Social Instability

When you work at an international lab, most of the people you meet and become friends with are only on a 1+1 or 2+1 postdoc, or need to go home every few months for exams, or are only out on a two week or two day assignment. People on permanent assignment also go to at least one conference each year. This does mean you get to meet lots of interesting people from interesting places, but also means your personal interactions also carry an explicit sense of instability. This is also true at any major university, but there’s sort of a communal experience via the academic year. Even though people make friends with students from different years, there are aways people with the same timescale as you. The instability is there, but there are enough people on the same schedule that I found it less isolating and unpredictable.

Here its a bit different, for better or worse. Students and postdocs normally arrive individually, adjust, work and leave on a schedule dictated by their particular institutions. When I first arrived I made a big effort to learn the language fast and make friends off site but, none the less, scientists who aren’t from this city still form the core of my friends. What’s kind of nice is that its like an extended vacation for many people. They come here with few or no local personal attachments or responsibilities, and view their time here both as a career opportunity and simply a great personal experience. Combine this with incessant welcoming parties, going away parties, housewarming parties, and someone-is-back-in-town-for-an-editorial-board-meeting-lets-get-battered parties, and you get a pretty good time. When I was still living at the university we had all these things, but they weren’t so frequent or uniformly spread in time. Then again, scheduling a regular card game or road trip on a weekend when everyone is in town is a bit tricky.

This week is an extreme example, but it gives you an idea. On Sunday, one friend got back in town for after being at her home univeristy for two months. She’ll only be here until the fall, I think. On Monday a friend I haven’t seen in a year came back for just two days to sit in on a meeting. Last night was the probably the last time I’ll play cards with two guys working on the ILC Alignment and Survey project, which recently lost its UK funding. Tonight I go see my a friend who used to be a postdoc for my group, who I haven’t seen since he moved to LHC business a year ago. Its great to see people graduating, getting new and exciting jobs and all, but its a bit sad at the same time. I also notice it when people ask how my thesis writing is going, and where I’m looking at postdocs.


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