The two-body problem is a classical mechanics one, in which the motion of two interacting particles must be determined. I’m not a physicist, so I don’t know how hard it is to solve. In career terms, the two-body problem involves two partners, both with professional aspirations, trying to end up in close geographical proximity…so that they can live together, support each other, and maybe even raise a family. The career two-body problem is atrociously hard to solve exactly, but I’m convinced that approximations do exist. Unfortunately, those solutions may be somewhat unique to each set of
particles, errrr, people.
I believe that the two body problem is in no way unique to academia, but is pervasive for all sorts of couples where both have advanced training, skills, or licensures that limit them geographically. A boat captain coupled with an architect might have to eliminate the inland US from their search, for example. In academia, where a year in which a dozen jobs in your specialty are advertised is considered a pretty good year, the problem is simply intensified. If both partners are academics, it’s intensified to the nth degree.
While men and women are both affected by two-body problems, academic women are much more likely to be entangled by them. As reviewed by Wolfinger et al., 89% of female faculty members have full-time working spouses, while only 56% of male faculty members do. Similarly, female academics are more likely to be married to other academics than males are. I don’t have a citation at my fingertips right now, but I once heard in a seminar that something like 70% of women with STEM PhDs who are married are married to people with PhDs. For men, that number is much, much lower. Given those statistics, finding good, approximate solutions to dual career dilemmas is important for retaining women in academia.
So what do those approximate solutions look like? Let’s focus on the scenario where both partners would like to be in academia. (Note: A twitter conversation as I was preparing this blog post resulted in a number of anecdotes and perspectives. I storified it and I encourage you to check it out.
But first, the solution is NOT to discourage women from going to graduate school, apply to academic jobs, or have children. It is also NOT to give students unsolicited advice not to couple with other graduate students.
My sense is that in academia right now a lot of the solutions take careful negotiation and maneuvering on the part of the individuals involved, with only ad hoc institutional involvement. The story typically goes like this: Both partners go on the job market, probably loosening their job type and geographical preferences along the way. At some point, one of them gets a university interested, drops the bombshell of the academic partner, and negotiations commence. That’s pretty much how my story went, and we’ll come back to that in a bit.
There are some universities where official documents, even offices (!), exist to facilitate solutions. I’ve read some of these documents, and the ones I read are so nebulously worded as to make no commitment in any individual case, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. And some universities may be starting to see dual career couples as opportunities to recruit and retain not one, but two, excellent faculty members. As @ChemProfCramer pointed out, two body hires are also a guaranteed way to increase faculty diversity, since by definition you will not be getting two straight, white, males. Even in universities where no official policies exist, you may discover that two-body hires are not viewed entirely unfavourably among the administration, though that’s hard to know in advance. If you are a faculty member or administrator, I encourage you to find out whether your university has any policy or program with regard to dual career couples. If not, or if it is obviously inadequate, are there ways you can nudge your university? This post at the Women in Astronomy blog has a great discussion of *why* institutions should be concerned about two-body problems, and some suggestions about what they could do to improve them.
But back to the individually negotiated solutions that seem to be most common and which I recently went through. I think I’d break that process down into four stages.
The first stage was going on the job market, more broadly and more aggressively than I might have otherwise done. My partner did the same. Some locations and jobs that weren’t high on our wishlist got applied for, if it looked like there were strong possibilities for the other person. We also spent a lot of time discussing what would happen if one of us got a great offer, but we couldn’t negotiate an offer for the other person. Were there other universities in the area? Could we create a split position? Could one of us move into a (shudder) soft money position? Could the other person pursue their passion for writing? Were there teaching intensive or non-tenure track positions in that institution?
The second stage was the interview and offer. There is lot of different advice out there about when to reveal that you have an academic partner. For me, it made most sense to wait until I had the verbal offer, but other couples and/or other fields may work quite differently. Basically, I got a phone call with the job offer and responded that I’d love to accept the job, but that I had a partner in X field and I was concerned about relocating if there wasn’t a position for him as well. The person making me the offer asked a few questions, asked me to pass along my partner’s CV. Within a few days, an interview was being set up for my partner. In the meantime, I was asked to draw up a start-up budget request, etc.
The third stage was negotiation. This happened on two fronts simultaneously – with my old job and my new offer – and was definitely the most stressful part of the process. The new place succeed in bringing my partner in for an interview and verbally offering him a non-tenure track position, but with the intention of moving him into a tenure line, and the teaching load that would make such a move an actual prospect rather than an empty promise. This was one of the possibilities that my partner and I had been willing to accept, and the fact that we didn’t insist on a tenure-track position quite probably made it easier to get the second position at all. Now, we shall see whether my partner makes the jump in a few years, or whether prospects were empty promises after all. When I told my old job about the new offer, they too brought my partner in for an interview and made a similar offer to him. We knew that we preferred to the new offer, because of all the reasons I outlined in my previous post. But we didn’t want to lose the possibility of a partner position at my old job, in the event the new offer fell through or turned sour. Did I mention it was really, really stressful? Eventually, written offers came through for both my partner and I, we rejoiced, and then I had to break the news to my old boss.
The fourth stage is making it actually work. It is wonderful to be in the same city and to both have fulfilling jobs, but dual career families are never a walk in the park. We are also in different positions with respect to the tenure-track, resulting in different teaching loads, research expectations, and service responsibilities. My partner has it far harder, because he is trying to teach like the all-star non-tenure track teachers, in order to keep his current job secure, while doing enough grant and paper writing to show that he deserves to be on the tenure track in the future. Continually communicating about our high stress periods, like grant deadlines and early morning lectures, are how we are attempting to be respectful of each other’s different needs. Given the academic calendar though, there are times when we are both stressed and busy and neither of us has the bandwidth for life responsibilities outside of work (like a sick kid, home repairs, grocery shopping). On the longer timescale, there’s the uncertainty of my tenure decision and my partner’s conversion to tenure track that lend a slight air of instability to some of our conversations. I’ll get back to you in a few years with how those resolved, or didn’t. Then there’s the small frictions that come from interacting with the same people as your partner does. More than once I’ve had to say “You’ll have to talk to My Partner about that” in order to keep from being the messenger between a colleague or administrator and my partner. Relative to being a timezone or more apart, these are small things. But these they are the things that we will continue to work on and negotiate in the years ahead, and that will ultimately determine how good a solution to the two-body problem we have actually achieved.
My story is one approximate solution, but there are others. I’m lucky enough to know several other academic couples at my current university and even more couples at universities in other places. All of us are modeling to universities how successful hiring dual career couples can be in recruiting and retaining excellent and diverse faculty members. To borrow again from @ChemProfCramer, maybe over time, the two-body problem will come to be viewed as a two-body opportunity for both individuals and institutions.