The Eternal Dislocation of Academic Living by Clare Griffin

Seven years ago, I left my home country. I haven’t lived there since. From the UK I went to Germany for two years, from there to Kazakhstan for five years, and now I am in the USA, for who knows how long. In part, I left by choice: in Berlin, I went to a major research centre in my field. In Kazakhstan, I got to help develop the curriculum and policies of a recently-established university. My new position in the USA affords me new possibilities. Moving internationally gave me opportunities I might not have gotten at home. 

You could say I left for these opportunities, but I also left because of the academic job market. Simply put, I had little choice if I wanted to stay in academia. I have been on the job market almost continuously for the past 11 years. In that time I have applied for many, many jobs in the UK. I Interviewed for four jobs and got one. I haven’t gotten as far as the interview stage of any job search in my home country in nine years. 

I am having to constantly choose between options: keep my career, or go home. I may never be able to do both. For now, at least, I have chosen my career. But that comes with its own stressors.

The Stressors of International Moves

A single international move can easily cost thousands of dollars, and most universities are not going to cover all of that, if they cover any of it at all. To get from Central Asia to Middle America – almost halfway around the world – I had to buy flights, pay a shipping company, book short-term and then long-term accommodation, and find furniture. And this before being paid a single dollar. For some people, this is a barrier that is impossible to overcome before they have even started.

And then there is the huge price in mental effort. Any move like this comes with a huge amount of decision fatigue, along with just the regular fatigue. How do you fly from Kazakhstan to Indiana during a pandemic around a war zone with a cat? What health paperwork do I need, and what does my cat need? Which shipping company is the best, or at least the cheapest? Which of my possessions am I sufficiently invested in to take with me, and which should I purchase again once I arrive? Which bank should I use, which supermarket is best, where should I live? How in the hell does anyone ever navigate the US visa process? It’s a constant deluge of things to work out and choices to make, from things which could derail the entire process to simply how to find a sandwich.

And many people do all this without a support network. When I moved to Kazakhstan, I had never been in the country before and knew precisely one person there, who left six months after I arrived. I had been to the US before, but never to Indiana. I know precisely no one in the entire state. My nearest friend is nearly 400 miles from here, and only temporarily. Once their trip ends, my nearest friends will be people living 700 miles from here. And it invokes a feeling like claustrophobia or vertigo, a sudden breathless feeling of isolation as you are reminded that there is no one, no one at all, that you know here.   

You meet people locally, but it’s never the same. You can’t laugh with them about that former flatmate you both had and their weird opinions on sofas. You introduce yourself to new colleagues, over and again. At best, it’s academic friend speed dating; at worst, a months-long addendum to the interview – a feeling of pressure to be bright and shiny for your bosses when you may feel anything but.

In my experience, the university might see the stress you are under from constantly moving, and may or may not choose to care. Individual colleagues might be sympathetic, but universities as institutions are as disinterested in the stress and expense of moving as they usually are about faculty wellbeing. If we are teaching our classes, we must be fine. Institutions, we’ve been warned before, will never love us back.

Feeling Isolated

I am so tired. Tired of moving, of booking flights and shipping boxes, of finding accommodation and dealing with international bank transfers, and of visas. And, more than anything, I am tired of the constant dislocation of it all. I want to be able to pick up my phone and text a friend I’ve known for years and walk to the pub the same evening and see them. I want to have a conversation, a real conversation, not just a “Hi. How are you?,” with someone I don’t work with. I want to actually know people I live in the same town with. I am sick of cross-timezone WhatsApp conversations that are like telegrams, sent out in one person’s daylight and replied in another’s. I am jaded by the close yet impersonal nature of social media. And I am absolutely fucking sick of Zoom.

But where, at this point, would I move to be in proximity to friends? I have people I am close with on every continent but the polar ones. Some of them are where they are for other reasons, but a lot of my friends who are far from here I met in the swirling currents of international academia, where we are thrown together for a week, a month, a year, and then flung off in different directions. Only a handful of academics I know work in their home country.

Finding Home

I remember once meeting an older colleague who had just retired from the university that hired them straight out of grad school. They never worked anywhere else, their whole career. Technically that can still happen. There are unicorns in the world. But for most of us who manage and decide to stay in academia, we’ll go through multiple institutions, often several before getting a job that could be permanent. 

For the rest of us, we are a whole generation of academics shuttled from contract to contract, institution to institution, country to country, never quite able to build up a local support network, put down roots, and make a real home. And when we retire (if, in the current market, any of us will be able to afford to retire), where will we go? Back to a place we haven’t lived in decades, to find a town where, once again, we won’t know a soul? Do we get to an end-point here, or are all of us endlessly dislocated and alone?


So some thoughts on coping, from long experience:

  • Social media and phones are good, actually. Mental health experts love to tell us to put away our phones and log off Twitter, but if you know no one for miles around that’s not practical and it’s not helpful. Text your friends. Connect with communities on message boards. Put cute pictures on Instagram. Use our substantial technologies of communication to communicate.
  • Find local community. And no, not just with work people. Hopefully, you will have cool and lovely colleagues but you need other people to interact with. There are often websites, Instagram accounts, Facebook pages maintained by running groups, knitting circles, religious institutions, rock climbing groups. Use the online to find the offline.
  • Love where you are. Everywhere in the world has something good, maybe even something great, about it. Maybe you’re near a beautiful forest. Perhaps there are excellent restaurants in town. There could be cool street art. Find the local thing that brings you joy, and enjoy it whenever you can.
  • Make a home, whatever that means for you. Love cooking? Buy one great pan and invite some people for dinner. Book lover? Decorate your place with your favourite books, lined up in full view of the sofa. Colors make you happy? Get some neon gel pens, or some removable wallpaper, or a beautiful plant. Make the place you’re in feel like somewhere good to be right now, even if it’s not where you want to be forever.
Clare Griffin

Clare Griffin is a mental health advocate, fiction writer, historian, and Assistant Professor for Russian History at Indiana University Bloomington. She gained her PhD from University College London and has worked at the University of Cambridge, The Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, and Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan, as well as conducting research in Russia, Germany, and the Netherlands. Her first monograph, Mixing Medicines, appears later this year with McGill-Queens University Press. You can see more of her work and her thoughts on her Twitter @balalaichnitsa and her website