a group of us gabbed about the transient nature of being an academic.

Living from place to place, moving until you are in your late 30s, an academic is expected to travel and see the world. You live in various places; experience the day to day hustle of different cities, towns and often countries. You absorb the local customs, the ideas, the history. You attempt to form relationships with coworkers ... but in the end it's all very transient.

I've made many good friends throughout the years in Montreal, New York and now Boston ... but as I moved on, so did they, to Princeton, Seattle, Pasadena, and Tokyo. Soon others will be heading off to Berkeley, Boulder, and Paris.

And why all this restless movement?

We've been told that this is good for us. And it's not only in academia, but it is currently the dominant ideology. Workers must travel. Workers must move to where they have a comparative advantage. Academics can't settle down or else they may become sedentary. They must be challenged and they must learn. Go out and explore.

And so, my wife and I are bound to travel the world, never being able to settle down in one spot, never being able to become members of a long lasting community. We've made many great friends, only to see them move away.

And what humans' need, acording to some, is the very thing we don't have, stability. People thrive when they can form long lasting bonds. Sure things are not so difficult in the age of information, where communication is simple and easy and accessible to all. But will I ever again be able to spend an afternoon sitting on the beach, under an incredible blue sky, sipping wine, playing a game of beach soccer, and just shooting the breeze with these same dozen individuals?

Of all my encounters, I have to say that academics are always the most open welcoming, unpretentious and fun-loving people. I use to think that it was because as academics, we love life; so much so that we have sacrificed much in order to immerse ourselves in its intricate details. In some ways our devotion to studying the world is more holy, than any religious ritual. We are interested in everything and our dedication to the natural world is a reflection of our reverence towards it.

I still believe that this attitude plays a great part in forming the easy going and open attitude that exists in many academic circles. But I do believe that the transient nature of our profession has also shaped us; we are the lonely career, cursed to travel the world as hard working mercenaries ... and as our paths meet we academics feel a sense of solidarity towards each other.

We are alone together.

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That's a beautiful sentiment. I'm only a research associate, having decided early in graduate school that a PhD was for me, but the work itself is transient, when you're in a relatively narrow field. I've lived in Newfoundland, Alabama, and three cities in British Columbia and I'll likely move again when this current surge of grant money dries up. Like you, some of my best friends are working in far-flung places; Florida State, Washington Department of the Environment, National Research Council of Canada, Washington DC, and as far away as faculty positions in Australia. I COULD settle down, but it would mean taking 'any' job in science, rather than a career doing what I've grown to love. Thanks for summing this up so well!

By Jonathan Martin (not verified) on 10 Oct 2007 #permalink