Post-docs inhabit the nether-land of academia between completing a PhD and landing a permanent, or tenure-track, job at a university. They work on fixed term contracts that could be as short as four months, or, in exceptional cases as long as four years; on average two to three years. They are better off than sessional instructors in that they stand a better chance at eventually achieving job security, but they might be teetering precariously on the edge of the poverty line. Quality of life depends largely on location: Australia, to name a good example, pays post-docs a decent living wage with grown-up benefits. A typical mathematician aiming for a permanent job at a research university will spend three to six years working in two or more post-doc positions, often in several different countries, before they qualify for a long term position.
According to information I am too lazy to fact-check, more people leave academia as post-docs than at any other stage. That is no surprise: post-doc years can be nerve-racking with uncertainty, and the lifestyle can wreck havoc on one’s personal life by uprooting people multiple times, being a logistical nightmare, tearing couples apart, making dating impossible, or being extremely hard on children.
I have complained here about the difficulties of post-doc life before (no surprise there either: I generally come here to complain). But I have to admit that compared to the many horror stories of my friends, I have been incredibly lucky: Pink and I have never spent time apart, we have always had at least one income, and we were able to spend all of our time at institutions where both of us could nurture collaborations. I never had a multitude of offers to choose from, but the jobs I did get were great, and I have only had one semester of a gap in employment which I was able to patch up with teaching. I moved four times, but I always lived in exciting places and worked with fantastic colleagues. Nonetheless, I’ve often struggled with the anxiety of not knowing where I would be living and whether I would be employed the following year, and I found the constant moving extremely taxing emotionally.
Well, that’s over now: I am starting a permanent job at the University of Sydney, an excellent department in a beautiful city. Pink and I have organised our move, which is all paid for by relocation benefits, and only three hours away from our previous home, in the same country: so easy. By the standards against which I have measured my career progression since graduation, I have made it! It’s done. Time to retire.
Sure, it isn’t quite perfect yet. Pink doesn’t currently hold a long term position in the same location, but he does have a fixed term contract for now. And of course we can leave if we want to or have to, I merely won’t be kicked out (probably). All in all, we are in the best situation we have ever known. And it freaks me out.
See, as I have just realised, there are some surprising advantages to the transience of post-doctoral existence. Without really knowing it, I have gotten quite good at making the most out of the experience: enjoying the good, ignoring the bad. All that was challenging about those years was always temporary, and I had become a master of keeping that fact at the forefront of my mind. I have to fly 30 hours to see my family? We can surely keep up this traveling circus for a couple of years, and then we’ll move closer. I have no savings for retirement? Neither does anyone else I know. Or enough to put a down payment on a house? Well, I wouldn’t know where to buy one anyway. Living month-to-month? It’s only for a semester. Don’t know where we’ll be in half a year? We’ll find out in at most six months. I enjoyed the projects I worked on, the flexibility I had, the wonderful friends we made, the exciting places we saw, the great food we ate. All the while I quietly dreamed, with wild optimism, that one day we would both be professors at the University of Toronto living in a big house in the Annex. As long as you have no idea, you may as well assume the best, right?
Now that we are emerging into a situation that is potentially permanent, I am forced to face reality. True, our stay in Sydney might only be a few years, but there is no deadline on it, and that, while extremely comforting, is also quite unsettling. We might never be professors at the University of Toronto. We might never live in Canada again at all – the country I love so much and the citizenship I worked so hard for. We might have to get used to being Australians, learn to surf instead of skate… yeah, I imagine you’re all shedding bitter tears for me right now. We will never be able to afford a big house in the Sydney version of the Annex (central, awesome), or a big house anywhere in Sydney at all. With some luck we might one day buy a three-bedroom apartment in a high-rise building in the Sydney equivalent of Scarborough (longish commute, ok to live). We might always be flying 20 to 30 hours to see parts of our family. We will not be able to do that as often as I want to with the number of children I had in mind. I find “less children or less family time” an unacceptable question, like “do you want your eyes eaten by a crow or your legs bitten off by a bear”. All of a sudden I find myself stressing endlessly about money, which is utterly out of character, that is Pink’s self-assigned role in our relationship.
I know, I know that it will all be ok, in fact it will be awesome. People on lower incomes than ours live happily in Sydney. People with families as spread out as ours manage to make it work: where there is a will, there is a way. In all likelihood we are going to love our new life, jobs and home. And we might still get two tenure-track jobs, if not in Toronto, maybe in some other nice city in Canada one day. But for now, let me sit here between two moving boxes and weep for a moment for the dreams that might never be.