Thoughts on leaving

Nothing lasts forever, not the process of getting a doctorate, and especially not the process of getting a doctorate in Australia. So recently I had to wrap up my research at the Australian National University (ANU), hand in my thesis, and find a new job. I’ve updated my contact page and my Twitter bio, and I’ll have to do the same with my about and research pages. I’ll get to that eventually, but at the moment I’m feeling a lot of mental inertia towards anything that cements my move or announces it to the world. I’m feeling rather down about my move. Moving cities, even countries for work is thought of as common, even normal, and certainly I hear about it a lot. My parents did it forty years ago. If the impression I’m getting from Facebook is accurate, just about all my friends are doing it now. However, in reality it’s really rare. The average American lives 30 km from their mother. And more people are homebodies now than in previous generations: moving cities during one’s lifetime is actually becoming rarer over time. Most people are born, grow up, live, work, and die in the same place. 

This is not true of academics. Generally, if you want to work in the Ivory Tower, you have to be willing to travel far and wide from tower to tower to tower. This is because even the largest cities generally have, at most, five or so academic institutions (towers), which are usually universities and colleges but can also include museums, government research organisations and even some privately-run research organisations. There is no such thing as a Jack-of-all-Trades academic, all of us have to specialise, and the longer you’ve been doing research, the more specialised you become. Each academic institution is going to have very few positions in any particular area of specialisation, and that makes it near-impossible to choose a place to live and then find a job in academia. Usually, the process is reversed: you have to scour the world for available positions, then go wherever will have you.

I was actually really lucky. I didn’t have to scour the world for positions, and I didn’t have to beg and plead, go through umpteenth interviews and continually update my CV. I was offered a position in a lab that I had worked in before. The lab leader wanted someone she knew and trusted, and I wanted a job doing what I love: trying to figure out why the brain is structured the way it is. Turns out she needed someone to ask just that question within the context of her overall research subject. Lucky me! That was the good part. There’s also a bad part: leaving.

My personal opinion, based on absolutely no research and incorporating many unjustifiable assumptions, is that humans are not made to move. We are pack animals, family-oriented and social, and have not evolved to easily change social groups and reintegrate. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t feel that way. There is a sense in academia that if you want to survive, to have a career, you must be so devoted to the research, to the questions, to the quest for knowledge that you’d be willing to give up everything else in your life to continue your pursuit. Wherever is best for answering your particular question, that’s were you have to move to, if you want to be a scientist. Being sad about it means you aren’t devoted enough to the work and you should probably quit now, before you’re denied tenure. The choice is increasingly move and have a chance at staying on the academic career path, or stay and get off the academic road. Giving up your career to stay in a place you love? In academia that’s the same as failing the profession.

In Australia the process of getting a doctorate is particularly fast-paced. You are expected to complete your thesis in three years, although most people take three and a half years, the maximum amount of time you can get Australian funding for. Four years is the absolute maximum time you can take to hand in your thesis, and that’s the amount of time I took. Funding from Canada allowed me to support myself those last six months. At the end of that time I handed in my thesis, but the journey to getting a doctorate was not over. My thesis was sent away to be marked, a process that can take up to six months, and rarely even longer. I was lucky, my thesis was marked in less than two months. Once the marking process is over, the university allows a year to make any corrections the markers demand and hand in a corrected thesis. So, the whole process can take up to five and a half years. In my case, it took four years, ten months. This was tricky for me because my Australian student visa was valid for only four years, so I had to leave the country and return as a business traveller just to finish the darn thing.

Maybe my move would have been easier if I had just up and moved, ripped off the bandaid the way adults always told me to when I was a kid. Instead I moved the way I ripped off bandaids when I was a kid, slowly, painfully, millimetre by excruciating millimetre. First, I moved from Canberra, where I’d lived for five years, to Sydney, where my girlfriend lives. This step involved the painful process of leaving my friends behind, as well as my academic mentor. The Department of Evolution, Ecology and Genetics at the ANU is a phenomenal place to work, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The group of people there is incredible. Not only are they amazing scientists who do an incredible array of very interesting things, but they are also all genuinely great people who quickly and easily became my friends. I credit this in part to building design: the department is housed in a building that makes sure we have many opportunities to meet each other. I’ve written about the courtyard before, but this also includes the phenomenal tea room where we have discussion groups, meetings, social events, and lunches when it’s raining or cold, and the first-year PhD office, which makes sure each new PhD student in the department has ample opportunity to be integrated into the PhD community. But it’s also the people themselves. The researchers in the department, from PhD students to senior academics, work hard to make sure newcomers feel welcome and comfortable. The result of this is that we form strong friendships, friendships that feel like they could last forever. And so it is difficult when friends leave, as they always do because this is academia, and are replaced with new people, who then become friends, and then they leave, and the cycle continues. Until, finally, I was the one who left, and it felt like all those friendships ended at once. Yes, there’s Facebook, Twitter, and Skype. If I’m lucky I’ll see some people again at conferences or by chance. But it’s nothing like being part of a tight-knit community.

Generally in our department when someone leaves there is a big farewell party. I’ve attended many and I’ve always left early because I find them too sad, and I can only mask that for so long (each drink brings it closer to the surface). When I moved away I purposefully avoided a farewell of any sort because it’s not really possible to duck out of your own farewell party early, and I didn’t really want to bawl my eyes out at some nice restaurant or the house of a well-respected professor. So I tried to go quietly. People still noticed and walked me to my car, and that was almost enough to set me off. Having “Boys of Summer” come on the radio during a particularly scenic part of the drive out of Canberra wasn’t helpful, but felt appropriate for the moment. It’s funny how the radio can do that sometimes.

The next stage of leaving was to spend five days in Sydney with my partner, to say goodbye to her and a few friends of mine who live in Sydney. Though my partner was there, she was living in a place I’d never stayed at before, with roommates I’d never met before, so I felt like I was mostly gone from my life of the past five years, and only hanging on by one thread. We tried to make the most of my short interlude between lives, but ultimately time goes way too fast. On my last day in Sydney, and in Australia, for the foreseeable future, we rented a car and went somewhere I hadn’t been in a very long time. When I was 18 I came to Australia as a backpacker. I stayed with some family friends in north Sydney for my first five days in the country, and the very first sightseeing I did was to the America Bay trail in Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park. I hadn’t done that walk since December 2004, so it seemed somehow fitting to bookend my time in Australia this way. My partner and I did this walk and found a nice, secluded place next to a water hole to have a picnic. A water dragon, a member of the same group of lizards I spent my PhD studying, tried to steal our food, something that is a regular occurrence in my department at the ANU. It seemed appropriate.

The America Bay walk is very short, and we spent the rest of the day further exploring Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park. We saw Sydney’s most spectacular lizard, the lace monitor, and even ran into an old friend of mine that I hadn’t seen in years. I went swimming in the ocean one last time, had one last dinner at a “modern Australian cuisine” restaurant and took one last opportunity to look for some of Sydney’s spectacular snakes. The pictures interspersed in this post are from that last, great day exploring the Sydney wilderness with my best friend.

And then I had to do the rest of the leaving. The following morning I had to get up early to get to the airport on time. I said one last goodbye to my partner, then another, and another, and another after that, and then I drove off with all my worldly possession that aren’t currently in a container somewhere on the Pacific Ocean. The Sydney airport, without getting into specifics, was a shitshow. Suffice to say that at one point I wound up being that guy running while pushing a cart of bags through the airport crowds yelling things like “Excuse me!” “Coming through!” and “Sorry!” I didn’t want to leave, and I almost wasn’t able to. But I did. I spent 14 hours on a plane over the Pacific, and another seven on two more planes over the continental United States. My total transit time, Sydney-door to Montreal-door, was 33 hours. When I left, I left home. When I arrived, I arrived home. It’s a strange feeling. Montreal at the beginning of March is a desolate, freezing place. The job I’ve arrived to is exciting, stimulating and exactly what I want to be doing. For that, I’m grateful. The city it’s in needs a couple more months to warm up.

Practical thoughts on leaving:

Leaving a country in order to apply for a new visa to reenter the country you just left (known as a “visa run”) is generally frowned upon, though it’s not illegal (and I personally don’t see the problem). Generally the way this is done is to drive to a neighbouring country, spend the weekend at a hotel, and drive back. Australia, being an island, is a little trickier. Flying to New Zealand, Fiji or Indonesia (particularly the resort island of Bali) for a quick holiday and renewing your visa while over there may seem like a good idea, but non-advertised agreements between Australia and these countries mean that if you don’t have a valid visa to reenter Australia, you won’t be allowed to enter any of these countries if you’ve got a return ticket to Australia. You won’t even be allowed on the plane! The best and most reliable way to do a visa run is to go back to your home country for your holiday. Your family probably misses you anyway. However, I was able to do a successful visa run to New Caledonia in March 2015. What other countries it’s still possible to do a visa run to from Australia, I do not know.

The things I packed with me from Sydney to Montreal included a 27-inch iMac. I had saved its original box from all those years ago, and I used that to ship the computer in. I used clothing to cushion it on all sides. Because Delta bans computers in checked luggage, I simply labelled it as “fragile” and had it wrapped in protective plastic. When airport employees asked me what was in it, I said “all my worldly possessions” and when that wasn’t good enough, “electronics”. The computer seems to still work fine, though if I’m not mistaken it’s louder than before. I'm curious to know if anyone has an idea of what could have happened to it so that it still works fine, but is louder.

Pack food in your carry-on. I never used to do this, but airlines have significantly cut back on the amount of food they give out. On the 14 hour flight from Sydney to Los Angeles we were only offered two meals: one right after take-off and one just before landing. Mid-way through we were offered a "snack". If you're lucky the flight will have a self-service snack-bar as well, but the snacks aren't very good. I was lucky enough to have fresh-baked cinnamon cookies made by my girlfriend as well as left-over trail mix from our Ku-Ring-Gai Chase adventures and some fresh fruit. It made a world of difference on that seemingly endless journey.

For the love of God, please please please don’t pee standing up in an airplane, especially not on a 14 hour flight. Also avoid peeing standing up on buses, trains and any other moving vehicles. It’s disgusting and completely avoidable. Sit down and pee, your sense of manhood will survive.