Dual Careers, One Academic

I’ve seen a lot written and discussed about the so-called “two body problem”, as universities take on the challenge of dual career couples coming into a new position. It’s a particularly important issue in my field, as the majority of married women in it are married to men in the field. The problem is that I’m not one of them, as I married someone who’s career is outside of academia.

I’ve been writing recently about the different challenges I’m facing as I’m preparing to make the post doc to faculty transition (hopefully!), and this is a challenge that I rarely see or hear discussed. My spouse’s career is starting to take off at the same time that mine is, and I’m worried that a cross-country (or out of country) move will significantly affect his work. We’re going to have to make some significant and hard decisions if my current batch of applications returns with interviews and offers. Who’s career takes precedent? Which ever choice we make, how does the other start over again? If I stay in academia, what resources are available to help my non-academic spouse get settled in a new location where we don’t know anyone outside of the university? I gladly welcome any of your thoughts and experiences on these questions in the comments.

The academic career process leaves me frustrated with what I think is a big underlying issue that pushes many qualified and talented people out of the field: we’re expected to move far too often. You’re expected to go to grad school at a different location than undergrad. It’s looked down if you do your post doc where you did your grad research. The lack of job security as a post doc is made worse by institutions wanting to bring in outside talent instead of finding a space for the post docs that they’ve trained. It’s another instance of loving the work, but hating the culture of academia.

22 thoughts on “Dual Careers, One Academic

  1. Thank you for writing this! I’m in the exact same position as you are. The other compounding issue in this whole thing is that most of the time your non-academic spouse is making at least double the salary you are by the time you’ve done grad school and a postdoc, and that most high-powered nonacademic jobs can only be found in a few major US cities. I think that this is way more of a problem than having 2 academics in a relationship as there are tons of Universities in towns with no jobs but for those at the University.

    But then again, the grass is always greener…

  2. From my (limited) experience thus far being the ‘trailing partner’ — the resources for the partner at universities are often better suited for nonacademic partners. The office here in charge of helping new hires & their partners with transitions has better connections to introduce folks to industry & staff positions at neighboring institutions than TT or teaching lines. Do any of the schools/institutions you’re looking at have offices that help with those connections / belong to regional consortia that help partners connect with employers?

  3. For what it’s worth, Dualitea, I was quite happy to see your post on this topic because I’ve been in this same boat myself for the 14 years I’ve been a professor! I have always not only earned much more than my husband, but am the only source of healthcare coverage in our family–what the sociologists call “reverse traditional”. I suspect different couples’ solutions will differ based on what the nonacademic person’s line of work is. In our case, my husband is a professional musician (classical), which has had some wonderful upsides, and some awful downsides, each “side” requiring a good deal of negotiation and planning. On the one hand, he is super portable. On the other hand, as a nonacademic with an extremely specialized line of work that might as well BE academic in terms of the potential venues, he can’t ever assume there will be jobs where we move. Finally, nobody ever seems to have resources for, or even think about, the nonacademic spouse. It is always pretty much assumed that as a nonacademic male, my husband must of course just be magically finding work and needs no assistance whatsoever. The gender issues in this space are crazy.

  4. I am an academic, but my partner is not. He started his career in a different city while I started my M.Sc. where we had both done our undergrad degrees. When I completed my M.Sc. two years later, his career was just starting to take off. At that time we had a very clear conversation and negotiated which career would take precedence when. I agreed to move to his city to complete my Ph.D. which would allow him to continue his career advancement. We agreed that when it came time for me to do a post-doc, then he would leave his job to be the “trailing spouse”. We both held up our end of the bargain. When it came time for me to look for a tenure-track job, we again negotiated the geographical limits for where I would look based on his career prospects, but were fortunate that many institutions fell within that radius. A few things that I think are important: 1) Being honest with yourself and your spouse about what you both really want in terms of a successful career, 2) Each partner being willing to really put the career of their spouse first for agreed upon periods of time (i.e. each person gets a turn), 3) An equitable partnership in which it is recognized that each person is bringing gains to the household that are not just financial. Ours was a practical and pragmatic approach and doesn’t sound romantic, but it was an effective strategy for us. What really made it possible is that my partner launched his own business and became an entrepreneur just as I was finishing my Ph.D. which afforded us maximum geographical flexibility.

  5. For what it’s worth, Dualitea, I was quite happy to see your post on this topic because I’ve been in this same boat myself for the 14 years I’ve been a professor! As the previous two replies indicate, mileage varies tremendously here. I suspect different couples’ solutions will differ based on what the nonacademic person’s line of work is. I have always not only earned much more than my husband, but am the only source of healthcare coverage in our family–what the sociologists call “reverse traditional”. In our case, my husband is a professional musician (classical), which has had some wonderful upsides, and some awful downsides, each “side” requiring a good deal of negotiation and planning. On the one hand, he is super portable. On the other hand, as a nonacademic with an extremely specialized line of work that might as well BE academic in terms of the potential venues, he can’t ever assume there will be jobs where we move. Finally, nobody ever seems to have resources for, or even think about, the nonacademic spouse. It is always pretty much assumed that as a nonacademic male, my husband must of course just be magically finding work and needs no assistance whatsoever. The gender issues in this space are crazy.

  6. It turns out moving with anything more than boxes of books and a small houseplant is complicated (and I agree that the expectation that we move every few years is not helping increase diversity in academia).

    In my case, my non-academic spouse’s job is mobile, but he travels a lot, so I limited my academic job search to places relatively close to a major airport. Other folks I know have been more or less limited by their spouses’ careers – some to only one city, some to only cities of a certain size, some must be near the ocean, etc.

    One thing to think about is depending on the university (but more likely if it’s big), there are often lots of connections to non-academic organizations, and the people who want to hire you will do their best to help if you let them know the issue (I’ve seen this happen several times). If your spouse works in tech, biotech, law, natural resource management, accounting, HR, etc, it’s likely that someone will know someone who knows someone who’ll help them find a job. Who makes what compromises is, of course, a tough decision no matter how you approach it and will depend on the specifics of your offer(s). Good luck!

  7. I am in the same situation as you — and I agree that the resources, discussions, help and community around the two-bodied problem left me feeling like my problem was harder, and my own. I’ve always said that the culture of moving in academia is much more challenging for women with non-academic husbands than the other possible permutations. My husband has now moved cross-country and out-of-country 4 times for my career. Our last move was for my TT-position (I started 3 years ago). Each time, we have found very little support for him (either in terms of practical support or sense of community). If you do negotiate for any offers this job-season, I encourage you to meet with a human resources department that could help with work/relocation for your husband. At my institution the ADVANCE office (through the NSF initiative) has a new plan to help negotiate work for spouses, academic or non. At the negotiation stage (ie. after an offer), I suggest you specifically discuss your spouses’ work/relocation options with your chair/dean/etc. I did not do this, and I regret it. Best of luck!

  8. This is really tough! I was in a similar situation, except that my husband’s (then boyfriend) career was on hold in many ways until we got landed for my job. I guess that means that we prioritized my job, but we didn’t necessarily think of it that way. When we went house/apartment hunting, he also began meeting with some local companies to put out feelers. He worked for a non-campus/university company for a year and has since begun working at the university (not in a professor-ish role). It took a ton of time and networking to get him in the university system, so if you (or anyone reading this) has a partner who could do a job in the university setting, work hard to get this dealt with during the negotiation process. His job at the university is a perfect fit for him, and it is so much more flexible than any non-university job (as far as daily hours and vacation time, in particular). We would have immediately negotiated for him to get some help within the university if we knew there was a job that fit him. I would be happy to discuss this in greater deal if you would like.

  9. Yes, on all of this! I’ve been faculty for three years, and am married to a PhD who is now works in software engineering. We met a few weeks after my postdoc, so we’ve only done one big move so far. I think the perception is that software engineering is highly portable, and in a way it is, but he definitely made career sacrifices to follow me for this faculty job. The particular type of software engineering he is most interested in does not exist in our area. So far, he’s worked around that issue by arranging to telecommute cross-country for his job, but I don’t think that’s a good permanent solution. (Fortunately he’s the type of person who is able to work well from home and not go insane, but he’d definitely prefer to be in an office with other humans.) He also had to give up his increasing managerial responsibilities in the company when we moved, since it’s hard to manage people from thousands of miles away. He likes coding, but he was also enjoying dabbling in management, not to mention the perks and increased salary that tend to come with it.

    I like the idea of “taking turns,” although in our relationship this might well be our one big move. I tried hard to communicate that my attitude about this move was “I recognize that you are making career sacrifices for my benefit, and if this doesn’t work, then we will figure out another solution, because you are more important to me than my job.” So far it’s worked out OK, but I want him to know that that offer is open indefinitely. If I don’t get tenure, he gets to take the reins on where we go next. If I do get tenure… well, we’ll probably stay here, and he’ll probably ultimately move into a less-optimal software job, and I’ll probably feel guilty about it forever. We’re working on adding kids to the mix (I’m due in February), and that will inevitably change the calculus as well.

    It’s not an easy problem, and I think you’re right that dual academic couples unfairly get most of the air time on these sorts of discussions.

  10. I agree that the academic career process is rather difficult, however I’m not convinced it’s particularly unique. Many professions require movement for career advancement, suffice to say they might not be as proscribed as the academic path. I sympathize with all the moves though. I ultimately decided not to pursue a TT job because I thought it would take too many more post-doc moves to make myself competitive. Even off the academic path my wife and I moved several times for my career. Ultimately because my earnings meant that she didn’t need to work unless she wanted to, but we didn’t need a dual income. For better or worse who we followed was whoever could make more money. She’s a teacher and been able to find rewarding positions wherever we’ve gone. But in the end cold economic calculus drove our decision process.

  11. I’m the non-academic person in my relationship, and my husband is in a Ph.D. and leaning towards academia. But, since I have a Ph.D. and work in a very specialized field, there are only a handful of cities where I could find work. My husband will have to go on the market in the small subset of cities where everyone else wants to work, and I feel incredibly guilty about that, not least because he put his career on hold for me while I finished my degree. On the other hand, I make multiples of his grad student salary, and that would be the case even if he lands a TT position – it’s hard to argue that I should completely drop my career for his when I’m paying the bills!.

    Anyway, haven’t found our solution to this yet, but it sucks. The assumption of unlimited academic mobility hurts partners both within academia and on the industry side.

  12. You’ll find different advice out there on level of openness in academic job searches. But, I’d encourage you to be open with the department chair (at least) about your specific needs in helping with a job search for your spouse. More feelers early in the process can make a difference, and requests pertaining to spouses are pretty normal these days in academia. If your spouse’s job prospects are a potential deal breaker for you with a university, then you should give them the opportunity to help solve that problem.

  13. I’m so glad to see a post on this topic. I’m facing this exact situation for the first time — I met my partner in my Ph.D. city, where she has a thriving job and community, and I’m close to accepting an outstanding postdoc offer in a new, more expensive city. Our current plan is to do long-distance for the first year, but it makes me sad that she’ll likely be the one who ends up having to move, just because this great career step for me happens to be two states away. We’re doing our homework about possibilities in the new city; I just feel bad because where this move represents new training and opportunities to me (and I’m fine with moving in general MUCH more than she is), to her it represents everything she’s potentially giving up for the sake of a relatively new relationship.

    To get super-hypothetical, we’re also worried that subsequent moves -will- all be for my career and that she won’t end up getting a “turn.” If I’m still committed to academia by the end of my postdoc, I’m not sure what I can promise beyond accounting for her preferences when applying for TT jobs, or by being competitive enough to have some choice over where we eventually land.

    In any case, it’s really good to read about everyone else’s experiences, and I like the suggestions to enlist the help of new colleagues for partner relocation options. Like everyone is saying, the necessity of moving for academia is not in anybody’s control, and that realization does help with the guilt somewhat. Thank you all for sharing.

  14. Totally sympathise. My other half is a senior administrator in the University I did my PhD in (very inexpensive city), with a permanent, well-paid contract, and now I’m a post-doc wioth a short term contract at a University a 4.5 hour train ride away in the second most expensive city in the country. Moving for that just wasn’t sensible. Luckily my PI is very supportive. I get up early on a tuesday and head down, come home thursday night, do monday and friday at home. Most of my money goes on the commute. The hardest part is being away from our 1 year old three days a week, (sob) so my husband also does the bulk of childcare. He’s uncomfortable moving until I have a permanent position, because there is no support to help him move, that’s only for academic staff. But we knew this would happen: when I started my PhD we set out some terms – for example, I agreed not to look overseas for a job, because he won’t move that far, and he’s happy being primary carer. But it’s still really hard, and it can be very frustrating: it feel like our lives are always on hold. We’d like a second child, but it’s not feasible around the commute. We’d like to move to a larger house, but we don’t know what we’re going to do when my contract ends next year, and so on…
    So I have no advice, only sympathy for others in that position. Although I will say clear communication, and a realistic understanding of likely prospects is key to surviving.

  15. Important post – This is a genuine problem, though as others have said probably not unique to academia. I’m the academic in our family, my partner is not, but is a professional in a consultancy environment, which required much more job movement than me. We’ve been lucky – despite holding probably 15 jobs or more between us in 20 years, we haven’t moved house. On the other hand, it is only partly luck – we live in Europe, where distances are much shorter, and though we have not moved house, between us we have worked in 6 different cities (including the one we live in- close to the rail station) in that time.
    Again, we had the conversation – that is the key. Where can we settle and retain maximum flexibility, because we knew we were both in professions where some mobility would be necessary.

    Have the conversation and understand what your non-negotiables are.

  16. I’m looking for my second Post Doc right now and am in the same position.
    My boyfriend has a non-academic job in the city where I did my PhD and where his family lives. Right now we are having a long distance relationship between two european countries, but my next job might be in america so we need to figure it out.
    In the past he wouldn’t move for a great job for himself so I’m really worried that he might never want to move. In one conversation I brought up that I might give up academia to be together, but he said he would never want me to do that for him. And he is right, if I gave up on academia for him I might end up regretting it and resenting him for it.
    But I don’t want to forever have a long distance relationship either :/
    Sorry for whining here, but it’s something that none of my friends understands and that needed out.

  17. I was in the same position. I don’t know your field so YMMV, but you might be surprised at the level of support various universities can offer to place non-academic spouses (from personal connections to HR policies to actual organizational support multiple levels). Anecdotally, I found that schools in smaller cities were actually more organized about this than those in larger metro areas, because they know it’s a problem for them in recruiting and retention. I was open about the existence of my partner and his job needs at every interview, because I wasn’t about to move to a place where he couldn’t find work, and if they didn’t want to hire me because of his existence, well, that was a good piece of information to have. Additionally, this sort of thing requires lead time, both for academic and non-academic partners: if you wait until you have an offer in hand to mention a need to place your spouse, your prospective department has VERY little time to try to line something up for you.

    Now, again, YMMV: I am really lucky, in many ways. I had multiple offers. My spouse has very portable skills (software engineering) and was very flexible. That said, although you didn’t ask for relationship advice/it’s certainly none of my business, the part of your post that really caught my attention was:

    “We’re going to have to make some significant and hard decisions if my current batch of applications returns with interviews and offers. Who’s career takes precedent? Which ever choice we make, how does the other start over again?”

    Acknowledging that it’s anecdata and that everyone’s relationship is different: One thing that I hypothesize made my dual-career situation somewhat easier to navigate is that we talked about it, early and often. I’m talking second date, here. This meant that we didn’t have to worry about who was doing what with their career and under which circumstances: We laid it out before I applied. Of course, we still had decision points to deal with when it came down to the actual choice, but we knew our collective goals/dealbreakers. On the other hand, I know couples where they actually got the coveted two-body position and one of them declared it “not good enough”, which is basically my personal relationship horror story/nightmare…

  18. My spouse is also a non-academic. I am fortunate that, at the time we were making career decisions and moving (cross-country US moves…twice), his career was portable (he works in the software industry, and at the time was a consultant who worked out of our house). I second what clegoues said: we started talking about the career question when we started seriously dating, and continued to talk about it until I landed my TT position. What worked for us: he agreed to be the trailing spouse (again, his job being portable made this possible), I agreed to give him heavy input into geographic location. Ironically, though, we ended up in a city which he initially vetoed! (Both our careers are now thriving, so it was definitely the right move for both of us.) I also agree with everyone who suggested asking about resources for spouses on the interview—the 2 schools I ended up considering offers from both offered resources to help my spouse get established in that city.

    Best of luck to you!

  19. The needs for moves, as academics is currently structured, was the important info I always thought I needed to give undergrads/beginning students who were talking to me about career advice. It is a fact of academia that a number of moves are nearly necessary (nearly because some people do manage otherwise, but they are a minority and the stability often comes at a career cost). And, non-academics have their own portability constraints, career-wise (even excluding family/friend/personal constraints).

  20. Pingback: CAA News | College Art Association » Blog Archive » News from the Art and Academic Worlds | CAA

  21. Dualitea,

    I personal know how difficult this type of situation can be. The solution needs to fit your own situation. In my case, my husband (a non-academic) and I (an academic) have experienced a long, long-distance relationship in order to have great careers, which has led to a unique relationship with definite advantages and drawbacks.

    At the same time I put my first acceptance letter in the mail for a tenure-track position my husband of only a month put his acceptance letter in the mail for the position he still has today. The jobs were over 1000 miles apart, neither in a major airline hub city. At least I have been able to schedule all of my courses on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and he works an alternative schedule that gives him every other Friday off. One of our major goals is to not go more than three weeks without a long weekend together. Fast forward seventeen year—we still work in different states. While he is in the same job, I left my first tenure-track position, not because of the distance, but because it was not a good fit (unethical activities were going on in the department). After working in a temporary, part-time position for two years—still in a different state, but which allowed me to spend more time at home, I took another tenure-track position, this time 2,200 miles and two time zone away. It was a perfect position for me except for two significant things—lots of snow and no jobs within 100 miles in my husband’s field (for some reason he did not want to milk cows). I stayed in the position for ten years until the airline consolidations made the cross-country commute too difficult and stressful to do. Several years ago, I change institutions and took a tenured position significantly closer to him, but still in a different state. There were several direct flights a day and the city was home to a major corporation in my husband’s field. Since that time, those direct flights have vaporized and my husband is still in his original position. (I don’t blame him as he had a very cool and desirable job.) So we are back into a situation not all that different than before, although minus the snow.

    So what are the pluses and minuses of our situation? While we have made being apart work for us, we have had to make sacrifices. We do not have children, but we have a great marriage. We really treasure our time together. We always have things to talk about. In fact, we talk every evening on the phone when we are apart. This forces us to discuss things that might otherwise be lost in the shuffle. I complete a great deal of schoolwork and research on the days we are apart (It helps that I don’t see him surfing the web or watching TV when I am putting in 70-hour weeks desperately attempting to finish a publication or preparing for my next class.) We have two households, which means that we are often dealing with the hassles and stress of home security, lawn care, etc. of empty houses. We also have to deal with the airlines in an era when customer service is an unknown concept in that field. The commuting can be really stressful, especially when airlines start canceling or rescheduling your flights on you, or you have to drive in a snowstorm to make it to the airport in time. (Somehow in all of the years of commuting across country, I never missed a class!) I did learn early on to work on planes and treasure my quiet time on long layovers when no one can easily bother me. My research library is in at least three different locations (my school office and two home offices)—how hard does one want to look for a needed book or article when you don’t even remember what state it is in! One of the major pluses to our relationship is that during the summers we often travel together (he’s a great sherpa). We have visited over fifty countries. His company let him take over four months off last year while we literally traveled around the world. They paid his benefits for three of those months! (I can’t really fault him for not wanted to give up his current position.) Yes there have been sacrifices, but we both have incredible careers and lives. Maybe they are not in a traditional balance, but we have found our equilibrium just the same.

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