Thursday, December 19, 2013

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: The Curious Case of the Academic Nomads

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!


Life in academia can take you from one temporal contract in country A to another challenge in country B, with stops for fieldwork in countries C and D and maybe a few months as a visiting scholar in country E. Most academics are hired for a period of 2 to 4 years, depending on the type of work that they might do.

I like to call those that hop from country to country as their career meanders over the years the academic nomads.

Most of us might not be expecting this ever-evolving and ever-traveling path when we start our careers in academia. But then research life happens and you get to know people and opportunities come up, and before you know you're boxing up your life for the umptieth time.

That happened to me. As a student, I enjoyed going on exchanges during the summer holidays, and I was planning an extra post-graduate year after my engineering studies, but I thought I'd try and score a job at Belgium's biggest prefab concrete fabricator, conveniently located in my beloved hometown of Lier, Belgium. But then I received this email to notify me that, with my good grades, I could apply for scholarships to study in the US. And in the process I thought, well, why not set my mind on going on for the PhD afterwards? With 2 prestigious scholarships in my pocket, I set sail for Atlanta, and started my second Masters' degree in Fall 2008. And then the financial crisis hit, and soon it became clear to me that securing funding for a PhD would be difficult. I knew that I wanted to stay in structural concrete research, preferably a topic on shear, torsion or second-order-effects in columns, and I started to look for openings. I learned about the new project in Delft, applied, and got accepted by the end of my first semester at Georgia Tech. I rolled up my sleeves, studied a little harder, got my Masters' by August, and started in Delft in September, leaving a then-boyfriend behind in the US. He finished his PhD and went to work for the industry in the US, and then I finished my PhD. We had to look for a place where both of us could find a job, and so ended up in Ecuador. At the same time, I could secure a part-time position in Delft, to keep involved in research. Don't ask me how often I've moved over the past years...

Very often, I read stories of fellow academics who move from continent to continent, as they amass scholarships, short-term job contracts and the like.

If you are considering graduate school, you might as well get yourself prepared for this roller-coaster of moving from place to place. And now that we're at it, why not consider going to the Netherlands for your PhD? It wasn't part of my original plan, but it worked out like a charm.

My main message is: be prepared for gradually turning into a nomad! You might just get lured into this lifestyle while you follow your excitement over projects....

If you notice that you are headed for a life as an academic nomad, then you might want to take the following tips into account:

1. Go digital


Books are heavy, so to avoid having to move by container all the time, try to buy as many books digital as you can. Similarly, get your music as digital files, scan your important notes, and go paperless as much as you can.

2. Fly the same airline

As an academic nomad, you will be flying a lot. Pick an airline, and be loyal to them in return for getting miles. Mileage status will give you extra perks over time, and you can turn them in for a free flight.

3. Sort out your clutter

Unless you want to keep a room filled with boxes in your parents' house "until you get a tenured position in your homecountry", you might just need to sort through all your stuff and sell/thrash/recycle what you don't need anymore.

4. Identify a few items that you value

Even though the hardcore minimalists might disagree, I think it's perfectly OK to have a couple of items that you cling to, and that you use to make your new place truly feel like you home. I have a number of totally random items (a giant wall backdrop, my "pace" flag, 2 sets of matryoshkas, a teddybear and a small stone for putting essential oils) and my cat that I drag along with my wherever I go. These little things just make me feel more comfortable wherever I try to settle for a little while.

5. Embrace the best of every country

If you move, you get a culture shock. That's the plain truth. But in order to overcome the I-hate-this-place phase, you'll have to learn to find the best in every country. Go out and explore the natural beauty of your new place, visit local festivities and events, and try to bond with the locals. Before you know, you'll have yet another country that you'll miss when you're not there...

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