“Solving” the Two-Body Problem

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. 

Jane Lubchenco (pictured) and Bruce Menge had a two body problem. Their approximate solution turned out pretty well for them, science, and the oceans. Click image for link to source.

Jane Lubchenco (pictured) and Bruce Menge had a two body problem. Their approximate solution turned out pretty well for them, science, and the oceans.

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.


39 thoughts on ““Solving” the Two-Body Problem

  1. I can’t help noticing the similarities in our stories. Like I commented in your previous post, I’ve also moved between tenure track positions. During that move, my physicist husband changed from a postdoc in my first university to another postdoc in a different institution than my second university, but in the same city. Moreover, he found the postdoc without any help from my university. The future didn’t look so good for his career given that my university didn’t move a sinlge finger to get him a job. But it is a big city full of opportunities…

    After a year and a half, a couple of tt positions opened in different institutions around the city. He did get a very good tenure track job and the university that hired him is happy to know that he’s here to stay.

    We very lucky, beyond lucky. We solved the two-body problem without institutional help. Sure, by the time he applied he had done a lot of networking around and people knew about him, but still, the university that hired him didn’t have any pressure to hire him (again, my university didn’t do anything). Moreover, I’m a pure mathematician, he’s an experimental physicist. The financial committment that my university did to hire me is nothing compared to the financial committment that his university did to hire him.

    So, here’s hoping that my fairy tale replicates to other people, including you.

  2. Thanks for sharing. I think you’ve got some good points, but where I (and my partner) differ is that we’re both women in academia. Does anyone have suggestions for what to do if you’re gay? How do you negotiate spousal hires (can you)? How do you reveal that to a hiring committee. It’s not a huge problem at the moment–she’s finishing her PhD and I’m working as an adjunct where I got my MA–but when we leave for me to start my PhD…. any suggestions?

    • Fantastic question, but I’m not sure I’m particularly well qualified to answer either based on experience or data. For general insights on being out on the tenure track, I highly recommend Gerty-Z at Balanced Instability (e.g., http://scientopia.org/blogs/gertyz/category/queer/page/2/). I can say that neither my old job or my new job cared whether we were legally married at the time the negotiations occurred. The relevant point was that we were partners and that being in the same place was one of the most salient points of the negotiation. For GLBTQ* people there are other issues to consider obviously, but at least the legal status of the partnership does not appear to be one of them.

    • I’m in a similar situation. But I happen to know these two, who were featured in a an article in Science:

      I asked Amy about it and she said that she interviewed at quite a few places and none of them even blinked. It was just a total non-issue. She treated it as if they were a straight couple and basically just said, “my partner is also on the job market,” etc. So basically, I don’t think you should have much of a problem, especially as many universities even in states that don’t recognize same sex marriage, do recognize domestic partnerships.

  3. Have you ever heard of an institution aiding in the job hunt for a recruit’s partner when the partner wasn’t in academia? i feel like when it’s a 2-academic couple, at least there’s some leverage there on the part of the person being recruited. But in my case, my husband isn’t an academic and so we just had to accept my offer and hope that he’d find a job here. Not sure if there’s a “solution” for this besides waiting to get lucky.

    • I think it is legitimately harder for the institution to offer help to a non-academic partner, because they can’t create a job in the same way. However, they should be able to allow the partner full use of their career services and local connections. I know of one university where that is formalized as the case for non-academic partners. And I also know an example where the negotiations included an administrative job for the partner. But, yeah, it’s hard.

    • I know *of* (never been involved) instances where this has happened, but each time it’s been in general ways, providing connections with opportunities at companies/institutes, or with head hunters for partner’s interest. There are many fewer guarantees, and I have no idea how well it works.

    • This kind of happened in my case, quite unexpectedly. I was negotiating two offers: one in my postdoc city, where DH had a great gig, and one across the country. During my interview at Across-the-Country U, some faculty [inappropriately] asked about DH’s occupation, probably just to see if they should prepare for the 2-body issue. I answered frankly, and as a result they went out of their way to introduce him to people who could help him find a job that would be a draw for him, too. He didn’t have an offer in hand when I accepted, but it was clear that the prospects were going to be good (and they were!). My husband’s field is completely unrelated to mine, though, so apart from making contacts, I don’t think there’s anything else they could have done.

      • I know that my current university has to handle this a lot (it’s very much a college town with not a lot of industry). It’s very similar as to how newbie’s handled it. The career services at the university does lots of introductions and circulating of the resume. I don’t know how successful the university is with this, though.

  4. Sometimes it happens; sympathetic Uni administrations, that is. In the early 1960s, the Australian National University (yes, here in backwater Downunder) was already a research university that scoured the world for excellent staff (many were expat Aussies, but that is another story not relevant here). At that time, they were just setting up as an undergraduate university as well, still looking for excellent staff. One of the most famous, and most wonderful teachers I had there in first year maths was Prof Hanna Neumann. Her husband Berhnard was a much-loved character around campus. He was in the research arm of the Uni, and Hanna in the undergrad arm. There were many stories that the University admin made a big effort to make sure there were positions for both, and in the end Hanna became the more noted academic of the pair. This is what I found in a biography of her: “The Neumanns moved to Australia in 1963 to take academic positions at the Australian National University. She was made chair of pure mathematics in 1964 and was dean of students between 1968 and 1969.”

    I have also been in departments where partners’ needs have been discussed when applications have been considered – everyone I knew understood the problem – but sometimes nothing at all could be done in a small, isolated campus – although individuals could try to make contacts.

    • I realise after posting this is an exceptional case, but i was just trying to illustrate that ‘sometimes’ university admins can be sympathetic to the two-body problem … .but as mentioned, you can’t tell in advance.

      All solutions in life are only approximate. Even now in retirement, I feel I’m living an approximate solution. And sometimes you have to work through what I call ‘phases’ in your life – working towards another phase in the future, the nature of which you do not know until it happens. Hope it works out well for most of you.

  5. Do you need to be anonymous to comment? I posted a few hours ago and it says that it’s still in moderation.

    Basically, what I asked was how does this apply when considering gay couples? My partner is finishing her PhD, I have my MA, and we plan to move for a temporary time while I get my PhD in awhile. But how do you work with the two-body problem when the state government might not recognize you? When do you come out in the hiring process?

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