Andrew Thaler

CEO at Blackbeard Biologic

Have Postdoc, Will Travel

Full vitae travel postdoc

Image: Christine und Hagen Graf, Creative Commons

A postdoctoral fellowship can be a rewarding, career-making experience. It can also be an exploitative tool used to underpay highly skilled workers. One thing that good and bad postdocs have in common: They almost always require you to move and they almost never pay for relocation expenses.

Relocating may not pose much of a budget hardship if it’s within the same city or state, but one or more cross-country moves for short-term positions can create a massive burden on your finances. In the span of four years, for example, my wife and I moved across the United States twice — from coast to coast, and back — in pursuit of various career opportunities.

Finding the right postdoc is critical for your career, but not every offer is necessarily going to be a net benefit. The cost of moving can dramatically outweigh the benefits of a particular position, and that cost may not only be financial.

Moving will eat up your savings. The average cost of an interstate move is $4,300. The first time we relocated, we tried to do it on the cheap, towing a trailer from North Carolina to California. When we moved back to the East Coast, we decided to use a container service.

Comparing the two trips — with fuel, hotels, and breakdowns factored in — the costs ended up being a wash.

In both cases, it took the entire term of the fellowship to pay off the associated moving expenses. The up-front costs of renting a new place (first- and last-month’s rent, plus a security deposit) can wipe out whatever small savings you might have been lucky enough to accrue in grad school. That alone makes it hard to build up a savings in preparation for your next move. And, in this postdocalyptic era, the next move will come.

Moving means losing your support network. It takes time to build up a network within your community. Who do you call on to watch your pets, babysit your kids, fill in for you when you’re sick, or pick you up when your car breaks down? Those dilemmas are much more easily resolved when you live somewhere long enough to build a support network.

There are a million little things that just happen when you have a strong, established community of friends, colleagues, and family. All of that vanishes when you move to a new state. It takes time to rebuild your network, and when your postdoc is only for a year or two, you might never have enough time to rebuild it before you’re moving again.

In addition to paying for those services with money, rather than mutual support, losing that network can be extremely isolating.

Moving means you can’t invest in stability. It’s almost impossible to put down roots when you don’t know where in the world you’ll be in the next few years. Building and rebuilding social networks after every move can be emotionally draining.

I know many postdocs who — exhausted after multiple moves — decided to forgo socializing in favor of grinding through their work. That can be rewarding for awhile but, long term, it results in unhappy, unproductive researchers.

There are ways to make multiple moves easier. I recommend you pursue any or all of these steps:

  • Move to places where you already have family, friends, or close colleagues wgi can help kick-start a support community.
  • Fight to have your moving expenses covered by the fellowship. (A side note to any PIs reading this: Fight to get those expenses covered for your postdocs! Trust me, everyone is much more productive when they’re not constantly worried about being crushed by debt).
  • Seek out multi-year fellowships to allow you some semblance of stability.

Adversity can breed resilience. After my first postdoc, unfulfilled by the postdoctoral labor system, I decided to forgo another round through the postdocalypse and started my own company — a decision that has its own host of challenges and opportunities. Some of my peers decided to favor location over prestige and accepted positions close to home — a decision that has put them in a much happier, healthier, and productive place than some of their peers who moved far from their support networks.

Before you accept a short-term fellowship that requires a major move, fight for relocation expenses to be covered. If your new institution won’t cover those expenses, you have to decide if the potential career advancement would offset the significant financial, personal, and emotional drain of multiple cross-country moves.

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