balance · graduation · job market

Home and Away

Hi everyone! I’m Melissa Dalgleish, and I’m so happy to be writing for Hook & Eye. 

I recently returned from a short trip to upstate New York and New York City, partly for the wedding of two friends also in my PhD program, partly to visit a former PhD student who decided that teaching high school in the big city was more his style. The pastoral setting of the wedding was absolutely gorgeous, NYC was its usual dynamic self, and I enjoyed myself immensely in both places. But as soon as I walked in the door of my house in downtown Toronto, shut it behind me, and kicked off my shoes, I felt an immediate sense of relief. I was home.

I’ve been really lucky in the past to have academia and the place I wanted to call home line up. I grew up around the corner from one of the best universities in the country, and so I got to save a bunch of money living with my parents and still getting a great education. When it came time to do my MA, it just so happened that the school where my then-partner was doing his law degree and the school where one of the experts in my field taught were the same place. And I was lucky enough to get into a PhD program that suits me down to the ground in the region where all of my friends and family live. But I know that this luck isn’t going to last. It’s five years later, and what I’ll do when that luck runs out is something I feel as though I have to start thinking about. Going on the market forces some pretty big decisions about our priorities.

Take the friends who got married in New York. One is Canadian, the other American. They are both aspiring academics, both in the same field. And they have had to decide, long before going on the market, that they will be living in the States. There are more jobs, and thus more chances at both of them getting a job in roughly the same place. Luckily, my Canadian friend is an Americanist and so moving to the States is an option for them. But what if he doesn’t want to leave Canada and everything he’s built here? For the sake of an academic job—or the chance at one—for both himself and his wife, he’s made the choice to move anyway.

Or take the friend who is a high school teacher in New York, formerly a PhD student. He was studying at a small coastal university, and the location just wasn’t for him. He wanted, he told me, to live in a city he could be proud of, to live somewhere that suited his need for noise and people and things to do. That was more important to him than remaining an academic, and I sense that some people have been shocked and disappointed by his decision. We’re told, so often, that these desires aren’t valid—that academe is a vocation, that the tenure-track academic job is the Holy Grail, more important than being near our friends or our families, far more important than our hard-won knowledge about what kinds of places suit us and our lives. The comments on Amanda Lord’s recent article in the Chronicle repeated this refrain again and again. In her response to Lord’s article, Karen Kelsky quotes Bill Pannapaker’s summary of the comments: “If you want to be an academic, you must accept misery. It’s your duty not to be happy.” But why?

I don’t have to make any decisions yet. I’m over a year from going on the market, and things might look better by then. I’m also lucky that it’s still just the two of us–as Liza noted in her recent post, location is an especially fraught decision for academic parents, since “University careers are, more than most, uprooting. You are fortunate if you have an academic job and extended family in the same town.” If you don’t, you can’t rely on a network of extended family to assist with childcare, or just to be there for support. So what do I choose? I could pick the city where I have a house, a family, friends I’ve known since childhood. Toronto is still, despite having lived lots of other places, the spot that suits me best—but it is also a place that is incredibly unlikely to hold an academic job for me. Or do I choose academe over Toronto, and try my luck somewhere else, somewhere that I might hate, somewhere that is far from my long-established support network? Neither of these choices is an easy one, and I’m not looking forward to having to pick.  

All of this is to say that academics have to make hard choices about where they will end up. With the job market as it is, the choice between my city and an academic job might not exist for me—Toronto might win by default—but it may. I can’t imagine a solution to the problems of academia that would let more of us have both—the job we want in the place that works for us. But I can imagine a version of academe that doesn’t judge people who prioritize location—shorthand for homes, families, spouses, friends, all of the connections we make with the places we love—over remaining an academic. What about you? Have you had to make any hard choices about where you’ll live for the sake of a job? Or given up a job that wasn’t somewhere you wanted to live? 

8 thoughts on “Home and Away

  1. Melissa, you are reading my mind. When I moved to the other end of the country to begin my BA in a city I had never been, a city I had no connection to, I wasn't worried. I knew on some level that things would work out, and it is by far the best decision I ever made.
    Now I am applying to MA programs, and location has been stressing me out beyond belief. I am excited about the prospect of a new city, but worried about uprooting my boyfriend from his familiar, happy hometown to somewhere newer, bigger, and stranger. I worry about compromising my own happiness for his, or vice versa, fears that were not at all put to rest when I watched The Five Year Engagement last week. I worry about being far from family and being able to afford flights.
    Most of all, I worry that this seemingly small decisions will drastically change the course of my life. I know this sounds dramatic, and I am constantly assured by everyone around me that MA programs only last so long. All the same, my mother moved out west to complete her MA and planned only to stay the length of the program. That was decades ago, and she has never moved back east to her beloved hometown. She talks about this all the time–she always knows without even thinking exactly how many years have passed since her big move–and its clear that she still hasn't come to terms with her decision and its consequences. So, despite all reassurances from friends, family, advisors, I remain stressed.


  2. I'm always under the vague impression that all my peers (i.e. recent PhDs looking for jobs) would move anywhere for a tenure-track job. That impression has made me feel sortof secretive (embarassed?) about the fact that my partner and I have clearly identified the handful of provinces we'd be willing to live in – and seriously, I barely glance at job ads from other locations. Our choices mostly have to do with proximity to family.
    We have also decided that although we'll be absolutely delighted to move if I'm awarded the postdoc I've applied for, we won't move again for anything that is temporary. We feel that it would be too disruptive for our 2 small kids to move somewhere for a one-year LTA, for instance, and then move again.
    Of course I'm curious to see how this all plays out in real life over the next few years!


  3. Great post. This is a problem that I've faced in my life, and one that I've seen fellow PhDs go through again and again, so I'll share my personal thoughts. I particularly love that you point out how being willing to move anywhere for a job – even somewhere miserable – is the “Holy Grail” of academia. I did my Ph.D. in Edmonton – an occasionally lovely city with always lovely people. However it is not where I want to live long-term. I was “thisclose” to jumping ship somewhere else without any job prospects a year and half ago… but then I finished my PhD and got a job in College admin. (A decision that was supported by many, but greeted with “pity face” by many academics who assumed that I made that jump because I had been on the job market for too long… when I told them I took the job 3 days after my Ph.D. defense, incredulity was the general response.) Right now, I'm willing to stay in Edmo for the life I've created around my job, my friends, and my boyfriend… but I will not be “going anywere” after my tenure in Edmonton is up. I will select the city I want to live in, and then get a job there. I believe that I can be intellectually satisfied and can live a rewarding life without moving somewhere I know I wouldn't be happy. That's why I made the move to admin – I think it gives me more options in terms of location choice.


  4. This resonates, especially as my husband and I are currently thinking through what our next step is after this year. At the end of this academic year, we will have been living apart for two years, after moving back to the UK after I finished my graduate work in the US. I've made the hard decision that I'm not willing to move around the UK chasing one and two year teaching-focused contracts, which is what is expected of somebody in my position on the academic ladder – living with my husband is far more important. We're lucky that he has a good job outside academia, and one that would let him retool if I found a permanent position elsewhere – but if I'm honest, I see myself taking up part time para-academic work next year and keeping the research rolling on the side. Thankfully, as a humanities scholar, I can do that without access to heavy duty equipment, and London offers a lot of opportunities for networking with other classicists. But it's not a decision I'm happy with, and as the end of my current contract approaches, I'm expecting to feel increasingly torn over this choice, even though I know that the pay-off will make me happy after two years of two-household living.


  5. Such important questions raised in this post, Mel! I think we too easily get caught up in the more immediate, pressing big questions of graduate school (what comps to sit? Who will be on my committee? What about chapter revisions? Which conferences to attend…?) that we lose sight of the important questions about life after grad school and the job market. It's crucial to ask yourself what kind of life you want after grad school and where you want to live it and with whom. And sometimes the biggest question of all is whether you're able to make an academic career fit into the life you want and vice versa. When I was wrestling with these really big questions a year ago, they seemed overwhelming. Now that I've happily settled into the life I wanted (and walked away from the PhD), I realize it was the right choice for me. And I encourage and support anyone who chooses location over remaining in academia. If staying in academia means accepting misery, then why stay?


  6. Thanks for your comments, everyone! Clearly this is an issue that hits close to home for lots of us.

    @Diana: 23 moves? You should be writing this post!

    @Kaarina: I really hope that whatever decision you make, it makes you happy. And I really hope that the people in academe who are advising you aren't trying to diminish the importance of things like living a place your partner will also be happy. That's another of the great academic myths–that we are lone wolves, and all of our decisions are made only in consideration of ourselves.

    @lmd: It's sad how little surprised I am by the reaction to your choice to move into college admin. Do you get the sense, as I do in mine, that the faculty in your department have only a very vague sense of the realities of the current job market for academics?

    @lizgloyn: You might like Lee Bessette's post about the sacrifices she's made in order to keep her family together in a two-professor marriage:

    @Brooklin: I'm with you 100%–happy wins over academe every time. And I can't believe that it took me so long to step outside the bubble of what we do and recognize that, since academia espouses the doctrine–subtly and obviously–that worthy academics accept misery and sacrifice. It's a weirdly religious discourse in disguise–academia is a vocation, self-sacrifice and martyrdom will be rewarded, individual desire should be subsumed under devotion in a higher power.


  7. Hi! Great post, Melissa!

    The nature of the job is this: where you wind up working, geography-wise, is largely out of your control if you want to get a tenure track professor gig. That is the reality of it. Would that it were not so, but there you have it. Some scholars, because of their prominence, are hyper-mobile (hi Diana!) but most of us, like members of the military, go where we are posted, and make do.

    If geography is important to you, then it's going to be really hard to get a professor job. And if you are an academic couple, this goes double.

    Now, I think people should be able to have happy lives, and families, and be professors. These circles should overlap. And for the lucky, they do. But mostly the system doesn't work to support that. So it is eminently reasonable to make other choices, like becoming a high school teacher to live in the city you want, or shifting countries to remain with your spouse, or moving out of the professoriate to give your kids some stability. I would NEVER judge anyone harshly for that.

    I wish the system were different. But it's likely only going to get more constraining. My responsibility is to let all my potential and current students know how this system works, and to support them in whatever balance they seek to find within it or without. But you may as well curse the tides as complain about the displacements of trying to get on the tenure track.


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