It’s no secret that I disagree with the general academic credo that geography matters less than getting a job in your field. For many of us, location is at least important to our long-term happiness as the job itself.
I know a fair few people who landed an academic job in a location they didn’t prefer, and, in the end, the lack of resonance with the place undermined any goodness they were finding in the job. Then they were faced with either going on the job market again, with a more limited geographic range, or leaving academia. It just postponed the dilemma.
As in all things, people vary. I also have friends who landed academic jobs in Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, Texas, Illinois, Missouri, Georgia, Alaska, and Arizona who have grown to love landscapes and cultures they were not previously part of. It’s not that you can’t possibly make a good life somewhere you might not have otherwise chosen to live.
But if you turn out to be unable or unwilling to put down roots somewhere, that doesn’t mean that you’re a failure, or that you’re insufficiently committed, or that you really just do need to suck it up.
Your Place or Not Your Place
For all kinds of complicated reasons, we resonate with some places and not with others. It’s not that any place is bad; it’s that some places are Our Places and some places are Not Our Places. Even if a place has everything you think you want, it can still be Not Your Place.
The metaphor I always use is dating. You’ve probably had the experience of meeting someone who, on paper, seemed like a perfect fit for you — and you had no desire to ever see them again. Maybe there was nothing wrong, per se, but there was no spark, no connection.
I’m a Navy brat. We moved less than some — only about every three years — but every move was over a significant body of water. While we (nearly) always lived on coasts (did you know the main supply base for the Navy is in the middle of Pennsylvania? Neither did I), Scotland is not Puerto Rico is not Virginia is not Hawaii. After I left home for college, I started in Illinois, went to Pennsylvania, then West Virginia, and then DC.
In other words, I know from moving geographies and local cultures. One of the skills I got from that upbringing was the ability to root myself and make a home anywhere.
I can move and make a really good life anywhere. And there are still places that are My Places and places that are Not My Places.
DC is a liberal, vibrant city with lots of culture and a good public transportation system. It is Not My Place. I have friends for whom it is definitely Their Place. It’s not whether DC is good or bad — it’s whether I have a connection to the place, whether we resonate together.
There’s a study that agrees!
A recent study looked at residents of Boston and San Francisco, cities that on paper have a lot of similarities but which are very different. It found that residents of those cities had different definitions of success and happiness. If you’re a person who experiences success the way Bostonians do, you won’t be super comfortable in San Francisco and vice versa.
Place matters, and not only because of the landscape. Place matters because every place grows and attracts a certain kind of person, for whatever reason. If those people feel like Your People, the place will work for you. If they don’t, the place probably won’t. If the place feels actively antithetical to Your People, run. You will be miserable.
It’s not as simple as coasts v. “flyover states” (how I hate that term). It’s not city v. country, or blue state v. red. It’s this particular culture in this particular landscape with these particular people.
You can certainly surprise yourself by discovering a Your Place that you didn’t expect, or not resonating with a place you were convinced would work. I have a friend who dreamed of moving to Taos, who moved to Taos and hated it. Life can be surprising.
Your choices are legitimate
If you choose geography based on a job, that’s legitimate.
If you choose geography based on the needs of your family, that’s legitimate.
If you choose geography based on the kind of life you want to live, that’s legitimate.
If you choose geography based on weather and climate, that’s legitimate.
If you choose geography based on people you like, that’s legitimate.
If you choose geography based on a whim, that’s legitimate.
Geography matters. Of course it matters. And you’re the only one who can decide how it figures in to your decision-making, and whether a given place is a reasonable choice.