The Many (Body) Problems of the Academic Lifestyle

I’m visiting Perimeter this week, searching for apartments in the area. This got me thinking about how often one has to move in academia. You move for college, you move for grad school, you move for each postdoc job, and again when you start as a professor. Even then, you may not get to stay where you are if you don’t manage to get tenure, and it may be healthier to resign yourself to moving every seven years rather than assuming you’re going to settle down.

Most of life isn’t built around the idea that people move across the country (or the world!) every 2-7 years, so naturally this causes a few problems for those on the academic path. Below are some well-known, and not-so-well-known, problems facing academics due to their frequent relocations:

The two-body problem:

Suppose you’re married, or in a committed relationship. Better hope your spouse has a flexible job, because in a few years you’re going to be moving to another city. This is even harder if your spouse is also an academic, as that requires two rare academic jobs to pop up in the same place. And woe betide you if you’re out of synch, and have to move at different times. Many couples end up having to resort to some sort of long-distance arrangement, which further complicates matters.

The N-body problem:

Like the two-body problem, but for polyamorous academics. Leads to poly-chains up and down the East Coast.

The 2+N-body problem:

Alternatively, add a time dimension to your two-body problem via the addition of children. Now your kids are busily being shuffled between incommensurate school systems. But you’re an academic, you can teach them anything they’re missing, right?

The warm body problem:

Of course, all this assumes you’re in a relationship. If you’re single, you instead have the problem of never really having a social circle beyond your department, having to tenuously rebuild your social life every few years. What sorts of clubs will the more socially awkward of you enter, just to have some form of human companionship?

The large body of water problem:

We live in an age where everything is connected, but that doesn’t make distance cheap. An ocean between you and your collaborators means you’ll rarely be awake at the same time. And good luck crossing that ocean again, not every job will be eager to pay relocation expenses.

The obnoxious governing body problem:

Of course, the various nations involved won’t make all this travel easy. Many countries have prestigious fellowships only granted on the condition that the winner returns to their home country for a set length of time. Since there’s no guarantee that anyone in your home country does anything similar to what you do, this sort of requirement can have people doing whatever research they can find, however tangentially related, or trying to avoid the incipient bureaucratic nightmare any way they can.


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