The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

How I Work

Contemporary academia is based on slavery: an exponentially growing pool of PhDs do menial research and teaching jobs for a pittance, while a shrinking core of tenured personnel reaps the benefits of publications and grants. A loophole lets the exploited abuse the system. Unless you lecture, nobody tells you have to be in the university of your enslavement. You are free to choose your geographic location.

The statute of an astute rabbit.

My official workplace is near this rabbit. I spent a total of six days there in three years.

Part-time and fixed-term contracts are the standard for academic jobs at the bottom of the pyramid. If you don’t take it, a hundred other PhDs are queuing up for the exact same position. By obtaining your PhD, you make yourself irrelevant to any useful job in the world, so your options are indeed limited. You have to take whatever you can: a four-month assistant research fellowship in the Department of Snootiness.

Take it and move right out of the country. Fulfil the contractual obligation while working online. If you do the same job, slaving away doing the exact same research, but you are in Nicaragua smoking an enormous cigar and drawing inspiration from the derrière of the ladies passing by, that makes a big difference to your mental well-being.

Volcano steaming in Nicaragua

The joys of working as an academic in the 21st century: I could reply emails from the dean while climbing to this volcano.

Little novelty lies in this model: the concept of being a digital nomad has been around for years. Academic research jobs are perfect candidates to have an income while travelling incessantly. If you do quantum physics simulations on a supercomputer, it does not matter whether you are sitting next to the installation, or half-way across the globe. If you are hunting for similar genome sequences in samples of bacteria from the bottom of the Pacific, those sequences care very little whether they are analysed in the US or in Mauritania. Moreover, since you spent your entire life as a student, you do not have belongings anyway, so you can easily reduce your stuff to a backpack, and start roaming the world.

Discipline makes a difference. If you pulled it through graduate school in a finite number of years, you probably have what it takes. No matter how exciting the city outside is, you must sit and work every day, otherwise you will not get anything done. No papers will be written, no code will be put online, no talks will be prepared, and so on. Academia is transparent: if you do not work, your research will not be visible, and you will vanish. Pursuing an open model of scholarship is good practice: put all your papers, manuscripts, preprints, talks, code, algorithms, technical notes online. Maintain discipline, maximize visibility, and you will make a splendid location-independent researcher.

Cruise ship docking in St Lucia.

I heard rumours from fellow nomads that working from the controlled environment of a cruise ship leads to high productivity. I am yet to try it.

Living at exciting places is just half of the fun. Paul Erdős pioneered the idea of a full-time nomadic scholar. He showed up at a potential co-author’s door with his suitcase in hand, announced that his mind was open, and moved in until they hatched a paper. He had 511 joint authors during his prolific life.

I love this idea, and sometimes I get invited to larger research institutions to join them for a short visit, usually for two to three months. My semi-permanent affiliation is with a tiny university, where I spent a total of six days being physically there. It is great fun to join decent institutions for a while even just to see the difference. I lack the talent of Erdős, but I love having an office every now and then, and I also love exploring a wide range of research domains.

A colourful institution in The Hague.

Join colourful institutions whenever you can.

Ideally, this model leads to extended research collaborations and a heap of papers published. The reality is different. Initially, I do not understand a thing of the research I join, and I try desperately to catch up with developments of the field. Then, just as I develop a grasp, my visa expires. I am forced to leave with work half-finished, a manuscript half-submitted, and promises for future work half-made. I cannot be reborn as someone talented, so I have to put up with my limits. Once a fun work environment ejects me, I move on to a more relaxing country to enjoy life.

Overall I would not change a thing in my work arrangement. Finish your PhD. Take the lousiest academic job. Then enjoy the greatest benefit of academia: freedom.

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