The Academic Nomad

It’s a rare academic that stays in one place through schooling, post-dissertation training, and into a tenure-track position. Most of us, by the time we’re at our ‘permanent’ job, have lived in up to a half-a-dozen different places (or more!). Personally I’ve lived in five states in twelve years (not including three additional states for summer research positions). This isn’t abnormal, as this entertaining rental history depicts. Moving can be financially and emotionally draining, even when you are excited about the new place and opportunity that awaits you.

For me the hardest part of the nomad lifestyle has been the seemingly endless cycle of leaving a carefully crafted social network and building a new one from scratch. It seems as the years go on there are fewer easy opportunities to meet new people who are also looking for friends. In undergrad and graduate programs a dorm hallway or a cohort provides a group who are also new to an area and excited to meet people. In contrast, postdocs, adjuncts, and professors don’t as often enter as a group… and as we get older our peers have spouses and children and therefore less time to invest in social network building.

Mickey Mouse - The Moving Day 1936

Mickey Mouse – The Moving Day

When I move to a new place I am extremely driven to build a strong social network, as I’ve realized over the years it’s a primary contributing factor to my happiness. Of course if you stay in a place long enough you are likely to organically meet enough people you want to be friends with to have a social calendar as full as you would like. But since many academic positions are on the order of 1-3 years it can be beneficial to be proactive (especially if you are impatient like me).

Over the years and moves I’ve found a few general strategies to be effective

  • Go to all of those new-person mixers and happy-hour events. I know they are often painfully awkward, and you might find yourself bored silly, but typically people at those mixers and happy-hour events are also looking for friends. If you can go to the new-person mixers your second or third year they can be even a better opportunity to meet new people, since you will be more comfortable and confident.
  • Work on being comfortable approaching unfamiliar people. I used to be a painfully shy introvert, but over the years I’ve worked on being able to present a comfortable, confident front when at a mixer or other event. One of the keys to this is to keep reminding yourself that almost everyone else feels just as awkward as you – some of us are just better actors.
  • If possible, live in a neighborhood rather than in an apartment complex. It’s notoriously difficult to meet people in apartment complexes, and it’s worth a little more upfront effort to find a place where you might actually interact with your neighbors.
  • Have housemates. One of the perks of being an adult is finally having your own space – but an easy way to meet a lot of new people is to live with someone new (who is hopefully not crazy). You get to meet all of their friends too! Obviously this can backfire terribly, so take this suggestion at your own risk.
  • Make it a priority to be active in your favorite hobby/non-academic activity. We need non-academic friends too! I’ve met one or two great people at dog parks everywhere I’ve lived. My colleagues have made connections through local Yoga studios, recreational sports, or mom & tot groups.

More specifically, it’s worth considering using non-academic organizations/sites that are designed to get people doing things together. I’ve used a few with success.

  • Craigslist. It’s not only a place to buy furniture or find an apartment! There is a ‘strictly platonic’ section that functions primarily as a place for people to find platonic friends and activity partners. I responded to an ad in the W4W section from a woman who was looking for some new girlfriends and ended up with a great group of friends. I’ve successfully posted my own strictly-platonic ads in other places I’ve lived, and even started a book club using the site. Of course, as with any internet interactions, be smart and make sure you meet people in a public place for the first time! I also don’t use my primary email or give out my phone number until I’ve met people in person.
  • Meetup. I’ve used Meetup in three places and made great friends using it. On Meetup you find and join groups around a specific interest or unifying theme such as “Trivia Night”, “Outdoor Enthusiasts”, or “20Something Ladies”. You can select which events to go to – I particularly recommend “new member meet-and-greet” events for a first timer. It can be really scary to walk in to a meetup the first time but keep in mind that everyone is there for the same reason you are – to meet new people and have a good time. If you don’t gel with the people at the first event/meetup you go to, don’t let it stop you from trying again. Groups are often big enough that you will always be meeting new people. Random sidenote – I have noticed that groups that aren’t active/outdoorsy or age-restricted often skew a bit older (i.e. retirees).
  • Online dating. Obviously most people use online dating for actual dating, not friend dating. But unsuccessful dates can turn into great friendships.

Of course I’m not shedding all of my old friends when I move – it’s been so important to keep those connections and stay in touch, which is easy these days with Skype, Facebook, and Twitter. But there is something to be said for interacting IRL, which is why I’ve made meeting new friends such a priority. It has been exceptionally challenging this time around since I am a first-year faculty member. However, since this is a place I might settle, it’s even more important! To make it easier to meet people I’m planning on moving to the nearest city. I’ve never had a commute before but it will be well worth not running into my students when I am out for a drink with new friends.

These suggestions are not all one-size-fits-all… how do you deal with the life of an academic nomad? How have you built new social networks as you’ve moved from city to city – or even from country to country?

9 thoughts on “The Academic Nomad

  1. These are great suggestions! I have done all of these except Craigslist, but maybe I will try it now!
    Another useful thing is to ask your current friends if they know anyone in the town you are moving to. My most recent move landed me in a town that has friends of friends from all parts of my life (including foreigners). Not all friends-of-friends will work out as your friends, usually because everyone has their own lives. But they are invaluable. Knowing someone to meet for coffee when you move makes a huge differences in how alone you feel on landing. Having people outside work and outside the university to grab a drink with now is fabulous. Some of the easiest and best friendships I’ve made in new places is with friends of old friends (or friends of new friends). The hard part for me is needing to be the person to make the plans for the first few times.

  2. Having switched cities at every stage of schooling (growing up, undergrad, MSc, and now moving again for PhD, plus a handful of field seasons/contracts), this definitely hits close to home! While still being in school makes it fairly easy to meet people, I still find rebuilding my community exhausting, and I’m definitely not looking forward that part of my next move, even though I’m excited about the opportunities. These are all really great suggestions! Especially reaching out to friends of friends. I ALWAYS dread that first awkward email or phone call, but it’s so comforting to just know that you’re not totally alone in a city. I’ve also found that picking one off-campus volunteer group or location (particularly one that has branches in many cities) can be great for building a non-academic community, which has been really important for me.

  3. Pingback: Friday links: your sample size is too small, tips for the academic nomad, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  4. Many places often have young professional groups that might be advertised through the chamber of commerce. Local chapters of professional societies like the Association for Women in Science are a good way to find people, too.

  5. Pingback: Fixing problems in science (for white men) | Tenure, She Wrote

  6. Pingback: Enough Mixers Already. | downwithtime

  7. Pingback: Finding a way back home | Bekka S. Brodie, PhD

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