Tuesday, July 25, 2006

2 Body

Sometimes I think that universities are finally finding better ways to deal with academic couples, and then I see or hear something that shows that any progress in the last decade or two might have been transient or random. I know that there are financial realities regarding 1 vs. 2 faculty positions, but I think that an institution that figures out how to solve this "problem" will end up with a high quality, diverse, and content faculty, and therefore in the long run it makes sense to deal with this issue in a more systematic way, involving high levels of administration. But then, I think the same about universities/colleges that figure out how to offer high quality daycare for faculty, staff, and students, and there doesn't seem to be a huge rush to fix that problem either.

The situation with which I am most familiar is when both members of a couple are in the same field and would be hired by the same department. This is challenging, but for a university (rather than a small college) it may be less challenging than the situation in which the members of a couple are in different departments or other units of a university.

Anyway, my husband-to-be and I met in graduate school. By the time I defended my Ph.D. (about a year before he finished his PhD) and had an offer of a postdoc at another university, we sort of knew we might/maybe/perhaps would get married, but hadn't quite decided. We never even considered my not leaving to do the postdoc. Partway through my first postdoc year, I decided to seek another position for the following year rather than stay in the postdoc longer. I was enjoying the research, but the level of harassment by technical staff, one senior male professor (not my supervisor), and even some male graduate students, was unacceptably high and was interfering with my ability to do my work. I had several choices for my next position, including a tenure-track position at a small college. I decided not to take the tenure-track position because I knew that my partner would never want to be in such a small place with limited research facilities. We had agreed that if we didn't get the job of our dreams right away, we'd try for jobs at places where we could both reasonably exist and that were 'good enough to leave' (i.e., not dead ends, careerwise). We were both sure that this college would have been a dead end in terms of further opportunities for both of us.

I accepted instead a visiting professor position at a different small college -- a bigger name school than the other one and one that was quite similar to the one I'd been to as an undergraduate. I had long thought that I would most like to be at a small liberal arts college, since I had loved my undergraduate school and I have a strong interest in integrating science with liberal arts. People thought I was crazy to turn down a tenure-track position for a visiting position, but it worked out in the end, and the teaching experience turned out to be important in my later efforts to get another job.

I remember this as a stressful time because my husband-to-be had several choices of postdoc positions, including one that was geographically very close to the college where I'd be for the next year. He decided to take a position that was geographically distant (as in east coast-west coast distant) because it was the best place for his research. By this time, we'd decided only two things: (1) we were going to get married soon, and (2) we would pursue our careers in separate places for a while, making career decisions based on our individual research interests and goals, with the hopes that we'd eventually have options that allowed us to be together. If one of us got a great job and the other didn't, we'd deal with that if we had to.

During my year as a visiting professor, I learned many useful things; here's another list: (1) visiting professors/adjuncts are not treated well in general (huge teaching load, not a lot of respect from colleagues or administrators), (2) I was good at both teaching and research, and enjoyed both immensely, and (3) I did not want to be at a small liberal arts college. The last point came as a particular surprise to me.

Jobs were very scare in my field by this point, but one came up that was perfect for my research interests and was at a university with an excellent reputation for both research and teaching. I really wanted that job. At a conference that fall, I had a pre-interview with the department chair to see if they were interested in encouraging my full application for the position. I remember arriving for the interview just as the previous candidate, a prominent young man in my field, was leaving his interview. He not only shook hands with the department chair, but also gave the chair a sort of friendly pat on the shoulder -- I can't describe it exactly, but it looked natural and like something confident guys do together, and my heart sank because I couldn't do things like that. I had a rather awkward conversation with the chair, who was a rather awkward sort of person (but very nice), and left feeling disconsolate. Nevertheless, I was encouraged to apply for the job, so I did.

I was invited to interview. I was very happy and excited about that, but knew also that the other candidates were formidable and personable and I didn't feel too optimistic. I wondered if I was just an affirmative action interview. By this time, I was married and my husband was still a postdoc on the other side of the country. The interview was both great and terrifying. During the interview, I felt that it was going well. I had many discussions and conversations that were very interesting and friendly, but the issue of my husband kept popping up in illegal and unsettling ways. Faculty candidates are not supposed to be asked about their spouses/partners during interviews, but it always comes up. I didn't even know how they all knew about my husband -- we had only been married a few months, and I didn't know anyone personally at the place I was interviewing. But they knew. This place also had a lousy record of hiring and tenuring women, and the last two assistant professors had recently been denied tenure, so I kept telling myself that I was crazy to want to have a job at that place. But I did want to have a job at that place. I had no idea how I'd done in the interview because it had been such a mixed experience -- lots of positive interactions, lots of people telling me that it was only 1 job and there was no chance for my husband to get a position (I hadn't even asked.. it was just an interview).

The phone call from the chair offering me the job stands out in my mind as one of the all-time most thrilling moments of my life. That might sound pathetic, but it was amazing.

But of course there was only one position, and they weren't willing to do anything for my husband other than give him an office, adjunct status, and occasional teaching. He decided to stay in his postdoc longer, and we would continue commuting from coast to coast. We did that for 3 more years, all the while progressing in our careers individually. We spent summers together, other vacations, and a few other extended times (my husband taught a class one semester at my university, I had a semester research leave), and acquired lots of frequent flyer miles. We talked on the phone several times a day - sometimes 5-6 times/day - and we emailed constantly, and somehow it was a pretty good life.

We were both applying for jobs. I absolutely loved my job, but knew I had to look for other opportunities as long as my husband didn't have a tenure-track position. We both got interviews, and were always asked about our spouse. After I'd been in my tenure-track position for 3 years, a large university offered both my husband and me tenure-track positions. The two offers came about in large part because the provost of the university got involved and created a second position. The deal was that we would share 1.5 positions for at least the first year, and eventually would each have a full position. Once we had these offers, my university magically came up with a tenure-track offer for my husband. I was very torn -- I was doing well where I was, it was a nice place to live, and I was not worried about tenure. At the new place, I didn't know if I'd like it, and the tenure bar was higher, along with the pressure to get more and bigger grants. And we were going to have a baby that winter.

After a lot of agonizing indecision, we decided to move and make a fresh start at the other university, which was going to build a lab for my husband and which had excellent facilities in place for my research. It was a painful decision. I stayed another year at my 'old' university, finishing teaching commitments, and our child was born that year.

It was challenging showing up at a new place with an infant, but after a difficult year, we both knew we'd made the right decision. And after a year of sharing 1.5 positions, we were both upped to 100%, and after 2 years, I got tenure. Happy Ending.


Amelie said...

thanks for sharing your story, it was interesting and encouraging! I imagine such a long long-distance-relationship to be quite hard, but your description doesn't sound too bad. Nevertheless I'm very glad that my husband-to-be will start his PhD here where I am next year -- we still have a loong way to go for anything like tenure positions.

Anonymous said...

Besides the fact that asking details about marital status is illegal, what are your thoughts on these questions? If a university wants to actively work to find places for a double academic couple, what do they need to ask and what should a candidate tell them? What types of questions did you feel were really improper?

I've been lurking here for a couple of weeks and I'm enjoying reading and learning from your posts.

ScienceWoman said...

Thanks for sharing your story. Am I right in reading that you had your baby while your husband was long-distance? How ever did you manage?

Anonymous said...

Great story. Especially in the absence of systematic efforts on the parts of most universities to encourage dual-career academic couples, it's really important and helpful for people to hear about what has worked for others. Congratulations on making it work!

When you get around to answering all these questions... :) I'm interested in the reasons why you (unexpectedly) found you didn't want to stay at a small liberal-arts college.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog for about a week now, and enjoy it very much. Thank you so much for telling this story. It is quite encouraging. I'm in the fourth year of my PhD and my boyfriend is about to go postdoc in less than a year. We live on oposite sides of the country and have been doing the long-distance thing for two years now. We know that someday we'll get married, and I've been thinking about the two-body problem a lot lately. He's applying to postdocs in my geographical area so that we can be together, but not long after that (a year? two?) I'll be going the postdoc way and we'll probably be long-distance again, which is quite painful and sad to think about. Reading your story gives me hope that it *is* possible to deal with the two-body problem and have a "happy ending", like you said.

SciMom said...

I too am an academic who married an academic. I was 2 years ahead of him having established my first assistant professorship while he was finishing a postdoc. We decided early on that it would be difficult to find two positions in the same place given our different fields. So it was decided that his career would be the priority. Why did I decide this? In part because me first marriage didn't survive the challenges of two academic careers and a long distance relationship.

Although I don't regret that decision, I have had to make more sacrifices in my career than I had imagined. Sometimes I think I gave up too much. I spend a lot of time fighting the "wife of the recruit" syndrome, having to work extremely hard to be accepted as a "real" scientist. Having done this three times now, and having survived each as well as maintained some level of indpendent funding, I often wonder how successful I could have been had we followed my career.

I commend you for having a successful long distance relationship and a successful career. I too wish universities would wake up and realize what an assest it can be to have a married couple in their departments.

Anonymous said...

Wow, thats a lot of long distance. I admire you for doing it, but I don't think it would work for me. My bf is away for a four month internship, and two months in, its killing me.

I guess we're in a slightly different situation, not really committed to the academic path. We met as we both started our PhDs, and figured we'd have 4 years together here, then finish at the same time and find somewhere we could both work (probably him in industry, me more in research).

Two years in we're both thinking of abandoning the PhDs and going to work in the IT industry. So there's a good chance we're about to emabark on the two-bodies-in-IT problem, which I think will be easier to negotiate than academia but I'm still not looking forward to it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your story. This two-body problem seems beyond even Poincare'. My wife and I are an the midst of our own two-body woes. We both managed to get really good post-docs in the same city after our Ph.Ds. But getting a tenure-track job in the same town is another matter entirely. I was a year ahead of her and got a position at a very good department. However, while my chairman tried in all good faith to drum up interest in my wife, her research interests weren't compatible (and she didn't have a "glossy" publication at that time, to grease the wheels). Anyway, she went on the job market the following year and managed to get several offers, the best one being the closest one to my university, a manageable 300 miles. So now she is getting set to join her position. Hopefully we will be able to do well enough in our current positions despite all the stress and challenges and find two positions in the same university or at least the same city.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I am an assistant prof, spouse just landed a postdoc on the other side of the continent which may lead to a permanent position. So maybe it is time to look around.

When you began to search for a new job while in your tenure track position, did you keep it a secret or not? I am afraid that if I began to look around but had to stay, my department might figure there's no sense in giving me tenure. Also, in your most recent search, did you lay the cards on the table (about two-body issue) at the start of your interviews?

avocadoinparadise said...

What a great story!!! Thanks so much for sharing an actual success story. There are very few of these out there for people considering the professor/researcher route but not sure that would allow for a life.

Ms.PhD said...

Okay, I'm convinced you're SuperWoman. Not only did you do long-distance for YEARS, which seems an inhuman feat, but you got tenure in 2 YEARS??? Good god. Here I had been reading your blog thinking you were a great role model for me... but I could never live up to that.

If that's what it takes, I should either dump my boyfriend, or quit science. I fear one or other will happen eventually if I try to have both.

Also, I noticed you never reply to people's comments with another comment. What's up with that?

Female Science Professor said...

I am not Superwoman! And I did not get tenure in 2 years. I was an Assistant Professor at University #1 for 4 years (accepted job at Univ #2 after 3, but stayed another year to finish teaching/advising commitments and have a baby before moving). I got tenure after 2 years at Univ #2, which only gave me credit for 3 years at Univ #1. However, Univ #2 promoted me to full professor a year early, to make up for my 'lost' year, so it all worked out in the end.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I just discovered your blog and the two-body post is already quite old, but perhaps you still read the comments sent to you.

I am also a woman scientist, in the physical sciences, and I have recently been offered a faculty position at a large university. This is my first offer after 3 years of postdoc and it is a really great opportunity, a place I loved when I ineterviewed and potential great colleagues. The perfect job...if I was not a two-body problem. They *might* find my husband a 2 year position, a glorified postdoc, but it's not even sure. He is not a nobody. He got his PhD from a prestigious university, wrote his 1st proposal and got it funded while still a grad student, and the place where i got an offer has all the facilities he needs for his research. And yet, I have the feeling they are not going to do much (if at all) for him/us. It is too early for him to give up his career, which would not work anyway. He has wanted to do what his does since he was a kid.

The difference with you is that we are not willing to live apart. We know we'd be unhappy and I know that being unhappy does not go well with scientific productivity for me. sigh. It is a stressful time of my life. After the ecstasy of getting offered a great position, reality hit me and it looks like it is not going to be easy.

Any extra advice would be greatle appreciated.

Female Science Professor said...

I sympathize greatly with your situation, but you don't say what your husband's position is. Does he have a faculty position elsewhere, at a place that may or may not hire you? If so, maybe you can leverage your offer. If he doesn't have a faculty position, would he really want you turn down your offer? If you accept it and he does the glorified postdoc for a year or 2, maybe something better will turn up for both of you in the meantime.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response.
My husband is a postdoc too, and we are in the same institution, same department. Our funding for next year is running out, unless our proposals get funded. And there is no other offer to use as leverage. So.... I am not going to turn down this offer. We just need to figure out a second position for my husband, even if it is just temporary. Hopefully, something will come up for him (i am trying not to lose hope already, but it's not easy after seeing how the chair reacted to my request).

And yes, who knows what will happen within the next two years?

Thanks for your blog!