Should I stay or should I go now? The postdoc mobility myth

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First published at physicsfocus.

Far back in the mists of time, in the great and glorious days of Britpop, Forrest Gump, and John Major’s “Back to Basics”, I was a postdoc[1]. It was my first postdoctoral position after completing my PhD at Dublin City University in late 1993 and I loved the research I was doing, the working environment, and the camaraderie and teamwork of the Nottingham group.

But I hated the underlying volatility of the post.

After completing a two-year postdoc, I was funded by consecutive short-term contracts. At any time the funding stream could have dried up, and I would have had to move on. I got lucky: I secured a permanent lectureship post after three years at Nottingham and I’ve stayed there ever since – the School of Physics and Astronomy is a fantastic place to work.

I know for a fact, however, that the research ‘outputs’ I had in 1997 – enough for a lectureship at the time – wouldn’t get me within sniffing distance of a shortlist today. The bar has been raised dramatically for postdocs over the intervening years. Increasingly, the route to a permanent academic position involves first winning a fellowship through a highly competitive process.

One of the factors which is very often taken into consideration when selecting for both fellowship and lectureship positions is the “mobility” of the candidate. Indeed, the Leverhulme Trust now explicitly states in its advice to applicants that mobility is a key criterion: “Priority will be given to applicants who show evidence of mobility during their academic careers to date.”

The blunt statement that mobility will be used as a criterion in selecting fellows – with no attempt to qualify this in terms of the personal circumstances of the applicant – reveals some worryingly simplistic and out-dated thinking from the Trust. They are not alone, of course, in assuming that mobility must necessarily be an advantage for a researcher, as this recent article points out in the context of EU funding programmes. The arguments about mobility in that piece resonated with me because I coordinate a Marie Curie Initial Training Network (ITN) project which funds 14 early-career researchers across six countries. Researcher mobility for ITN projects is not only advantageous from the point of view of the European Commission, it’s essential – I can’t employ a UK national on a Marie Curie ITN contract in Nottingham. (Can someone please make sure that this nugget of EU funding policy wings its way to Nigel Farage? I want to watch him spontaneously self-combust…)

The argument that is often made – and which was voiced during a lengthy twitter debate with my Head of School[2] and others on this topic yesterday – is that a postdoc, let’s say Dr. Globetrotter, who has moved from group to group is likely to have greater drive, motivation, and scientific independence than her colleague, Dr. Stayen-Putt, who has remained at the same institution throughout her undergrad, postgrad, and postdoctoral career.

I really don’t buy this argument at all.

Skewing the selection process towards candidates who are willing to ‘up sticks’ and move to a new group every few years immediately disadvantages – and, at worst, discriminates against – those whose personal circumstances and family commitments mean that they do not have the freedom to move. I, for one, would not have been willing to disrupt my children’s lives on a regular basis simply so I could demonstrate a commitment to mobility to a fellowship panel. And I find it rather insulting that this could have been interpreted as a lack of scientific drive, motivation, and independence.

The assumption that scientific independence correlates positively with mobility also needs to be challenged. There is no evidence at all that a postdoc who has been in the same institution for their entire career is any less scientifically independent, or any less scientifically motivated, than a researcher who clocks up the air miles. Indeed, I can think of reasons why there could be a negative correlation between mobility and scientific independence – it takes considerable time to establish oneself at a new institution, to learn to interact with a new group of colleagues, and to work out how you can carve out a niche to “make a mark”.

Moreover, there’s a rather straightforward, pragmatic reason why mobility may not be conducive to establishing scientific independence. Experimental physics is not easy – the ‘kit’ is often complicated and frustratingly temperamental (particularly for non-commercial systems which the researcher has built themselves). If the experimental infrastructure in an institution is very well-matched to a researcher’s scientific goals it would be perverse for them to move simply so that they can tick the mobility box.

And finally, the wonders of the interwebs mean that researchers are connected like never before. In this context, the Leverhulme Trust’s focus on mobility as a criterion in awarding fellowships is particularly quaint, given the extent to which research groups now network and interact virtually.

Image: Britpop, an automatic association with the early 90s – but the bar has been raised for postdocs since then. Credit: Danny PiG/Flickr. Reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.

[1] …and a Douglas Adams fan.

[2] My P45 is in the post.

Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Rush fan. Father of three. (Not Rush fans. Yet.) Rants not restricted to the key of E minor...

16 thoughts on “Should I stay or should I go now? The postdoc mobility myth”

  1. I 100% agree that circumstances need to be considered before judging whether a candidate’s mobility (or lack of it) has any reflection on their excellence in their field of research. However, I would argue that international connections are very important.

    For example, in Japan, it is more common for researchers (especially among senior faculty) to have travelled less during their career. This often can be seen through negative results: English language ability and general international community awareness can be lower. In a field like astrophysics –where internationalisation is perhaps particularly key due to small numbers– this does have a serious detrimental impact on their research.

    Of course, mobility is not the only way to gain such experience, but it is an obvious method.

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    1. There is one major point missing, here: researchers are people too. Despite a tendency, in my experience, towards introversion, we need friends. Many of us want husbands/wives/other companions of that nature.
      I’ll address the point about friends, first. A continuous group of friends is extraordinarily beneficial to one’s well-being. I know many researchers who have pined over having to leave friend groups behind, and start over again. While it’s true that the internet still connects us, many of us are very bad at keeping in touch via only online methods: it’s just not the same as an in-person interaction. Moving so often leads, for many of us, to a sense of isolationism. That is, many students whom I have met feel lonely, despite being surrounded by similarly-lonely colleagues. We simply do not have the time to deeply get to know the people in each city of research.
      Wanting a husband/wife/etc. is a deeper issue. One could argue that academics who move have a larger pool of candidates to draw from, in this department. However, the fact that we must move soon adds a time-limit to commitments in such relationships. There is a definite date at which either the participants must decide to commit to moving cities together (which often requires sacrifices on both sides), to go long-distance (which has its host of problems), or to break up. When you consider that some people want to take the time to get to know a person before even dating them, the 1 to 3-year stints of the academic stages (MSc, some PhD’s, post-doc, contract-based faculty) can be insufficient.
      Once an academic has found a partner (of the husband/wife/other type), moving cities becomes much more difficult. No-one wants their career to get in the way of their partner’s satisfaction. If one city can be found in which both partners are happy, then why should they not both stay there?

      Having a happy home life is very beneficial to being productive in research. If you want evidence of this, look to most textbooks and paper collections: who are they dedicated to? Why should researchers who want this type of happiness be punished?

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  2. You make some good points. I had a look at the Leverhulme Trust advice, and actually find it quite astonishing that the preference for mobility can be stated so openly. To me, that is clearly discriminatory against those with caring responsibilities, especially as it is by no means certain that ‘mobility’ in itself is such an advantage.

    I also noticed how they refer to maternity leave and family commitments as ‘unusual circumstances.’ Really?

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  3. Is there confusion between mobility with an aim, that is to gain new experience during training, and mobility that is merely rapid and superficial sampling? I would argue that generally (but there are always exceptions, we are not clones) mobility early on is important. This mobility would be going to university in a different city to the one your parents live in, doing a PhD away from “home” and a postdoc away from the lab and university you did your PhD in. There are financial constraints in countries without a grant system for undergraduate students (UK, for example), so many talented students, unlike the generation of Tony Blair and David Cameron, are unable to study away from the parental home. Similarly, laden with debt, they may not wish to shift cities or institutions to undertake a PhD. However, they should make at least one move, when they do a postdoc. After that, career mobility can be considered in terms of where the individual is working or in terms of who they connect with. The latter should be given more weight, since it is a sign of independence, whereas flitting form big lab to big lab and getting one’s name on glamorous papers is not. Unfortunately, the current definition of mobility fails to do so.

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  4. This is worth discussing, since it’s often simply taken for granted that moving around is a Good Thing, without any explanation of the reasoning.
    In my own case, I certainly benefited from moving, though my trajectory was quite limited ( C -> B ->C -> N).

    “Dr. Globetrotter, who has moved from group to group is likely to have greater drive, motivation, and scientific independence”

    These are not the main benefits IMHO. The benefits are that Dr Globetrotter gains a much broader perspective of research in his field and related fields, establishes a wider network of potentially useful contacts, and becomes known more widely. Dr Stayathome runs the risking of getting stuck in one very small and insular field research.

    However I completely agree that making past motility a criterion for fellowship competition is not appropriate.

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  5. Interesting post, I agree with! But the story does not only apply to mobility. Unfortunately, we more and more judge people based on simplified numbers. We should always fight for being recognized as humans with individual stories and abilities. Aspects like mobility will always play a part in that, but what counts should be the whole package, the scientist with her/his history, career, personality, achievements, independence and not to forget ideas!

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  6. Sometimes the best decision making comes from the gut. The conglomeration of emotion and thought into one uncomfortable stressball imagined in your stomach. Do the thing that feels right!

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  7. Shocking!!! A scientists willingness to up sticks may show passion for the field but shows nothing about the quality of their work. Moving is very disruptive and if scientists are encouraged to move every few years it will most likely result in a loss of productivity as their mind will need to focus on the move, where to live, how to make friends, how to navigate around the new area rather than developing their scientific ideas and proving or disproving their theories. Grants and academic positions should be based on ability not mobility.

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  8. While I fully and wholeheartedly agree that mobility for “mobility”‘s sake is not a good idea and harmful in a variety of ways, I would like to argue that some pressure to move around as a researcher can be beneficial in many cases.

    I believe we all know people who have spent all their scientific life in the very same research group or department, who might be talented, but aren’t going to get anywhere in terms of a career in science, because they lack a number of things. First of all, they’ve only ever been exposed to one style of research/lab culture, so they automatically assume that the way things are done in their lab is the one and only right way to do things. Secondly, they’ve never taken the plunge and established themselves in a new environment, which is in my view a very helpful and ultimately motivating experience. The kind of people I’m talking about are also inclined to go the easy way, taking minimal risks and are constantly avoiding leaving their comfort zone. For many of them, to be (lightly to firmly) pressured into applying somewhere else or going abroad for a while, would be a worthwile experience and a great step forward on a personal level.

    While I like to believe that this is the motivation for the “mobility requirement”, I also see that it’s not something everybody can or should have to fulfill. As many cases there are where a move is an important step, there are situations where for a variety of reasons staying is the better option. But we should definitely ask both those who stayed and those who moved, why they chose to do so.

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  9. I am glad I no longer have to deal with the stressed caused by such rigid bureaucracy, as I quit. The metrics young scientists are judged by are almost completely ridiculous. I cannot emphasize that point enough. These metrics are to creativity what government surveillance would be to adventurous sex.

    Mathematics pretty much verifies that a finite set of rules will never be sufficient to account for the infinite circumstances possible to humans! Is your metric good enough to predict the next Einstein? No? Then stop making it mandatory!

    Imagine if people were only allowed to write music based on:
    (a) their skill with an instrument
    (b) their classical knowledge
    (c) their “mobility”
    (d) [inherently] their willingness to only write music with pre-chosen motifs

    There would be no blues because it is “wrong” to use the augmented fourth.
    There would be no relativity because time is absolute.

    I have no doubt that science will eventually progress, but christ the rate at which that happens is going down the toilet – along with the dreams of a lot of people.

    What I’ve written is a rant, but jesus, with “mobility” things are only getting worse. The current model universities have is considerably reminiscent of a bubble. Banking on students to make back their university fees, banking on “rule-followers” to be great scientists.

    A lecturer once warned me about how easy it is to be cynical of academia. Well, there are reasons!

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  10. I agree with essentially all of your post and most of the comments. I do, though, think that, in many cases, some sort of mobility is good. I think that a best-of-all-worlds situation can be achieved by making it easier to be mobile within the context of a job, rather than it involving changing jobs.

    Yes, some will benefit more and some less, and it is easier for some than for others.

    Yes, the internet has helped a lot. Speaking as someone who hasn’t had an academic job for years but, despite a full-time “day” job, still follows the field somewhat (publishing two single-author papers in my field’s leading journal this year can’t be that bad), it is certainly true that the internet has made possible something which wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago. In many respects, working at home is even better than working at an institute. However, I do notice the lack of almost daily face-to-face interaction. I try to make up for this lack to some extent by giving the occasional colloquium talk or going to conferences, but this is not really enough.

    I think that for continuing existing collaborations, the internet is usually good enough, but it is more difficult to start new ones. (This doesn’t apply everywhere, but does to scientific collaborations. There are many people I “know” only from cyberspace, and some I “met” there and later met in real life, and I even met my wife on the internet more than 15 years ago (when of course it was much less widespread than now).)

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  11. Some comments on http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2014/nov/07/european-research-funding-horizon-2020

    “Marie-Sklodowska-Curie individual fellowships are trumpeted as a way to spread excellence, widen participation and encourage mobility. But is a fellowship that forces researchers to move country, no matter their personal situation and career history, really helpful to improve the lot of early-career researchers?”

    I didn’t have an individual fellowship, but was part of a Marie-Curie network, during which I spent a couple of years in England and a couple of years in the Netherlands. This experience would be in the top-10 best experiences of my life. (And, believe me, I have experienced many wonderful things that many people don’t even dream about.) A while back, I was asked to comment on this for Physics World (my contribution was a small part of the article) to which I replied with the famous Dickens quote about the best of times and worst of times. Even though the family stayed in Germany and I commuted (spending about a week a month back in Germany and working weekends in Blighty and, later, 3 nights in Germany and 4 in the Netherlands each week), while this was not easy the job itself was great and of course for someone without family commitments would have had one less disadvantage. (We eventually got divorced, but not due to the pressures of fixed-term positions; in fact, had I been at home more, we might have got divorced earlier.)

    I didn’t see it so much as being forced to move countries but rather as an advantage: I could work at Jodrell Bank and the Kapteyn Institute without competition from the locals. Too often, people hire people they know and it is difficult for an outsider to break in. By giving money only to outsiders, this is a big help for those who want to work in another country, for whatever reason. Also, generous travel money came with the job.

    We need revamped Marie-Sklodowska-Curie fellowships that enable European researchers to go back to their country after they have spent many years abroad wandering from lab to lab. And not just for two to three years, but on a long-term basis. Why is Horizon 2020 for seven years, and not also Marie-Sklodowska-Curie fellowships?”

    Yes, but strike the “their”. Yes, many people want to go back to “their” country. Some don’t care. Some want to avoid having to go back to their home country. Don’t value mobility to highly, but at the same time don’t value it too highly if people want to “return home”.

    “Outward mobility is instead needed for permanent researchers, particularly professors who have spent their whole career at their home university, and have publication track records of lower quality than those of young and mobile researchers. By moving the professors, instead of the postdocs, the EU could at last make it possible for research recruitment to become open and meritocratic (which is one of the main goals of the European Research Area).”

    My thoughts exactly.

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    1. I’ve been listening to it a lot over the last week. I really like it. There are a couple of pedestrian tracks but also some really ambitious stuff, like the closing track. The drumming is really inventive in places (as compared to a lot of McBain’s recent work) and the arrangements are very clever at times. Dickinson’s voice ain’t what it once was but he’s still a formidable singer. Overall, I’d probably give it a 7 or 8 out of 10.

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      1. Yes, that’s pretty much my assessment as well.

        How many (surely intentional) references to other Maiden songs do you note in “Shadows of the Valley”?

        And is the Joni Mitchell reference in “If Eternity Should Fail” intentional?

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