The academic workforce is very mobile. A quick perusal of the current and former members of I-DEEL shows that our lab is no exception; there are links to several universities around the world. I do not experience wanderlust, so the frequent necessity to uproot one’s life to stay in academia is one of the least appealing aspects of this career path. Still, I believe there’s merit to the cliché ‘get out of your comfort zone’, so I recently defied most of my basic instincts by moving halfway around the world, to join the Hendry Lab at McGill University for one year of my PhD.
I’ve been thinking about the costs and benefits of moving institutions. On the costs side, all the logistics take up big chunks of time before, during, and after the move, which reduces productivity. Then, there are also the costs of leaving behind friends, family, and geographically-confined-interests, and the exhaustion of adjusting to a new home.
As for the benefits? The literature speaks of increased human and social capital, which simply means developing new knowledge and skills, and forming beneficial social connections. But I also think there might be a benefit through a motivation boost, like task switching, but on a large scale.
Psychologists used to think that humans had a finite amount of willpower, and if we used it up on one task (e.g., writing during the day) we would have less willpower to give to other tasks (e.g., exercising in the evening); the technical term is ‘ego depletion’. The recent surge in transparency and replication in the social sciences, however, has shown this could be false. Our willpower may be depleted if we are only doing one task, but if we switch tasks during the day, or take breaks, then we can continue to work at a productive level.
Moving institutions forces you to take a complete break from work during the actual moving phase, and then – because you are in a different place surrounded by different people – all your tasks feel slightly different. I have no idea whether there’s any merit to this idea, but there is some evidence linking mobility to productivity.
Whether or not moving is good for productivity, it is the current reality in the lives of many academics, and there are undoubtedly many personal benefits to be gained. So when I return to I-DEEL in 2018, I will hopefully bring back not only new academic skills, but also the ability to cycle through snowstorms, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of Quebec’s best cheeses.