Academic Nomads

In case you haven’t heard… I’m leaving! I’m leaving my job at Brunel and the United Kingdom in general for a new life in the New World. I’ve thus far avoided most mentions of the change on social media because I wanted to say my goodbyes in person- and because 140 characters is rarely enough to discuss anything, much less a total change of lifestyle. So here we are- a blog post.

Rather than use this space to discuss my reasons for moving, which can be summed up in a single word: family, I’ve decided to use my word count to instead discuss the nomadic nature of academic life. Let’s begin with a magical example from my past, shall we?

In the third year of my undergraduate degree, I remember finding out my favourite professor was leaving our university. She was my favourite professor not only because she taught a module called Death and Dying, by which my young gothic self was totally enraptured, but also because she was straight out of Hogwarts. She wore a plain black outfit to every class and made up for the lack of colour in her garments with fabulous accessories. She would wear a ring on every finger and silver linked belt studded with matching semi-precious stones. One class it would be turquoise, the next class tigerseye, the next jasper, and so on. She had style.

One day, towards the end of term, she interrupted her usual overview of that week’s content to inform us she would not be returning to the university the following autumn. Her exact words, I still remember them, were “I’ve very much enjoyed my time here, but two years is an awful long time to live somewhere so I’m moving to Siberia”. I’m sure she qualified the last part of the statement with an explanation of what she planned to do in Siberia, but I was so dumbfounded that I forgot to listen. Two years? A long time? She couldn’t be serious… How can you do anything in two years?

Now this professor was certainly quirky, so I think the ‘two years’ and ‘Siberia’ thing are fairly unique to her, but the general sentiment stuck with me. The nature of academic life can be a nomadic one. It might not always be possible or desirable to put down roots in the city you take a job. Whilst I know plenty colleagues who have settled down and stuck to one university for the majority of their professional lives, I know an equal number who bounce from place to place. In some cases this is down to the necessity of following funding, in others it is taking advantage of opportunities to work with specific people, and in a good number of cases, it is down to an unfortunate increase in zero hour contracts and budget cuts. And, I suppose, it is also possible that some folks just like roaming the planet. I probably fall into the this latter category.

For those of us who have made career moves overseas, the constant pain of saying goodbye is a familiar one. I’m sure it is also painful to say adios to family when you live a city, state, or province away, but short-long distances have to be better than long-long distances. Living and working overseas for me has meant that twice a year for the past eight years I’ve made an absolute ass of myself at the Sky Harbor airport crying and hugging family members goodbye. Although it also sucks to say goodbye to friends and colleagues before I go on holiday, I’ve thus far managed to spare the good folks at Heathrow from my ugly-crying. When I board the plane this time, however, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to hold back.

But that’s academic life for a good number of us. We move around, we spread knowledge, we travel. And, even if our family and job are in the same city, we still experience a steady stream of greetings and farewells during conference season. When you’re an academic, you probably have a good number of academic friends, and given the probabilty they’re nomads like you, the chances of running into each other can be so slim they feel more like internet buddies than real-life friends.

So why choose this life? Because it is worth the pain. Every year is an exciting adventure which leads to the discovery of new ideas, new research, and new people. And isn’t discovery why we’re in this business?

And so dear internet friends, to paraphrase a famous professor, I’ve very much enjoyed my time in the United Kingdom, but eight years is an awful long time to live somewhere so I’m moving to Utah. Who knows, maybe I’ll even put down some roots there.

Until next time,

Ashley

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