April is a strange month for me. Not just this year, but every year.
For astronomy graduate programs, prospective students must make their decision on which school to attend by April 15th. The former half of the month is filled with calls with friends, looking for support and guidance, grappling with the idea of uprooting their current lives and transplanting themselves somewhere else for five to seven years. The latter half is all joyous Facebook posts, Instagram photos, and other announcements, declaring future plans with confidence, formally thanking the people who helped through the process, and obscuring the indecision, anxiety, impostor syndrome (among other struggles) that plagued the days leading up to that decision.
For current graduate students, it’s a bittersweet and exciting time, where these new students are coming in, making us a year older. The first-years become the second-years, the second-years become third-years, and so on to the sixth-years that graduate with that prestigious Ph.D. For myself, this season has become a time of reflection. Each year that passes I inch closer to another round of transplantation - after the Ph.D., what happens? Staying in academia often means applying to dozens of postdoc positions, spread all across the country, or even the world. Staying in academia means that I will have to rip out the roots I have so painstakingly and carefully grown in my current city, and try to establish new ones somewhere else. One of the hardest truths for me to stomach about my current career path is just that: success in academia often requires mobility, leaving people and places (and any sense of “home” that derives from those things) many times. The darker reality is even if I don’t leave, the people around me most likely will, in pursuit of the next job, wherever they can get it.
Staying in academia means that I will have to rip out the roots I have so painstakingly and carefully grown in my current city, and try to establish new ones somewhere else.
Through the graduate recruitment process, one of the most common questions I’ve gotten from prospective students is, “Well, are you happy?” There’s nothing like that simple question to prompt a minor crisis. It’s not that it’s a crisis over how unhappy I am; on the contrary, it’s a crisis that I am happy and content, incredibly so, but I know that I am inevitably marching towards an ending of what I have grown to love and enjoy. Where I live, the community I rely on, the friends I spend my time with, the colleagues I work with, and more will all change once I finish this degree. And it will change again after my first postdoc, and again after that, and again and again until I settle down into a tenure-track position (if I am so lucky).
When I was making that consequential grad school decision, it really came down to wanting to go home. I went to college across the country from my family and thought I was ready to come home to Southern California. It was where I had been raised, where I had some existing roots I could hopefully reconnect to with ease. In college, at first it seemed clear where home was. It was where your parents were, where you grew up. Even on tax forms, it’s clear that students are not residents of wherever they study, they are residents of where they go back to when school is not in session. When so much of your current existence is transient, with a clear expiration date, it just makes sense to consider the permanent idea of “home” as where things stay the same. At least for me, my parents and extended family were in steady jobs in my hometown, with absolutely no intention of leaving. In fact, the small-ish town I grew up in seems to have an understanding that it’s normal to stay - of course you would stay in this town and community, and always come back to it if you do try venturing off.
But, of course, things aren’t so simple. When I was away for my undergrad degree in New York City, that place became a different kind of home. I had a new community, a new best friend, and new routines and favorite places to visit. I formed a connection to that physical location and the network of people there, in a way I had previously only thought possible in my traditional childhood home. The duality of having two “homes” created a visceral tension in my chest, with strings connecting me to each place, each group of people, pulled taut as I tried to walk the line between them. When I went home to see family, that was home, and I felt the comforting familiarity as soon as I stepped foot off the airplane into sunny Los Angeles, where a friend or grandparent awaited me to pick me up. When I went back to New York, that was a new home, and the view of the city as I crossed the Triborough Bridge, sitting in a cab on my own, made me feel a deep validation that this was where I was supposed to be. How could two places be home, with such strong emotional connections, especially when one was essentially ephemeral, the countdown clock ticking to graduation?
It became clear to me that home was not something permanent, no matter how desperately I wanted that to be true. I ached for a place to know I could always return to, a place where things wouldn’t change too much when I had to leave again. The idea of my childhood home as my safe, unchanging haven was shattered when my grandfather, my best friend, had a sudden and catastrophic stroke in my junior year of college. Every time when I left home to go back for the semester, I’d say bye to folks with a casual “see you soon” attitude—much easier to stomach than the dread that something will happen while I was thousands of miles and a whole continent away. That quite obviously was an illusion, and a naive one at that. Things always change, life goes on, so all the old adages say.
It became clear to me that home was not something permanent, no matter how desperately I wanted that to be true.
Most of my life I had unquestioningly accepted that home was where my family was, the place I had grown up, which was admittedly a privilege. I lived in the same house until I left for college, when (cliche as it is) everything changed. I lived in a different apartment or dorm each academic year and each summer, hopping around and changing places until I finally just stopped unpacking all of my boxes by the time I moved into my senior year suite. This is a pretty typical experience from what I can tell; college housing is temporary, just a place to crash while you’re there to be in school. That was a bearable thought, though, since even this transitory state was itself temporary; once graduation hit, things would be different.