(Guest post) Doing a PhD: To move or not to move?

There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good old spat with my Head of School, Mike Merrifield. Our debates run the gamut of the academic’s traditional soap-box topics, but a theme to which we return regularly is the question of the importance – or not – of moving institution for early career researchers. I put forward my views on this in a blog post for physicsfocus last year. In this guest post (a first for “Symptoms…”), Mike explains why he and I disagree on the question of whether PhD students and postdocs should be assessed on the basis of their mobility.

Once again I find myself somewhat in disagreement with my friend and colleague Professor Moriarty.  This is never an entirely comfortable place to be, because he argues tenaciously, and, irritatingly, is right more often than not, but on this occasion I thought it was worth trying to spell out my reasoning with a little more nuance than is allowed by the 140 character sound bites of Twitter.

The catalyst for this disagreement was Philip’s response to an article in the THE entitled 10 steps to PhD failure.  His objection was to one of the pieces of advice given that

“Going somewhere else for your PhD shows that you have expanded your intellectual horizons. In contrast, others will view the fact that you did all your degrees at the same place as an indication that you lack scholarly breadth and independence, and that you were not wise or committed enough to follow this standard advice about studying elsewhere.”

which led to a lengthy Twitter discussion of whether mobility is an appropriate factor to consider as an indicator of drive and independence, where Philip’s position is “no,” and mine is “sometimes.”

First let me make it clear that I agree with Philip that the article is wrong if it implies that any such consideration is absolute.  Anyone contemplating where to do a PhD should weigh up a whole range of elements, which should include lifestyle as well as professional factors to establish where on the spectrum of work–life balance they want or need to position themselves.  While some people may relish the opportunities afforded by moving to a new locale and maybe even experiencing the culture of another country, others could be happily settled where they did their undergraduate degree, or have responsibilities that limit their ability to relocate, which may well then over-ride any other considerations.

But, pretty much by definition, work–life balance implies a compromise that does not optimise either side of the equation individually, and anyone considering where to do a PhD should at least think about the potential downsides to staying in the same institution:

  • You have already interacted with the academic staff at that institution quite closely, and heard at least some of what they have to teach you. Educationally, there are benefits to encountering other points of view and learning about topics where your current institution may have very little expertise.  You can certainly pick some of that up by going to summer schools, conferences, etc, but there is no substitute for being embedded in a different, challenging working environment to really get a new perspective on things.
  • What are the chances that you happen to have done your first degree at the best place in the World for whatever discipline has caught your interest? Surely, very few students apply to university on the basis of a specific sub-discipline; indeed, they may not have even reached the level to study and appreciate many of the more exciting possibilities until they are quite a long way into their undergraduate programmes.  It would therefore be an amazing coincidence if they happen to be at the institution where the most exciting and innovative work in that field is currently being undertaken.  If you are in the happy position of being willing and able to relocate, why wouldn’t you have the ambition to try to go to the best place in the World to pursue your interest?
  • If you decide to go beyond your PhD in an academic setting, you will have to convince someone to employ you in an appropriate postdoctoral post. Typically, you may be up against fifty-or-so other applicants, and the people responsible for selection will be considering a variety of factors to decide to whom to offer the job.  One of the things they are likely to be looking for is evidence of drive and independence.  It is unfortunately true that some students do drift into doing a PhD just by following the “path of least resistance” when they finished as undergraduates, as carrying on in the same place doing more-or-less the same thing is easier than making a more radical departure.  From a potential employer’s perspective, it can be difficult to separate such drifters from more dynamic motivated individuals who have consciously opted to stay at their original institution, whereas someone who has moved to a different strong institution is clearly not suffering from inertia and has more apparently made a pro-active career decision.  Thus, while absence of mobility does not constitute evidence of a lack of drive, it is an absence of evidence for such drive.
  • The same issue also arises a little later in an academic career, when a postdoctoral researcher will likely be applying for individual fellowships or faculty positions against even longer odds. At this point, the assessor is looking for evidence of the applicant’s originality.  I know from experience serving on fellowship and appointment panels that it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle the applicant’s intellectual contribution to the work from that of their collaborators.  One indicator is the level of variety in authorship of papers published – if an individual has never published a paper that doesn’t have their old PhD supervisor as an author, it can be very difficult for the assessor to determine whether all the ideas presented originated with that supervisor, too.  A wider variety of collaborations, on the other hand, suggests a much more outgoing approach to developing research ideas, not to mention the sought-after intellectual curiosity that draws one to new and different problems.  Such a breadth of authorship and interests is more readily established if one has worked in more than one research group.

Bear in mind that for all these considerations there will always be exceptions.  All that I really want to put across is that it is more straightforward to demonstrate the intellectual curiosity that drives the best researchers if you are able and willing to be mobile, and that if you are not then it is important to take extra steps to establish these traits in other visible ways.

Finally, I should reiterate that this piece was really only intended to lay out the implications of mobility (or immobility) for one side of work–life balance, and that the appropriate location for the fulcrum of that balance is a matter for all individuals to decide for themselves.

Author: Philip Moriarty

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

2 thoughts on “(Guest post) Doing a PhD: To move or not to move?”

  1. There are people who move about because no-one wants to keep them, and people who stay where they are because they get great offers.

    One thing is certain: It is definitely a good idea to spend a significant fraction of time “somewhere else”.

    I think there is a false dichotomy here, though: do the doctorate somewhere else or not. Rather, I think that at all levels, from student to tenured professor, it should be easier to spend, say, a running fraction of 20 to 30 per cent of one’s time “elsewhere”, without having to change jobs. One of the problems of the current system is that people spend a significant fraction of their most productive years looking for the next job, directly or indirectly. Often, this is seen as a necessary evil due to the real need to broaden one’s horizons. However, in many cases it is easy to go somewhere else if one has something to come back to, and one might go places where one would not consider actual employment.


  2. After reading your points, I feel as if you don’t realise that you actually agree with Prof. Moriarty. The conclusion seems to be that you have to consider each applicant individually, rather than coming to a blanket conclusion based solely on how many institutions they’ve attended. Which, I think, is exactly Prof. Moriarty’s point.

    I’ve always found judging a candidates suitability for an academic job based on “mobility” a little troublesome, for several reasons. For example:

    1) It assumes that the candidate knew that mobility was a sought after quantity in academic job applications. How many students actually know this before they decide where to do an MSc or PhD? More importantly, since most people won’t get an academic job, mobility isn’t a significant factor in hiring decisions for any jobs other than academic ones.

    2) Even if the candidates were aware, it assumes they always wanted to follow an academic career path. I spent most of my PhD in relative misery (as many of us do), only to realise I actually enjoyed academic research a lot in the last year or so. What if you started out doing a PhD without intending to stay in academia, and have a change of heart later?

    3) As is well known, it unfairly penalises those who cannot or are unwilling to sacrifice their entire life in pursuit of a career. This is perhaps the most important reason.

    Those are just a couple of examples, but what’s more puzzling to me is how positively mobility is perceived despite there being seemingly few benefits, in my opinion.

    I did my BSc at Notts, MSc at Cambridge, PhD at UCL, and now I’m doing a post-doc in Stuttgart, Germany, so I’ve had quite a bit of experience at different institutions. I was lucky to do several undergrad research projects at Notts where my profs hammered into me that I should move institutions, so I did (this brings me back to 1) – most of my peers didn’t necessarily realise this was a good thing to do).

    The conclusion I’ve come to is that they’re all pretty much the same. I haven’t noticed any discernible differences between any of these institutions, either in taught courses or in research.

    If you were to ask me what I’d gained from “mobility” in terms of experiences or skills that I otherwise wouldn’t have otherwise gained, I’d say absolutely nothing.

    Maybe I’m being cynical, you might also say that “you clearly didn’t do it right, then” or similar, and maybe in fact I have gained from this “mobility” but don’t realise it, the point remains: I couldn’t point to a single tangible thing that I’ve gained from mobility.

    The fundamental point is that when assessing a candidates suitability for an academic job it depends on basically one thing (at least at a research intensive university):

    1) Can this candidate do world-class, original research and lead an independent research group?

    Of course, teaching and outreach etc. are also much smaller factors in the decision.

    You can only answer that question by reading and evaluating the candidates work and their knowledge, understanding, and ideas.

    What, really, does mobility have to do with that?

    It is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for conducting world-class research, and therefore should be frankly discarded as a proxy for suitability.

    As far as I can see, the only conclusion cynical me can come to is that it’s yet another heuristic that busy academics and bureaucrats along with e.g. citation metrics use to assess a candidate without properly evaluating them or their work.

    Finally, I’d hypothesise that evaluating mobility as part of hiring decisions actually turns many very good candidates away.

    After 6/24 months spent in a foreign country away from my fiancee, friends, and family, I have absolutely no desire to play the “academic game” any longer and increase my mobility in order to improve my chances of an academic job. To be honest, it has significantly diminished my enthusiasm to pursue an academic job at all, especially when you realise that this is just 1 of the countless pointless hoops a candidate has to jump through in order to get a job.


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