Monday, December 17, 2007

Academic exile

I had a friend from my old city visiting this weekend. She's doing a postdoc in a top-50 university completely in the middle of nowhere. She also was offered a 2 year fellowship abroad, but this was the only "real" offer, and her advisor would not let her turn it down. She doesn't know anyone except one guy who went there also from our university, there's almost no one our age to date or be friends with, and it's a very different culture and lifestyle, but she seems to be taking it very well. When I remarked on it, she said it was easy to deal with something if you don't have the choice.

It sounds like her advisor was guiding her job search from the beginning, so she only applied to viable jobs in the first place, so it doesn't have much of a reflection on her that she only got one offer since she was selective before applying. Compared with me, since last year I just applied everywhere and anywhere.

I still can't imagine feeling dedicated enough to my field that I would be willing to live somewhere without even potential friends. She's in a relatively pure field though, and for her leaving means leaving her field forever. In other fields, the lines between academia and the rest of the world are a bit more permeable in both directions, and the jobs outside are a bit more similar.

The US is gigantic, and it's a little sad that so few places are considered livable or desirable by academics. I have the sense that in most other countries, the universities are in places generally considered to be desirable to live in, or at least not too far from them, though presumably some are better than others. Of course, the US has more academic opportunity than most other countries in the first place.

Speaking of academic isolation, I saw in the NYT last month that the king of Saudi Arabia is starting a university
King Abdullah University that he intends to compete with MIT and simply giving it an endowment which will place it in the top 10 university endowments in the world. My sense is that Saudi Arabia is a totally different category in terms of freedoms allowed to foreigners than the Gulf states with emerging university systems. However, inside the walls of the university compound, the usual rules of Saudi Arabia won't apply, so they could have wine and cheese gatherings, women driving, Christmas trees and other non-Muslim religious symbols, and everything else permitted in the West (other than collaborations with Israelis, so presumably they don't intend to have fields like cryptology), but how much would they have to pay people to make them overlook the fact that they would be constrained to the compound in order to live what would be a normal life in the US. It's an interesting thought-experiment about how much commitment people really have to our Western ideals, and how many people would accept jobs there despite the restrictions. It's also an interesting question whether the people at the university will interact with the other Saudi academics, and whether the freedoms will inevitably have to filter down to the other Saudi universities, and perhaps other parts of the society. Presumably not: the oil workers are probably already allowed those freedoms without any impact on the rest of the world.

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