Monday, August 16, 2010

Breathing Room

The Sunday Styles section of The New York Times yesterday has an essay by a woman who is part of a 2-career academic couple of English professors. Or, I should say that she was a part of an academic couple until her husband was denied tenure at his college, and thereafter reinvented himself (quite happily) in a career in "investing".

Most of the essay describes the history of this couple as an academic pair. Most of it sounds rather familiar, including that the couple spends some time living apart with jobs at different institutions until finally, luckily, they both get academic jobs near each other.

What also sounded familiar were the concerns of hiring committees and departments about the academic coupleness of these people. The author, Caroline Bicks, gets an interview for a position, but before the campus visit:

..a professor of mine confided that a member of the interview team had contacted him about my candidacy and asked, “Is the husband going to be a problem?”

The wife, however, does not seem to be a problem for the husband:

No one on his interview committees seemed to be sniffing around for info on his “problem” wife. Maybe they assumed that men put their careers first, or that women are less serious about theirs. It felt as if my wedding ring was a hurdle I had to clear to prove my commitment to academia, while Brendon’s was a badge of stability and good-guy gravitas.

Actually, that is different from my husband's experience back when we were applying and interviewing for jobs. He was asked about me at more than one interview. I was definitely seen as a potential problem. Hooray for equal-opportunity unethical questioning by hiring committees?

During her interviews, Bicks also made sure not to seem "too eager to have children any time soon."

I know other women have been asked directly about actual and potential children, but I was never asked about this during interviews. When some interviewers started talking to me about schools in the area, I wondered if they had ulterior motives, but in most cases I think they were people with families and were genuinely trying to give me useful information in case I got the job.

The author's life in an academic couple then veers in a new direction when her husband is denied tenure "Despite a teaching award, a book contract and extreme collegiality". That's rather chilling, but the story has a happy ending for this couple:

Still, it turns out that being two separate bodies has its advantages. For one, it’s given us a lot more breathing room, since we aren’t endlessly comparing our jobs, progress and institutions. And with distance comes perspective. Watching Brendon’s successful reinvention has pushed me to try new kinds of writing — to tell my own stories, and not just Shakespeare’s.

I suppose my husband and I compare our jobs and career progress to some extent, but I don't feel competitive in any way, nor stifled by the fact that we are in the same field. I do not need any "breathing room", and I enjoy the benefits that come from being married to someone who totally 'gets' my job and my professional life.

Strangest of all is the last sentence of the essay -- the last sentence in the excerpt above. I suppose we can all find creativity in the strangest of places, motivated by various unexpected events in our lives, but the implication is that the lack of "breathing room" in an academic couple might somehow stifle creativity(?).

If you are in an academic couple, and especially if you and your significant other are in the same general academic discipline, where do you fall in the spectrum between 'my significant other totally gets my job and professional life' (and that's great) and 'we are endlessly comparing our careers and progress' (and this is stressful/stifling)?

Perhaps most people are somewhere in between, or perhaps the answer varies with time and career stage, but how does it balance out for you?

43 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yes, my husband and I are scientists in the same field, who even publish together on occasion. This is great for both of us to have a spouse who not only understands and supports, but lend a helping hand with experiments, manuscripts and grant applications. It has also helps us maintain some sanity in our pursuit of (the endangered) tenure-track positions, while raising two very young children.

mOOm said...

My wife and I are both in environmental economics broadly construed but deal with different areas. She got her PhD in 2007 and me in 1994 so there isn't much collaboration or competition. But we both understand where the other one is careerwise. Previously I was for a short time in a relationship with someone I could collaborate and nearer to me in age and I think it was much more about how we could collaborate (and as it was a long distance relationship get more opportunities to be together) rather than compete with each other.

Anonymous said...

My long-term boyfriend and I very early in our careers, but I would say it is solidly in "my significant other totally gets my job and professional life", at least from my POV.

We were talking about something like this yesterday, and he said he's glad we work in the same general field, but not the same subfield, because that would increase the temptation to collaborate or bring the work home. I personally think collaborating would be kind of cool, but it might indeed get stifling.

Anonymous said...

"Investing" eh? I'm sure all hesitation will disappear when he brings in his first $500,000 bonus check.

It feels good to be a banker:

http://www.careers-in-finance.com/ibsal.htm

Anonymous said...

I'm in an academic couple in opposite ends of the same field (we both go to our field's mega-conference with 30,000 others but don't overlap at smaller conferences). I'm also several years ahead career-wise. I like being with someone who really gets the quirks and craziness of academia without overlapping on the same projects. Being with someone who is not and has never been an academic might be very different.

Anonymous said...

I have no problem admitting I have a tenured academic position because my spouse is a rockstar scientist.

Anonymous said...

Well, I always thought collegiality was overrated!

My husband is a former academic and very bitter. It is very stressful.

Anonymous said...

I'm the female half of a two-professor couple in the same department, though our research specialties are at opposite ends of the spectrum in our field. I/we definitely are of the 'love that my significant other gets my job/lifestyle' persuasion. We both do a lot of fieldwork overseas and weird/long work schedules when we're in town, and I can't imagine a non-academic partner being so cool with the way I live and work - it's great. There is an element of comparison/competition between us, but I think we do a good job of keeping it positive and healthy and using it as a way to push ourselves to do the best work we can.

GMP said...

My husband has a similar academic background to mine, but he is not an academic. We are not in competition. We don't discuss techical work issues with each other very often, but do discuss relationships with colleagues, students, etc.

When I interviewed for my TT position, I was asked about my husband every single time (it's that wedding ring), which is fine as I would not consider a job from a place that would not offer aoffer placement for him. The intrusive question would give me an opening to bring spousal placement up.

Also, when I interviewed, I already had one child (preschool aged). Several faculty interviewers actually said that having a kid makes my CV look all the more impressive. One told me that it's a proof that motherhood would not derail me, which is apparently many hiring committees' chief concern. A statement like that may sound like a compliment, but it really shows that women are stereotypically expected to drop careers for family. But my experience is also an anecdata point to support that having kids before embarking on a TT job hunt may be viewed as a very good thing by hiring committees.

DrDoyenne said...

I'm the female half of a two-career science couple who are in the same field and who once worked together in the same laboratory for twenty years (me as the more subordinate partner). During this time, I constantly compared myself and my success (or lack) to my husband and his progress. He was sympathetic, but I had the feeling that he didn’t totally “get it”. That was also a source of stress.

I eventually left academia and established my own laboratory and separate reputation as a scientist, an action that my husband supported and encouraged. Since then, I no longer compare myself to him, even though he’s still the better known of the two of us.

There is some competitiveness because we work in the same field, but it’s not a problem for us personally. Part of the reason is that I have access to funding that he does not, and vice versa. We also are able (and always have been) to separate our personal relationship from our professional one. We share professional information and ideas, much as we would with colleagues whom we trust. However, we do not share confidential information related to our work or professional relationships.

I find that other people do not believe that we don’t tell each other things that are confidential.

In fact, it is mostly other people and their attitudes that have always been our biggest problem as a scientific couple—not the two of us.

Anonymous said...

Dear FSP,

It's an interesting question. We are an academic couple (me being the trailing partner) and I think we are somewhere in between. There are times when I think it's nice to have a partner who understands your worries and professional life, whereas at other times I (not him) do compare our professional lives. Still I think being part of an academic couple is a bliss. We have enough breathing space because of different personalities, two kids, different hobbies and different work locations.

Anonymous said...

I imagine - speaking as a graduate student who has dated both inside and outside of my field - that particularly vulnerable points bring out acute feelings of jealousy and competitiveness.

For example, applying for research funding seems to be much more stressful for those of us who won't be able to do our dissertation research without it than for those who would like the luxury of starting a new project. It has also almost uniformly made those of us who work in similar fields to our partners at least somewhat ... less than kind.

Anonymous said...

Two different areas (both science-related) and we get each others' careers. I do, however, tend to be a little nagging about getting him to publish and network more.

However, we are extremely supportive of each other and I can't imagine going through life with anyone else.

James Annan said...

My wife and I work not merely in the same general area, but specific subfield and indeed research group, where she is my direct line manager and determines my performance-related pay rise - I'm not sure the Japanese quite understand this conflict of interest thing :-)

That's a vote for "totally gets my job and professional life"

Also, on the other topic you raise, having someone to bounce ideas off informally has been very helpful in terms of creativity.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I are both academics in similar fields, though not the same. We occasionally discuss technical issues and often discuss the less technical aspects of being TT. Aside from a few location-based sacrifices we've both had quite independent careers so there isn't any competition (we're now at schools in the same city with very different tenure processes and standards). Well it's fun to have someone who understands many of the rigors of my job, I also don't feel like we completely 'get' one another's careers etc because they've followed fairly different paths.

James Annan said...

Amused that the person who "has no problem admitting" they are tenured due to their spouse still commented anonymously!

Anonymous said...

Another positive about being part of a two-professor couple in the same field is that, although my husband's subfield is quite different than mine, he has enough of a working knowledge of my subfield/research that he can vet my craziest ideas - the ones I'd be embarrassed to bounce off most of my colleagues. This has often saved me from saying something totally ridiculous, and in a few occasions has given me the confidence to pursue an off-the-wall idea that ultimately bore fruit.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I are both tenured professors at the same university. We are both scientists who originally trained in the same field, but over the years our interests have diverged enough such that we now work out of different colleges within the university. I think this is a perfect situation as we definitely "get" each other's work, but there is not much room for comparison or competition. (Although I do sometimes get irked that he is in a field where the publications come very rapidly, while pubs in my field are fewer and are the result of a **-load of work.) If we had stayed in the same field, I probably would have throttled him by now, as he has a tendency to obsess over and talk (and talk and talk) about his work while I am much more laid-back and reserved. If we worked in the same area, I believe this would have induced some competition and caused us both a lot of frustration.

inBetween said...

I left a tenure track job for an equallupy prestigious tenure track job at my husband's university after he was offered a position closer to me. So, I am a spousal hire, though I hate the label since I have a very respectable career, even if many years behind my husband. Despite all reassurances to the contrary, I have been treated as a second class citizen in the dept, and even my dean agrees it isn't fair but that's what I get for my decision to move. The mistreatment has really stifled my creativity -- why would I want to do excellent research and bring in big grants for a university that treats me like a unworthy leech?

My husband and I really enjoyed the "getting each other" part of having essentially the same job in a similar field, but as I emotionally move away from my career this is getting harder.

resia said...

My long-term boyfriend and I were grad students in the same lab, and although our paths have veered slightly, we are still in the same general field. We do not, however attend the same conferences (at least we haven't since grad school, so far). His research is very applied, and mine is...not.

I love having him to talk to for the same reason as Anon @ 10:35. Further, knowing that we each have the same background, we often bounce ideas off each other. I do not normally feel competitive with him, but would say that at I'm a little jealous of the wow factor associated with his research.

Slightly off topic but along the lines of being asked about the 'problem husband' on interviews: we are not married and have no immediate plans to become married. We have been together for many, many years, and therefore consider ourselves to be the non-married equivalent of being married (if that makes any sense). Can anyone give me thoughts on how this will be viewed by hiring committees? Is there an adverse reaction to 'unmarrieds?'

Anonymous said...

inBetween -- The same thing happened to me, at least at first. I left a TT position at an excellent university for another TT position to be at the same university as my husband, and I was definitely seen as a useless appendage for a while. But I enjoyed other aspects of my career when I wasn't interacting with my dept colleagues and I decided to ignore the patronizing jerks and the low raises and inferior facilities etc. and I just focused on my research and teaching and advising. Over the years, my career took off and I was given more responsibility in the department and my students started succeeding and I started getting university awards and now no one even remembers how I was treated when I arrived (except me, in a petty moment here and there). My husband mused about that recently, in fact -- the huge difference between how I was viewed when I arrived vs. now. I am sure there are some faculty who will perpetually use their 'power' to patronize and worse, but a lot of people have short memories. And administrators change and new faculty, researchers, students are always arriving and old ones retiring, resurfacing the department planet. I hope things get better for you as well.

Anonymous said...

One advantage of having your spouse at the same university/department is the mid-afternoon office sex.

Anonymous said...

I was previously in a long term relationship with someone in the same field but a different subfield. It was great to be able to talk about our ideas and challenges but not compete directly for funding or hypotheses. However, when my career took off much more quickly than his, it caused some bruises to his male ego that couldn't be overcome.

I am now married to someone in my subfield who I actually supervise. There is no clear boundary for us between work and life and we both love it that way. We don't necessarily have to talk about work things to communicate because we shareso much of our day but it's wonderful to have someone just shoot you a look that makes it clear they totally get it when you're in a challenging situation. So, I guess it depends a lot on the specific personalities involved. I'd be curious to hear more from men who are trailing spouses and how that affects their views of themselves or others views of them and how they deal with that.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Not in a 2-career academic couple---my wife works as a school librarian, but that doesn't seem to have stopped her from understanding both the stresses and advantages of an academic career. Of course, at one point she considered an academic career herself, and got to ABT on her PhD before very serious writer's block stopped her

Anonymous said...

We are very non-competitive so that's not an issue. We overlap a little, and have collaborated on a couple of things, but we are gradually moving in opposite directions within our field. I do enjoy discussions with someone who really gets science and the issues around an academic career. We are now hoping for the best as I look for my first tenure-track position and my husband will be looking to move to a new school.

Anonymous said...

My first job out of college was at the same firm as my now-husband, in a field that I knew I would not want to continue in long-term but that he has built a career in. There were some tough moments (esp. since I think it was assumed I was hired because of him, although it was actually the other way around), but it was nice to commute together and share our work responsibilities. I'm in grad school now (in a very different discipline) and I miss being able to bounce ideas together, but it's nice that I have a pretty good idea of what work is like for him.

prion said...

My hubby and I are in the same lab working on PhDs in different areas - I in a computer-sciency field, he in engineering. We work on the same projects and publish together, but do very different things. It has been interesting to compare his reception in the lab to mine, as it's an engineering lab, and I'm the only female. That part is stressful, but the fact that we can brainstorm together over dinner, talk about potential problems with the approach we're taking, etc. has been extraordinarily helpful. Our PI seemed to try to keep us off the same projects, but because we were talking at home, he didn't succeed - hubby asked me about some data, and I got way too involved very quickly, just because it was interesting. I'm not sure how it will wash out once we graduate and have to find jobs together, but at least at this point, it's enjoyable. I suppose I can always get another PhD in a different field, should it come to that.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I are both TT in the same department - we work in different areas of the same subfield but often collaborate on projects since our work is quite complementary. We do love this arrangement, for all the reasons already mentioned in the above comments.

However we also definitely compare our career trajectories, intentionally - since we are both trying to get tenure in a competitive field while raising a toddler it is really important that we keep things in balance. If one of us is starting to get ahead of the other career-wise, it is usually a sign that they are taking too large a share of the work at home. And even when that's not the case, we usually figure if one person is struggling the other should take on more responsibility at home to help the other catch up. We figure it's the only way to ensure both of us succeed on a reasonable time scale.

However I think the fact that this is working for us clearly shows we are in tune and really "get" each other and our jobs and career aspirations!

Unbalanced Reaction said...

For me it depends on the day. At times, it is wonderful to have someone "get it." Other times, I would really like him to STFU about the classroom, students, or papers.

I truly believe things will be better after we both have tenure.

Anonymous4Today said...

Frankly, reading there are so many TT couples out there sort of depresses me and makes me wonder what my chances are as just one person...

Anonymous said...

Anonymous from 12:02 on Aug. 16, I am a male trailing spouse and I'm feel pretty good about it these days. And why shouldn't I? It's hard to find two jobs in the same geographical area without butting against this at some point. We have been planning our careers since graduate school, discussing the limits of what we would tolerate geographically, and working our butts off to make sure we both could be successful scientists. The most obvious plan for us, because of my low startup needs, was for me to be the trailing spouse.

At first, I was surprised that I did have a bit of a chip on my shoulder in the sense that I felt like I had to do something great to "deserve" the job. I also felt like I had a bit more committee duties than I deserved, which was commented on at my pre-tenure review. In retrospect, some of this was insufficient use of the word "no", probably because of the slight chip on my shoulder.

In the last few years, I've been fairly successful at publishing (not as much as I'd like but I think that would be true no matter my productivity) and won a few awards, funded a rather large group for my field, and generally tried to kick science ass.

Is that what you wanted to know?

Oh, and Anonymous4Today, don't worry. Out of the 5 or 6 folks that I know that tried to get spousal accommodations at our university in the last few years, we were the only ones who succeeded. And it only worked thanks to politics, talking to the right people (politics again), money (my startup needs are low) and almost a decade of careful planning on our part.

Anonymous said...

If anyone thinks being in an academic couple is an advantage for getting jobs rather than a disadvantage, they are not living in the real world or are hoping to find a reason for their failure, even if that reason isn't real. Academic couples are less at a disadvantage now for jobs than in the recent past, but that does not = advantage over others.

Graeme said...

I think in the last sentence she was just emphasizing that seeing her husband happy and successful following a career path he didn't originally plan inspired her to work a little on projects that weren't along the default path too. I think it's separate from the breathing room issue she discussed above.

Anonymous said...

I'm a grad student married to a tenured-ish staff member (national lab equiv) in the same field, but at very different ends.

I've moved twice for him, once to a town where I was working with other nearby folks on my dissertation research (there was a happy coincidence that the thing I was interested in was actually a contaminant in their data) and now the second time to the current stinking craphole I hate.

This last move has left me without any status or any of the things I asked for and was promised (namely a desk with a power outlet to use so I wouldn't be trapped at home all the freaking time as I try to dissertate) by my spouse and I was informed of his decision to take this job and that we were moving, so I wasn't involved in any of the decision making. Rather than adapt my career I'm looking at my postdoc applications as a way to get away and then file for divorce.

Unfortunately our field is small (think few thousand) overall and I've already been bit in the ass about the having moved thing before for postdocs where I made shortlists. One of them came right out and said they were worried I'd be "working remotely", but since the field is a bunch of gossips I didn't really feel comfortable blurting out "Oh I plan on filing for divorce as soon as I move so that won't be a problem". My grad advisor knows the situation, but he also has the good sense to keep things mostly quiet.

So uh, yeah the balance doesn't work for us, but I think that has a lot to do with my husband's decisions to inform me rather than discuss with me moves and job prospects. And when it comes down to it I like the science and the career more than the husband.

Monisha Pasupathi said...

My husband and i are in different subfields but have tenured positions in the same department that hired each of us at the assistant level, a few years apart (he was the trailing spouse).
we love having someone around to get the job and the pressures, and have never had much internal competition. However, the one thing that DOES get old fast is that we all know the same people and gossip and politicking (we relocated from an overseas location to our present one so we had no ties to anyone prior to moving here). That can get boring pretty quickly, so in recent years we have worked alot harder to have non-departmental connections.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I are in similar fields and have been since undergrad. We've managed to move to grad school and postdocs together, without either of us compromising our careers, but I'm very worried about the next step - those TT jobs!

Most of the time, I love having someone around who understands what I did today and who gives me great ideas and new information. We have really different strengths and weaknesses, but unfortunately for me, he is already clearly better at research and has a much better publication record. It is hard for me not to feel jealous of him, sometimes.

It would probably be a lot easier if I got the sense that he is as interested in my career as I am in his. When I try to talk about my career or projects, he usually just responds about his own stuff. Plus, I often feel like I carry more than my share of the housework, even when I'm busier in the lab than he is. I think he is still so unsure of his own potential to get a TT job, he doesn't really have the capacity to think of mine and how they may affect each other. The last few years have been the hardest, knowing that the next step is tenuous for us each individually, and even worse as a couple.

Anonymous said...

My first husband was a scientist in a similar field, though dissimilar enough that we never overlapped on projects, grants or conferences except the most general of conferences thus there was no danger of rivalry. We have never, but could have, collaborated on interdisciplinary projects. Yet we were familiar enough with each other's fields and work to be able to understand the nuances of our working day to day lives and also to help edit each other's manuscripts and appreciate the politics and gossip about one another's co workers. It was very nice. (unfortunately that relationship didn't last for other reasons completely unrelated to being an academic couple)

My current husband is not an academic, and not a scientist. He didn't go to grad school, he's a self-employed tradesman. He doesn't "get" a lot about my working life and vice versa, but we make the effort to try and learn about each other's working lives. Yes there are times when I wish we were more similar in our careers, but there are many more times when it's nice to come home and feel like I'm in a totally separate world and that my husband is not also my co-worker or that I'm still in the lab.

Anonymous said...

It would probably be a lot easier if I got the sense that he is as interested in my career as I am in his. When I try to talk about my career or projects, he usually just responds about his own stuff.

That is very irksome indeed. The answer to this: you get the TT job, and make him be the trailing spouse, ha!

Anonymous said...

The idea of breathing room leading to more creativity (and work other than academic works) seemed not so much about the husband leaving academics. I think this referred to her and her husband realizing that their obedience in trying to do things just so in order to be successful was not the point. The point of the article was the importance of both partners having meaningful work where success is defined with a little more freedom (you could call it breathing room). The article suggests that as academics there is not only one path that is so special and so narrow we have to sacrifice our personal and family life.

Anonymous said...

I can only speak from the pov of a graduate student (I just finished my phd). My husband has a phd in the humanities. For the most part, it's been helpful that he understands the phd process and the intensity required to complete the degree.

Although the job search has been a mixed bag - he works in government and has his own opinions about academia. These invariably come into the conversation when we're discussing which job I am going to take (we're moving the family for my job). This part of the process might be easier if he was coming from a completely separate field.

Anonymous said...

Kinda unnerving for those of us who are good awarding-winning phd scientists but won't tolerate sexism or self-centeric "adult" decisions such as being a plane flight away from our families/ loved-ones for an extended and undefined period. It's great that it worked out for the author, but do the ends really justify the means? Not for me and so I will be a leak in the pipeline.

Helen Huntingdon said...

I've never had much luck meeting men who don't eventually get twitchy about their egos with respect to my intellectual attainments, so my solution has been simply not to get married.

There's been some hilarity over the years with boyfriends or hopefuls trying to sound out my response to their expectations. One of my favorites was as an undergrad -- a boyfriend of two months complained, in an aggrieved tone intimating that he clearly expected my offensive behavior to be apologized for and corrected, that he felt like my calculus book meant more to me than he did. All he got was a blank look and a statement of, "Of course it does." One was key to my future happiness, the other wasn't -- where's the competition? Moreover, he was a grad student and clearly should have known better.

nanoalchemist said...

Of course the guy didn't get tenure. He got a teaching award. Don't they come standard with the black mark printed on one side, and a jolly roger on the other?