...but they mean much more than most people think they mean.
But there's one big aspect of academic life that is talked about less frequently, and is definitely an issue of balance. It's one that makes me both angry and sad every time I see it come up. And I see it come up at least 3-4 times per year, as someone moves from their current position to a new one.
I call this issue the classic "but you will ruin your career if you don't move to Kansas".
Disclaimer: I haven't really got anything against Kansas per se. It's just the example I tend to use.
I see this issue ALL the time. Heck, I had this issue. I got a postdoc interview with a truly prestigious and great laboratory...in one of the worst possible locations for me and Mr. I did the interview. I smiled my way through it and talked some great science. But oh, oh oh did I NOT want to go there. I expressed my misgivings, and my grad advisor looked at me seriously and said 'if you don't go there, you are ruining your career'.
Recently, a good friend had something very similar happen to them. Super prestigious lab vs an up and coming lab. The prestigious one was in a horrid location, the up and coming in a better one. And their boss took them aside and told them gently that they would ruin their career if they didn't go to super prestigious lab.
The number of times I have heard this makes me think that all scientists, to show TRUE DEVOTION to science, need to be ready to pack up and move to the North Pole on a moment's notice to pursue their careers in immunology. Don't worry, it's for science! I'm sure you'll look ADORABLE in a snowsuit and property values there are very reasonable right now!
And the move, whether it's to grad school, post-doc, or TT position (or other), thus becomes the crux of the question: how devoted are you to science? How devoted are you to your career? The undertone is clear: if you were REALLY devoted to science, you would go wherever it took. You would move thousands of miles from your family and friends. You would move your family whether or not they would be happy. Why? Because it's science that is important. You don't want to ruin your career, do you?
Work/life balance my ass. When it comes down to it, we can work/life balance our butts off in the work week, but in the end, we have to prove we love science more than where we live or our spouse's ability to get a job or our child's happiness in their current location. Don't worry kid, you'll love South Dakota. I know it's different from NYC and you don't have a driver's license, but you'll be FINE.
But your career is not ruined if you don't do it. And I'm sick and tired of being told that we need to pick up our lives, our significant others, our children, and our pets (and sometimes extended family or other dependents), and haul them all to Cambodia OR OUR CAREERS ARE RUINED. Never mind that your significant other can't get a job there, the schools are terrible, and there's no green grass for your bunny for hundreds of miles. This is your career. Aren't you devoted to science?
Here's the thing. This phrase. This "you will ruin your career if". It's false. It's a total, complete lie. And it really upsets me to watch so may young, promising scientists agonize and fall prey to it.
Because the correct phrase is not "you will ruin your career if", the correct phrase is "your career (in a TT position at an R1 institution) will be a lot easier if". Yes, your career in your tiny slice of field doing a hybrid of what your grad and postdoc advisors did will be a heck of a lot easier to get started if your postdoc advisor is a complete badass who happens to be located on the other side of the moon. Your career will have a good start if you set up your TT position in a super horrid city with roving packs of wild dogs and with a really good department and loads of startup cash. It will be EASIER.
But not going will not ruin your career. It will make your path different. It might make it harder to become a tenured faculty at a research R1 institution (a job, that I am told, we should all want, and which is implied to be the measure of success, no matter how much lip service is paid to alternate careers). It might make your career track different, in the end. But it will not RUIN anything. Because your career is only ruined when you say it is, not when you decide not to take a position. And I think we need to make that clear. Because we are none of us moving in a vacuum. We all have pressures, we want to please our current and future bosses. We want to be seen as successful. We want to BE successful. But we also want balance. And happiness. And we none of us want to make our families miserable for the sake of $500,000 start up in bumf**k Nowhere. Not all of us can move to Oz and I'm tired of being told that we should.
So those of you who might be agonizing: find the career, the move, that's right for YOU. If what you know you want is an R1 career getting grants from the NIH, go for it. If you think you might want something else, go for that. But what you pick needs to be right for YOU. Not what your grad advisor would have picked, what your mentor would have picked, or what your grad school friend would pick. Right for you. And then make your career happen. If you can and want to put your R1 career first, do it! But if you can't, don't give yourself guilt. You can, and will, make it work.