Tuesday, February 03, 2009

2-Body Grads

Sometimes there is a cosmic convergence of real life, email messages, and the blogosphere about a particular topic. This is one of those times.

Last week an anxious colleague worried that he would lose his top choice from this year's grad applicant pool if the department did not also admit another student from the same department/university. What if they were a couple but only one got an offer of admission?

He did not know whether these two students were or were not a couple, and he asked me what to do. He showed me a draft of an email message he wanted to send to one of them (his top choice applicant), and I was horrified by what he had written. I told him that he could not ask her directly about her personal life. He did not like that advice, but he did not send the email.

Just then, a post by Zuska on a related topic appeared, and I showed it to my colleague. He and our very savvy grad program staff person then devised a way to ask the applicant, who already knew she had been accepted to the program, what factors might influence her decision about whether to come here or not. She did not divulge anything about her personal life and replied with additional information about her research interests.

She had written very passionately and impressively in her research statement about her experiences as one of very few female students in Science in her university/country. I can imagine that she has not had an easy time being respected as a scientist thus far, and would therefore not easily discuss her personal life with a potential advisor.

Meanwhile, my colleague found out via an indirect route -- by asking someone who knows someone who knows someone at that university -- that this woman is in fact engaged to the other applicant in question. Although qualified, the male applicant wasn't a top priority for admission, but now he is going to get an offer of admission in the first round.

It is possible things would have worked out eventually anyway. Perhaps if the female applicant received an offer and her partner did not, a Zuskaesque exchange of information would have occurred and the partner would then have received an offer. He is certainly qualified and might have received an offer after the first round; he's just not a superstar like his fiance. My colleague feared, however, that by waiting he risked losing the superstar applicant.

I respect the young woman's reluctance to say anything about her personal life. I didn't deal with the 2-body problem until later, as an applicant for faculty positions, but I think I would have done the same at an earlier stage. I would have hoped that something would work out in one place that was good for both of us.

That's what I would do (and it seems that at least one other person in the world agrees), but now the question is, if an applicant to a graduate program wants to volunteer information of a personal nature, is this a good idea, and if so, how best to do it?

The 'best' answer may depend on the place. In my department, we've had grad applications from both members of self-confessed couples before, and in most cases one or both are accepted or not depending on the usual admissions criteria. The example described above is an extraordinary situation.

What if one person is applying to one unit of the university and another to a different unit? Different units typically have absolutely no influence over each other regarding graduate admissions (or anything else), so mentioning that a partner is attending or hopes to attend a graduate or professional program elsewhere in the university is likely to be treated as random information of no particular relevance.

Even so, I know some faculty who would consider a statement such as "I am applying to your program because my girlfriend wants to go to the vet school there" or even "I am applying to your program because I am interested in pursuing research with Professor X on Cool Science Topic, and also my significant other has applied to the Nanoneuroengineering Department" would be considered evidence that the applicant was not motivated by the Right Thing -- that is, a pure, intense, and unwavering laser-like focus on doing graduate Research in that particular department because of -- and only because of -- the awesomeness of the faculty. My advice is not to mention your coupleness in your application.

I hope that we faculty can look at applicants as real people with research interests and other interests and then make decisions based on who looks like they will be a motivated, smart, and creative student, even if they do take an evening off once in a while to go to a movie with their beloved. I hope that, but at the same time, what I want to see in an application is someone who is seriously focused on graduate research. That doesn't mean you can't have a life outside grad school, but there are only a few circumstances in which it is relevant to describe your personal life in your application.

Once you are accepted to a graduate program, however, you can volunteer information about your significant other's pending application to the same or different unit of the university if you wish to do so. In the case of applicants to different units of a university, it is likely to have no effect on whether your partner if admitted to the other program. I don't think it would hurt to ask, though -- but correct me if anyone has information to the contrary -- so maybe it would be worth bringing it up with the graduate advisor or your potential faculty advisor in an exploratory way.

In some ways, because there is less (money) at stake for a university and because students can apply to many universities to increase the chances of being together, it may be easier to solve the 2-body grad issue. Even so, some of the 2-body issues are the same and just as difficult whether the situation involves grad students or faculty -- Is there a best place for both of you? How do you decide that? And even if you agree on that, how do you both get to that place? Are you willing to be apart? If so, how far apart and for how long?


Anonymous said...

Another (indirect) way to get the information is to look at the applicant's facebook profile...

Anonymous said...

In a little over a year I'm going to have this exact problem, and it's terrifying.

The best thing I can think of is to apply primarily to groups of schools in the few cities that have clusters of large research universities.

I wish there were a better answer. I can't imagine either of us asking the other to compromise a career, but I don't want to think about being apart for 5-7 years either.

Cori said...

This may be field specific and we were both pretty good candidates anyways (same undergrad degree, similar research experience, same undergrad gpa etc), but my husband and I were totally open about the fact that we needed to both be accepted in order to go to a particular school (we weren't married at the time). We felt like it would be irresponsible of us to maybe have one person take up a spot where someone else could be made an offer if that person wasn't going to go without the other going too. That said, a lot of what we do to solve our two body problem is to study very similar things in very different ways--we're in the same department, in the same office, under the same major professor, so there's a limit to how flexible everyone needed to be. We just had an addendum at the bottom of our applications which basically clarified that we were a package deal, but totally left our relationship out of things like justifying why we'd be good candidates for particular departments and advisors.

It was interesting deciding where to go--in the end a lot of discussion wound up with us converging on a consensus of what we valued in a graduate school, and we went to the school that most fit the bill. We also didn't apply anywhere that there wasn't a pretty good fit for both of us in terms of advisors, because we didn't want to have that tug of war of having two different schools be each of our favorites. We got married right before going to grad school--it just seemed like a way to set ourselves up for failure to even consider places that might have left one person feeling their career was taking a back seat.

Plus, given that I got pregnant and we had baby during our first year of grad school, it would've been tough to balance things not being in the same place, so I'm glad we didn't even consider doing the long distance thing as we chose schools.

Anonymous said...

From a slightly different angle, one of the reasons I chose the grad program I did was that when the chair called to offer me admission, he asked me whether there were any other considerations that might make me more likely to accept. He paused, then said, for example, should they look at someone else's application keeping in mind that the person was my partner? It was obvious from my application that I was gay. This was back in 1991, and I was amazed that they'd consider such a thing for a same-sex partner. I didn't have a partner at the time, much less one applying to grad school. But it really colored my view of the university!

Anonymous said...

Is it naive of me to wish that these students would be considering their education as their first priority and not their "partners" at such a young age? Yes, perhaps I am just burned by having married my "college sweetheart" only to get divorced in grad school after making a very poor choice for graduate school based in part on trying to optimize the 2-body problem... and paying for it for years when asked why I didn't go to a "better" grad school. It does seem too as though a greater proportion of super-star female prospects are married or engaged and have far more considerations of this problem than male prospects. I wonder why that is?

Alyssa said...

I agree with not divulging that kind of information until the application has been accepted. Showing that your life isn't all about your work is definitely a downfall when applying to academia *grr*

No wonder so many people leave academia at various stages! I know women who would take their wedding rings off for interviews (post-doc and faculty) in hopes that their potential bosses wouldn't think that they'll spend "too much" time with their husband and/or children - that's just sad.

Candid Engineer said...

Is there a best place for both of you? How do you decide that?

My boyfriend and I had been dating for 3 years when it came time to apply to grad school. We were both from the same discipline, and thus were applying to the same departments. We both applied to and were accepted into the same 4 schools.

But at that point, we decided to make the (very good) decision to go to the place that we truly felt was the best for each of us. 'The best' was the place with the best research focus for us, and the best overall feel.

Coincidentally, we wound up at the same school, and our relationship flourished for a time, we got engaged, etc. But two years down the road, we broke things off. And I couldn't have been more glad that I had truly picked the university where I had wanted to be. Otherwise, things would have been a million times more awkward than they already were.

Amanda@Lady Scientist said...

It is a tough one. Especially if your partner is at a different stage (eg. not the applying stage) in his/her career. In my case, Not-Yet-Dr. Man was still in med school and I was applying to graduate programs. I never mentioned Dr. Man in my application materials. However, when I interviewed at Public U. I did mention to a trusted faculty member that I was extra keen on coming here because of the research and Dr. Man. Apparently, it didn't hurt things because I'm here now! Still, I don't know if that was necessarily the smart thing to do.

Julie @ Bunsen Burner Bakery said...

I have often wondered what to do about this situation when I apply for post-doc positions. My husband is moving in 4 months for the rest of his residency, and we will be living apart while I finish my Ph.D. Because my husband will have 4 years of residency and 2 years of fellowship in his ResidencyCity, I will only be interested in applying for positions in his city (I am not looking to spend 6 years of my marriage in a long-distance relationship, particularly when we would like to have children at some point). On one hand, it means that I am more than willing to stay with that institution and will not be looking to pack up and head out early, but on the other hand, will confessing that I am only interested in positions in ResidencyCity make it look like I am not as interested in the position because of the science, but only because of the location?

Tinkering Theorist said...

My husband and I were engaged when we applied to grad schools (eight each--at about $100 a pop!). I might had gone to a different school had he been accepted there, but I didn't mention it to them. There were other reasons why I wasn't sure if I wanted to go there anyway. I did talk to one school about this problem, and they were unable to help (even though his department in that school was arguably not as prestigious as another one where he was admitted). We are in different departments, so maybe that was why the wouldn't work with us.
My very favorite advisor of everyone I met during grad school visits is the one I am working with now. Had I been forced to take my second choice advisor, I perhaps would have been better off elsewhere, but that wasn't the case. We are both very happy here.
Now we are starting all over again on the job search. Luckily, we have 2 kids so if only one of us gets a job right away, at least the other won't really be unemployed.

Unknown said...

In my Grad School Interview the Head of the Program asked me directly whether I had a husband/fiance/boyfriend. This struck me as wildly inappropriate given the context and I told him so. However, I was unattached at the time and I offered this information (in addition to my admonishment) in response to his question.

He then told me that he was asking in order to see if "we need to make your offer of admission here more attractive to anyone else in your life". They did the same for another couple in my cohort which made a big difference to them. I would have been much more comfortable with this question if he had made his motives clear before asking about my personal life. If he had prefaced the question by saying "we really want you to come here and we are prepared to apply some leverage to make this an attractive offer for you and whomever else you have in your life...is there anything we can do for you in that regard?" I would have been quite pleased (although I realize that the question is still illegal).

As it was, not having any insight to the motivation for such an inquiry, I was pretty shocked and offended when he initially asked me. I worried that he was trying to find out if I was attached to someone else in my life that might require some of my time outside the lab (which would make me appear not fully committed to research?), or that he might be fishing for whether I could be expected to start having children while in grad school (maternity leave = non-productive student?). I think he also asked directly if I had any children. Ugh.

It turned out fine, but could have been handled with much more sensitivity, as you describe here.

Anonymous said...

"would be considered evidence that the applicant was not motivated by the Right Thing -- that is, a pure, intense, and unwavering laser-like focus on doing graduate Research in that particular department because of -- and only because of -- the awesomeness of the faculty. My advice is not to mention your coupleness in your application."

I don't completely agree here, I think that most people would be able to do focussed science, irrespecive of their reason for applying to a certain faculty.

Also, I can imagina that someone having has his/her partner closeby has advantages over a person having a long-distance relationship who need to travel loads...

Anonymous said...

"I am applying to your program because I am interested in pursuing research with Professor X on Cool Science Topic, and also my significant other has applied to the Nanoneuroengineering Department"

If someone feels that a statement like this shows that I am not committed enough to my research, then screw them. Marriages (and relationships) happen, and are an important part of life. I truly love research, and I think that I am good at it, but I am not going to pretend that it is the only thing that I live for, and that I would sacrifice any personal relationship to do it. And I don't think that I should have to.

alh said...

I would argue that happier people (students, post-docs or faculty) are more productive people. A grad student who stays up late every night talking to the significant other on the phone trying to maintain the long distance relationship isn't going to be on top of their "science" game the next day (one guess as to how how I know).

Those who try to achieve a balance shouldn't be treated as any less serious about their work than those who don't have the choice to make. It is a big pitfall of our academic culture and one I am struggling with everyday. I want to spend all of my brain power on my science, but an unemployed husband can be a bit distracting...

MGS said...

Thank you for the very timely post. My husband and I are waiting to hear back from grad schools now. We want to study the same thing, but he applied to different programs at the same schools, except for one program which is both of our top choice. He has an interview and I don't, even though our numbers (GPA, GRE) are approximately the same and I have more research experience. If the program offered me a position on account of my husband I would be thrilled because that program seems like the best match for me and for my career goals.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit that the way it your department handled this situation seems very unprofessional and selfish. Your colleague will survive the loss of a top applicant, but this couple stands to get hurt if the truth surfaces during their 5+ years in graduate school. I would imagine they would be pretty upset if they found out your department went behind their back to find out their personal information if they were unwilling to volunteer it themselves. Maybe the reason the superstar applicant didn’t bit on your colleague’s e-mail was because she and her fiancĂ©e decided that they both wanted to be accepted on their own merit. Honestly, if I wouldn’t want to go to a department that didn’t want me, and I imagine this couple has alternative opportunities from departments interested in both of them. I think the department either should have applied the normal criteria for admission to both candidates, or have been upfront and honest about why the male partner was accepted (as awkward as it might be). If your department is like mine, you’ll lose about 1/3 of the incoming class to class and qual failures. If the male partner was a marginal candidate, I would think he would be one of those on that chopping block. Is your colleague going to bend over backwards to make sure that the male partner gets afforded opportunities to stay that normal students wouldn’t get just so he can hang onto his superstar graduate student. . If not and both candidates decide to start over somewhere else your department basically would have wasted years of this couple’s life. Also, this is not comparable to a two body faculty hire, where positions are so sparse that it necessitates the need for dual positions. There are plenty of oppurtunities for qualified candidates to pursue graduate research.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to comment that I'm a female science grad student right now, and almost all of my female friends (myself included) are in long distance relationships for various reasons. This is difficult for all of us, but it's a fact of life with science couples and it doesn't end the relationship. I think that at the postdoc and faculty level, it's perfectly reasonable to make your personal life part of the picture when looking for a job, but in grad school you are (usually) younger, the relationship is less serious, and you are more willing to make some personal life sacrifices for your career.

Anonymous said...

There's a part of me that wants to say that this is not very egalitarian. A marginal male candidate getting admitted because of his personal relationships seems....well, it doesn't quite sound like progress and diversity to me. I wonder what will happen if this guy fails the qual, or if his research advisor loses funding, or something.

OTOH, in the real world progress won't actually come in the form of the best people of every background getting where they are on their merits so they can all link hands and sing Kumbaya. Progress won't look like one of those Coca Cola commercials. Progress will probably mean that people from traditionally under-represented backgrounds play all the same games, and that everyone gets ahead based on who they know rather than what they know.

So if we now live in a world where a marginal man gets by because he knows the right woman instead of knowing the right man, well, I guess that is true equality.

I don't mean to sound dismissive. I'm a cynic, so when I see something that seems a bit sketchy to me, but I also see that it's applying to everyone, that actually looks like progress to my cynical eye.

Anonymous said...

Why did your colleague have this inclination that the candidate would be in a 2-person situation? Unless she mentioned it in an essay or in the interview, was this professor just assuming because the candidate was female?

Amber Lynne said...

Thank you for this post. I am a graduating senior and my boyfriend and I are pretty serious and both want to be at the same place for grad school. We are in different departments and I was worried about how we would approach this problem. What you said, and the comments that followed, were very helpful. Thank you.

yolio said...

I think a lot of the concern in these situations boils down to a fallacy that it is possible to perfectly rank applicants. A lot of folks are concerned that this guy got bumped up the list because of a personal connection. But in my opinion there is a fair amount of the subjective and the random that determines these rankings. For most applicants, your approximate ranking is based on merit, but the exact ranking within an approximate range is based on luck. I don't see how it matters if his fiance was the source of his luck versus some other irrelevant factor.

Anonymous said...

Just a few years ago I had a similar experience. The two were very opened about their coupleship to myself, the other faculty involved and our admissions office. Lucky both applicants were top rate and we accepted them both; with fellowships based on their academic merits. Currently both are nearing the completion of their graduate careers and are looking to a wonderful future together which includes a child on a way and gainful employment for both.

Anonymous said...

I am surprised at the above comments that say grad students are usually too young to consider their partners a priority. Perhaps my university is unusual, but at least 1/4 of the grad students in my department are married, as well as many of my grad student friends in other departments.
In my opinion, the attitude that professional choices, such as graduate program, should come before relationship choices is one reason that academia is less attractive to some women.

John Vidale said...

I always follow FSP's etiquette of never asking, but it seems like over-politeness at a considerable cost, especially for faculty jobs.

If a couple's goal is two grad admissions or two jobs, they should explicitly pursue their goal. A university should know whether they are being asked to produce one or two admissions or jobs. It is the most appropriate question to ask what offer is necessary. To get or give only one admission or offer cannot fulfill the requirements of such a couple, and everyone's time is wasted.

And often a department can spell out the employment opportunities in the area and ways to take advantage of them better and quicker than applicants at a distance, not to mention give more timely consideration to hiring the weaker applicant.

In the same field, the department may have consulting and alumni ties to companies in the area. This route got the husband of our latest faculty hire a plum aerospace job two years ago.

Seine said...

Wow, interesting timing. I was just thinking back to my grad school application process today and pondering this same question.

Of course, it would depend on the school, but I think you will be surprised at how much pull one department may have on another.

I know I was.

5 years ago, my boyfriend and I were both applying to grad schools: I to science PhD programs, and he to law school. He was not admitted to his top choice law school, but I was admitted to that school's science PhD program, and was also offered one of the school's few grad fellowships.

During my on-campus visit, one of my appointments was with the Science Dept Chair. He asked me what other schools I was considering and what would help convince me to come to his school. So I offered the information that my boyfriend was actually not admitted to the Law school there. The Chair thought a little, and then said that he would make a call over to the Law School Dean to see if there's anything he can do.

The next day, my boyfriend checked his law school application status online and found that he now had 4 recommenders (he only submitted three letters for his actual app). The 4th rec was from the Science Department Chair.

A few days after that, my boyfriend's law school admissions decision was changed. I was shocked. We were both very happy with the change, and he definitely did not have any strong feelings of resentment or feeling inadequate.

Ultimately, we did not go to this school. We chose separate schools located in the same city (my program was much better, his a bit worse).

We also broke up about a year after we started grad school. While I don't agree that college grads are too young to be making decisions based on personal and academic reasons, I do wonder if we may be placing too much emphasis on personal reasons because we want the relationships we're in to mean more than what they are past college.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 4:27,

what did you write to make it obvious from you application that you are gay?

Anonymous said...

we admitted an OK applicant for China because his stellar girlfriend was one of our top choices. I wasn't involved in the admission committee, so I don't know exactly at which point the info was revealed. Anyway, the guy picks an advisor. In conversation the advisor asked him which group his girlfriend had joined. Guy turns bright red and says "we split".
We have a strong suspicion that they were never together, but because he knew that in the past we had accommodated a couple (real one) from his school in China, he made up the story.
Unfortunately I've seen some students use tricks like this one to their advantage....

Anonymous said...

The story by anon @ 10:39 raises an important point: Should a department try to determine the depth of a relationship? If a top applicant can say "I'm dating another applicant" and secure the admission of somebody who might otherwise not get in, the department has to decide whether they will work to verify the authenticity of the relationship, or just just take the applicant at his/her word.

In the later case, you're effectively granting every stellar applicant the discretion to get another student admitted. In the former case, you're only doing this for serious relationships, because you want to help people balance work and life but not grant an arbitrary privilege to every top applicant. However, restricting this to work/life balance means you may need to breach some work/life boundaries to determine the authenticity of the relationship.

I'm deeply uncomfortable with this.

Anonymous said...

When I was looking for a grad school, I wanted to live near my long-term, serious, long-distance relationship with. I wanted the long-distance part to end. I applied to the department closest to him, which also was doing research I found interesting. My approach was to focus on my interest in the department, but I also volunteered my personal reasons for wanting to move to the area. I would have felt uncomfortable withholding that information -- after all, I was hoping to learn from and work with these folks for several years, I figured they would know sooner or later, and if it was a problem for them, then I didn't want to be there.

@American in Oxbridge: you wrote:
"It does seem too as though a greater proportion of super-star female prospects are married or engaged and have far more considerations of this problem than male prospects. I wonder why that is?"

Women have been marrying about 2.5-3.5 years younger than men for at least 100 years (at least in Norway: http://www.ssb.no/english/magazine/art-2005-01-31-01-en.html). In 2006, the U.S. census office estimated that the median age of first marriage was 25.9 for women, 27.5 for men.

The reasons for this gap seem to be unclear/unknown, although it is easy to speculate... possibly women feel pressure to settle into marriage earlier because they have a shorter time span in which to have children.

Anonymous said...

My boyfriend of 4 years and I were put in that position. I was applying for an M.A., he was for a PhD. He had been accepted in several programmes and the best were the furthest away. Taking a decision was nerve-wrecking for him. I advised him to go for whatever would be his best choice, academically-wise. I figured that he would more than probably come to regret doing otherwise, and so would I. An education is for life, a significant other... maybe not.

Now we are 1000km apart. What makes things even more gloomy is that the best PhD programmes for me would not get me closer to him. Hope is several years away.

JLK said...

Damn, what I wouldn't give for a faculty member to want me in their program that badly.....

Anonymous said...

The sad thing with a two-body problem is it never ends, and there's the real possibility that it won't be resolved fairly. The problem is compounded when you hold citizenship in different countries. My wife rejected a faculty position in her home country to extend her postdoc here while waiting for me to complete my PhD. Now I've completed my PhD, and I've been offered a nice postdoc position. She no longer has the opportunity to take the faculty position in her home country, and her extended postdoc has rendered her unfit for a faculty position anywhere. Now she's in the position where she's taking a couple years off to raise a child and forced to contemplate a career change in her very late 30s. We're happy to be together, but I'm confident she would have been much better off career-wise if she went back home years ago.

Anonymous said...

We currently have a similar problem with two search committees. Each has a person with the last name X; both search committees have their X on their short list. The question here was: are they a couple? Do we want a couple in our small department? Should this influence our decision.

We have done some searching, they are both born in the same place, went to the same schools and undergraduate schools before parting ways.

We are assuming they are brother and sister, but that still doesn't help us. Is it a good idea to have colleagues with such an outside-the-department relationship?

Should we perhaps just assume that both are good, professional scientists and ignore the same names? I have seen so many nasty scenes at schools with father/daughter professors or husband/wife divorcing.

Thanks for bringing up the topic, more food for thought.

Anonymous said...

Several people have commented that they don't see any advantage of mentioning a SO, but I would imagine it depends a lot on the field.
I am applying to professional schools, and rank is very influential and dependent, among other things on yield. My SO is in academia and is likely to have a very small number of options next year. When I tell profs that one, out of many, reasons I'm interested in applying to their school is the strength of the opportunity for my partner, I am implicitly telling them that I'm more likely to go there than they might otherwise suspect.
Schools should be able to wrap their heads around women in their mid-20s and later considering how to develop and sustain their relationships.

Anonymous said...

I sincerely believe this situation is utter bullshit. I've applied to grad school positions twice, and both times had to get in on my own merits. Nepotism has no place in academia. I firmly believe that there are lots of great students who get rejected for a variety of reasons, and giving a place to someone because they are dating the right person is completely unfair. I do like the poster @10:39 who brought up people faking this to gain acceptance. Good for them for scheming a completely idiotic system that rewards such nonsense.

I actively told faculty at my new school when someone from my previous university was trying to come to our very niche grad program solely because her husband had come to new school for another program. I don't feel bad about this at all, because frankly, letting her in would have been a mistake because it was obvious to every current student she spoke to during our recruitment weekend that she had no interest in our niche field.

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with the minority of people here who think it is not right to consider who is dating who and so on. I am a full professor in a large university and I always aim to admit applicants based on merit. There are many tough choices where people narrowly miss getting an offer. It would be very unfair to the near-miss people if they heard that a couple was recruited but one member of the couple was less qualified than them. I think nepotism/favoritism has no place in hiring decisions and in some universities it is explicitly prohibited (although it usually is worded a bit differently - i.e. a supervisor can't hire their relatives). It's funny to me that there is disagreement on this, but I have seen such a disagreement on our own faculty too. The problem with giving special accommodation to 2-body applicants is that it isn't fair to the other applicants, it's as simple as that.