Location, Location

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The scarcity of academic jobs nowadays and the difficulties that face the new PhD graduate are common topics of conversation. As more and more people become adjunct or contingent staff, moving from place to place, the dream of landing the ideal job in the ideal place becomes more distant. The reality is that many are forced to rebuild their lives in unfamiliar, and often undesirable, locations.

Not too long ago, Alexandra Lord (the brains behind the incredibly useful Beyond Academe website) wrote an article for The Chronicle, detailing her excruciating experience with working in a part of the US that she disliked. Despite the fact that the job was a perfect fit for Lord, academically speaking, the experience of living in a small town and of having given up her own values led Lord to clinical depression; it was only after she quit the job and moved to a place where she wanted to be that she eventually got her life back on the right track. Lord was also writing in response to David Perlmutter’s earlier column that advised new PhD grads to ’embrace their inner North Dakotan’ and not be ‘elitist’ about non-urban regions. It is indeed wise to be open-minded about job opportunities, and to ‘grow where you are’, as Perlmutter says. Or, as Thomas Benton argues, in ‘Growing Where You Are‘, it is possible to learn to love the community that you had previously disliked.

All these arguments have a point. In the current job market, can we really afford to be picky about location anyways? Besides, the instability and mobility are part of the condition of modern life, and academics are by no means the only ones forced to experience relocation and dislocation. But for all the logic of Perlmutter and Benton’s argument, I’m inclined to side with Lord. Wanting to live in a place that ‘feels like home’ has nothing to do with elitism. If a job leads to depression, then it needs to be re-evaluated rigorously.

I am in a situation that is similar to the one that Lord used to be in. That is, I am incredibly unhappy in a foreign place that is simply not for me; worse still, I am unable to develop my expertise, and need to resort to teaching the most rudimentary grammar (even though I’ve never received formal training in ESL education). For the sake of money, I had compromised everything I valued. That sounds shallow, but unfortunately financial difficulties are very real. Not only do I feel uprooted from a familiar environment that I love (London), I’m faced with a completely different culture, with severe language barriers (not to mention the rampant racism – a topic for another post). In short, I feel like a fish out of water, not something that my colleagues can really understand. It’s not just about the location, but about everything else that comes with it – the culture, personal living circle, the institution itself. So the question of location is not a simple one, because relocating is not just a matter of physical environment. Without friends or family nearby, the sense of dislocation has led to emotional instability; without a proper learning environment (Asian academia does not work in the same way – yet another topic), I also feel intellectually bereft, and my mind is probably regressing rapidly. To paraphrase Larkin, ‘Here an elsewhere underwrites my existence.’

The up side is that I have a decent income, live in a nice flat, and can afford luxuries like a day at the spa. But is it worth it after all? Karen Kelsky, on her website, wrote on this issue as well, and her conclusion was that sometimes a choice needs to be made, and that choice may be to leave the current location (or even the profession). There is nothing unprofessional about that. I have not arrived at the decision yet, because it does take tremendous courage. Would unemployment and continual job-hunting really be preferable? Is financial stability worth more than doing something that’s personally meaningful and living in a place that can be loved? I will come back to this topic later.

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