Non-trivial sacrifices of the itinerant academic


Inspired by a conversation stemming from this Tweet . . .

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I thought I’d share a bit about the sacrifices we’ve made in support of my academic career. This is just a reality check for understanding’s and expectations’ sake, and I hope it won’t read like sour grapes or a pity party. We have been amazingly fortunate to live comfortably on a single, stable salary for the past 15 years. I am tenured and working at an outstanding university with a fun vibe all its own and the benefits of big-time college athletics, music, and other cultural opportunities right here in a small-ish university town. Traffic is generally light,  real estate is cheap, and the growing season is long. I get to teach classes I love to students who inspire me, and my research program is helping me achieve goals I’ve had since my youth. Reinventing myself in a different biome and another culture – silly as that seems because we are simply in another part of our home country – has definitely enriched me intellectually in ways I could not have predicted.

Still, the decision to make this move was not made lightly and there are costs we have borne to do it. I see these as falling into three categories: stuff we miss, stuff we have missed, and additional costs.

Stuff we miss

Wherever you’re from, there are aspects of your hometown or region or state (or country!) that you just won’t experience anymore in your new place. We’re native New Yorkers (Central and Long Island, respectively) who relocated to the Southern Plains. Here’s just a sampling of the things we miss from back home that could be argued as trivial or essential to our mental health and well-being. The sacrifice is two-fold considering that we miss these things and our children will never know them as we did:

  • decent pizza, locally baked bread, real bagels, roadside farm tables, ice cream, fresh wild strawberries, apples, apple-picking, etc.
  • four seasons, snow, skiing, blazing fall colors, crunchy leaves underfoot, open windows in summer, soft rains, mossy rocks, no ticks, etc.
  • mountains, lakes, the beach, all my favorite birds, giant trees, etc.
  • so many friends who were part of the first 35 or so years of our lives

 

Stuff  we have missed

Before FOMO was a thing, we far-away folks knew all about it. When you are far away (in our case, two and a half days of Interstate speeding away), you simply can’t be there to share in the holidays, milestones, and impromptu gatherings of your friends and family. For the past 15 years, we’ve made it home for brief visits once or twice per year. Our children are two of ten cousins & grandchildren close in age to each other (including two who share a birthday) for whom our career move decision relegated them to a childhood without cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles as a part of their lives. Similarly, those cousins and other relatives have grown up without the benefit of us there for them. Some specific things we’ve missed:

  • birthdays, births, baptisms, weddings, graduations, retirements, cookouts, holidays, and all that fun stuff
  • sad occasions like deaths and even just opportunities to be there to help during difficult times for our loved ones
  • opportunities to visit with our own more distant relatives and friends because our time home with immediate family is so limited

 

Additional costs

These include both the direct and the indirect; here are some examples:

  • Yes, real estate and taxes are cheaper here but we had a lovely little home we were easily able to afford when we moved so that wasn’t a big concern for us. One big change was that the slight increase in salary I received moving to a tenure-track position was largely negated by far higher costs for comparable health insurance.
  • Our travel expenses went way up. Flights home twice per year were costing us ~$4000 annually. That’s not an expense I can cover today, let alone 15 years ago on my starting assistant professor salary. Driving was cheaper, but it still meant 4 hotel stays en route, plus gas and vehicle wear and tear. In addition, driving means that we need to allot five days just in transit; a mere five days on the ground visiting family demands a full ten days out of my schedule to make happen. Those ten days away also mean ten days of someone to provide pet care, water our plants, etc.
  • We both lost our dads in recent years. I couldn’t be with my dad when he died so he was surrounded four of his children – and his fifth on the telephone – when he drew his last breath. My wife was working a part-time job that she really enjoyed when her dad’s health took a significant downward turn. Because she couldn’t take the time off to go be with him, she simply quit that job. It would be five years before she took another.
  • A significant indirect cost, we’ve had just two barely-legitimate vacations in the span of 15 years. With what limited time I can take off, the great majority of it is spent hurtling down Midwestern Interstates and crashing on my brothers’ couches once we make our destination. The essential, battery-recharging peace and quiet and comfort and rest of what most consider a vacation is foreign to us.
  • Taking that time and spending that money to maintain a better connection with those back home will almost certainly place you in a disadvantageous position relative to your faculty colleagues who don’t do that. Whether they choose to cut ties with far away family or they have theirs close-by, you will have comparably fewer opportunities each year to get that manuscript written or that proposal submitted, and that introduces the likely probability that you will fall behind.

 

So YES.

If you consider costs like these in your decision to accept or even apply for some job far away, you are not any less of a scientist or any less serious about your career. These costs are real and they will affect you and your family. You would be nothing but intelligent and honest to weigh them carefully as you make the best decision for you.

Good luck; it’s not easy!

 

 

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2 Responses to Non-trivial sacrifices of the itinerant academic

  1. Skylar snell says:

    These sacrifices are real and important. However, us students that have had the pleasure of learning from you are so grateful you made them. Thank you for teaching us more than just lessons in a classroom.

    Liked by 1 person

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