If you want to thrive in the academic job market, you simply must be a mobile academic.

Succeeding in academia in the 21st century requires mobility and moving outside your comfort zone.

In the past two decades, competition for academic jobs has increased manifold.

And as jobs in academia become scarcer, the vast majority of scholars with doctoral degrees find themselves confronted with a tough choice of:

  • Becoming a mobile academic in order to remain in the academic job market, or
  • Deciding to leave academia altogether

The notion of a mobile academic might bring to mind images of nerdy men and women with glasses and a suitcase, making a run to catch the next flight – books, papers, and smartphone in hand.

While many of us love to travel the world and live in different cities and countries (and most of us do not fit the image of the typical nerd), the reality is that many early career academics do not want to uproot themselves every year in order to pursue a job that may or may not lead to further employment in the ivory tower in the future.

This type of lifestyle is, of course, not limited to academia.

Mobility in pursuit of employment is increasingly becoming the norm in almost every field.

Jobs are becoming more contract-based and the job market is inundated with large pools of well-qualified applicants.

Indeed, for a given academic position, one is often competing against a pool of 300 or more applicants, and being adamant about remaining in one place for many years is unlikely to cut it for most people anymore; neither is the fact that few universities will offer tenure.

In fact, most universities employ the majority of their academics on termly or yearly contracts or as adjunct teaching staff.

Given the realities of the current job market, many well-qualified early-career academics choose to leave academia for various reasons, chief among them being:

  • the inability to obtain a tenured position
  • Low salaries, and
  • because moving to different places is often outside their comfort zone

You may also like to read: Tenure-track? No, but thanks… by Jane Jones

While these are legitimate reasons to consider, I argue that in order to succeed in academia in the 21st century, one must be highly mobile and possess a flexible, persistent personality along with a dose of good luck.

Of course, mobility among academics is nothing new; after all, many intellectuals of the past traveled far and wide to teach, obtain knowledge, share their ideas, and forge links with other intellectuals.

In rare instances, academics were even forced to migrate against their will.

This was the case of the expulsion of Jewish academics from universities in Austria and Germany during the 1930s and 1940s.

In many ways, academics, like actors and musicians, have long lived mobile lives that took them across the world.

Just as an actor has to travel to be on set and live in that place for a certain amount of time depending on the needs of the role he is playing, so an academic has to be mobile not only in terms of pursuing employment in universities but also through sharing knowledge with others through conference presentations, workshops, fieldwork, and outreach activities.

I do not know of a single successful academic in this day and age who is immobile.

Even in the past, such individuals were rare.

Perhaps the best-known example of the latter is Immanuel Kant, who never traveled more than 70 miles from his hometown of Königsberg in Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia).

As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Political Theory of Kant, “he was an eager reader of all kinds of travel reports; and he – who never left Königsberg – but knew his way around both London and Italy; he said he had no time to travel precisely because he wanted to know so much about every single country.”

But even before the 21st century, such immobile intellectuals were seen as quaint.

In more recent years, mobility among the academic community – and American students and academics in particular – has been greatly aided by an increasing number of foreign universities offering courses in English to their students.

Universities across the world offer courses in English in order to attract a more diverse student body and to prepare their own students for the international market.

In 2016, CNN published an article with the headline “Americans are moving to Europe for free college degrees”, highlighting the perks of a quality European education at no or very low cost as opposed to one that would cost the average of a yearly salary in most American universities.

The mobility of North American students is partly aided by the fact that almost all major European universities now offer courses in English in addition to the ones taught in the native language of each country.

This trend is not limited to Europe alone, and it highlights the tendency to move toward a bilingual higher education system.

With such a trend in place, the need of foreign universities for academics who are proficient in teaching courses within their fields in the English language has soared.


How to prepare yourself for the lifestyle of a mobile academic

Assuming an early-career academic is considering a mobile lifestyle, how can she prepare for it and what are the top points to consider that would help her make her choice easier?

#1 Re-evaluate your ownership of material goods

First of all, her relationship to the ownership of material goods may need to be re-evaluated depending on how much of them she has accumulated.

Clothing, personal and sentimental items, documents, and household goods must be kept to a minimum as one moves from city to city.

You may also like to read: How to decorate your home on a budget when you move a lot 

For example, I no longer carry books in my suitcases, preferring to purchase them as eBooks or scan them (or pay a student assistant to do the scanning) to save space – and my back.

Of course, sites like academia.edu and researchgate.net have helped immensely by allowing academics and students to download a great number of articles and books online that they would otherwise have had to buy or borrow from a library.

#2 As a mobile academic, it is more feasible to rent than own a house

It is obvious that home ownership tends to confine one’s search to the local job market.

Due to the economic recession in recent years, there has been a downward trend in young people buying homes.

Indeed, in countries like Germany and Switzerland, about three quarters of individuals under the age of 45 live in rented accommodation, and the number continues to rise due to rent being more affordable, especially in the former country.

This is partly a result of the increasingly mobile job market combined with the surge in real estate prices in the past decade, making home ownership less than ideal for most younger professionals.


Source: “The Shrinking PhD Job Market”, Inside Higher Ed, April 4, 2016

While statistics suggest that the chances of the average doctorate recipient obtaining gainful employment in academia might be grim, with a bit of preparation and some soul-searching, one may be able to increase his or her odds significantly.

But, as I have argued above, the key to whether one succeeds lies in his willingness and ability to be mobile and to move outside his comfort zone.

Before considering whether to continue pursuing an academic career, you may want to ask yourself the following…

Questions to help you decide whether the mobile academic lifestyle is right for you:

#1 Am I healthy enough to live a mobile academic life? If I have a medical condition, will I have access to good healthcare (and health insurance) in the places I will be living in?

#2 Depending on my nationality, will I need a visa/work permit to move to new employment locations and will the university sponsor me?

#3 If partnered or married, will my partner/spouse be moving with me?

#4 If my partner/spouse will not be moving with me, do I enjoy living alone for long stretches of time?

#5 Do I enjoy traveling by myself?

#6 Am I a good communicator/social networker and do I enjoy making new friends and acquaintances in different places?

#7 Do I have responsibilities such as childcare and/or care for an ill family member that would prevent me from being mobile? Can I fit my child and/or other family member into my mobile academic life?

#8 Can I live without pets or, if possible, can I make them fit into my mobile academic life?

#9 Am I excessively attached to material things from my past, or my current locale?

#10 Do I have enough money saved to be able to afford moving expenses as well as security deposits and rent in the new places I will be moving to?

If you want to thrive in the academic job market, you simply must be mobile and expect to be moving around several times, especially during your first decade in academic employment.

While future jobs are by no means guaranteed even with a mobile academic lifestyle, the connections you will forge with colleagues and the resiliency of character that mobility imparts shall give you a better chance of succeeding in obtaining a permanent offer.

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Dr. Anna Kouremenos is Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft Fellow in Migration and Mobility in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages at the University of Tübingen. She is the author of several articles and edited volumes on Greek and Roman history and archaeology.


Header Photo Credit: David Capps