Academic mobility: Nomads, migrants and adventurers

I have been really absent on this blog for a while now, much to my chagrin. I really enjoy writing these posts – they are, as I have commented before, a form of scholarly therapy for me, and an important creative outlet as well. But, Big Things have been going on in my personal and professional life and I just have had no energy, headspace or ideas to spare. But, I am learning – always learning – that if I want things that are important to me to be things I can actually do, I have to make time for them deliberately. So, here I am.

The Big Things centre around me getting an amazing job, one I have worked towards for a long time now. The catch, though, is that this job is in another country. So, the last 4 months have largely been consumed by obtaining visas, packing up our home, and relocating ourselves and our cats from the south of the world to the north, with several complicated steps due to the pandemic and all the travel restrictions that have been in place. It has been stressful, anxiety-provoking, exhausting to say the least. That the job is actually as amazing as it sounded on paper, and my new colleagues as kind and helpful as I hoped they would be, makes the professional part of this whole process exciting and energising. But the personal stuff has been all-consumingly hard. I miss my home, I miss my books, I miss my garden and the beach. I miss things that are easy and familiar. I miss being trusted as a known citizen and person with a credit history and a track record and full rights and recognitions. Being an immigrant is a big thing to get my head around. And I have to acknowledge as I write this that I am a very privileged immigrant. I can’t imagine how hard it is to do all of this when you don’t speak English very well, or have friends and networks in the new place already, or have to move away from, rather than with, your close family.

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All of this has, of course, got me thinking, mainly about academic mobility and how so many academics and postgraduate researchers move around the world every year in search of new opportunities, PhD scholarships, postdoctoral fellowships, jobs. I have several colleagues who have relocated for various academic roles and reasons: fellowships, short academic exchanges, sabbaticals, permanent roles. I have moved in the past to undertake a Masters degree (10 months abroad) and also with my family for a 6-month sabbatical (Lovely Husband’s). In some cases, the move is pretty easy – you are helped with accommodation and setting up a bank account; there’s a network or space set up and waiting to welcome you. This removes a significant source of stress and time. Also, if you’re on a fellowship or sabbatical, you know you have not left your home for an indefinite period of time, maybe for good. It’s just a break from regular life – an adventure. This also removes a huge source of stress, which is having to make peace with a massive life change, really committing yourself to learning new systems, making new friends, creating a new home somewhere else.

Academic mobility is a significant feature of modern higher education. Until perhaps two or so decades ago, there was, anecdotally at least, less movement of academics – there were fewer postdoc fellowships around, for one thing, certainly in the context I have moved from, and there was more of a sense of getting a great role and climbing the ladder of your academic profession in one university, maybe two, rather than actively looking for new roles in other contexts and universities and going for these. Now, though, there are many more opportunities to study abroad, to take up shorter and longer-term fellowships, to find new and different roles in your own or other higher education sectors. I have noticed a significant increase in movement just in my own scholarly community over the last 20 years that I have been working in higher education.

This is likely partly linked to larger trends in higher education: postdoc fellows, for one thing, do research and teaching work, but if you can hire them on short-term contracts and convince them that a postdoc in an excellent career move, you can hire quite a bit of relatively inexpensive labour. Academic work is becoming increasingly precarious around the world, with growing proportions of researchers and teaching academics on contracts, rather than in permanent or tenured roles. Universities run like businesses now, thinking in terms of cost-benefit analyses and bottom lines, and this precarity combined with increased numbers of doctoral students exiting academic with PhDs and hoping for academic work (which means increased competition for relatively fewer positions) means that you probably will have to move to secure work that you want to do, that links to your research, that will be meaningful and also support you (and probably also a family) financially.

But the whole idea of work has also changed, and in many industries there have been changes in the ways in which we work, particularly in terms of changing roles and even changing career paths. In academia, I have noticed a growth in conversations about alternatives to academia, about leaving academia for other kinds of work. Much of this seems to centre around the toxicity in academia: the intense competition for jobs, funding, PhD studentships; the long hours and inevitable burnout; ongoing and unresolved gender pay gap and equity issues. So much of this – the overwork and burnout especially – has worsened over the last 18 or so months since the pandemic started, and there is as yet no clear end in sight. So, just in my network there are more visible conversations happening that involve different ideas of mobility, both within academia to new universities, new roles, new countries, and also out of academia in to different parts of the private or public sectors.

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I never thought I would be an academic migrant, much less an adventurer. I thought, after finishing my studies, I would find a great job, dig in and climb the ladder. Moving home, moving my kids from their schools and friends, leaving my friends, asking Lovely Husband to move and possibly also change jobs: this was all much too much. So much easier to just plant roots in one place and nurture them. But that great job didn’t materialise the way I had hoped it would: academia changed and the possibilities I did have meant precarious contracts or moving. I opted for the former, and have spent the last 7 years cobbling together a full time job from several different pieces of contract teaching and consulting. And it worked pretty well for the most part. But, over the last year I have realised that I do want more: more scope to innovate and create, scope to have an impact and make real changes, scope to grow myself as a scholar and researcher. And, in spite of many changes – especially around pushing so many more academics into precarious contract roles – academia still rewards permanence, tenure. It’s hard to get access to the opportunities if you’re not ‘on staff’; why should they invest in someone who can take their labour and go without even having to give formal notice? It’s a crappy Catch-22: you can’t really grow and progress with institutional help unless you have tenure, and you can’t get tenure unless you’ve done the growing and progressing. So, in the end, the only real choice was moving. There seem to be more people like me moving, migrating, and thus more people doing additional physical, mental and emotional labour which can take a great deal of time and energy that is not then fully available for other academic work, like thinking, reading, writing, research.

I would love to tell you how exciting this move has been and how energised I feel. I can’t do that yet. This move has taken a huge toll, emotionally, financially and physically. I have had to leave my older son behind because he cannot get a dependent visa; I have left a very ill mum behind who is not doing well; I have left wonderful friends and a beautiful home behind. It has really struck me how incredibly brave academic migrants are, all the more if they have to move alone, leaving partners, children, family behind. Academic mobility is premised on opportunity, on exciting growth and development, and can indeed offer this. But I think we also need to acknowledge how hard it can be and how much headspace it can take up trying to get settled into a new space and place. As a doctoral educator, this is something I’d like to acknowledge, especially as it pertains to helping international students as they settle into a new space, a new researcher role, a new research culture.

Part of research culture making has to include an acknowledgement of the additional labour academic mobility can create so that we can more consciously and deliberately include students who are far from home in their research communities, and help them to manage all this additional labour as they also take on a new research project, new supervisors, and new academic demands. This has been meaningful for me: having colleagues who acknowledge that I need extra time and headspace to settle, which has helped me not to put undue pressure on myself to be settled before I am; having a small community around me to offer me advice, help, a shoulder to whine on when things are just too hard and I want to go home; having people to remind me to be patient with my impatient self so that I manage my stress. I think those of us working with academic migrants can be more mindful of how much work goes into moving countries, universities, homes, whether these are our students or our colleagues and peers, and in doing this, create more supportive researcher development and collegial cultures in academia.