Monday, October 05, 2009

Not Advisable

Part of my job is to give advice. I am an adviser of students, and I serve on committees and panels with an advisory role. Reviewing manuscripts and proposals involves giving advice. And, although it's not part of my job, I respond to (some) e-mails from FSP readers asking for advice.

I prefer to give advice that helps explain or at least explores some options, ideas, and/or relevant facts that someone can use make a decision. Giving advice doesn't require saying "You should do THIS" (or THAT).

Of course in my professional life I do sometimes have to say "(I think) You should do THIS" (or THAT). You should take this class. This paper should be rejected. We should hire this person and not that person. Such things are part of teaching and advising and making professional decisions.

When it comes to complex issues involving other people's decisions about school, work, or life, however, my interest in telling someone what to do decreases dramatically. That is why I am not very good about providing useful advice to those who send me email. Questions like: Should I quit the PhD program because I live far from my boyfriend? Should I tell my adviser that I detest his/her advising style? Should I accept a visiting professor position? Is it a bad idea to have a baby before I get tenure?

If I were to answer for myself, based only on my own life experiences and thinking only of what has or would work best for me, my answers to those questions are: no, no, yes, and no.

If I were to answer for someone else, my answers are: I don't know, I don't know, I don't know, and I don't know.

I don't mind getting emails with questions about Major Life Decisions (though I can't respond to all the email that I get). Sometimes it can help to get another perspective or to bounce an idea off someone else, even (or perhaps especially) someone you don't know. I hope, though, that any advice (such as it is) that I give is just one part of the dataset used in the whole complex decision process.

The most difficult question for me to answer is also one of the most common questions that I get: Should I leave [my graduate program, postdoc, tenure-track/tenured position] so that I can live with my [geographically distant] beloved?

These emails are all from women. I hope that somewhere there are an equal number of males who have similar questions about their own careers.


zed said...

I'd be surprised if there were an equal number of men thinking about leaving their careers to be close to their beloved. I don't think this is just because men think their careers are more important, or whatever. It could be that men just don't think things through- they don't think "gee, if we're apart for a long time, this relationship might not work out, and that will be really bad', they just think everything will be fine. That's been my personal experience after being the woman in this situation multiple times.

Wiliam said...

Interesting post. I've been wondering if I should switch schools to live closer to my wife. I'm a male graduate student. Personally, I'm much more comfortable talking to men when I need advice or sympathy. Unfortunately the other students I know in the department that are in this situation are all female. My advisor lives in a different country from his wife, but I haven't had the nerve to ask him about this kind of stuff.

Anonymous said...

I love your posts. Even though I often thought about asking for your advice, I restrained from it, because I know how precious time is. But it's nice to know that if I really need it, you're the type of person that actually gives advice.

Steven Pierce said...

For whatever it's worth (and though I didn't ask your advice), I'm a male reader who left a tenure-track job in order to join a geographically distant beloved. Then again, he's a male beloved, so it's not parallel at all.

CrankyMathGuy said...

Certainly males also have these questions, though (for whatever reason) males tend not to actively seek advice regarding what they should do. (We can save the discussion for why this tends to be the case for another time.)

I find it useful to take the perspective that there are in fact four types of decisions: good, bad, better, worse. Very few courses of action are one of the former two, most are some mix of the latter. It is also helpful (for me) to note that most of these decisions have tremendous impact, and that almost none of the impact can be predicted.

I recently resigned from a tenure-track position I loved in order to take a job (which I hope I will also love) at the institution where my wife has a position. I currently view this plan of action as being better than most of the other options on the table. It will have tremendous impact on my career, though it is hard to say how that impact will manifest itself.

Clarissa said...

It's just easier for men to find somebody who will follow them around wherever they need to go and dedicate her life to servicing their career. It is less socially acceptable for a man to do that for a woman.

Alyssa said...

I agree with CrankyMathGuy - some decisions are better than others, some are worse.

My husband chose to stay in my PhD city to do a post-doc while I finished up. It wasn't ideal for him, but the choice was better than the others on the table. Same for him taking a permanent position here.

It all depends on what your priorities are at the time. The great thing about it is you can always change your mind and do something else if it doesn't work out.

Shannon said...

Have you read Stumbling On Happiness by Dan Gilbert? Based on social science research, he argues that we mis-imagine what's going to make us happy and that the best remedy for this problem is to ask others who experienced similar problems. I'm not entirely convinced by his argument, but in response to your post here, he might argue that it is VERY useful to others for you to share what you have done in similar situations.

Anonymous said...

I think the social acceptability of this is changing, although you're right that it's still many more women to consider leaving for their significant other (my sister hasn't gotten involved in a serious relationship for precisely that reason--she's very focused on her career, and relationships don't fit in that until later). With that said, my husband is "the follower" in our relationship, and is planning to apply to business school wherever we end for my PhD program, and we are not the only couple I know where that is the case (that is, the male partner is following). There is so much social pressure for men to provide, though, that I doubt if this close to 50% among the general population (my sample size is undoubtedly skewed, since I tend to hang out with other feminist women and their SOs).

mixlamalice said...

Once again this is a small sample, but for our post-docs, I was the one that followed my girlfriend (eg I took a post-doc that was not my first choice to be closer to her who took her first choice): as others said, it was more about the best choice on the table for both of us than about "who has the power in the relationship".

I actually think that couples that think about everything in terms of power and who is in charge are rather sad. Love is a little bit more than finding someone who is willing to follow you and your career.
I hope (and I believe) that if next time we have to make a choice, I am the one who has an offer you can't turn down, she will be willing to compromise.

No need to be a woman nor a romantic to understand that the more a couple lives apart from each other, the more chances it has to end badly.

Anonymous said...

The deal at home is either we find a mutually acceptable compromise, or the one with the worse job follows the one with the better offer.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Keeping in mind that the plural of "anecdote" is not "data," here are two about male friends of mine in academia:

1. Straight out of grad school, got the best job on the market in his year... in a location that offered his wife few professional possibilities and no intellectual stimulation. Two years later, he was on the market again. His current job is, in my opinion, nowhere near as good, but his wife is happier, which makes *him* happy.

2. Colleague who took a job in my department, at a time in which his husband's company was able to transfer him to a relatively nearby location. Husband's job evaporated, and is now self-employed. Colleague (an up-and-comer) has been encouraged to apply for a job at one of the best research unis in the country, but is not seriously considering it, because husband would be unhappy there.

Nevertheless, the question of why women *ask* (even complete strangers on blogs!) betrays a profound sense of conflicting obligations.

Anonymous said...

I am a graduate student; my husband is an established professional. If we take the track of "the one with the better job gets followed," I will never have a career in my field beyond community-college instructor. By marrying him, I have ensured that I have a partner who will have a "better job" for years and years. The fact that women often marry men who are older and thus more often established in a career means that women will disproportionately follow, and will disproportionately never establish their own good careers.

I am thinking about postdocs, and it is the case that the *only* reason I wouldn't go for the best is my husband and his attachment to our location. Is that good for our relationship, that I sacrifice it all and make do with second-best because he happens to be a few years older and in a different field so he already got a "real job?" Argh. This will be difficult.

Anonymous said...

Some men do make that decision. My fiance resigned his job to move across the country for me. We lived apart for more than a year before he decided to move. He's taken some verbal hits from his family for this decision, but his scientist/engineer co-workers are much more supportive.

another junior FSP said...

This is one of the reasons I married a non-academic who can telecommute! He's portable. We agreed that we would move wherever I found a TT job, but that he got veto power if he hated the city.

It's worked out great for us.

Laura said...

More anecdata:

I'm a female graduate student in a program largely populated by female graduate students. In my cohort, three of us (including me) brought a 'trailing' partner with us to grad school. Three others had a partner who didn't come along, and they attempted to maintain a long-distance relationship (with varying degrees of success). None of the 'trailing' partners are (currently) academics (although one is applying to schools in the area, and the other two are now staff at my university). All of the long-distance partners are in medical school or applying to be. There is a medical school here, but it didn't work out for those fellows. (I should mention that all of these SOs are men.)

When I was deciding where to apply to grad school, I told my live-in partner that he would have a voice in the decision, but that ultimately I had to think of what would be best for my career. He was very interested in moving back to our home town, where I was accepted, but I got into better programs elsewhere, so we went elsewhere. I narrowed things down to two places, and he expressed a strong preference for one, so here we are. He has a better job now than he did before we moved, and we're close enough for him to visit our home town on weekends, which wasn't possible before the move.

michiexile said...

Not yet at the point of leaving academia to stay with my wife, but certainly I have sacrificed parts of my career planning for us.

Not much, admittedly - I did a worse thesis than I could have, spending less time than I wanted on it, so that we could both move to the US simultaneously. We still don't live together, but we don't span the Atlantic on grad student salaries, at least.

What I _do_ do, though, and a strong contributing reason to my lack of seeking external advice, is to talk to my wife about all choices we have, solicit her opinion, her visions and her dreams, and including her in all my decisions.

Anonymous said...

By marrying him, I have ensured that I have a partner who will have a "better job" for years and years.

This is anonymous 10:33.

Under our definition if he is a middle manager in some company and you get an offer from a good research institution you are the one with the better job, even if your pay is less. Why? well his job can likely be replicated elsewhere.

If on the other hand you are a professor at a decent research institution and he gets an offer to be vice-president of a large corporation then he has the better offer as VP positions are not dime a dozen.

Anonymous said...

It isn't just an issue for professional couples. My wife is not in a high-powered profession and she doesn't make a lot of money. In fact, she's struggled to find a rewarding job that she can enjoy and advance in. She's finally found that, and while it still doesn't pay nearly as much as my salary, it's a significant thing for us, and we struggle with that issue as I go on the job market to see what other faculty jobs are out there. I have to do this, because of the nasty budget situation putting faculty jobs in peril at my school, but it will not be easy to accept an offer elsewhere and toss my wife's work situation up int he air again.

On the surface, people often look at me, a male academic whose wife isn't a high-powered professional, and assume my life is somehow easy as a result. In practice, my wife's life and work have not been easy, some of the challenges she's faced have made life challenging for us, uprooting will not be easy (but may sadly be necessary), and (to be frank) not having a large second paycheck has not been easy either.

Anonymous said...

I can't speak for anyone else, but my (male) fiancee recently turned down his dream tenure track position at an institution he'd been visiting at for a year or so, because it was unfortunately not in a place where I would be able to earn a similar offer. While I turned down a less prestigious tenure track offer for similar reasons, at least this is one situation where both of us are willing to risk our careers on our relationship. We're on the job market again this year, together, hoping to find something reasonable for both of us (as in, we can both be employed somehow, some way that requires use of our degrees, anywhere. Although both of us would, of course, love to stay in academia). While this may not have been smart for either of us, career-wise, it was the best choice for us as a future family. I think. I hope!

Kevin said...

On a less profound note, I've not been able to take sabbatical and go anywhere since my wife is not willing to give up her job for a quarter. I could take sabbatical and stay here, but that has not been very productive in the past (people keep trying to schedule useless meetings, even when you're on sabbatical). So I've built up a lot of sabbatical leave credit. If my wife ever loses her job or tires of it, we can probably take a full year off.

Candid Engineer said...

I am often struck by how extremely sensible you are.

Anonymous said...

I am thinking about postdocs, and it is the case that the *only* reason I wouldn't go for the best is my husband and his attachment to our location. Is that good for our relationship, that I sacrifice it all and make do with second-best because he happens to be a few years older and in a different field so he already got a "real job?" Argh. This will be difficult.

that is exactly what I did. Now, 10 years later, I regret it. I passed up on good opportunities because my husband wanted to stay in one location for his job because he was a few years older than me and thus always had the "better job". I did my undergrad, PhD and postdoc in the same city because of that which I've now found (10 years down the road) has really limited my professional growth. Don't make the same mistake that I did.

Bagelsan said...

I'm endlessly grateful that I didn't come out of undergrad with an SO. It made picking a grad school/finding housing very simple. Sure, eveeentually I would like to have a long-term relationship, but the convenience of flying solo is part of the reason I'm not in a rush. Being unattached while looking for a post-doc would probably be a lot easier, too, so I won't cry if I do it alone (not that I'd dump someone solely because I was post-doc hunting either.)

And, FSP, I think you must be a lot more useful to ask than a MSP would be. One female grad applicant I knew asked a male professor who was touting the MD/PhD program how women in it managed to have kids and he had had no idea at all. He and all the other MSP's had done it with stay-at-home wives, natch. Having a woman hazard a guess can't be worse than a man hazarding no guess at all!

James Annan said...

Well I never felt the need to ask anyone for advice about our (joint) decision that I would be the one to leave my job. I don't know if that makes me a parallel or not!

ExpatGrad said...

Mikael Vejdemo-Johansson wrote:

What I _do_ do, though, and a strong contributing reason to my lack of seeking external advice, is to talk to my wife about all choices we have, solicit her opinion, her visions and her dreams, and including her in all my decisions.

Edit the above to read "our decisions" instead of "my decisions" and this might have saved my recently-ended relationship.

I (female) moved to a different continent for graduate school to live near my (male) fiancé, who was unwilling to move away from the area where his family lives. This was a major sacrifice for me personally, and to a certain extent also professionally, but it seemed to be the best thing overall for the two of us, and I made the move in the expectation that future major decisions would also be made jointly, i.e. would also take into account my wishes. But after I moved and fiancé had what he wanted (we moved together, he stayed near his family), he became unwilling to discuss options and wishes for the future. Perhaps he thought that if he didn't talk about the future, things would stay as they were? I became increasingly resentful of this situation and began to equate being with him with having no control over where I lived, and being stuck forever in a place I did not want to be. This was a major contributing factor to my decision to end the relationship.

If fiancé had been willing/able to discuss options and dreams with me and follow this up with joint decision-making, we might still be together today.

EliRabett said...

Much of the time people only want to put the issue on paper, or talk to someone else about their complex social issues. They are looking not so much for an answer, but for a sympathetic listener/reader.

That's why, except for clear cases where abuse is taking place, often the best response, is something along the lines of, "I understand, You have clearly thought about this and I think you must be the person to actually make the decision. Once you make it I will be more than happy to help you in any way I can....

BB said...

My husband followed me twice for my career (we are both biomedical scientists). The first time was nearly 30 years ago.

michiexile said...

@ ExpatGrad
Edit the above to read "our decisions" instead of "my decisions" and this might have saved my recently-ended relationship.

The main reason I talk in terms of "my decisions" and "her decisions" is that we still, about 5 years out from my moving away for a job and then a Masters, live separatedly, and while the big decisions certainly feel shared and are built on mutual communication and wishes, very many decisions are so asymmetric that calling them "ours" would be weird.

I include my wife in my thought process about where to apply for postdocs; but in the end, there was no choice to be made - I got one single offer in the US and took it to be on the same continent.

She includes me in her considerations of where to go for grad school - and I do everything I can to enable her to do what she wants.

And if it's "merely" where to live, what furniture to buy, and when to come see each other, we still include each other, but the need is much smaller, the impact much smaller.

Hence my use of my. It will turn to our once we live together again - or have an actual choice for the big life decisions that isn't "Drop out, or stay on?" - especially not when the "Drop out" choice doesn't fix the basic issue: F-2 is a bad visa to make a living on, and grad school money doesn't pay for two - so my coming to the US really did mean I had to get a visa-granting job.

If fiancé had been willing/able to discuss options and dreams with me and follow this up with joint decision-making, we might still be together today.

I'm very sorry to hear this; and will take it to heart - especially as doing so doesn't change anything in our approach. ;-)

Adrienne said...

If it's any help, my husband moved states to be closer to me after we started with a long distance relationship. It was supposed to be a temporary move, but he decided to stay, which I discouraged.

My parents raised me with the firm attitude that you must take the path that is best for you so you do not move or stay somewhere just for someone else. I suppose inherent in that is that you can always find someone else.

In hindsight, my husband's staying in the temporary city turned out to be the best thing he could have done for his career trajectory - but that particular consequence was completely unforeseeable. To me, it seemed stupid he wouldn't go back to his prior situation.

In general, it is my path that dictates where my family is or will be, but my husband has very marketable workworld skills rather than academia, which makes him easier to employ than myself. His career also lends itself to remote work, so he has the possibility of keeping his current job, even if we move overseas.

So, my advice for any situation, is do what is best for you, and not necessarily for someone else. Determining what is best requires a lot of soul searching, but prior to that, I'd say complete your graduate schooling or post-doc and then decide. The TT job is a harder call to me.

Then again, I'm blessed to be the one being followed with someone who is easily employable, so I can give out heavy-handed advice.

Anonymous said...

Men do tend to value their careers more than falling in love because they are socially trained to do so.

I met my husband in grad school while we were getting MAs. He left me to pursue his PhD and love was not on his list. He was and is a serious academic. Generally in a commitment of this type(pursuing a PhD) doesn't leave room for relationships if you're serious.

But I guess fate had it's way. He was studying in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. This storm brought us together and we got back together. We relocated and got married. He's graduating this spring and I'm an advisor at the college where he's getting his degree.

He has hit the job market agressively and has a job talk. I will follow him because although I'm a feminist, I have chosen to support his career of being a professor/academic. I do have extensive experience in higher ed student services so it should be easy for me to find a good fit sooner or later when we relocate.

Marriages are about give and take and I have no problem following him since I have the Ma and he has the PhD. It's great women have husbands who are willing to follow their careers but again, in any relationship, one partner must make this choice whether it's the husband or wife.

Female Science Professor said...

Generally in a commitment of this type(pursuing a PhD) doesn't leave room for relationships if you're serious.

Not true.