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
*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.