One of the best aspects of the scientific life is the opportunity it offers to see the world. The acquisition of a PhD transforms a scientist into a sword for hire, and international PhD programs mean a young scientist can hit the road even before they’ve graduated. Seminars, conferences, and workshops further enhance the possibilities for travel abroad.
The benefits of this extraordinary potential for mobility are obvious and have been elaborated here before. As a catalyst for personal and professional development (language, culture, work philosophy), and the chance it gives to work with and learn alongside experts in any given area, it may be unparalleled.
But there’s a downside – we are not yet able to teleport our belongings across the world.
And besides, the actual physical relocation of person and personal items is generally the simplest aspect of moving – it’s the packing and unpacking that’s the hard and time-consuming bit. Only if you achieve a level of streamlining like Robert de Niro in Heat (“Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner”) are you likely to undergo the process without considerable stress – and even then, there’s still all the administrative setup in your new location to look forward to (bank account, internet connection, phone contract, accommodation, furniture, light fittings, and on and on and on).
It’s small surprise then that the experience is easiest when you’re single and childless. As personal and familial ties and responsibilities increase and strengthen, the moves get harder. Imagine what a time Luke Skywalker* would have had if he’d relocated to Dagobah to complete his training with Master Yoda, but accompanied by a partner and offspring. How much children’s clothing could he fit in the X-wing? Would Dagobah have a good kindergarten? Could his partner find a job appropriate to their career and experience somewhere in the swamp?
Nonetheless, like Luke’s odyssey, it is in many senses a hero’s journey. The voyage, both personal and professional, into the unknown, and the inevitable transformation that accompanies it, is part of what makes scientists a breed apart. But unlike Jedi Knights, able to cross the galaxy with apparently nothing more than a knapsack, they must instead be content to lug their belongings with them – leading the fast-paced life of a snail.
*Incidentally, Luke’s relocation does have, in its way, eerie similarities to the impressions of young scientists as they arrive at their destinations for PhDs or postdocs, single or otherwise. The scene barely needs rescripting.