Ida T. Fonkoue, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, Emory University
“Take a deep breath! It won’t be easy but you will make it.” This might sound like a cliché, but I wish I had told myself this when I moved across the country a year ago to start a postdoctoral fellowship with two young children. When my academic journey began 6 years ago, I knew that moving—possibly multiple times—was going to be a part of my career. What I did not know was that my journey as a wife and a mother would not fit into the typical scientist pathway that I had read about. I did not know that finding a good school for my children was going to weigh more in my decision-making process than a great program or a great research environment. I was far from imagining that before considering a postdoctoral offer, I needed to first research “niche” or “great schools” before looking at the future lab’s webpage. I was lucky to hit the jackpot, because I got both a great school for my children and a great research environment. Although a postdoctoral position is supposed to be temporary, a stepping-stone for your academic/non-academic career, the issues that arise when relocating with a family often do not differ.
How May Your Move Affect Your Finances?
Moving is ridiculously expensive, and doing so with a family adds to the financial burden. Going from the tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the southern state of Georgia was costly. It was not the first time my family had relocated for a job, but it was the first time none of the expenses were covered or reimbursed. Moving a family that includes children across the U.S. can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $12,000 or more (4). As a post-doc, you will have to keep in mind that there is likely no moving allowance, start-up funds, or hiring bonuses included in your contract to help offset your moving expenses. Given that you may not be able to afford private schools for your children, you will need to find housing in a district with good public/charter schools. As you can imagine, this does not necessarily come cheap. Furthermore, a post-doc job requires 40+ hours of work per week; this means that you also need to think about childcare (after school or summer camp programs) for your children while you are at work. A post-doc relocating alone could probably live on rice and beans until the first salary comes, but as a scientist and a parent, you know that feeding your children a well-balanced meal and keeping them healthy is a requirement! To avoid going in the red before your first salary—which you will get probably after being on the job for a month—you will have to think strategically, plan accordingly and accept all the help you can get from your family and friends (3). I was fortunate to have my husband’s support throughout the moving process, financially and physically. We cut down on moving costs by packing our house ourselves with the help of great friends. Most importantly, my husband took a sabbatical for a year and worked from home to take care of the kids; this gave them a better transition into their new lives, allowed us to save money on childcare, and gave me more time to spend at work. Fellow post-docs, your situation might be different from mine, but I can tell you that it gets better, and, in the end, it’s all worth it.
How May Your Move Affect You?
When you move, you leave your social support network—friends and family—behind. When I started my PhD program with two children under the age of 4, I needed a lot of extra help and support in addition to what my husband provided, and fortunately for me, my friends and church community stepped in. Without them, I don’t think I could have completed my dissertation. Moving away for my post-doc severed those connections that I had relied on for years, which opened the door to anxiety. Moving and changing jobs are major life stressors (1, 2), and without a network of support, they can result in depression or health issues. My advice is that, despite the demands of a new job and a new environment, you should stay connected to your family and friends via mail, phone, and new technologies. In the meantime, it is important to make connections with other post-docs in your department or university—old and new—and learn how they cope with the stress of the job. Talk to parents you meet at the park and if your children are in school, make time to attend parents’ meetings, and connect with other working parents. You might be surprised to find out that you are not the only post-doc or parent who recently moved far from everybody they knew and depended on. Be patient and get to know the people you meet. Be open to making new friends and embrace your new environment. One year later, I have been able to build some good friendships, and you will too!
How May Your Move Affect Your Family?
As hard as the move could be for you, it cannot compare to the feeling of “rupture” your family will feel. You moved for the job while they moved for you. My children felt ripped from their friends and the only community they knew, and they reminded me of this for months following our move. But you shouldn’t worry too much about this. Children tend to adapt faster and better. Mine have since made new friends and best friends. Whether your partner is in academia or not, moving is logistically difficult for families that depend on two incomes. Finding a job for your spouse can be difficult to impossible, thereby putting a strain on your relationship and finances. I had a different situation because my husband was still receiving a salary while on leave, but I am aware that this is more of an exception than the rule. Although a post-doc position does not come with help for spousal accommodation, your new principal investigator (PI) might be able to connect you with people who can help. Just remember to express your needs and ask for help as soon as you start considering the offer. Your partner might also join you on your campus visit to explore the area for opportunities. Don’t forget to check the weather! If you are a family that enjoys outdoor activities and the weather in your new town is drastically different from that of the previous location, as in my case, you will have to learn as a family to adapt to the change and find new hobbies. Just remember that every change is an opportunity for discovery, and this one is not different. My family and I have been enjoying all the great attractions our new community has to offer. We feel lucky to have moved to a place with great diversity, vibrant cultural life, great food, and great scenery. The challenges and frustration your nuclear family will face, if they are not addressed, could be an added stress that will affect your productivity at work.
How May Your Move Affect Your Position/Job?
It is not a secret that your state of mind dictates the state of your work. I spent a lot of time at work wondering whether I had made the right decision for my family. I had found a great school district for my children, but would that be enough? How would they adjust to their new school and their new environment? Would they make friends? Would their teachers be a good match? Thinking about those challenges, at times, took my focus away from my new job. Furthermore, the anxiety caused by uncertainty and lack of social support network threatened to cost me the job I had left everything for. I later found out that, while I was worrying, my family was having fun exploring the parks and trails, swimming, biking, and going on walks. As I said in the beginning, remember to take a deep breath and tell yourself that everything will be fine. You have been through challenging moments before (birth of your children, early parenthood, graduate school, dissertation, etc.), and you made it. This family relocation for your post-doc will soon be another challenge you conquered in your quest for the advancement of your career. Express your needs and obstacles early on to your partner, your PI, or the mentors you have. They all want you to succeed!
What Did I Learn?
Start with the end in mind before accepting the position. Once you do, dive in and do not worry too much.
Do not get too excited, and do not make any promises. We all know the “what am I going to do when I graduate?” feeling, and because of that, we get very excited if we are lucky to meet a PI interested in us before our graduation. Be excited, but hold off on making promises you might not be able to keep if you don’t want to burn some bridges. Remember that even though the post-doc position is about you, your family’s needs and priorities are an important part of the decision-making process. If you are lucky enough to have more than one offer, pick the right one for your family, because if they are happy, chances are you will be happy too, and your productivity at work will really show it.
Talk to your family and make sure your partner and children are on-board. No matter how prestigious a PI, lab, or university is, your success there will depend in part on the support of your family. You will have to learn how to work in a new environment, with new people, and on new projects. It might come with a lot of frustration and uncertainty. Thus home needs to be a safe and happy place, because when you move, your nuclear family initially will be the only social network you will have for a while. Be supportive of each other! Relocating is difficult in many ways, especially for someone leaving everything for a partner’s new job.
Consult your advisor and mentors and listen carefully. It is true that not all graduate students have a great relationship with their advisors. If this is the case for you, my hope is that, during your PhD training, you met a great mentor who can guide you through this process. I was very fortunate to have an advisor who has been a role model for me as a scientist. His advice and gift to me was “work hard and dream big.” The training and work ethic he instilled in me have made this journey less difficult and a very rewarding one so far. Knowing that he is always one text or phone call away relieved some of my earliest anxiety. Through the American Physiological Society (APS) and Michigan Physiological Society, I also bonded with amazing female scientists who have become mentors and role models to me. One of them helped me figure out the type of questions I could ask before accepting an offer. She will remain a lifelong mentor.
Finally, choose a flexible PI. Regardless of her/his family situation, your post-doc mentor should be one who understands the complexities of who you are—parent first and scientist second. An amazing assistant professor I met recently told me something that described so well the physiologist I want to be. She said that she doesn’t want to be just a woman with children, but she wants to be a mother! There is a saying that “if you want to know somebody, ask the people they hang out with.” If you want to know a prospective boss, ask the people they work(ed) with (research coordinators, graduate students, and previous post-docs) and listen. The impression and feedback I got about my now post-doc mentor when I did the job interview and site visit remain the same 1 year later. We have a great working relationship and friendship. My PI understands that sometimes I can be late or absent for personal or family reasons. However, there is always an understanding that work needs to be done, papers have to be written, and grants submitted. After all, your own career depends on it.
In conclusion, I wish you, my fellow post-docs, the best of luck on your new and exciting academic journey. May you think about your family well-being, plan well, listen well, and carefully choose your new location, program, lab, and future mentor!
Ida T. Fonkoue Biography
Dr. Fonkoue is currently a second-year post-doctoral fellow at Emory University in the laboratory of Dr. Jeanie Park. She completed her medical degree in 2006 in Cameroon. She later moved to the U.S. and trained under Dr. Jason Carter at Michigan Technological University, where she graduated with a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences in December 2016. Her long-term research goal is to understand how the sympathetic nervous system, vasculature and inflammation interplay to contribute to the high cardiovascular disease risk of patients living with chronic stress, such as those with post-traumatic stress disorder.
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