Emigrating for my work – but whose decision was it, people ask?

Decisions to relocate while negotiating work and family desires are complex. Below I reflect on my own experience and reactions from peers: “Are you sure you are not relocating for work just because of your partner?”. What?!

Deciding whether or not to emigrate

It is summer 2021. My grants have come to an end and my lab is empty. I’m contemplating what direction to take my research. Shall I continue along the same lines, or take my research in a new direction? And, if I were to start a new research programme, what would be the best place?

My family and I have now been living in the Netherlands for eight years. Prior to this, we lived in Britain for over five years and my son was born there. My (British) partner longs for Britain. We all long to be in a country of which we all speak the language. I long for British academia.

Why? In Britain, academic function profiles of line managers outline how they should appraise, advise and mentor staff in relation to work load, skills, capacity and career development (see e.g. here). In the Netherlands, these profiles also state that line managers should be an authority who can inspire and manage activities of their scientific staff [e.g. see here [in Dutch]). This stems from the traditional, hierarchical way of organising academia (‘formation principle’). It affects how institutions are governed and I do not like it.

We decide to go back to Britain. My partner forwards me an advertisement of a job that suits my expertise and interests. As a bonus, it is the workplace of two scholars that sparked my ideas for a new research programme (see this ‘Behind the paper’ blog post). I apply for this position on the day my father would have turned 80 years old (he died from mesothelioma spring 2021).

Surprising reactions from peers – and whose decision was it anyway?

It turns out that I’m the first permanent member of staff to leave the institute before retirement since our Director started her term several years ago. I was expecting people to ask me why (for answers, see above). However, I was not expecting people to ask me if I wasn’t just doing this because of my partner. Huh?! Some professional women indeed change their desires for work and family to make life liveable (Blair-Loy 2001). But I wanted this job and set up a new lab, and I wanted my family to be happy. To this some reacted, again to my surprise, that we probably don’t take family wishes into consideration often enough when contemplating career moves. Why wouldn’t you? It got me thinking about the decision-making process when juggling work and family desires.

A quick literature review* shows that different categories of decision-making trajectories can be identified when couples negotiate desired work and family arrangements (Wong 2017; Wong 2018). Partners can find a solution that satisfies both their work-family desires; this, I would say, is where our decision process falls under. Alternatively, partners change their desires and fall back into more traditional roles. Unfortunately, I do know former female colleagues that have (reluctantly) given up their scientific career to keep the family together when relocating for their partner’s work. Finally, men can defer to their partner’s desires, but this, even unintentionally, leaves women with all responsibility of coordinating two careers and family life (Wong 2017). Even here, I can think of an example. All in all it shows that juggling work and family desires is a complex process.

By far the most interesting reaction to my move was a request to be kept updated on how I would find Britain and British academia so that this person could make an informed decision on whether or not to move to Britain to satisfy work and family desires. Who knows, crossing the North Sea might become a trend…

We’ve moved

The amount of paperwork and prep was immense (thanks Brexit!), but we are now back in Britain. All of us speak the language and we are more relaxed. I have a contract that does not specify what I should research or teach, or what my precise working time is. Especially after my partner’s heart attack in autumn 2021 (he’s doing well now!), this is a fresh start for all of us and I look forward to see what the future holds!


Blair-Loy, M. 2001. Cultural constructions of family schemas: The case of women finance executives. Gender & Society 15: 687-709.

Wong, J.S. 2017. Competing desires: How young adult couples negotiate moving for career opportunities. Gender & Society 31: 171-196.

Wong, J.S. 2018. Negotiating competing desires: How young professionals make career and family decisions. PhD thesis. University of Chicago, Illinois.* disclaimer: I did not perform an exhaustive review

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