The two body problem: Academia and Marriage

Hello readers!! In addition to our regular topics here at darwinbookcats, I thought it would be nice to give you a glimpse into the life of academia. Unless you are actively in the thick of it, you may not quite understand what it is all about. Also, no one really warns you about the ups and downs of it beforehand, so maybe I’ll help better inform some people who are thinking about getting into this wonderful/crazy life.

I don’t think many people realize the struggles that academic couples go through to balance finding the perfect job and maintaining a happy family life. I thought I would provide a little insight into that today.

Hubby and I are both scientists. He has completed his PhD and I’m working on finishing mine in a year (fingers crossed). We both want careers at the university level and as a result we run into what is known as the “two body problem”. Two qualified scientists looking for two jobs in the same geographic area where two jobs usually aren’t available.

So how do we and other couples in academia deal with this situation? Well, I’ll start with how we have had to deal with it so far. Hubby graduated before I did. I got a masters degree before beginning my PhD in the lab next door to my hubby (more about this and committing to graduate school in a future post), so I am behind him by a couple of years. Well, when one graduates in the esteemed field of biology, one has to do a post-doc to even have a chance of really getting job. What is a post-doc? Well, basically you go work in a lab that is doing something slightly related to your PhD, but where you can learn new techniques and obtain a new set of skills and knowledge.

Well, hubby had to look for a post-doc and did so by looking at labs he was really interested in based on research articles the labs were producing. Labs in different states than where we live now. I thought I would be OK with this situation, but I wasn’t. It led to me having a lot of anxiety issues. You see, hubby and I are originally from Louisiana, so we basically only have each other up here in Maryland. If he were to move away, I would have no support system since we have no family up here (closest relative is 5  hours away) and most of our friends have graduated and moved on because that is what happens when you are in grad school. Anyway, after much deliberation we decided that living apart would not be ideal. We love what we do for a living, but it is not worth sacrificing our happiness of being together. Luckily, hubby was able to find a post-doc in another lab on campus, still studying vision and still working with fish.

How have other people handled similar situations? Well, my best friend “K” and her now husband “J” did post-docs five hours apart from each other for two whole years. They took turns going back and forth between Syracuse and Manhattan. It was stressful and not ideal but they got through it. Towards the end of their post-docs, they both got job interviews, “K” state side and “J” for a job in South Africa. “J” is a paleontologist and unfortunately the job market is even worse for those guys compared to other types of biologists. So, when considering the money situation and career advancement, they decided that they would move to South Africa. Luckily, “K” should be able to start working in a lab over there so her career doesn’t come to a halt.

We also know several couples who are professors who have lived apart for years before finally being able to work at the same university. This includes raising kids while living apart!! One professor told us that the situation was less than ideal and that it really sucked to realize his kids were growing up without him being there. It’s hard when you have two people who worked hard to get where they are and don’t feel like they should have to sacrifice their dream job.

Some couples are dealing with this by actually splitting academic appointments. Two people sharing one position, each working half time. Some universities are becoming more open to this idea. It allows more flexibility, especially if you have kids. Also, it allows both individuals to keep working on science, allowing the possibility for future career advancement. Here is a short article from 2004 that you can read about this situation :

So what’s in hubby and I’s future? Well, we arent’ sure where we will go next. Since hubby is further along in his career path than I am, we are in the process of figuring out if hubby wants to do a second post-doc or if he should start start applying for jobs. Jobs may be difficult for hubby to obtain right now since he really hasn’t had a chance to publish much from his new lab yet. Also, I plan to graduate next summer, but who knows what will pop up. Sometimes research doesn’t go as planned.  I am willing to be flexible with my career path. I love teaching and don’t mind doing that full time if that is where I end up. Also, hubby and I aren’t opposed to sharing an academic appointment. We are just going to play it by ear for now since in academia you don’t really get to pick and choose where you end up, you basically go where the jobs are. The only thing we are sure of for now is that we don’t want to live apart.


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