Your Lab is Relocating—Should You Follow Your PI?
Your PI has accepted a job at another institution and has offered you a position in their new lab. As a graduate student or research staff, news like this isn’t uncommon; such is the nature of working in academia. Should you follow them or stay at the same university but work with a different PI? We break down the personal and research considerations that will help you make this difficult decision.
Are You Comfortable with Packing Up and Moving?
The first question you need to ask is if the move suits you and your personal goals; it’s your life, after all. You need to consider what you’re leaving behind, such as your support system, favorite haunts and even food choices! Can your quality of life be replicated in the new city or country?
Distance matters, of course. If the new institute is just a few hours’ drive away, it’ll be less disruptive to your personal life. For international moves, you must brace yourself for the prospect of only being able to visit family and friends once or twice a year (or less frequently; I’m looking at you, COVID!)
Even if you’re incredibly adaptable and independent, packing your life up and moving is undoubtedly a stressful situation. Weighing up your choices and feeling comfortable with your decisions can make the difference between anxiousness and excitement later on.
Dependents and Partners
The people around you will also be affected by your decision. The big one will be your partner, as they will likely have a job at your current location. Are they able and willing to give up their job and start another job search in a new city?
If you have kids, they will likely be reluctant to leave their school and friends. That said, kids are incredibly adaptable and usually settle into new environments more quickly than adults. They might complain now, but as a kid hauled across multiple countries and different schools, I’m grateful for the unique experience and friendships made.
Sure, there are ultra-rich scientists devoted to improving the world, no matter the financial costs. For those who are not named Tony Stark, the financial aspect of moving should play a big part in our decisions. Given that academia isn’t known for paying well, we must be sure to account for expenses such as:
- The relocation itself—hiring a moving (or shipping) company can be expensive, and that doesn’t include moving yourself and your family (i.e., plane tickets)!
- Housing: it’s not just the rent you need to worry about; security deposits, utility bills and furniture costs add up
- Health insurance (medical, dental, hospitalization) plans differ from state to state and country to country.
- Finally, the actual cost of living in a new city! This can either work for you or against you, but it’s important to research the affordability of groceries and other essentials as part of your evaluation
Consider negotiating for financial support from your PI to help ease the financial burden of moving. Sometimes the relocation package offered to them also includes funding support for students, postdocs and staff.
Research and Career Considerations
Your Professional Goals
If you enjoy your current research and want to explore it further, moving along with your PI will allow you to do so. If you don’t want to uproot your present life, you can look for new research opportunities at your current university. Your PI and university should provide resources to help make the transfer between labs as smooth as possible. Having a diverse research experience isn’t the worst, as you will learn new techniques and ways of working.
The feasibility of this ultimately depends on the other PI, lab space vacancy and equipment availability. Your current PI will no doubt move their lab equipment with them, which can be a problem if it is a highly specialized piece of hardware you need to proceed with your research.
Applying to other universities is another option, though it will likely mean another round of interviews and negotiations (try to do this as early as possible!) For postdocs and research staff, this might be a good time to consider transitioning into industry roles.
Clarification on Contracts, Grants and Awards
Depending on your position (research staff, Ph.D. candidate, post-doc), your funding is either tied to your PI, the university or a research institute. Often, the PI will transfer their personal awards and grants to their new university, intending that staff members make the move with them (or they will hire new ones using the funding).
For Ph.D. candidates close to finishing, the PI can transfer this funding to another PI in their current university, allowing these individuals to complete their training without too much disruption.
If your funding is tied to the university or an external research institute, it is critical that you seek clarification on your status after moving. They will likely continue to fund you (under certain conditions, like keeping your PI on as faculty for a designated period) but do not take this for granted.
In some unfortunate cases, you might find yourself suddenly without funding to continue your research if you choose to stay. If this is the case, make your point known to your programme coordinator or head of the department; the university should have programs to help students and staff of a relocating PI secure funding sources.
The Local Job Market
Although I’m not a fan of university rankings, where your qualifications come from still has an influence on many employer’s hiring decisions. It is important to note that your qualification will be granted by the university where you physically complete your training, rather than where you started it.
Since we’re on the topic of careers, you should also check the local job market’s demand for individuals in your field. Which location offers better prospects? Even if you believe you will continue in academia for the foreseeable future, it’s always a good idea to keep the industry option available.
Academic research is highly specific; the last thing you want is to find yourself ultra-qualified but unable to land a relevant job within a reasonable commute. If you’re moving away from your home country, you must also be aware of your eligibility for work visas. It’s generally more challenging to land a job as a foreigner due to employment regulations.
After you’ve gotten over the shock of your PI moving across the country (or to another country!), it’s time to make serious life plans. As with all big decisions, weighing the relevant pros and cons can help with the process. In the end, what’s most important is that you’re comfortable with your final decision. Good luck!
About the Author
Sean is a consultant for clients in the pharmaceutical industry and is an associate lecturer at La Trobe University, where unfortunate undergrads are subject to his ramblings on chemistry and pharmacology.