Science nomads- starting a new life
Published: October 21, 2015

When Jolanda, my partner, finished her PhD in the Netherlands it was finally time for us to join the band of science nomads, or early career scientists, moving from lab to lab to graze their fertile grounds. As our relationship and her love for science both seemed serious it was clear that I would follow her in her career. I was looking forward to this phase of our life.

I sometimes wonder how people would react if it was me who finished his PhD first and Jolanda following me.
To me this seemed a perfectly logical thing to do. What I did not foresee is how hard it was to explain my decision to people outside of science. My ex-colleagues at the high school I was teaching were incredibly supportive but many asked me why we’d do it. Why quit a job you love? Why leave a life you love? My new neighbours here in Nottingham assumed I could not find a job in the Netherlands because of the economic crisis and thus was some kind of economic refugee. Why else would you leave your home country? They presumed we were working as cleaners at the university, and had nothing to do with science.  Some of our own family thought we’d move to the UK only to come back within two years to find a “proper” job back home in the Netherlands. Then when Jolanda’s pregnancy became public, even more people assumed we’d move back along with lots of sexist assumptions about work distribution. I sometimes wonder how people would react if it was me who finished his PhD first and Jolanda following me.

Science nomadsTruth is we do not know where we will be in two years´ time, a complex roulette of available positions, grant writing and weighing of preferences will determine it. And although it is a bit stressful it is also a great adventure, lots of fun and I think an important part in becoming a good scientist. Not everyone agrees, apparently.

Last week I talked to a representative of the Union for Researchers. They were campaigning for more permanent positions for early career researchers. I asked her what she thought of the negative sides of having more permanent positions at the university. She probably thought I was pulling her leg, but I wasn’t. She clearly thought that there would be only positive sides to it. I think in order to become a good scientist you need to have many different experiences from different places before settling down.

I see nothing wrong with traveling around a bit.
Doing your bachelor, master, PhD and postdoc all in one department of one university is not a great idea. There are exceptions of brilliant people who did exactly that and flourished, but for most mortals starting something new is a great impulse for further development and learning. And starting a whole new life at a different place is even better. Temporary contracts and grant applications force you to do exactly that. To be clear, I agree there should be more permanent contracts for not so early career researchers who want to start their own (sub-) research group or set up education programmes but I see nothing wrong with traveling around a bit. Starting something new is hard and that is exactly why we should do it (every now and then).

So I started something new, I started a blog. Like most beginnings it is not perfect but I’ll promise I’ll be learning.

Bart PanderBart Pander writes about his life as a self-proclaimed science nomad. He’ll tell us about his life following his wife’s scientific career, rearing a baby in a foreign country and returning to academia himself as a PhD student in the UK after working as a high school science teacher in the Netherlands for a few years.