Moving labs for your first postdoc: to stay or to go?

Well, I think this guy made the right decision! Image: www.CartoonStock.com.
Well, I think this guy made the right decision! Image: http://www.CartoonStock.com.

About six months ago, I moved back to Melbourne for my first postdoc (the job you do after your PhD). Researchers who move around institutions are said to be viewed more favourably by funding bodies, so I thought I’d offer my perspectives on how this may benefit or disadvantage an early-career academic in the long term, based on personal experience.

To move or not to move can be a big decision for someone coming to the end of their PhD, and I don’t think there’s enough discussion of what this decision actually means. For reference, was based at the ANU in the Conservation and Landscape Ecology (CLE) group for my PhD, and now work with the Quantitative and Applied Ecology Group (QAECO) at the University of Melbourne. These observations are not intended to be specific to the research groups I have moved to- and from: both produce great work, are well-respected, and the people associated with them well-liked. The do have distinctly different focuses though, which to some extent has influenced my experiences. So here is what I think the main pros and cons of moving are:

Con:  The first inevitable result of moving any distance is a short-term loss of productivity. Packing up your house, finding a new place to live, getting through induction processes and finding your feet sucks up a lot of time, and that’s coming from someone who only moved 650km! I can’t even imagine what it would like moving countries, with associated language barriers and admin hassles. In the bracket of early career researchers, a short-term loss of productivity can be the equivalent of one paper, which can also be the difference between being  successful or not in grant applications.

Pro: You have the opportunity to work with a bunch of new people whose research you may otherwise have only read about in passing, and you can ear-bash them about your own work. They can, in turn, introduce you to additional new people also working on relevant stuff. Depending on how proactive you are, you can create a number of new collaborations in a short space of time, which will be all the easier because you don’t have to use phone or email to communicate. Instead, you can go for coffee (which, let’s be honest, is a much more effective means of communication.)

Image: Noise to signal (Rob  Cottingham)
Image: Noise to signal (Rob Cottingham)

Con: If you’re not unusually proactive, starting out at a new place can be isolating. Because people aren’t familiar with what you do and can do, you are no longer the go-to person for the things that you were before. Occasionally, I think I felt like more of a ‘postdoc’ as a third-year PhD student, than as an actual postdoc! Friends of mine who have stayed at their PhD institutions seem to have transitioned into postdoc life a bit more easily: because the senior researchers know what they are capable of, they are readily invited into discussions about co-supervising students and collaborating/helping out on papers.

Pro: If the group you move into has a different research focus, you can develop new skills much more readily – this is some of the reasoning behind why we are encouraged to move around in the first place. From my perspective, this has been a huge advantage – things that I would never have thought about trying are now possible because there are people around me from which I can learn, or at least point me in the right direction! There is a chance that if you stay put you end up doing the same thing over and over again, as you learnt from your supervisor, and they learnt from their supervisor…

Con: When you move, you have to shift your thinking to a new research culture, and navigating the way things are done and people work can be a bigger issue than you may have anticipated. I’ve occasionally found myself asking “was that not cool that I did that/said that?” What may have been accepted as gospel during your PhD can suddenly be questioned. But this is also a…

Pro: You have to shift your thinking to a new research culture. This can have the effect of reinforcing your own arguments as you have to constructive discussion, changing your thinking about the way you view the world, or at the very least help you better understand alternative perspectives. This is what we’re meant to be seeking as early career researchers: broader horizons! (even if they are a bit intimidating)

The clincher: Of course, the main thing you need to ask yourself is where you think you (and, if you have one, your partner) will be happy. You could be the most productive postdoc in the world in a great lab, but if you hate where you’re based, it’s going to have a big impact on your mental wellbeing. I wasn’t really willing to stay put in Canberra at the time I finished, so the decision was a no-brainer for me. It also helps if there is actually work in said chosen place!

So I guess the conclusion I’ve come to is that I’ve become a more well-rounded researcher for having moved, but this has probably come at the cost of some of the core metrics that I’ll be assessed against later: papers, collaborations and students. Please feel free to comment and share your own experiences below 🙂

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9 Comments

  1. Nice post Pia! I have had very similar thoughts – I had to get out of the beanbag of the nation – Canberra is great and Fenner is an amazing place but for me the new location (not just the mountains…) and new research culture has been important. Getting my head around a totally different institutional context has been an interesting challenge, and having changed countries, not knowing how things work, who the major players are makes me feel like a bit of a fish out of water. I’ve had some great failed attempts at trying to get a postdoc writing group going – I think I accidentally invited two people to be part of it who don’t like each other – and the whole thing fell over before it even got going… oops… But as you say, being happy is the most important part so while going to a university that nobody in Australia has ever heard of was probably not the best ‘career move’, I don’t really care because I’m getting to do cool research, meet great people and my research grant paid for my ski pass so… the pros and cons continue!

  2. Hi Car – Great to hear that you’re enjoying it over there! It’s nice to know that someone else is also the cause of the odd faux pas every now and then. Ah well, it keeps life interesting 😉 My office mate was saying the other day that there can be real benefits in working in smaller “less prestigious” institutions as a post-doc: less competitive hoo-haa, a more chilled work environment, and generally a greater number of opportunities to collaborate and become known for what you do. Maybe I’ll try and give that I burl the next time I’m scrounging around for a job! Anyway, keep up the good work 🙂 P

  3. Hey Pia, nice post! I reckon there’s a converse to the benefits of learning new skills: once you move, your own skills and perspectives often become more rare/valuable. Also, while I agree that moving comes at a short-term productivity cost, don’t your pros suggest that there might be a long-term gain to compensate?

  4. Hi Bode – I guess you’re right: that’s a more optimistic way of looking at it! Only time will tell as to whether there’s a long-term gain for me, but it’s certainly sometimes easier to stay motivated and productive when you’re trying something new and fresh!

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