Whoever has undertaken an academic career knows one very basic truth: it’s very difficult if not impossible to have a permanent position in the same University where you earned your Ph.D. Changing the working environment, especially for those who aim for a bright scientific career, is a very beneficial and powerful way to increase your skills, create new links with other scientists, advertise yourself in a new university and a new scientific community and complement your knowledge with different expertise. This is the main reason why it’s so common to change the working environment in academia.
However, a very well-known drawback of this mobility is that if you have a family then the continuous need to change the city and, most probably, the country is going to heavily affect your family too. I know of several people whose partners have decided to leave their (good) job just because it was impossible for them to find a decent replacement in the new city/country (and guess what, in all cases I know, I count 12, it has always been the woman to sacrifice her career). I have even heard a colleague saying “if you have a family problem then academia is not the place for you”. Then one wonders how comes there are so many nerds in astronomy…well, if many people think in the same way as my estemeed colleague, then there’s a sort of perverse “natural selection” in the academia that filters only those people that have no problem moving around the world, who are often also socially impaired individuals.
But there is, of course, a very serious problem here anyway, if we stay in the same university then it is certainly true that we do not absorb all the goods I mentioned above. So what is the solution to this? There is no clear solution, but I’ll make a provocative statement here: with modern technologies and an interconnected world, it has become less and less important to move around and work in different universities or research centers. Imagine the world in the ’70s or the ’80s. You have a new exciting scientific result and you want to show it to other colleagues. Or you want to make new links and create new collaborations. Or you want to share some data with another group on the other side of the planet. What do you do? Well, you need to wrap your new draft manuscript, fold a mail (without “e”), send it by post, wait a week or so before it arrives, receive an answer after two weeks and keep going. Surely you can use the phone, but you can’t see anything. Or do you want to share some data, well good luck with that! The Internet has made information sharing so easy and immediate that we tend to forget how different it was just a few decades ago. Also, today you prepare your brand new paper and in less than 24 hr it can be posted online on arXiv. Or you want to talk to your colleagues in Australia, the US, and the Netherlands, and well, with Skype you can have a video conference. Or with EVO you can share your slides and give a talk remotely. Or you can connect on the same machine from two points at the opposite extreme of the world and share the same data, or download them in less than 10 minutes on your hard drive. And the emails, how many emails do we send every day? What about social networks, we can talk and communicate new ideas, and opinions, and ask for suggestions from hundreds or thousands of colleagues at the same time in seconds. What a difference…
In short, is it really true that moving to three-four different universities before you find a permanent job is such a fundamental requirement? Or is this a leftover expectation that was born in an era when the world was a very different one? Has the new interconnected globe increased or decreased the need to physically move around the world?