I recently returned from a short trip to upstate New York and New York City, partly for the wedding of two friends also in my PhD program, partly to visit a former PhD student who decided that teaching high school in the big city was more his style. The pastoral setting of the wedding was absolutely gorgeous, NYC was its usual dynamic self, and I enjoyed myself immensely in both places. But as soon as I walked in the door of my house in downtown Toronto, shut it behind me, and kicked off my shoes, I felt an immediate sense of relief. I was home.
I’ve been really lucky in the past to have academia and the place I wanted to call home line up. I grew up around the corner from one of the best universities in the country, and so I got to save a bunch of money living with my parents and still getting a great education. When it came time to do my MA, it just so happened that the school where my then-partner was doing his law degree and the school where one of the experts in my field taught were the same place. And I was lucky enough to get into a PhD program that suits me down to the ground in the region where all of my friends and family live. But I know that this luck isn’t going to last. It’s five years later, and what I’ll do when that luck runs out is something I feel as though I have to start thinking about. Going on the market forces some pretty big decisions about our priorities.
Take the friends who got married in New York. One is Canadian, the other American. They are both aspiring academics, both in the same field. And they have had to decide, long before going on the market, that they will be living in the States. There are more jobs, and thus more chances at both of them getting a job in roughly the same place. Luckily, my Canadian friend is an Americanist and so moving to the States is an option for them. But what if he doesn’t want to leave Canada and everything he’s built here? For the sake of an academic job—or the chance at one—for both himself and his wife, he's made the choice to move anyway.
Or take the friend who is a high school teacher in New York, formerly a PhD student. He was studying at a small coastal university, and the location just wasn’t for him. He wanted, he told me, to live in a city he could be proud of, to live somewhere that suited his need for noise and people and things to do. That was more important to him than remaining an academic, and I sense that some people have been shocked and disappointed by his decision. We’re told, so often, that these desires aren’t valid—that academe is a vocation, that the tenure-track academic job is the Holy Grail, more important than being near our friends or our families, far more important than our hard-won knowledge about what kinds of places suit us and our lives. The comments on Amanda Lord’s recent article in the Chronicle repeated this refrain again and again. In her response to Lord’s article, Karen Kelsky quotes Bill Pannapaker’s summary of the comments: “If you want to be an academic, you must accept misery. It’s your duty not to be happy.” But why?
I don’t have to make any decisions yet. I’m over a year from going on the market, and things might look better by then. I’m also lucky that it’s still just the two of us--as Liza noted in her recent post, location is an especially fraught decision for academic parents, since “University careers are, more than most, uprooting. You are fortunate if you have an academic job and extended family in the same town.” If you don’t, you can’t rely on a network of extended family to assist with childcare, or just to be there for support. So what do I choose? I could pick the city where I have a house, a family, friends I’ve known since childhood. Toronto is still, despite having lived lots of other places, the spot that suits me best—but it is also a place that is incredibly unlikely to hold an academic job for me. Or do I choose academe over Toronto, and try my luck somewhere else, somewhere that I might hate, somewhere that is far from my long-established support network? Neither of these choices is an easy one, and I’m not looking forward to having to pick.
All of this is to say that academics have to make hard choices about where they will end up. With the job market as it is, the choice between my city and an academic job might not exist for me—Toronto might win by default—but it may. I can’t imagine a solution to the problems of academia that would let more of us have both—the job we want in the place that works for us. But I can imagine a version of academe that doesn’t judge people who prioritize location—shorthand for homes, families, spouses, friends, all of the connections we make with the places we love—over remaining an academic. What about you? Have you had to make any hard choices about where you’ll live for the sake of a job? Or given up a job that wasn’t somewhere you wanted to live?