Location, Location…what?

This past week the Chronicle of Higher Education posted a column by Alexandra Lord, titled “Location, Location, Location.”  Lord is the person behind the site on nonacademic careers, Beyond Academe, and she also runs an online Web journal, the Ultimate History Project. She also, apparently, works full time in a nonacademic position as a preservationist.

This article, in a nutshell, involves her regret at taking a tenure track position in a part of the country that she did not like.  She uses her own story to open a wider meditation on how much weight academics in general should give to location in their job searches.  Her advice:  don’t consider taking a job in a place that won’t be congenial to you, for any number of reasons, including the location of your extended family, or your sexual orientation or religion.  She took issue in a mild sort of way with a previous column by David Perlmutter (one of my favorite Chronicle columnists, btw), that was called “Embrace Your Inner North Dakotan.”  In that column Perlmutter told job seekers in essence that they must beware the kind of elitism and disdain with which academics tend to view the non-coastal, non-urban, non-hip parts of the country and be open to the possibility they might be happy in small, rural places.

I liked Perlmutter’s column.  I also like Lord’s column.  As far as I’m concerned, they are both exactly right.

But apparently I am in the minority in believing so.  The comment stream following Lord’s column is filled with a mystifying degree of dismissiveness and even hostility.  Perlmutter himself contributed a weirdly hysterical reaction involving Jews and Muslims.  The issue seemed to revolve around Lord’s own credibility as a person who left academia, and outrage that she would in turn imply that leaving academia was a good choice if academic jobs were not available in good locations.  “How DARE anyone,” comments seem to imply, “put anything before the demands of the scholarly career?!” As the always reliable “graddirector” says:

“It should be noted that no one is forced to go to graduate school.  By doing so, you are already agreeing to enter the world as it exists that honestly is not going to change.  These realities are the same that have been there for over 100 years and come from being highly trained for geographically dispersed opportunities.  This is really no different than the coal miner or auto assembler whose mine or local plant closes.  They have the choice of moving to another part of the country where their skills are in demand but with the cost of leaving their family and friends, or staying in their current community and entering a cycle of poverty. ”

The meta-message is clear:  The true academic is the one who sacrifices.

As Bill Pannapacker remarked on my Facebook page, about the comment stream to the piece:  “Summary of comments: If you want to be an academic, you must accept misery. It’s your duty not to be happy.”

Rarely do we see the cult-like nature of academia revealed so starkly.  The cult demands sacrifice and the cult will have it.  And the cult will punish harshly anyone who questions the value of the sacrifice, and dares to ask, “is it worth it?”

In terms of numbers I think the majority of commenters actually support Lord’s position.  But they seem to be the ones not permanently employed in academia.  The ones who appear to be writing from the position of tenure seem to say: “suck it up.”

I actually believe that people can be happy in a variety of places.  I was a finalist for a position at Stanford, and ended up getting a job in Oregon. I had no desire whatsoever to live in Oregon, and spent a good number of years pining for the Palo Alto that might have been.  And then after a while, I realized I loved Oregon.  Then I, perversely, moved away to take a fancier job in the Midwest.  I could not live there.  I tried with all my might.  But I could not.  It was embarrassing to admit defeat, but eventually, I did and left.  And back in Oregon, I know I’m in the right place.

My own story splits the difference.  My story suggests that a person’s got to be open minded about many unexpected locations to which their job search might take them.  And at the same time, when the chips fall, and the parent takes ill or the partner needs a job or the heart wants what the heart wants…. then you’ve got to listen and make a choice, and that choice may be to leave the location, or, as in my case, to leave the profession in order to leave the location.

I don’t think this is blasphemy!  But I’ve come to understand that to many it is.  Be careful about telling your advisor, and don’t expect them to throw you a going away party.

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Location, Location…what? — 22 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting and addressing this. As a queer person, there are just some parts of the country that I refuse to live in for legal and community reasons. Yet, when I tell this to people, often the response is to “suck it up.” Thanks for the encouragement.

  2. There’s a lot to be said for having a strong sense of rootedness to a particular place, people you care about enough to factor their needs into your career decisions, extended family whose proximity enriches your quality of life in irreplaceable ways. And how many people know in their early 20s (when many make the decision to start a Ph.D. program) how much those things will come to matter to them over the next decade? Much of the world outside academia recognizes that sometimes the painful sacrifices required for a career may not be the right choice. It’s chilling that so many committed academics find this puzzling–or reprehensible.

  3. My contribution to the topic from some years back.

    I came from a tight, ethnic parish on my mother’s side, and my father’s family goes back more than 300 years in the place where I grew up. I’ve been away for 21 years now, and I miss my hometown all the time. When I go back, I feel like Rip Van Winkle.

    But life goes on. Academe requires a lot of personal sacrifice. Too much, really. But you have accept that reality and grow where you are.


    • That’s all very well (and I mean that sincerely; I was moved by your piece), but it doesn’t help people who don’t want to live in certain places because, for instance, their marriage would not be recognized in those places, or it would be legal to discriminate against them or their partner in housing and hiring, or the local police are particularly notorious for beating up on people with their skin color or accent, or there’s been a law passed that could lead to them being stopped and asked for their papers by authorities on the street.

  4. “In terms of numbers I think the majority of commenters actually support Lord’s position. But they seem to be the ones not permanently employed in academia. The ones who appear to be writing from the position of tenure seem to say: “suck it up.””

    This just sounds to me like Group A = people who rationalize their reasons for leaving. Group B = people who rationalize their reasons for staying. Not surprising that each would be speaking from the positions of, well, people who are in their positions.

  5. I’m also with you in agreeing with both folks to varying extents on this issue. I dislike it when people are dismissive of a place or region based on prejudices that may not be well founded. In particular as someone from a city that is culturally rich, diverse, low cost of living, and beautiful (to me) but in a region that gets described as ‘fly-over’ country I’m boggled by people who won’t even consider living there. Hey if you can’t deal with the cold or the your deep passion in life is deep-sea fishing maybe you do know that it just wouldn’t work but if it’s because you think it’s all white-bread and there’s ‘nothing to do’, it’s a decision based on ignorance of the true nature of the place. People have the right to make their own choices but it doesn’t mean I have to view them as all good or well-informed choices. But the idea that a woman with a good job – doing history (what she’s trained for) – is foolish to have made a choice that makes her life better in multiple ways is just ridiculous and extremely patronizing. She made a choice that’s given her a good life. What’s there to criticize in that? I had to wonder a few times whether there would have been so much vitriol about Lord’s decision if she was male. I think many people still expect women to make more sacrifices in their lives than men, particularly if those sacrifices involving teaching. Not sure – I’m not in a field as ‘cultish’ as social sciences and humanities seem to be so while there’s certainly a lot of expectations about students going into academic jobs there are alternatives in the field that are seen as good choices and the motivation behind those choices isn’t questioned much.

  6. Odd to me about the Perelmutter piece is that so many PhD programs are in non hip places, red states, the Midwest, etc. — does he only ever meet urban, coastal people, born and bred at urban, coastal universities? I forget where he is, is it really ND … if he is constantly trying to recruit people from Berkeley, UCLA, Harvard, and Yale, and from California/New York, maybe he should open his mind and consider candidates from slightly lesser, but still very good schools … ?

    (My theory about people who rage at graduate students for being too elitist is that they are actually people who are having a hard time hiring. They are not speaking to their own graduate students, but scolding the candidates they tried to hire and who went elsewhere.)

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  8. The anger in the comments on that thread really surprised me when I read it. I saw the two perspectives as complementary, not opposing. Both authors are speaking to a process of making priorities, but Lord is pointing out that how you prioritize depends on how you define your goals, whereas Pannapacker is assuming (a perfectly fine assumption for many) that the goal is an academic career. If you want an academic career most, then it makes sense to consider how to live in places you might not have otherwise chosen. But it also makes sense to ask yourself whether an academic career is your top priority and if not, what compromises you are willing to make based on where it is prioritized. Neither perspective negates the other, and I felt surprised reading the comments that people took them as opposing.

    • Thank you. This is the same thing that I took away from these pieces. It comes down to a matter of priorities – for many academics, career is the priority, regardless of the sacrifices along the way. And the sacrifices can be great, particularly when jobs are scarce at the institutions on the coasts and (relatively) plentiful in states where the prevailing political/cultural attitudes may be quite foreign and perhaps frustrating, and the social/cultural opportunities outside of the educational institution are limited. For others, career is one priority among many, including maintaining stable relationships, creating a happy home/family life, investing time and energy into hobbies/other passions, staying healthy, sleeping well, etc.

      The inability – on the part of many academics – to recognize these other priorities as valid is where I think the divisiveness arises. The high-stress, high-output academic life can be difficult to maintain without full commitment to the jobs and its values. When someone makes the decision to leave a tenure-track position because they just can’t thrive in a given environment, it calls those values into question. Just look at the paradigm of effort justification in social psychology – people tend to attribute greater value to an outcome they had to put effort into acquiring or achieving than the objective value of that outcome. When you identify strongly with the group identity of academia (where resilience and hard work are seen as central to success), it can be hard to recognize the value in choices that take people on a different path.

  9. I’ve found this piece a little late and was relatively curious about what people have to say.

    First, I’d like to mildly point out that I actually work as a preservationist (I’m the Branch Chief for the National Historic Landmarks Program of the National Park Service). My job entails helping people to save the communities that matter to them. I love my job and I am frequently moved by how strongly people feel about the communities in which they live (and the history of those communities). It doesn’t matter to me where those communities are and why people love them. It is sufficient that they love them.

    I very much wish that academics would embrace that perspective.

    The job is a perfect fit for me b/c I am one of those people who, on a spectrum, fall very strongly to the side of seeing place as incredibly important. Obviously, there are some people who feel incredibly strongly about this issue, others for whom location is irrelevant, and lots of people who fall at different points on the spectrum in between.

    This issue is stunningly complex and I think academia would be a better and less judgmental place if we simply allowed people to say “I want/need to live in X” and leave it at that—if we recognized, in other words, the importance of allowing people to make their own decisions about where they want to live without feeling a need to persuade them to do something different (even if we do so on the assumption that we are persuading them to be “open-minded”).

    While I understand the temptation to say that people who value place should not go to grad school (given the job market), I think very few people who are 21 or 22 have an understanding of how they will feel about this issue when they are 30 and on the job market. Eight years is a long time and people change tremendously in their 20s.

    By the time I was 30 and heading off to rural Montana (which is quite different, to be very blunt, from the rural south or midwest—I was more than a little bemused by the discussions about my dissing Houston on the CHE etc.), I did know what I liked and what was important to me. And I knew Montana was a mistake for me. For many, many reasons (by that age, I knew myself quite clearly). This wasn’t a case of “bias.” It was about being an adult and knowing myself.

    I was more than a little flabbergasted to read the comments of people on the CHE who actually do not know me in any way, shape or form. They second-guessed and judged my decision based solely on their own prejudices. My reasons for not wanting to live in Montana are deeply rooted in many, very personal, aspects of my life. And while I was pretty candid in the article, it in no way provides anyone with enough information to judge my decision.

    Sorry to be so blunt but it was more than a little amazing to see academics jump to such incredibly erroneous conclusions based on insufficient evidence.

    For the last eight years, running Beyond Academe and speaking to grad students has led me to understand that I am far from unique in having a complicated back story. Most people have very complicated back stories (stunningly complicated) and these stories shape our desires and needs. Being forced to justify our most personal decisions (whether it is deciding to marry or to live in a specific place) to relative strangers (your grad advisors) is a very strange custom.

    I love my current boss. Seriously. He’s fantastic and the best mentor I have ever had. But the idea that I would need to justify to him any decisions I make in my personal life, even if those factors shape a decision I make in regard to my career…wow…he’d faint if I did that.

    Second, I do think—at least this was my experience—that if you are single, and especially if you are a single woman (as I was), taking a job in a rural area significantly lowers your chances for finding a spouse. I think this is slightly more true for highly educated young women than it is for highly educated young men (but I may be coming at this from my own slightly skewed perspective).

    I know…it’s the great taboo for a young PhD to say she may want to marry if she has not done this by the time she gets her PhD. But for me, and I suspect for many young men and women, this was a key element in my decision to leave academia. Many people meet their spouses in grad school and undergrad so this is not an issue for them but for those of us who don’t, it can be a very real issue (and I think it’d be great if more married academics showed some compassion for their single colleagues for whom this may be an issue).

    For some who are single, “growing” in a place means growing old alone.

    I understand that for many people, that issue may be irrelevant but for many of us, it is not.

    For me, no career was worth that sacrifice. None.

    But that is my personal view.

    Because becoming an academic meant that I had to gave up all the other parts that make me who I am, it was, quite simply, not worth it to me.

    • Thanks for sharing more of your story, Alexandra. The reaction to your column was a painfully illuminating window onto the usually unspoken judgments and biases of academia.

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  11. Completely agree. On a related note it is crazy the way academics only have a few places to choose from. There is also the language issue, it seems in the post-colonial anglo-american world our choices are mostly limited to: USA, UK, Australia, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Africa etc. And no offence to my brothers and sisters but I am looking to live and work somewhere a bit different.

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  15. “And the cult will punish harshly anyone who questions the value of the sacrifice, and dares to ask, ‘is it worth it?'”

    LOL really? Angry comments are harsh punishment? Welcome to the internet, leave your emotional vulnerability to unwarranted hostility at the door.

    On a serious note, I think the reason that sparked many angry comments, and the reason so many commenting were angry, is that they made the sacrifice because they felt they had no choice, they resent themselves for it, and now someone dares say that it wasn’t the only option. Good ol’-fashioned denial and regret about irreversible personal choices. Road Not Taken stuff.

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