Moving back to one’s hometown often comes with mixed emotions. It brings a feeling that you never quite made it out on your own, or perhaps that your city doesn’t have that cool thing your grad school friends are getting to do every weekend.
But when my father went to the hospital for surgery recently, I was relieved that I could quickly pack my family into the minivan and bring a little cheer to his very cramped hospital room.
I didn’t always live in my hometown, and I presume my story is no different than that of many scientists whose passion for chemistry led them to workplaces and schools they never could have predicted.
Moving away from family is the price we are willing to pay to get the training we want, to attend the graduate school we’ve dreamed about, or to take that challenging position in an unfamiliar city.
This journey begins in different ways. For some people, college is the first time they spend a significant amount of time away from home. For others, graduate school is the first time they’re hours or days away from their family. Of course, our international friends have likely traveled the farthest and crossed the most borders in search of their home in science.
The ties of family and friends are strong, but the call of one’s professional career in chemistry can be stronger, especially as mentors open their networks and encourage their students to meet new people, learn new skills, and travel. If anything, it is the chemistry job market that forces these choices on us. While some people shuffle through multiple job offers from nearby cities, many of us get just one gleaming offer, and it can be far from home. These offers can present an even greater dilemma for those who have a significant other with a job in another city.
The U.S. pharmaceutical industry, for example, has become geographically concentrated over the past decade. Drug companies seem to have decided that San Francisco and Boston are where many industrial jobs in the life sciences will be.
When does the call of home become loud enough? It’s a hard decision to make, especially when finding a chemistry job in a new city seems dangerously precarious. Many of us, in idle moments, will find ourselves dreaming of home when talking to a high school friend on Facebook or when we see the familiar skyline of our hometown in the news.
Over the years, the call of home will change its tune from the desire for fun and community to a desire to look after one’s parents as they age and need more help. When that time arrives, I suspect many chemists will find themselves searching for job ads in their hometown.
Buying someone a cup of coffee during the occasional trip to one’s hometown is a great way to meet and befriend knowledgeable people and learn about the chemistry scene there. They can explain the chemistry job economy, suggest further opportunities for networking, and potentially serve as someone who can help you find a position that’s a good fit. LinkedIn is another great way to make connections with people in your hometown in your particular field of chemistry.
One of the trade-offs that you may encounter in moving home is the potential change in salary. If your hometown is in a smaller city, you may have a lower cost of living, but the salaries offered may also be lower. Although employers may be interested in taking advantage of your expertise gained elsewhere, they may also expect you to take a “hometown discount.” Seeing how one’s future salary is often set by one’s present salary, there is a real dilemma to be faced between more time with one’s family and future income.
Nevertheless, many are willing to make that trade-off when the time comes. Until then, we will keep thinking about it and making that journey home.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.