Sacrifice, Mobility and that Pesky Housing Bubble

Feb 23 2009 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, Careerism, Tribe of Science

A member of the commentariat contacted me offblog to propose an interesting topic for discussion. The opening salvo runs as follows (details edited for plausible deniability):

We've all talked a lot about sacrifices we make to have the career we want in academic science. With the recent housing crisis though, the mobility we need to seek positions on the national job market (don't you always say, don't restrict yourself geographically?), is getting really costly. For example, for us to sell our house & move, we would lose real money, paid to the bank to resolve our mortgage, not paper value. It would be impossible for us to buy in another market until we saved for another several years. Anyway, we could calculate salary upgrades, renting, etc etc, that main question is, the real estate market means putting an actual number on the question, how much is that TT job worth to you? $10k? $50k?

How much indeed, DearReader?

First off, let me clear one thing up. I do not say "don't restrict yourself geographically" as a firm prescription. Now it is true that it is generally good advice when seeking a tenure track job since they are so hard to come by. It is in some ways easier to seek a so-called open rank search job as someone who already has an appointment, perhaps some initial research funding, track record as independent, etc. So it may be a good idea to take a job in a less desired location, work it sincerely for all you are worth as if you are going to stay forever but also keep right on the job market.
Nevertheless. It is emphatically clear to anyone who is paying attention that the timeline of life and career in the sciences has changed dramatically in the past three+ decades. In 1973 only some 18% of biomedical PhD's were in postdocs 3-4 years after defense (with negligible numbers past 4 years). In 2001 this number went to 50% with substantial numbers of people 5+ years out in postdocs. [see graph] Everybody knows about the dismal age-of-first-R01 graph. The bottom line is that current generations of young scientists are much, much deeper in life at the time of job transition. They have working spouses (in academics or otherwise), children in school and mortgages (if lucky) to a much greater extent than prior generations did when they were seeking that first tenure track job. It is absolutely lame for any in those prior generations to view an unwillingness for the scientist to uproot** as a knock on the "seriousness" with which said scientist takes her/his career*** absent other information.
I wish to be emphatically clear that I am not one of those that recommends geographic flexibility as if lack thereof questions the seriousness of the scientist.
Returning to the issue of a house and mortgage, my correspondent* continued:

I wonder if there are searches that are going to fail because candidates are 'stuck' in place. I find this particular roadblock to academic science intriguing because of the explicit dollar value. Other costs are more nebulous (choosing or not to have a family, fewer children, life apart from spouse, extended family ( which ups childcare costs), duplicate households, loss of retirement benefits during grad school and maybe postdoc compared to a regular job (large cumulative loss)). Generally, taking a TT job offer is a no-brainer when it is a step up, more salary, upward mobility, potential for tenure. But when there are costs involved, what's the breaking point?

My response is that the apparent explicit dollar value is a mirage and impossible to quantify because you have to gate on ability to take a given dollar value hit to the family finances. Is it a dual-career family where the other spouse is pulling in the dollars too? How much does she earn? Does the family have a daycare burden or not? Is the potential move from an expensive to cheap cost-of-living location? from cheap to cheap COL? Cheap to expensive? Is the house mortgage upside down or not?
Does the individual seeking a job have a non-academic professional spouse who spent his/her 20s getting paid the big bucks and topping up retirement and investments? Or is the spouse an academic who similarly ended postdoc'ing as essentially a pauper?
So I think my questioner is a bit off on the details here, speaking personally. The fact of current generations being much more fixed in place, geographically speaking, is the big issue. An issue that causes problems on the subjective evaluation side of the equation. It relates to a fairly poorly-justified and out-of-date bigotry about science careers, productivity and "seriousness". Since it is a perception and subjective, this is something we can affect by jawing. Since it is one of those data-free but religiously believed tenets of our tribe, it is hard to root out.
So how about you, DearReader? Do you evaluate scientists in any way by how mobile/immobile they are or have been in their careers? Do you sneer at the person who took a non-tenure-track PI position so that she wouldn't have to move across the country? Or do you front people who express such bigotry?
And don't forget to weigh in on the objective, $$ based tradeoff if it makes more sense to you than it does to me.
Related: Alex Palazzo wants NIH to buy trainees a pony house.
*If you care to own up in the comments, feel free. I am reluctant to identify offblog comments absent specific request
**and need I point out the gender slope on this one?
***extra fun bonus is that this trope is bullshit anyway. take a real close look at the CVs of many of the heros of your subfields. even back in the day you will find that substantial fractions of folks sticking around the same University and/or geographic location across the grad/postdoc or postdoc/faculty transitions.

14 responses so far

  • yes, searches are failing because of geographic mobility limitations
    going into personal bankruptcy to take a jr faculty position turns out not to be totally attractive as a career move
    still a small effect, but it is there and growing

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    This is not a hypothetical -- I have met two people in the last 6 months who are in this position -- 1 from AZ and one from FL. The FL one has decided to make the most of her life there and will not move. The AZ one moved and is stuck with a house he bought at the top of the market and is totally freaking out.
    BTW, DM is totally correct about ***

  • Dave says:

    When I was considering my first TT offer, I said to the dept head: "Geez, it's pretty expensive to live there. I'm not sure I could easily afford a house." The university couldn't give me a 'signing bonus' per se, but they could (and did) put me on payroll before I actually came, effectively forwarding tens of thousands to 'help out'. So you might be able to wangle something if the place wants you bad enough.
    I know a guy who rented as a postdoc, started a TT position this year, and is loving shopping for his first house in this market. So it's not necessarily all bad for everybody.
    That said, I also know a guy who recently took a tenure-track position and is still reluctantly paying two mortgages and unable to find renters for his old place. But he's nevertheless glad he took the job while there was still jobs to be had. His salary is doubled compared to a postdoc's, and his career is moving forward. That's worth a lot.
    Regardless, I think people should take the TT job*, even if they lose beaucoup money on a house sale. That money is gone anyway; house prices are not going to rebound anytime soon. Don't let crying about it cause you to miss the brass ring. Worst case scenario: If the old house simply can't be sold, at least hopefully the increased salary of a TT position compared to postdoc will allow you to cover the old mortgage and a new mortgage or rent, at least for a while. But if you pass up your chance at a TT position, you may be out of the pipeline forever. Remember: Postdocs start to look a bit 'stale' to search committees after they've spent too long as postdocs. In financial terms: A postdoc position is a depreciating asset, while a tenure track position is an investment.
    *If that's what one wants, of course. I also know totally qualified and brilliant people that have dropped out of the TT 'pipeline' because they didn't want to move, or the extra responsibility, or decided that the academic grant-writing & publishing treadmill was not right for them. Some are techs/lab managers, some are facility managers, some are in industry. Without exception, they are all totally happy.

  • Zic says:

    I suppose I don't understand why people would want to purchase a home without the promise of long-term stability. I see grad students purchasing and perhaps they want to stay and do a post-doc but I don't know if that is taking too much for granted. Even when the market was good, you still needed at least seven years to break even.
    I also do not know why renting is such a dirty word.** I will have likely 'thrown away' $50K in renting before I move but that still puts me ahead of trying to make a deposit and carry a mortgage on a $150K house. That does not include insurance, taxes and who knows what will need to be fixed on said house. Plus I've saved a lot of time not having to cut my grass! 😉
    I don't think geographic restricting is a sign of seriousness or not. I just think some people bite off more than they can chew financially. I'm not sure it is wise to assume you will find a job in your area.
    **I am willing to accept that my rental situation is anomalously wonderful.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Even when the market was good, you still needed at least seven years to break even.
    Nope. All depends on when and where, my friend.

  • I think I was also cast in that group of people who said not to restrict oneself geographically but mostly because I heard more junior folks categorically ruling out places without even applying for positions. For the record, my geographical flexibility was largely characterized by the "vacation tour" of post-graduate training - giving myself the challenge of concentrating on my work while living in places where people often vacation.
    Across maybe a dozen search committees, I've never evaluated anyone positively or negatively by their record of moving around or not - totally agreed that the age-creep of first R01s puts us into situations where we have greater restrictions on geographic flexibility. After my vacation tour, I am now heavily weighted geographically for a number of reasons
    I got a kick out of you mentioning the cloistered paths of our heroes. Many of the stalwarts in my field have been Boston-centric, Toronto-centric, Minnesota-centric, and NYC-centric. The 1980s then began to see a lot of concentrated training in North Carolina institutions. The Chicago-Indiana shuffle is another common one.
    I think that all bets will be off on this issue as we move forward - NIH funding and general economic woes have made me feel that you have my admiration anywhere you can successfully make a go of it. In a related point, I just heard something on Marketplace about how being laid off no longer has the social and emotional stigma it did 10 years ago simply because it is happening to large swaths of workers, sometimes a couple of times in a decade.

  • microfool says:

    Another comment on ***: One can observe the same trend at major national institutions, where an astonishing number of scientists and scientist administrators were born or educated within 30 miles of the place.

  • MBench says:

    I think #3 Dave has hit the nail on the head. I have spent a lot of recent time commiserating with others on the job market, and we came to the conclusion that this calculus is no different for postdocs than it is anyone looking for a job with upward mobility, except for one thing: we get one, maybe two grabs at that TT position, and then our chances dwindle considerably. So if that is your chosen path, you have to grab it while you can -- you will take most of the financial hit no matter what. As long as there is some way of staying above water, you have to keep swimming forward professionally even if it means treading water (or losing your life raft, to extend the metaphor) financially.

  • Pinus says:

    Right now, one would need way more than seven years to break even on a home purchase (on average, of course there are always exceptions).
    I bought a place, as a post-doc...then saw the writing on the wall about a year and a half ago and sold it. This was in part because I knew the economy was going in the crapper, and in part because I was applying for faculty positions and wanted to be as mobile as possible.
    Many many grad students and post-docs at my institution have bought homes. I actively campaigned against this for the recent students...but alas, they didn't heed my warning. I am sure that most of them will be stuck with a mortgage for a while.
    Personal tales aside....I think that one makes the best of what they can. If the goal is a TT position and you are should have a plan in place for how things will work. I don't really see anything wrong with staying at the post-doc institution...but I think unless you develop your own independent program, you will be seen as 'mentor's person' rather than your own person.
    If one is upside down an a house, and a dream job opens up and you have to sell the house...that sucks. I would have an extremely hard time selling the house and filing bankruptcy or whatever else one must do (This is why I sold my place way before I was planning on leaving). But, I think there is a valid point with regards to the shelf-life of a post-doc...not that I think it is right, but I have heard senior people speaking of this before.

  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    My dad was a HUGE advocate for me to defer graduate school for a year, buy a house in the city where I would be at grad school, fix it up, and divide it into apartments and then rent 2/3 floors to cover my mortgage(and maybe make some extra $$). I kindly declined that bit of advice and vehemently told him to back down after he pressed. Can you imagine being a grad student and a landlord?????
    Now, that being said, if I HAD done that and sold it as Pinus did before the bubble burst I would have been up at least 150K on the house by ITSELF so I can see why grad students might get the idea that buying a house is a good idea. In practice I've never seen it work out well for someone that is TT position-minded. People that want to move on to non-TT stuff it usually works out ok.
    I remained in rental housing for my postdoc and don't regret it for a second. I've lived in parts of the city that I NEVER could have if I'd bought a house.
    One other thought: imagine the stress for grad student(s) that get married AND buy a house during graduate school. . .and divorce.

  • I recall when Not-Yet-DrDGT and I were undergrads, and we had our whole plan laid out - move to the East Coast for graduate school, move again (probably to California, we imagined) for his postdoc, and then move again into his TT faculty position. Yeah!! Sweet!
    Heh. Regardless of economic situation, that plan sounded a fuckload better when we were twenty years old than now, in our thirties, mid-postdoc. Part of the reason why he chose his postdoc lab (in the same town where he did graduate school) was because I had a good job and that made it hard to justify moving. Everyone makes decisions based on the sum of their situation - how could you do it any other way?
    I can't believe any hiring committee thinks that a postdoc's life happens in a bubble, blissfully free of any family and/or personal considerations. A department that feels that way about its new hires is bound to be batshit insane, and almost certainly a toxic environment for assistant profs.

  • drdrA says:

    This isn't just hitting younger folks- it's hitting more senior folks as well- that have maybe been in soft money places for 10 or 15 years- have entire families in that location, are really settled (much more than say a post-doc)...that now are having trouble bringing in enough grant $$ to cover their salaries- but who would otherwise be fine in institutions that made more of a salary contribution. And now, their mortgage is upside down as well...
    Choice of geography just doesn't say anything about one's seriousness as a scientist- there are just a lot of factors in a person's (and indeed the whole family's)life that end up getting ranked in importance in a final decision about what job to take or where to live.

  • JaneDoh says:

    I can't imagine that anyone with a family is completely free to move where ever. The people who are say that geographic constraints indicate a lack of seriousness are either seriously monk-like in their devotion to science, or are white men with traditional "it's ok, I'll cope while you uproot the whole family" wives.
    Mr. Doh had complete veto power over my job applications when I was searching--I dragged him to postdoc/National Lab city and he hated it after a few years. But once he agreed I could apply someplace, he had to at least go see it if/when I got an interview/offer. That was our deal to balance my professional goals with our family life. It worked for us. Of course, we were renting, so the housing crash worked in our favor when we moved in mid-2008 for my TT position. But that was just luck--we had considered buying at various points. People really like to pretend otherwise, but a lot of the variables in our mapped out, professional lives come down to chance occurrences.
    I really feel for people who live in places where the rental stock is awful (because anyone who can get credit buys something) and who are now stuck with unsellable, unrentable housing. My friend told me the area near the Mayo clinic is like that--everyone bought, since the rental market was so limited, and now lots of the postdocs are stuck with underwater houses. It is bad enough trying to get established without an additional millstone like that dragging you down...

  • [...] I realize. To think that if you only had picked the right doctoral or post doc lab, if only you had been able to move across the country, if only that damn PI had written you a better letter and gotten you [...]

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