grad school · making friends · moving

On Moving

As you know, blogging is new for me. Last week while I was rushing to finish a mind-blowingly long application I sent out a request for post ideas. A new acquaintance of mine suggested discussing moving. Or, more accurately, he suggested discussing the mostly-unspoken pressure to move around to complete various degrees.

Moving is a topic near to my heart… Since beginning my undergraduate degree in 1997 I have moved 18 times. I’ve lived in North Carolina, British Columbia (island and interior and, for a short time, on a school bus), Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, and now Nova Scotia. I’ve gone to three different universities to obtain my three degrees, took one small year off (hence the BC living), and have happened to move house almost every year for various reasons. Given that I and many of my dear friends and acquaintances are also still on the job market moving is very much on my mind.

But as I mentioned my friend who initially suggested this post had a slightly different angle in mind. He’d been thinking specifically about the pressure to move to a different university to complete your degree. That’s something which was really easy for me to do, and less so for him given family obligations. But he’s got me thinking: is moving to do your degree necessary?

I always thought so, though in retrospect I’m not certain why. I began my academic career in the United States. I was already accustomed to moving, my parents changed career when I was 10 leading us from Ottawa to rural North Carolina twice a year. So perhaps the itch/ability/inevitability to move was ingrained. But, those of you located in the U.S. of A. will know that it isn’t necessary to move this much if you choose to enter academia: the Masters degree is streamed into the PhD process which means that (like the student who received and ‘A’ on her Emerson paper) students begin the PhD process at age 21 or so (making huge obvious assumptions about going straight through one’s degree with no deviations or interruptions called life). Another good friend of mine did this: we began our BA at the same time, she’s finished her PhD now, and she’s lived in the same place for more than 4 years.

In Canada there does seem to be more pressure to move around to do one’s degree. As I say, that’s been easy for me in the past because I’ve almost always been making decisions for myself alone. But I can think of several friends–of various genders–who have agonized about continuing on because it has generally required leaving or uprooting family and partner.

I’m not sure what I think about this imperative–real or implied–to move for various degrees. Certainly that’s due in part to the fact it hasn’t been an overly agonizing detail for me (although that’s changing now). I appreciate the three very different geographic spaces in which I took my degrees: North Carolina and Montreal and Alberta have surprising similarities in addition to the myriad of obvious differences. I have become extremely adept at starting over. But is it necessary to move?

Your turn readers: what do you think about the pressure (implied or overt) to move for various degrees?

15 thoughts on “On Moving

  1. Between B.A. and postdoc, I lived in Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Alberta (and Denmark). As an historian of Canada and the environment, I can say it added immeasurably to my professional repertoire, and profoundly affected how I see the national project. Plus, it always became a big adventure: learning about a new place. So for me, it was a real benefit and I owe most of my research profile as well as classroom material to having lived in different places. In fact, the shock came with getting hired & tenure: you mean I'm staying in one place?!


  2. I have actually been surprised by the number of people here in my graduate department at Dalhousie who also completed their undergraduate work here. While pursuing my Masters at the Univ Mass Amherst down in the states there was not a single graduate student in the program that had also done their undergrad on site. I have an extended family member (from California) that often spouts about making sure you move while pursuing different degrees (without any justification, as is his style), so from my own small sample set, I feel like folks in the US are far more concerned about this.


  3. I moved from Far North Ontario to Toronto (York) for my BA, then to Guelph for my MA, then to Edmonton for my PhD. Now I'm at Waterloo. I feel that having experience of (now) *four* distinct institutional cultures–and four sets of networks–has been valuable to me professionally, in the sense of knowing people, and knowing how, for example, mass curriculum overhaul is done in different places, etc. Pragmatic stuff.

    Intellectually? The path I took is actually a pretty common one–York / Guelph / Alberta — so I don't know how much my horizons intellectually may have been broadened. Probably my geographic horizons benefited most, actually.

    Why do it, then? Or why not? I have always thought (in an unexamined way) that there is value in picking up and trying something new. Which is weird because if you know me you know that I essentially cried for two months when I had to buy a new house **around the corner** from my old one. I very much like to stay put.

    I do think I had a lot of adventures, of all kinds, in my moves and in my different lives resulting from them, and those have been personally valuable. Professionally valuable? Intellectually valuable? I couldn't really say. I tend to think yes, but not in a way that's essentially associated with moving.


  4. Furthermore, I research mothering, and one of the main disruptive forces in family life is the tendency of all of us to be spread so far from our families of origin, and from our friends. So I always get very angry with Richard Florida telling us to rent and not own, so we can pick up stakes at a moment's notice to go where the jobs are.

    F-you, and your jobs that don't care about my family life, is usually what I yell at the newspaper.

    And yet, I have always tended to think that students should move around, if they can. At the very least, I tell them it will harden them to the eventuality of “going where they post you” to a university job, any university job, in a place not of your choosing but by which you are grateful to be chosen.

    That's a pretty crappy message.



  5. The differences between the American and Canadian systems have been on my mind recently. In my field, as you describe above, Canadian programs tend to have a separate MA program (though it seems that many people stay at the same institution for MA+PhD), while American programs tend to have no MA, unless it's for people who choose not to finish their PhD.

    When I was applying to graduate school, I looked at these two options and decided I didn't want to spend extra time getting an MA, so I went with an American program. Five years later I'm working on my dissertation, and I have mixed feelings about that choice. On the one hand, my program and cohort have worked out very well for me, and I'm happy with my progress and my current research, so I'm glad I made the choice I did and I'm not sure I'd change it. On the other hand, I did spend the first two years of my PhD sort of figuring out what grad school was about, and I think there would have been some benefit to figuring that stuff out during an MA.

    And all that leaves aside the extra moving entailed by doing another degree at another institution, which would have been very hard on me but even more so on my partner, who hates to move (he's dreading the likely upheaval of the few years after I'm finished my degree).


  6. Now that I'm teaching in the US, I really appreciate the fact that the Canadian system allows movement. I teach at a state school, which means that most of my students here are from this state, because that's all they can afford. Out-of-state tuition can be insane,* particularly for students who are already coming from disadvantaged backgrounds (for me, that means Detroit. And we all know about Detroit).

    I can only base my comments on my own experience (BA, MA from York, PhD from Alberta), but I never encountered out-of-province tuition fees. International students have different fee scales, yes, but (correct me if I'm wrong here) Canadian students are able to move between schools in different provinces without having to shell out an extra $20K a year because they want to attend a school that is not connected to their home province. To me, that seems like a good, good thing.

    As for the psychological and intellectual aspects of moving, well… there were pros and cons for me, as I suspect there are for everyone. I'm just happy that I lived in a system that allowed me the opportunity to move, if I so chose.

    *I should note that some states have reciprocity agreements, but usually only in terms of scholarships (ie: if a state has the money, and wants to “up” its level by pursuing “better” students. It's like running your state university like a basketball team.


  7. I was always told that getting one's degrees at multiple institutions was about diversity of experience and moving outside your comfort zone. Every institution/department has a unique culture with singular strengths and weaknesses, and attending at least two different ones means you have to adapt to different expectations. I believe that part of our job as instructors is to broaden students perspectives, and that's easier if, by necessity, we've had to broaden our own with each move.

    I also think it's valuable for students to be able to choose institutions based on their needs (something the institutions could do more to remember). I teach at a small undergrad institution which is ideal for students wanting small classes and hands on instruction; for grad school, I chose to go to a leading research institution with a department that valued cultural studies approaches and non-traditional texts. Moving between degrees means choosing the right institution for one's interests and needs. I get really annoyed with conversations that assume we should change our university to be more like other universities, preciseily because students should have a range of institutions to choose from.

    That said, moving can suck. A lot. I'm not sure there's enough support for the kinds of transitions we undergo when we move in academia.


  8. I am now at my 6th institution and 5th town, and I'm hoping for 1 more move in my career, knowing that if I'm lucky enough to get that chance, it will be my final move, for life. I did my BA in NS, commuted from the same location to do my MA at a different NS school, started my PhD in QC at one school and then transferred to another PhD program in QC, got a TT job in the middle of butt-f**k nowhere USA, am now on my second TT job in the center of nowhere USA, spending a considerable amount of time and emotional energy fighting off the daily urge to cry about being exiled in a country that doesn't reflect any of my fundamental values, and hoping against hope that next year there will be a job back in Canada, as there isn't a single job in my field this year.

    Like SC, I was under the impression that we were supposed to diversify the institutions we attended because each one had a different institutional culture and we'd end up as more well-rounded individuals with multiple perspectives on ways of doing things in academia. By the end of the PhD, one of the things we could offer our new employer would be new ways of thinking about how to get things done at our new institution, and that seems to be a discourse I've heard repeated as I've settled into two new jobs and am now on a hiring committee myself. Departments tend to get old and stale and rely on fresh, new ideas and outsider perspectives from junior faculty to keep them on their toes.

    The question one has to ask, going back to the video, is whether or not one is willing to sacrifice family, friends, and personal happiness to spend 20-25 years of one's life labouring in middle-of-nowhere Nebraska just to be an academic. At the moment, I'm profoundly unhappy on nearly a daily basis to be living my life here, but I'm equally as grateful to have my job and the privileges it provides, especially since I know I'm one of the lucky ones who landed a “good” job at a “Research school”. Will the gratefulness continue to off-set the extremely strong feelings of exile and sadness of having moved here 1 or 2 years from now if there are still no jobs elsewhere? I'm not so sure. And what about 5 years from now when I get tenure if I'm still here, especially since 90% of most jobs are at the assistant level, so getting tenure basically means being stuck for life? Really, really not sure on that one. At this point, I've resolved to try to stick it out until tenure, salivating each year over the job ads and the possibility of moving back home (home = anywhere north of the 49th), but if I'm still here when tenure time arrives, I plan to use my sabbatical year to go to law school and/or try to get a stable job outside of academia. Once the book is out and I've got tenure, nobody can accuse me of being “a quitter”.

    Each of us has to draw her own line in the sand when it comes to moving somewhere we don't want to be. At my BA institution, which was prime butt-f**k nowhere (population 4000 stretched over a 40km area of desolation), I saw people who gave 20-30 years of their life to the institution and were absolutely miserable. Trapped. Like caged animals. You could see it on their faces and in their eyes every day. They were counting down the days to retirement, but you could tell that by the time they reached it, they would be shadows of their former selves and unable to enjoy it fully. Hardly my image of “a life of the mind”. My current institution isn't that bad, and there are many perks (big travel budget = opportunities for escape!), but I think we have to be very careful about not harbouring any illusions about the sacrifices that moving for a job in academia really entails.


  9. I don't like the pressure to move for your degrees. It's so annoying that I actually am considering stopping my degree at a Bachelors level because I don't want to have to pick up and move somewhere else to get a Masters Degree, and drag my poor other half around with me. I am also considering getting a Masters from a less recognized institution in the great white north so I can just teach there and focus on things I really want to do.

    Moving around for me, puts a lot of pressure on me not to have a family…not to “settle down and buy a house”, etc etc.

    Ironically though, I understand some of the concerns that I've heard from my instructors. In particular with my degree. As a major in Visual Studies, my portfolio of work will already have been seen by most of the professors at the university that would be choosing whether or not I would take my second degree there. This is touchy because I already have running relationships with many of those profs. I know my sculpture instructor would always have my back…and I know that one of the painting instructors would rather see me unsuccessful and struggling. So…long tangent short…there is a lot of conflicts of interest. In my faculty especially…which i guess in now part of arts. But, regardless.

    So I am in part forced to move because I don't want to deal with all that preferential B.S.

    However…I think moving around can be nice, to start over in a new city, with new people, no one knows you, etc. But its hard, financially, and relationship wise.

    I don't want to talk about how much stress is on a couple during packing, and loading up the moving truck, and unpacking…

    I don't think that universities should be so blatantly against taking students that got their initial degree with them. Perhaps a light suggestion that it can be good experience to take your masters and phd somewhere else…but not a “you probably wont get in here because you took your other program here”.

    But really, I don't think that people should be forced to get degrees in different locations. It SHOULD be based on what your researching or studying, and where the best facility is to do that. The best facility of course dependent on both the facility itself, and what is important in your life. If you are looking to buy a house and have some kids, then maybe the best facility isn't going to be across the country, or globe. Especially if your expected to move again later.


  10. I think the idea that one HAS to move for each degree derives from the tradition of the itinerant monk, in part, plus the exogamous exchange of young people. I don't see anything intrinsically wrong with moving for degrees but it IS expensive for people, i.e., students, who are living at or below the poverty line.

    On the other hand, I think there SHOULD be much much more mobility for faculty. If people who are stuck in geographies or climates they dislike, who are remote from family, or who are in departments run by factions and cliques could move before they went sour, the air would be sweeter at universities. On the positive side, it would simply be great fun to have the option at very least to exchange positions with someone of comparable expertise, if not to move outright. Tenure is a Good Thing but it is also a honey trap, especially for those who prefer playing politics to research or teaching.

    For the record, I love where I live (outside Calgary, close to the mountains and the Bow River in a great community) and I can see the Rocky Mts. out my study window right this minute, but I would consider a move just for the chance and the challenge of integrating into another community (both town and gown) and learning another bioregion's flora and fauna.


  11. As a grad student, I feel the pressure to move for each degree in my academic environment all the time – from other students in MA and PhD programs at my institution, and from faculty. For students, I think it's a kind of groupthink – there's a negative connotation attached to pursuing multiple degrees at the same school, to the point where students who are studying for their second (or third) degree at the institution have a stigma attached to them by their colleagues – that they're somehow less deserving of funding, less able to contribute to scholarly conversations, because they don't have the same “worldly” experience as those of us who have come from other schools. What's strange about all of this is the fact that I had never really thought of WHY I participated in that process of judging my peers until I read this blog post.

    For me, the choice to move from St. John's to Ottawa to pursue my MA was a simple one – I did my undergrad work in a small department, and came to my current (much larger) department to work with a specific supervisor in what is still a small field, especially in Canada (feminist International Relations).

    But now, I'm feeling the pressure to move again to begin a PhD program next fall. What has surprised me the most this time around is the fact that virtually ALL faculty members I've asked for advice on this have suggested I do a PhD in the US, rather than in Canada or the UK, mainly because of the prestige an American PhD supposedly carries with it when applying for jobs in Canadian Political Science departments (which is where I eventually hope to teach). Frustratingly, the last place I'd like to go for doctoral work is the US – I'd much prefer to stay in Canada (except for the fact that there are very few people doing work in my field), or go to the UK (despite outrageously high tuition fees and costs of living). So the question for me now becomes: go to a country I have no interest in living in for the duration of a PhD program in order to attain a “prestigious” degree, settle and study in Canada with a supervisor who may not be an expert in my field, or go to the UK and work with amazing scholars, but possibly be less likely to get a job in Canada because of it?

    I really think this conversation is an important one, especially since there's not just pressure to move around to complete degrees, but often specific pressures influencing WHERE that move sends you – resulting in the question of whether it's worth the inevitable compromises.


  12. Dear All: thank you so much for your engagement. I think Pam nailed it–HAVING to go somewhere for a degree can be problematic to say the least, but the opportunity is wonderful (at least that is my experience).

    As Pantagruelle articulates the complication intensifies post-degree(s).

    Like Jillian I agree that its not simply the pressure–implied or real or imagined–to move but the specific pressures influencing where that move sends you (& yours) that causes the most complex of questions.

    It is that last questions–where and the pressures influencing where (and how and why)–that are on the forefront my my mind these days.

    Thank you for thinking with me, readers!


  13. Amanda: Just chiming in to say that I believe that Quebec subsidizes tuition for all Quebec students who stay in province, but students from other provinces coming to Quebec have to pay full price for tuition. Or at least that's the way it worked for my friend who did her library degree at McGill.


  14. @ Jillian (and everybody else): Here are two articles from tomorrow's issue of University Affairs. These statistics are why your professors are encouraging you to do your PhD elsewhere, and I think that the UK would actually be the wisest choice if you want to get a job in Canada someday (although I'm loath to perpetuate the problem).

    “Philosophy grads from Canadian universities are at a disadvantage in landing tenure-track jobs”:

    As the article points out, the current hiring trends in Canada in philosophy are 70% foreign PhDs vs. 30% Canadian PhDs.

    This article refers to the first and essentially makes a similar argument:
    “The end of the Canadianization movement”:

    Both of these articles support the claim I made on this blog less than two weeks ago:

    In English, the rate of hire of foreign PhDs hit a high of 54% in 2007-08, and the number for 2008-09 was 50%, which shows the trend holding steady despite the downturn in the market. In the past few years though, ACCUTE and CACE have compromised their methods of obtaining and tabulating the data, so it is becoming increasingly unreliable–perhaps because most people have ostrich syndrome and would rather bury their heads in the sand than confront the scary truth?


  15. Pantagruelle: as a fellow Canadian stuck in the middle-of-nowhere USA (and not even on the tenure-track), I feel your pain. Plus, here in the USA, an “international” PhD is far from being smiled upon.

    I have also moved around a lot, first to do my BA/MA, then my PhD, then to follow my husband as he did his PhD, then my first job, then his first job. I felt I had to move because of my career and I felt I had to move because I got restless. Perhaps that is the greatest reason to move around for your different degrees: the risk of intellectual stagnation. You hear the same ideas, given by the same people, reading the same books, with students who all look remarkably the same, as they have been admitted to the program, thus usually look a little like those admitting them. I was ready to move on from the people who had already taught me, and also from the people inside and outside of the classroom I interacted with.

    Now, with children, I want to settle down. But in a place where there is more movement without having to leave the area. Pantagruelle, your description of the dead-eyed, trapped fellow faculty really resonated with me. I see it here as well in their children. I do not want that for mine.


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