The two body problem ““ it sounds like it’d be a physics problem, right? Something to do with gravitational pull between two planets or other celestial bodies is what I think of. But, as people in academia know, the two body problem refers to the problem of relationships between professional academics.
Ah, the hallowed halls of academia, where thoughts and hormones run rampant. What’s better foreplay than arguing about Proust, delineating the causes of the Zoot Suit Riots, and running sexy PCR after PCR? Yeah, I don’t know either. And given the number of long-term relationships that spring up in the Ivory Tower, it looks like I’m not alone.
There are many great things about dating and loving fellow academics, like shared understanding of what hell dissertation writing is, and the pressures of planning an entire semester’s worth of lectures in a few weeks. But there’s one really terrible, awful, no good, very bad thing about academic relationships ““ trying to find a way to end up in the same time zone.
With the dearth of academic jobs, an academic must be willing to go almost wherever for a job. This means that it’s hard to pick and choose a location that works for both people. Further, there aren’t that many jobs at any university, and it can be difficult finagling a paid position for both people in the relationship at one school.
Adding yet another twist to the problem, graduate students and post-docs often finish programs at different times, connect with people at different stages of their career, and throw a big time wrench into the job-finding works. If your partner still has a year left on their post-doc, and you are finishing your PhD and heading straight into the job market, you’re in a difficult position ““ how do you plan for your partner’s future while trying to navigate your own?
And that’s the crux of the two-body problem. It’s hard enough to place one body in a nice university position, let alone two. It really sucks. I don’t know of any solutions. I’ve seen couples that do the long distance thing for years. I see others that work desperately to align their schedules so they both finish at the same time. I see some people abandon academia all together to make life easier for them and their relationships. And sometimes, I see two happy professors, working on the same campus and having it all.
What happens with an academic couple depends as much on them, luck, and the willingness of the university to accommodate two different people on two different schedules. But there are a few things that I’ve learned about maintaining these relationships:
- Figure out what you need to be happy. Talk about it with your partner, honestly. Both people must be on the same page about where the relationship is going and what it will look like. Create a plan. Will people choose jobs independent of one another? Will you take turns figuring out who gets to make the choice (you choose University of Awesome for your post-doc, your partner follows, but then chooses University of Butt Kicking for their post-doc, and you follow)?
- Take advantage of everything at your disposal. Plan trips to see each other ““ and sign up for those damn frequent flier things. Skype a lot. Communicate, communicate, communicate. If there’s anything I’ve learned from my own long-distance experiences, it’s best to see them in person, second best to see them on video, and worst not talking at all.
- Sometimes, make some sacrifices or compromises. Nothing that would derail your life, but things that make balancing relationships and work easier. I don’t think that I’ll ever choose to follow someone, putting my own goals on the back-burner. But you know what, I am willing to have a couple workable options, and choose one that works for the both of us.
- Stay focused on what is important to you, the goals you have, and continue to re-assess how you can best reach those goals while holding on to what matters. This is like point 1, but with reflection!
- It doesn’t hurt to try to work with the university in some cases. I know people who have been given researcher positions, and who have helped write grants that would fund their post-docs in order to make working at the same university as their SO a possibility.
It sucks and that’s all I’ve got. I’d love to hear about your experiences with the two-body problem, how that shapes your experiences in academia, and how it affects your career outlook. What do you do to make it work?