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Suppose one is happy at one's institution until something happens that makes it impossible to stay given one's strong ideological beliefs. Is it a good idea to mention these beliefs if they are the main reason for wanting to move?

For example:

  1. "Why do you want to study at this university?" Because this university is in Russia and I approve of Putin's actions as President.
  2. "You've worked at this institution for 10 years. Why do you want to leave now?" Because it's in the UK and after the Brexit referendum, I no longer feel welcome here.

Nothing special about these examples; one could equally have "I want to leave Russia because I disapprove of Putin's actions as President" etc.

I tag this with "academic life" because it could apply to any decision to move.

  • There's always a possibility that even a reasonable position based on personal experience someone will take to heart. – Alexey B. Mar 14 '18 at 2:03
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    Mentioning it to whom? Are you asking whether it is a good idea to mention it to the new institution (as assumed in some of the existing answers), or are you asking whether it is a good idea to explain to your current institution why you are leaving? – Mårten W Mar 14 '18 at 9:45
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    @MårtenW, both, and to anyone else who might ask. – Allure Mar 14 '18 at 10:29
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    "Is it a good idea..." This probably depends on the specific circumstances. I think this question might be a bit too broad and should specify more the possible contexts. – Trilarion Mar 14 '18 at 11:15
  • Political/ideological reasons can differ a lot and be infinitely complex. "I'm leaving because the war has started and I'm gonna die" - that one happened many times over the course of history – Arthur Tarasov Mar 15 '18 at 1:02
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I’ve found that, in general, scientists tend to be quite accepting of political or ideological motives as factors in career decisions. To some extent, this will even be true if they disagree with your politics.

That said, the cases you present obviously differ, and thus will engender different degrees of acceptance: the first case takes a strong, political, affirmative stance about something that doesn’t affect you personally. Whereas the second affects you directly.

To illustrate using a more direct comparison, consider these two statements:

  1. I don’t want to work in the US because, as a muslim, I no longer feel welcome.
  2. I don’t want to work in the US because I disapprove of the Trump administration.

Most (all?) reasonable people will accept (1) as a valid reason. Many (in Europe) will also accept (2) but it’s unarguably much more divisive (I speak from personal experience): even people who agree with you politically might not agree with such a decision.

Here’s another example: a former colleague turned down a position at a very prestigious institute (in favour of a much less prestigious one) because it would have meant working with stem cells, which she opposed on ethical grounds. I and others strongly disagree with her reasoning but we never had a problem accepting it, and it hasn’t impacted our impression of her as a researcher.

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A political or ideological answer, albeit honest, is usually a missed opportunity to make a point about the move being a good academic fit.

Your goal as the candidate in this kind of exchange is not just to answer the questions accurately; it's to answer the questions accurately while also trying to convince the committee that you are the right person for the position. Virtually any question can be used to make a point about how excited you are about the institution you'd like to move to, how much you can contribute given your past experience, etc. A political answer doesn't usually help you "sell" yourself.

For example:

  1. Why do you want to study at this university? "Because I'm really interested in the work Professor Twist is doing on basket weaving in extreme underwater conditions."
  2. Why do you want to leave your current institution? "Because I am looking to gain expertise in the hot new field of basket weaving in extreme underwater conditions, and your faculty are the best in the world in that area, while my current institution doesn't have anyone working in this field." Or "Because I am really interested in working with Professor Twist, I think that with my background in freshwater basket weaving I could contribute to her research in an exciting way."

So even a completely non-controversial political or ideological reason is not necessarily the best reason to use in answer to this kind of question.

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    What if the political or ideological reason is the only reason for moving? E.g. Alice is a graduate student at a Russian university, and she's happy right up until Russia annexed Crimea. Afterwards she finds it impossible to study in Russia anymore because of her strong political beliefs. Presumably her only option then is to transfer, and she cannot say "you do this topic better than my current institution" because her current institution is also good at her research topic. Will edit this into the original question. – Allure Mar 14 '18 at 3:25
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    @Allure Presumably there is a reason she picked the institution currently asking her this question, over all the other institutions that are not in Russia. Answering with that (academic) reason makes the most of this opportunity to "sell" her application, answering with the political reason is often a waste of that opportunity. – ff524 Mar 14 '18 at 3:28
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    Thanks for answer. Follow up question: is it a good idea to mention this if pressed? For example, "you've worked at this institution for 10 years. Why the desire to move now?" – Allure Mar 14 '18 at 4:00
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    What good does an "academic fit" give you, if the country's politics quite clearly tell 'you', that you are not wanted there? (Pretty much the feeling one gets/got as a European in the UK...) - You might have a great department/colleagues, but those don't help if the government keeps telling you that you should leave and aren't wanted in the country. - While I agree on the idea of an academic fit for wanting to move to a place, I don't see how this is always applicable when leaving a place. – DetlevCM Mar 14 '18 at 7:20
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    @DetlevCM Then in this case you're not applying in the UK, you're applying elsewhere, and you can find reasons for why you're a good fit in where you're applying (which is not in the UK). You can always find a way to answer "why are you leaving" by "I want to come to you" instead of "I want to leave where I'm now". – user9646 Mar 14 '18 at 9:32
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ff524 has covered the question from the angle of a PhD student hire, I will discuss it from the angle of (senior) faculty hires, which I think are slightly different in that regard.

If you have already, as you say, 10 years faculty at an institution you are presumably tenured there. When you then apply elsewhere, an undercurrent of the entire application process will be

"How do we know you really want to accept a potential offer, and not just negotiate with your home university?".

Topical fit as mentioned by ff524 is important, but not really a convincingly strong reason in that regard. A political answer may actually be stronger here, if convincing to the committee. Your Brexit example may, for instance, be convincing enough, as you can link it to reduced funding possibilities and potentially job security problems for your spouse. The Putin example - well, maybe it's helpful if the committee is full of die-hard Putin fans as well, but that one is more iffy as it does not so strongly impact academic life.

Obviously, a political answer that goes against the belief system of the committee is never going to help you. To use a recent loaded example, in most left-leaning universities arguing that you would really like to move to the US because the US, unlike your European home, allows you to buy a semi-automatic weapon with relative ease, is neither a convincing reason for a move nor will it strike brownie points on an emotional level with many faculty members.

So to summarize:

Suppose one is happy at one's institution until something happens that makes it impossible to stay given one's strong ideological beliefs. Is it a good idea to mention these beliefs if they are the main reason for wanting to move?

Yes, if (a) the reason will appear to be a "big thing" to most people, (b) the committee is likely to share your view, and (c) it can be linked to impacting your academic life.

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Context: I am from Czech Republic, where high tier positions, including academia, were strongly influenced or directly managed by the government fully controlled by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Usually, one needed to be member of the Party to get the position (in some cases it was the only requirement).

You first example will seem odd to me. One seldom decide an instution because of the political system of the target country. The "pros" are usually more broad than the "cons" to say "I have chosen this perticullar institution because of the political system here."

On the other hand the second example you gave, is in "my" context acceptable reason to leave. There is a political change you are not willingfull to accept and you don't find a way how to live with that change. Reasoning that you can no more accept the backgroud you were living in for years is acceptable as well, it may trigger two questions: "Why did you decide it is enough for you at this moment?" and "What did keep you there agains your beliefs for so long?"

There were 3 waves of political exodus in Czechoslovakia in the last century. 1938, when Protektorät Böhmen un Mähren was estabilished, 1948 after communist putch and 1968 after the Soviet invasion terminating the loosen rule of the Communist Party here.

The decision to leave the position after X years of working there doesn't need to be triggered by the change in the country government. The change of the rector, dean or department head is also acceptable reason for a change. Outside the academia, the company merger is also acceptable reason to leave when you do not accept the buyer's policy.

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    I agree it's a little far-fetched to choose an institution because of the political system of the target country, but it's plausible to me that a person would say "I want to work in this country because of the political system here, and yours is the best institution in the country for my research interests". – Allure Mar 14 '18 at 21:52
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    To back up @Allure’s point, there seems to be a general love for academic positions in the Scandinavian world predominantly not because of a reputation for academic excellence (though that may also exist) but specifically because of the political system, and the liberties it entails. – Konrad Rudolph Mar 15 '18 at 9:48
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    That's the point. "I want to work at your university because it is based in my dreamland, period" seems odd to me. "I want to work at your university because it is based in my dreamland and I am interested in one of the fields you cover." seems legit. Yes, your primary filter is a dreamland-based workplaces. It is not the only filter though; you apply another one - field match, sallary, benefits, etc. – Crowley Mar 15 '18 at 11:12
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Once you take it to the extreme, the answer will become an obvious yes. Take for example the position of some medical researchers in Nazi Germany.

Meaning that it is acceptable. However, some issues might be seen by others as too small to be of importance, or a bit odd. And of course, your reasons might upset someone else who has a different opinion on a topic, such as the two sides of your Putin example.

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  • Indeed, Professor Einstein was on a 2 month visiting appointment when the NAZIs came to power. He lost his position due to new laws against Jewish professors. He was just one of many and these things continue to happen in modern times. – emory Mar 14 '18 at 21:05
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tl;dr: 1. Don't tell your superiors nor HR. 2. Consider staying and being politically active.

Suppose one is happy at one's institution until something happens that makes it impossible to stay given one's strong ideological beliefs.

Are you sure it's impossible to stay - or is it impossible to stay and not get highly active in trying to influence surrounding society? If you've lived someplace long enough, if you've set down some roots, if you feel it's important to you, perhaps you should stay and struggle.

In my public/political activities, especially within academia (mostly union business), I was very exasperated at people who agreed with us just leaving or withdrawing.

For the rest of this answer, suppose that you're leaving and it's final.

Is it a good idea to mention these beliefs if they are the main reason for wanting to move?

Faculty-management relations, and to a great extent even junior-researcher-tenured-senior-researcher relations are too confrontational in economic class terms for you to be committed to be forthcoming with them. Specific circumstances might differ, but - unfortunately - they're not your friends and are not committed to you and yours. Only tell them what they need to know.

As for personal acquaintances at work - now that's different; it depends on your specific relationship with each individual.

But of course - you could also go for the entirely-public option, if the reason you're leaving really pains you: Making a public statement at some faculty event, publishing an open letter to all faculty and local press, putting up posters as you leave etc. That's again if you think it'll have an effect and are willing to burn some bridges.

Now for your examples:

"Why do you want to study at this university?" Because this university is in Russia and I approve of Putin's actions as President.

Bad example, not buying this at all. I mean, if you said this, people would assume, and be right, that you're just giving them a bad lie, or rather, that you're not willing to tell them the truth and are mocking them instead. Now, that's irrespective of whether you approve of Putin's presidency or not; people who do would not move to Russia because of it. So I'm ignoring this example.

one could equally have "I want to leave Russia because I disapprove of Putin's actions as President" etc.

That wouldn't be convincing either. If you were worried about some specific actions of the Putin-led government, that's something else, but this sounds like a lie. Plus, Putin has been in power forever, and you've just decided that bothers you? ...

"You've worked at this institution for 10 years. Why do you want to leave now?" Because it's in the UK and after the Brexit referendum, I no longer feel welcome here.

Yeah, so this is exactly what I was talking about. Try: "It has been 10 years - a full decade! I feel I need a change in my life - I'm too settled into my routine." Or tell them it's for personal reasons relating to your family, and say you'd rather not discuss the details. Or whatever works. Better not to lie, either; just list other priorities that weigh in favor of leaving.

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    It's surprising to me you find the Putin example unbelievable. I can genuinely imagine someone who wants to do that (e.g. Artem Oganov quoted above). There could be all sorts of factors, e.g. "Putin's high approval rates implies Russia approves of Putin, and I approve of Putin, so I approve of Russia". Similarly I can imagine people wanting to move to France because of how Emmanuel Macron invited US climate scientists over. Same goes for leaving a country - I know someone who left Burma because of military rule, for example (this was decades ago). – Allure Mar 14 '18 at 21:46
  • @Allure: Approving of Russia is fine, as is approving of Putin (I mean, I don't, but it's fine as a rhetorical point) - but nobody would make that a reason for moving to Russia, or into an academic institute in Russia. What Artem Oganov said is completely different: He went back because his country/state is besieged and beleaguered by US imperialism, and he's going to back to hold the fort and help his countrymen. That's nothing like what you wrote - and is quite believable, even understandable, and probably safe to state (since it's not hostile to his current environment). – einpoklum Mar 14 '18 at 22:31
  • I have completely different point of view, maybe because of completely different expirience. Totalitarian system, Putin's rule in Russia seem to fit to several descriptions of totality, are lethal to intelligent people. Their loyalty to the ruler is not guaranteed and are not as easy to manipulate as Average Joe. Also people with high moral standards are to be elliminated as soon as possible so they cannot undermine the Ruler's power over public decision making. – Crowley Mar 14 '18 at 23:14
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    @Crowley: I was summarizing Oganov's position, not stating mine. This is not the place to debate Russian politics... – einpoklum Mar 14 '18 at 23:36
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    I'm not sure if you have lived in the UK, but Brexit is/was indeed a trigger for people to leave. There wasn't such an open anti-EU mood prior to about 2010 and after that, it was mainly a slow gradual process that kept getting worse until 'Brexit happened'. - And that is the kind of even that can make on switch from "I can sort of live here" to "what the hell am I doing here if the country hates me?". – DetlevCM Mar 15 '18 at 8:11
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Both of the examples you give in your post involve ideological dispositions in relation to the country a university is located in, rather than the nature of the particular university itself. I would think the more common case where this would be relevant would be where an academic holds to a political ideology that is either welcome or unwelcome in the particular university (e.g., if a university has a strong political culture that is either consistent with or contradictory to the academic's beliefs).

Obviously you can prefer a particular university for all sorts of reasons, including it being welcoming to your political/ideological beliefs. There are many university departments (or entire universities) where a particular ideological culture holds sway, and it is not uncommon for people to self-select along ideological lines to some degree. Notwithstanding this, I think an interview panel would be unimpressed if this was a major reason for selecting their university - it might suggest that you are inhibited or unwilling to work in an environment where your own views are not the majority view.

In view of the examples you mention, it is also worth noting that if you were to state a preference for a particular university based primarily on the political conditions of the country it is located in (which might be at odds with the prevailing political ideology of the university), then this would be extremely foolish. Just imagine applying for a position in the sociology department at Berkeley and making a point of telling them, "I really want to work here in the US because I love Trump!"

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  • There were a lot of people who wanted to leave the US because Trump won the elections though, weren't there? There's also this case: nature.com/news/…. Quoting Artem Oganov, "I could never forgive myself if Russia needed me and I was not there." – Allure Mar 14 '18 at 6:35
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    Where there? Or were there a bunch of people who virtue-signal by saying they'll leave the country if he's elected, and then chicken-out when it actually happens. – Ben Mar 14 '18 at 7:09
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    @Ben more or less the same list of people who failed to follow though after the elections of 2000 and 2004 I assume. – Dan Is Fiddling By Firelight Mar 14 '18 at 13:53
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    @Ben There are people who virtual-signal, people who emigrate for reasons unrelated to Trump, and people who emigrate in opposition to Trump. I don't have any counts or know where to find counts, but there is no good reason to assume zero. The total emigrant count is definitely positive and these are mostly people you and I probably do not interact with. – emory Mar 14 '18 at 21:08
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    Maybe a large portion of people threatening to leave the US under Trump weren't serious about following through, but if you interview someone who quotes this exact reason, wouldn't that be implying that he/she is actually one of the people who were serious about leaving? – Allure Mar 14 '18 at 21:54

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