Flying the academic coop

During my PhD and postdocs, I have freely been given quite firm advice about whether staying on and beginning a research career in Australia is a great idea or about as sensible as sticking a fork in a power socket.

To some people, going overseas in the early stages of a career are exciting opportunities. This represents a chance to make a clear break from the rigours of PhD-ing, to have a personal and professional adventure in another country, and to strike out into new research cultures and new research fields.

To others, going overseas isn’t particularly desirable. It might be difficult because of family arrangements, complicated by anything from ill parents, young children, a partner’s rewarding but inflexible career, or a great love of home.

The decision is divisive. Where do you build you career nest? At home or abroad? Prevailing wisdom, in Australia at least, is that young academics miss out on something essential when they don’t branch out overseas after, or for, a PhD. Many think that being part of an overseas research institution provides something that cannot be obtained otherwise.

I tend to disagree. But of course I would, because I’ve never moved overseas for work. I’ve jumped around different Australian institutions, different supervisors and different aspects of climate science, but I’ve never made the leap from home.

I attended the same university where my parents had met as angsty undergraduates some 30 years before. I moved to another university and another city for my PhD, without even considering the possibility of going overseas. I was interested in aspects of Southern Hemisphere climatology, and we have excellent institutions here in which to do so.

As I was in the last throngs of PhD-ing, I was offered two postdoc positions overseas – one in Europe and one in North America. After finishing my thesis, I turned them both down after giving them only passing thought. I had a new girlfriend I was keen to pursue and she and I both love home! I took up an exciting postdoc offer back in Melbourne and when that wound up, moved north to Canberra for a second time, to finally live in the same city as my girlfriend.

I haven’t regretted any decision. Home is home and it calls to me very strongly. Patriotic walks amongst the gum tree, with magpies chortling in the background, are as important to me as a nourishing research career.

Meanwhile, I’ve been exposed to diverse research cultures in different groups even within the same university. I’ve pursued countless over opportunities to do field work, undertake extended research visits, and attended workshops or conferences. And I’ve engaged with a mixed-bag group of international young and established researchers through social media.

I don’t feel like I’ve lost opportunities by not travelling for long periods. The one size fits all advice to young antipodean researchers that we must spread our wings and return only when we have shown that we are great seems a little antiquated.  Of course there is great value in being exposed to the global academy, but I no longer feel that extended research stints overseas are the only way to achieve such outcomes.

We now have fantastic tools for connecting that facilitate communities and engagement without the need to upheave lives. Flights are cheap (financially, not so much environmentally), but if you can’t catch a flight, you can always attend a conference virtually and follow the twitter stream at the same time. Extended research stays are an unequalled way to get exposure to a new group, kick-start a collaboration and get some mental space to dig deep into a sticky issue.

There are lots of reasons to move overseas, but there are also lots of valid reasons to build a nest at home. I love science! But I also love my girlfriend, and Australia, and of course, my dear old Ma Lewis. These are enough to keep me here.

For others, the tug of home is more professional. My girlfriend has been bound up at the same university for her undergraduate and Honours years and now her PhD. In some fields, this academic transgression is enough to elicit gasps. What??! How come!?!? Doesn’t she know that you have to fly the coop?!?!

It turns out that serendipity placed her where she needed to be. Her department is exceptionally strong in her niche research area and it ranks very highly globally. Meanwhile, her supervisor is a (very) young super star – an excellent teacher, mentor and researcher, who is already internationally recognised as a leader in his field. Why would she leave, just because that’s where she’s always been?

A good supervisor will encourage exposure to a wide range of ideas and ways of thinking as an everyday practice, rather than pushing a student elsewhere to gain essential skills.

Staying at home and building a productive research career isn’t as thoughtless as sticking a fork in a power socket, and shouldn’t prompt that same incredulity. Lots of factors – both personal and professional – go into making big decisions. Rather than offering uncritical advice, we should be encouraging young researchers to think about the skills and perspectives they need for balance, and creatively facilitating them in obtaining these.


4 thoughts on “Flying the academic coop

  1. I can imagine that is was of some importance in the past. When conference visits were expensive, travel hard, communication slow. Even in that time, I would have said that it is foolish to make working abroad a deal breaker.

    Nowadays it makes no sense any more. It is quite easy to get the benefits in other ways listed in the above post. And I can say so credible ;-), I do work abroad.

    • I agree! This uniform advice seems a little like it’s pitched to the wrong era, and refers to when short trips and conferences were too expensive and time consuming to do regularly..

  2. I left Australia to do my PhD in the UK, and even now STILL need more international experience in my field to be even remotely eligible for the ever-elusive 1-5 (but actually 4-5) years post-PhD postdocs. They’re like hen’s teeth, and only go to a teensy fraction of those qualified to even express a mere interest in applying. Frankly, had I stayed in Australia to do a PhD, I’d never ever have a chance of getting any academic career there – at least partly because I’m not one of the privileged (like yourself) whose parents already have degrees and connections, for a start. Now, I’m looking at places like Oxford and Cambridge, because being international makes you very competitive. Why on earth would any Australian hoping to be an academic do a PhD in Australia (in the humanities, arts, or social sciences, anyway)? It’s a waste of time and energy if your end-plan is a job in a university (that lasts for more than a year or two)…

    • Hi Derp, good luck to you, but please try to be polite to others trying to become academics. You can’t make assumptions about whether other people are privlelged or not, or their family backgrounds. Not polite and not helpful.

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