Quality of life matters

Winter break is the prime time for graduate students looking for postdoctoral or faculty positions to finish putting together their application documents and materials or even finish submitting them. Then in a few months the time to start visiting campuses, doing interviews, and seriously considering job offers will begin. This time will be very intense but it will also go by fast and before you realize it you will have determined much of the lifestyle and path that you are to follow for the rest of your life. I say “much” because in an academic environment things are usually either fixed or changes occur very slowly in terms of positions opening up, promotion, and/or having the possibility to change gears, assuming you are in this track and you realized that the place you are at is not for you. The same holds true if you one day realize that you did not make the optimal decision (for you) that you could have made. In an academic track, your first job (whether it is a postdoc or a faculty position) sets the tone, scale, and the path that you will likely follow. Thus one very important thing to keep in mind is something that we often lose sight of or forget when we are in this process and it is something that I learned a little too late: the importance of taking a proactive approach to ensure that the decision you make results in having a good quality of life in both the short run and long run.

I learned this from a good friend who had multiple offers and could have gone anywhere he wanted to yet his decision was not based on the institution that had the most prestige or offered the best academic future prospects but rather the institution and city that offered the best quality of life for him, his wife, and the kids they hoped to have some day (and now do). I learned that this should be at the forefront of every big decision we make in terms of jobs and even postdocs as we don’t know for certain if the postdoc will turn into something permanent either because they make us a permanent faculty offer or because we meet our significant other there and he/she is not mobile due to various reasons, including job, health conditions, or extended family, and thus we end up staying there permanently. More importantly, I learned that, when thinking about quality of life, we need not focus exclusively on our career and professional development but rather make our personal development (in every sense of the word) and our personal life an equal focus. Excelling academically and professionally brings us happiness and, to a big extent fulfillment, but on a daily basis or when we have reached a plateau in our career advancement, or when our professional/academic progress is out of our hands (i.e., we are not producing certain results even though we are putting every waking hour into our work), it is all the other aspects of life that bring complete fulfillment to our lives. These may include important aspects of our personal lives such as friendships that we build, personal goals that we set, our involvement /commitment in our church or community, our relationship with our parents, siblings, kids and other family members among many other things, few to none of which are motivated by how well we are doing professionally. However, in the pursuit of the best job in the best institution we can lose sight of these personal aspects that help define what is best for us.

This friend had an outstanding research and teaching track record, yet his focus when deciding where to go next was all about the quality of life he would have and would be able to provide for his family as well as how living there would affect his personal life and happiness. He wanted to be at a place where he, his wife, and his future kids would be the happiest. For him, part of fulfilling this was being in an institution where his partner was also offered a tenure-track job and where there was paid maternity leave for faculty, an institution surrounded by a larger community rich in culture and very diverse, where their future kids could have the possibility of interacting with kids from various ethnicities and of learning about different cultures and languages, and in a location relatively close or accessible to their families.

He made the conscious decision to accept an offer from a place that offered him all this and the best quality of life. I remember initially being shocked that he accepted the offer of institution X instead of Y, when Y was a premier institution recognized worldwide. But once he explained how institution X and its surrounding neighborhoods and communities offered a much better quality of life for him and his family, I understood that indeed this is all that matters. He had worked hard and planned to continue working hard so as long as he had sight of this very important aspect of life everything would fall in place. I was impressed by his perspective and overtaken by the confidence and happiness he exerted after accepting his job offer. He had made a very wise choice and I thought to myself “why didn’t I think thoroughly about my quality of life when I was going through this same process?” It is unfathomable how something so fundamental as quality of life can be ignored or how it can be considered so lightly even to the point that we make decisions that are not optimal in terms of our personal life or without considering our personal life.

Fortunately, I now keep this perspective in mind as I move forward in my own career and, most importantly, I can share what I have learned from this friend with graduate students and postdocs. All of these individuals that I have shared this with never or rarely think of quality of life in such a thorough way as my friend did when thinking about the place or job they want. I hope that with this new insight they will make decisions that optimize their quality of life too. For my friend, part of optimizing his quality of life was already inherited in the environment of the institution and its surrounding communities and neighborhoods where he decided to go, but the other part of this component was what he created for himself as a result of his negotiations. In negotiating he insured that he and his wife had the necessary resources and support to grow as faculty and to adequately provide for their family. In asking for certain things he kept in mind his definition of quality of life and what it would require to achieve a life in line with this. If for you quality of life means traveling abroad for long periods of time, then ask them to assign you a schedule that will allow this (perhaps heavy one semester or year and lighter the next). If it means, in the future, having family, make sure that there is a parental leave policy in place. If it means meeting with your collaborator in China every summer, ask for summer or travel support for X number of years. If it means having a social group and an active social life outside of work then make sure you are in a city where there is plenty of social events, etc. During your campus visit take some time to explore the area and ensure that they have the things that are important to you. Thus it is very important that before you go to your interviews you have spent sufficient time analyzing the components that make a good quality of life for you. Only you know what you can compromise on and what you must have.

The main thing to keep in mind as you visit various campuses and interview with different types of institutions is what would the quality of life be for you if you decided to go there, assuming you got an offer. Aiming to have the best quality of life for yourself and your future family (or not) should be at the forefront of your decision-making, including your negotiations. This is something that we as graduate students or postdocs seldom think about as we seek our first or second job or postdoc as a natural next step that will take us closer to achieving our long-term goals and we don’t bother to consider the possibility of this next step becoming our permanent residence and determining our permanent way of living. We somehow think that as long as we take a good next step in our academic career everything will magically work out in our entire life including our personal life.

Many individuals go straight into a teaching job thinking that this is their calling and then, a few years later, some of them realize that they are not happy. Unfortunately, for many of these individuals the time to make a move has passed. They would need to build up their research record first if they wanted to explore a more intense research environment or retrain themselves with another set of skills if they wanted to go into the industry. In either case they would need to invest a significant amount of time into retaining themselves and in some cases this can be problematic or impossible. They now have bills to pay and cannot just stop working to retain themselves in order to be better prepared to successfully undertake a different career path. They also cannot ignore their responsibilities and start to do a lousy job as the good strong letters of reference from their current job might be needed, not to mention that neglecting their responsibilities can result in the termination of their contract and now they would be in a bad position.

The most appropriate venue to switch into a more intense research path from a teaching environment may be a postdoc but getting into a postdoc position at this point in their careers might not be an option for them. They might not satisfy a requirement of recent Ph.D. attainment or their research productivity and record, as a result of their heavy teaching load, might not be on par with what is expected. Even if their Ph.D. attainment year is not a problem, a lack of productivity in research over years may mean that they might not be able to put forward a competitive application. Thus it is extremely important to maintain the goal of having a good quality of life at the forefront of every decision and that we regularly verify that we are achieving this or making progress towards achieving this. In this way we are far more likely to recognize that we are not happy with the quality of our life and then take the necessary and urgent steps to make a switch.

Thanks to my friend, I now realize that we must never lose sight of what defines a good quality of life for us, we must make decisions with this in mind, and we must create an environment that ensures that we optimize our possibilities of having a good quality of life. Through his broad perspective of what life should offer him, his careful consideration of what each place had to offer (both within the institution and its external communities), his aggressive negotiations, and knowing exactly what type of lifestyle he wanted to live, he set the right environment for him to thrive and be fulfilled personally and professionally.

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