Moving a school-aged family – one hazard of having the family first and the career second

(Posted by Admin for Pia Abola)

Welcome to the blog portion of Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory! I hope you have had a chance to read the excerpts from the book that Emily, our wonderful editor and project champion, has posted. I wrote an essay on the painful decision I made to take a break from a research career upon the birth of my twins (I already had one child and we were only planning on two children), and the joy I found in returning to the bench and climbing back on the academic career track. I wrote that essay over a year ago, and a lot has changed since that time. My underlying message of hope is still the same – the children are only small for a very short time and then you can put your life back in motion. However, there are hazards involved in waiting for your kids to get older while you restart your career. The big one that has really stymied my academic aspirations is the prospect of moving. Academic job searches are conducted nationally and even globally. While its not impossible to obtain an academic job in your own neighborhood, especially if you live in one of the hotspots like Boston and San Francisco, its unlikely. Before I had children and even when they were small, I only thought of moving as affecting two people – me and my husband. So if the move was okay with him we could go for it. But now my kids are all in elementary school. They have a very strong network of friends, they have activities they like, they have a home in the community. It feels like I’m being selfish when I contemplate tearing them out of this home and forcing them to start again somewhere else just for me. Especially when, living in one of the biotech hotbeds, I should be able to find some sort of position locally, either in industry or academia, that makes use of my PhD and expertise in protein biochemistry.

After much thought, I’ve put aside the traditional academic career again. It was much more painful the second time. If you’ve read my essay, you’ll know that I came to this country with my parents so they could attend graduate school. I was only two when we came to this country, but we moved after three years as my father transitioned from graduate work to postdoctoral work in another state. Three years into his postdoctoral work his advisor moved to another state, and three years after that my father finished his postdoctoral work and found a more permanent position back on the other coast of the US. This meant I attended K to second grade in one state, third to fifth grade in another state, and sixth grade on in yet a third state. I never really made or maintained friendships and I always felt like an outsider until I went to college and we were all new together (except for the kids from prep schools). With this background, I look at the community my children live in and I want them to have what I never did when I was growing up – a stable community and lasting friendships. Once again, I’ve put my career aside for my children.

However, as I write this entry, I’m actually very pleased with my decision. I went through six months of deciding what parts of the academic job I find appealing and looking for these qualities in non-professor jobs. I have two really promising leads that stem from my love of writing, my analytical skills, and my scientific background, and that don’t involve moving! Whether they live up to my expectations, only time will tell. But the new message I have is to be flexible. Be flexible in defining your goals, be flexible in how you realize your goals, and remember what is most important to you.

I’m curious what other people think about the question of moving your family. I hope this is something that can be discussed in the comments, or perhaps in other blog entries – to move or not to move?

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4 Responses to “Moving a school-aged family – one hazard of having the family first and the career second”


  1. 1 Jessie April 13, 2008 at 5:58 am

    I’m so glad you wrote this. After failing to obtain a permanent academic position this year, I am torn about accepting any short-term positions now because my son is starting kindergarten this fall. It’s one thing to move once for a permanent position, another to move around for other positions. I look forward to reading the rest of your essay in the book.

  2. 2 acmegirl May 3, 2008 at 12:00 am

    “It feels like I’m being selfish when I contemplate tearing them out of this home and forcing them to start again somewhere else just for me.”

    While I understand and sympathize with how difficult it is to contemplate moving your family, I think that it is a mistake to think that moving for career is “just for you”. Consider the benefits your family will enjoy – more income, and long term stability. Also, consider the fact that a happier mother is a better mother. It seems like many women ignore these important benefits when they consider career moves.

  3. 3 piaabola May 4, 2008 at 3:36 pm

    In response to “acmegirl”

    I think the issue is not really ignoring my own personal happiness, but taking the risk that happiness may come from the unknown path. One way to look at the choice on whether or not to move is that the academic life is a known quantity – it’s where I’ve been trained and I feel (after twenty some years from the start of graduate school, most of which has been spent in academic labs) that I understand what the pluses and minuses are of the lifestyle, and know what I will enjoy from it. One of the minuses is that in choosing the academic life, I would, in fact, have a much lower salary than in choosing an industry position, so I would both force my family to move AND have a lower salary.

    The non-academic life is the unknown quantity. While the biotech industry offers positions whose responsibilities (bench work) are very familiar to the academic scientist, there is much more latitude for defining your own job. What I’m learning in my new, non-academic life, is that there is so much flexibility out there in the great wide world. Admittedly, the flexibility for me comes from the fact that my husband can provide the usual benefits package and has the stable academic job, so I can work as a consultant (at least for the near term). But I have been able to define the nature of the work that I enjoy in the academic life – strategizing, experimental desgin, problem solving, organizing solutions, writing – and find work in industry that utilizes these skills. Working as a consultant, I am writing grants for biotech companies and make quite a bit more than I did as a research fellow paid through an NIH grant.

    It seems to me that the question about moving is – how much risk are you willing to take in looking for job satisfaction? Do you have flexibility to take risk, or (in my situation) is that academic job so important that it is really the only path to happiness. So far, I’m finding out that the answer to that question is a resounding no. While I miss directing my own project, I’m still deriving plenty of satisfaction from generating research programs for others to follow up on.

  4. 4 Flicka Mawa May 9, 2008 at 10:56 pm

    Great post! I wish I had found it before I finished the May Scientiae Carnival, it would have fit right in!


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