Early on in my graduate studies at Columbia University, I got a real shock when my principal investigator (PI) informed the lab that he was beginning to search for a new position at another university. I was given the choice to follow him to the new institute or remain behind and begin a new project in another lab at Columbia. With more than a year already invested in my Ph.D. project, I wasn't about to take this decision lightly. So I sought the input of several individuals whose advice I trusted and got ready to do some careful thinking.
With an increasingly mobile professoriate and fierce competition for faculty positions, many students and postdocs will find themselves facing a similar dilemma at some point in their careers. Like me, I expect those individuals will be asking themselves (and their trusted colleagues and friends) many questions. And like me, I imagine they'll try to come to a decision that balances personal, practical, and professional considerations.
Having gone through this myself quite recently, I'd like to take a few minutes to share my own decision-making process in the hope that may help those in a similar position.
Is anything or anyone else holding you to a particular location or area of the country? For example, is there a significant other or children and other family members whose needs must be considered?
Is the location of your current lab important to you in terms of your lifestyle? Will the new location oblige you to significantly alter that lifestyle? Will moving provoke financial stress (e.g., a switch from using public transport to owning--and paying to maintain--a car)? What are the prospects for housing? How much will it cost? Will visits to family and friends be more difficult to make, and will travel itself be more expensive?
Will your university grant you a degree if you move away? How will your thesis committee learn of your progress (or lack thereof)? Will you need to return for regular meetings with the committee?
Who will pay for the move? Will you be reimbursed for any or all expenses?
Will you get a chance to visit the new city in advance to find a place to live? Will someone at your current or prospective institution pay for this visit?
Will your paperwork be taken care of promptly and efficiently? (This is a concern particularly for foreign students and postdocs who may have a visa tying them to a specific institution.)
How far along are you in your research? Are your data starting to come together in a story? Are you in the process of writing, submitting, or revising a manuscript?
Do you find the work interesting? Do you want to pursue it?
How good is your relationship with your mentor/PI? Is it good enough for you to move in order to pursue it elsewhere?
How important is it to you to finish your degree or postdoc in a timely fashion?
In my case, I was in my 2nd year as a Columbia grad student when my mentor first told us that he was looking for a new position. I had been in his lab for almost exactly 1 year and was well into my project at that point, but with no real story unfolding yet. I had already picked up several techniques, which--if I decided to stay--I figured I'd be able to apply in any other lab at Columbia.
I spoke with the graduate program adviser about my options. He told me that I was free to choose another lab and stay at my university, if I so wished. But he also said that if I left, my status as a Columbia student and Ph.D. candidate was guaranteed...with one hitch: I had to pass my qualifying exams before leaving. I was already on track to take the qualifiers that fall, and seeing as it would take my advisor at least a year to find a position (it ended up taking almost three), I had plenty of time to jump through that hoop.
Personally, there was nothing in particular holding me to New York City (at least, there wasn't then). That said, I learned to love New York as soon as I moved there from Providence, Rhode Island, so the thought of leaving it for "greener pastures" was not a pleasant one. But overall, it was not so unpleasant that it could persuade me to give up my project and stay, just so that I could enjoy a vibrant city life.
Ultimately, the balance was tipped by professional considerations, and I decided to make the move. I liked my project (still do...), and I wanted to continue working on it. My relationship with my mentor was and still is a very good one, so I knew I would continue to be happy working for him elsewhere. And for me, the time frame was also very critical. Earning a Ph.D. takes a long time, and I had no desire to drag out the process when I was already 2 years into it.
So, it's now 4 months and counting since I started working at my new location, the University of South Florida, Tampa. On the practical front, everything has worked out unexpectedly well: All of my moving costs were reimbursed, and I secured an apartment in advance. The same holds true at the professional level: My work started up again rather painlessly after the first month of setting up the lab. I am working on a manuscript, and I've arranged for "virtual" thesis committee meetings by computer.
On the personal level though, it has been much more difficult than I had anticipated. By the time I left New York, there was a significant other in my life whom I had to leave behind. I also left behind many of my friends, which has significantly affected my social life and support structures--I know very few people in Tampa outside of my labmates. And although rent is much lower in Tampa than it is in New York, I'm using the money I save to maintain a car and to purchase tickets for flights home.
So, did I make the right decision? I'm almost certain that I did. I still have a great deal of effort to put into my thesis, so many more issues will surely play out as I work "off site." In the meantime, though, I'm trying to enjoy some of the Florida sunshine. But not too much...the sooner I finish my degree, the sooner I can move back up north.