Interview with Dr. Scott Jones on Relocating for a Job with Family

By: Laura Thompson
Dr Scott Jones is a postdoc at the USGS, based in California. He recently moved his wife, two kids and a bump across the country for this new position. His posts on twitter of the financial strain involved in moving city for a job resonated with many academics and researchers around the world.

Q1. Tell us a bit about your position, work and family.

My position is a term position (temporary but renewed without competition for up to 4 years) with the United States Geological Survey. This is basically a postdoc by another name. I’m working as a biologist and am stationed at the Davis Field Station of the Western Ecological Research Center (under the Ecosystems mission of the Survey).

Scott & his family at the Grand Canyon – making the most of the road trip to the new job.

Since I am a public servant as a federal employee, part of my work involves translating our science into information useful to land managers and policy-makers, so there is a fair bit of management/applied focus to our basic research. Right now, I’m working on fire, waterfowl, and vegetation ecology of Suisun Marsh, southern CA lagoon response to sea-level rise, and will be launching several greenhouse studies on plant response to salinity and inundation this coming spring. The work is very exciting so far, and it’s refreshing to have my science be my job instead of my life and worth, as was so often the pull in graduate school. My supervisor and colleagues are wonderful people and scientists, and it’s a joy to go in to work every day (every day that the government is open at least!).

My wife Kelly and I met in middle school, and after a tumultuous decade we were married after completing our undergraduate degrees at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. About three years later, we had our first child, Viola (now 3). Next came Elem (now 18 months), and our third (and last?) is due in just over a month (mid-late February). My wife and I grew up in middle/high school together and competed with each other in track and cross-country skiing in high school (and track in college). Our families are still living ~15 minutes apart in suburban Minnesota. She has a B.S. in biology as well, but is currently staying home with the kids and loving it; a surprise to us both. Vi is a quiet, confident introvert with incredible emotional intelligence, and Elem is a gregarious people-pleaser and as extroverted as they come. They are a joy!

Q2. How many times have you moved for work and where to?

I consider graduate school as work, so we’ve moved 3 times so far. From Grand Rapids, MI (where we were living after finishing our undergraduate degrees), we relocated to Lafayette, Louisiana for my PhD at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. We lived in family housing on campus the entirety of our 5+ year stay there, where we had our first 2 kids. After I graduated May 2018, we relocated to Houma, LA, for a short-term postdoc at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, or LUMCON. I graduated and we moved the next Monday, ~2 hours SE on the highway. When my current position came through after a long delay, we relocated again, in August 2018 to Sacramento, CA. We shipped our things and drove across the country. Sacramento was a bit of a commute so we were able to relocate to Davis in September 2018. 2018 was our year of change and moving. I expect to move at least 1 more time before finding a permanent position (if we’re extremely lucky), but couldn’t begin to guess where that will be.

Q3. What are the major challenges of relocating for work and do you have suggestions on how to overcome them?

The major challenges of relocating for work come down to two main categories in my mind- finances and community. For finances, early career moves often don’t come with moving stipends (or they are woefully inadequate), so expect the small (or non-existent) savings accumulated thus far in your life to disappear just to get to the new position. One suggestion for overcoming this is to have some sort of savings in prep for after completing grad school. We have loads of student debt from undergrad and were (and are) income-limited as early career folks, so it’s very tough to make that a reality. For us, that meant living frugally; we were on WIC food assistance, searched out free church meals around town, didn’t often go out on the town to eat or drink, and provided for our kids with hand-me-down clothes and toys. Any way to boost income and decrease expenses during graduate school helps. We also budgeted religiously. I suppose it probably helps to be wealthy, but I don’t personally know any of those graduate students! I think it’s just hard work and discipline here, and the privilege of taking on some debt when necessary (i.e., I’m a white male in the USA; the way we survived won’t be available to everyone just from structural inequality here and elsewhere).

Finding housing was also a struggle. If you can’t afford to visit the city you’ll be moving to (we couldn’t), you have to move to a neighborhood and house/apartment blind. This was tough. There was only one place that would do a short-term lease when we moved to Houma, LA, so the options may be limited if you are on a very short contract. For the move to Davis, we couldn’t find anything online that wasn’t booked or exorbitant, so we had to go to a place in Sacramento. This apartment ended up being falsely advertised and not safe for our kids, so we had to basically use our blind-choice housing as a month-to-month solution while house-hunting. We got lucky to find a duplex for rent in Davis in the end. Often, academics don’t have loads of time to do the grunt-work necessary to find the right place for them and their family. Online research can only do so much. One thing that helped us overcome this struggle was reaching out to my future colleagues. This was helpful in many ways. Which neighborhoods are actually safe (even if the online peanut gallery disagrees)? How far is too far out of town? What sort of commute is there, and options for ride-sharing/public transit? Of the options of nearby cities, what’s the flavor and culture of each? Asking (and getting answers!) to these questions were instrumental in our family finding a home that fits who we are and want to become, within our small budget.

Another set of struggles center around the loss of community. This is just as important as the hit to finances in my opinion. To succeed in a new place at a new job, we need community to support us. As adults (and often introverts), this can be quite difficult. I’m of the mind that working with wonderful people is important and can make life good, but finding community outside of work is more crucial. We first moved to the South, where our closest family was in Birmingham (8 hours ish) or San Antonio (7 hours ish), so we were on our own. This was especially trying when our kids were born. So, we made new family and community by diving in to choirs (me), volunteering at animal shelters (Kelly), and joining a local church, among other pursuits. We are now ~4 months into my new position in California (a place neither of us had been to before the move), and are starting to find that community again. In my experience, it takes at least 6 months to form a community (if you’re lucky and persistent!), so diving in right away is key for short-term gigs. Making new friends as adults is hard, at least for me, so it takes loads of courage to step out, especially as a vulnerable, new-to-town person. But it has always paid off! Often a University community makes this a bit easier as there are other postdocs or early-career folks around that do department seminars, etc. to bring people together. If an introvert like me, sometimes it takes a lot of energy and follow-through to get out and make those connections. It has helped me to commit early and often, and then I feel bound to participate. Once you get a feel for which community might match your interests and experience best, go for it!

Q4. What should parents think through when considering packing up and moving to a new city or country?

One of the biggest decisions is how to get the family and your stuff to the new location. What do you want to sell, store, or bring with? Hard decisions sometimes. For us, nearly everything we own has been given to us or was free so it was easier to sell/give away things. But, on the flip side, everything you sell or give away has to be re-purchased on the other side (unless you are reducing your footprint, which I highly recommend). We priced the many different options for our stuff (selling and re-buying what we need, shipping several ways, renting a truck and driving ourselves); we decided that shipping our things with U-Box made the most sense. We didn’t have anyone to help drive across the country with us, so we took a slightly more expensive option of shipping to allow us all to travel together by car. For international moves, this is sometimes not possible of course.

We aren’t quite to the point of school-aged children, but that’s another huge decision. What are the school districts like in the surrounding towns? Are there options that suit your children?

Q5. What preparation do you believe can help academics relocate smoothly?

Nearly there! Lunch stop at the zoo in Merced, California

I think academics are well-suited to preparing and executing a complicated project with difficult logistics and uncertain outcomes. Often our experiments and research are just that! Seeing relocation as a puzzle or problem to solve helped us prepare, even on very short timeframes. Doing background research and preparing several plans (A to who knows) was helpful. However, being flexible also helped tremendously as things didn’t go to plan. The old adage ‘hope for the best and plan for the worst’ comes to mind.

More specifically, reaching out to as many resources as you can at your new position will smooth many things over. Pester HR until you have all the information you need. They are happy to help and it is their job; don’t be afraid to ask. Talk to your supervisor, your future colleagues, school leadership, community leaders, and actually email the people whose contact information is given to you. Just like in a successful research project, you don’t have to go it alone and there is support for you; you just need to find it.

Q6. What help is there for academics to draw on to minimise the financial or personal strain of relocating?

This depends heavily on where in the world you are relocating, but lean on the social safety net if it exists. It’s made for getting folks on their feet in tough circumstances. If you qualify, don’t feel ashamed to get on food stamps, WIC, or any form of assistance. For those in the back, even with your PhD, if you qualify, then you are qualified. That’s it! Another resource is the community you have built and are building. People are there to depend on; as you become stable (even if that’s years down the road) you can pay it forward. If someone offers to make you a meal or donate some clothing/toys to your family, take it! I grew up in the Midwestern USA, where a polite ‘no’ actually means ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ is greedy, so I understand hesitation to accept gifts. You and your family are worth the kindness of others.

Some programs will give you an advance on your first paychecks, and offer other forms of financial assistance, but I think this is uncommon for early career folks. HR will be able to tell you, so be sure to ask what options are available. One thing we were shocked by is the generosity of everyday people when they know you have a need. We advertised that we were struggling and without asking directly for help, our community donated items, cooked for us, and even wrote checks (!) in our time of highest need. It frankly floored us. People and community are vital, and they have your back. But, they need to know you are in trouble to lend a helping hand. Basically, there is a lot of forced humility baked in to surviving an academic move; learn this early and it will help.

Q7. What are the organisational structures or policies that help academics/researchers make a smooth transition when relocating?

Frankly, there aren’t many in my experience. Covering moving expenses and moving stipends are valuable resources, but are often reserved for permanent jobs (at least in the USA federal civil service). The ability to receive an advance on a paycheck can also work wonders as you can go a month or more without a check between one job ending and getting 2 weeks into a new job. The most important organizational structures that I’ve experienced are clear communication of who to contact with certain questions. Who is the point person for HR generally? Who do I talk to about benefits like health and dental care? Who do I talk to about retirement savings (if such a thing is part of your temporary package)? What are leave policies? Who can I talk to about getting plugged in to the local community?

To be honest, I think there is a dismal lack of structures/policies in place at most organizations hiring early career folks on as temporary employees.

Q8. What are the organisational structures or policies that hinder academics & researchers when they move with their family for a new job, and how could they be addressed or changed?

Many of them center around the difference between temporary and permanent positions. With academia and research generally moving more and more to cheaper, shorter-term employees, this is a widespread problem. Without the institutional support offered a more permanent employee, it is a hard road to embark on. I think moving our organizations and institutions more towards offering the same policies and structures to shorter-term positions is a great start. Ultimately, if administration balks at giving the same support to short-term staff (who are providing more and more of the University or organizational capital and research power these days), then they should be hiring more permanent employees! And maybe hiring fewer millionaire coaches…

In the federal civil service, it’s a bit tougher because politics are directly involved (not to say politics of some sort aren’t always involved in these decisions) in ‘expanding the federal workforce (read: government).’

With most things, the more we speak out and organize, the more likely change is to occur!