Women in Academia: The Two Body Problem

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:

  1. 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)?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. 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?


7 replies on “Women in Academia: The Two Body Problem”

Academic couples are not special. This is a problem for any couple because one of the two needs to find a job in a new city. As we all know, many colleges and universities are in small isolated towns that do not have many openings/options for non-academic professionals. Lawyers, doctors, MBAs, people with only undergraduate or Master degrees in science and engineering (those people are grad students at best in isolated college towns, assuming one is even at a phd granting institution) all have difficulty finding work in such locations.

My school has a habit of hiring the spouses of highly coveted faculty, or at least helping them to find positions in another department. We just hired another husband-and-wife team, which is our 4th or 5th in the decade I’ve worked here. In this case, the man is a tenured superstar and his wife is lower on the food chain. So here’s this couple who has managed to achieve the best possible result by getting hired at the same time at the same uni, but the wife has to bear the resentment of being the “plus one” who was “given” a job so we could hire her husband. I hope she has thick skin and can focus on the positives, because the poor woman hasn’t even started yet and everyone already dislikes her.

I mostly have my head in the sand about this issue. Somehow my boyfriend and I made the first transition work location-wise – we moved across the country and ended up with jobs an hour apart, although there was nearly 18 months between him moving and me moving, so as you say the timing was rough. I’m not sure how lucky we’ll be the second time. We’ve both said that if a job offer doesn’t work for one of us, then it doesn’t work for either of us, so we’ll see what happens.

The annoying part is, a significant part of the two-body problem stems from the current, largely broken (IMO) academic structure. Moving every 2-3 years for postdocs while you hunt down that elusive permanent position – that’s rough on any relationship, even if you have a ‘portable partner’. And it’s an amazing stress when you both have to deal with it.

It’s super common for one partner to get a non-tenure track job when the other gets offered a better position. You both have to decide if that will work for you or breed resentment.

It’s easier in places with more schools around. My boyfriend is in collegiate work and our preferences for places to live/work are similar, but there are even fewer jobs in his field than mine, so we’ll eventually have to discuss what it takes to make us both happy.

We’re both entertaining the idea of compromise. If I got a great tenure-track job in a place we loved (this would be a few years off, clearly), he’s said he’d consider going back to school to go into a related but easier-to-find-work-in field. If he gets his dream job, I’d take a community college teaching job–even more or less gladly–to accommodate that, and apply to local openings at four year schools as they became available. But we’re lucky that we both had already considered how limited our fields are before we started dealing with the two-body problem–we’re not making these compromises solely for each other, but also for ourselves, and we might have had to make them anyway.

Thanks for the great article (as always) A-A!

I had a two-body problem when I began grad school four years ago, and I’m sorry to say that the relationship did not last. But all you can do is work with the information you’ve got at the time, and it seemed then that we were in-it-to-win-it. He was a masters student in social work, and I was a physical science PhD student. I have a couple points to share.

The first is that at least one institution, *after I was admitted*, tried to accomodate my two-body problem. This was the University of Washington, by the way. My partner was not admitted to their MSW program, much to our frustration, because it was one of the few places we overlapped. After I shared that I was having a two-body problem with a supportive member of the faculty that I felt I could trust, she (1) called the social work department to see if anything could be done, and (2) offered me additional funding, ostensibly just so that I could visit him, if indeed we ended up in different cities. I can tell you, the fact that the department demonstrated so clearly that they valued my personal well-being as well as my academic performance meant the world to me. However, I did not end up there for academic reasons.

That’s about where my personal two-body experiences end, but I’ve gathered other pieces of worthwhile information from listening to successful academic couples talk about what worked for them.

– If you are a woman in academia, it is crucial to have a supportive partner. Ultimately, this may mean having a partner who is willing to contribute heavily to childcare, if not share it 50/50 (or more) with you. I know it’s not something every first year woman PhD student is thinking about, but childcare is an absolutely key elements to maintaining women faculty in astronomy (this is reflected in a recent study out of UC Berkeley that found that women faculty are nearly 3x as likely to be single and without children than their male counterparts)
– Relatedly, as A-A mentioned, it’s very important for both partners to assign the same priorities to things: namely, that the relationship (and more generally, personal life) come first. The reason why this matters is because personal timelines (when to have children is only one example) diverge sharply from natural academic timelines. As an example, if one partner wants to wait to manage relationship and parenting issues until their career is “settled”, this might well be in the late 30’s time period of life. Caring for the relationship has to be something both members of the couple have assigned first or equal priority to career development.
– Finally, some institutions are beginning post-doc programs specifically for academic couples. I know of at least one example, which is Northwestern University: an astronomy couple I know recently earned joint post-doc appointments there.

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