Advising on the two-body problem

Some of us choose partners with whom we want to share our lives. Partners may enrich our lives, providing support, keeping us grounded, encouraging us to dream.

But partners may also complicate our lives – and we, theirs. We may find this especially true when it’s time to plan the next career move.

A column in The Chronicle of Higher Education this weeks touches on this very topic, the infamous “two-body problem”. The piece, We Met in Graduate School, focuses on the increased number of grad students marrying fellow grad students (at least based on the author’s perception) and the idea that faculty aren’t doing enough to dissuade prepare them for the fire they’re jumping into.

The last few paragraphs offer some decent advice for mentors. The author writes:

Telling our stories might be the best gift our generation could hand down to the next. Indeed, an archive of our weird, inspirational, and tragic sagas would serve posterity well—as long as we adhere to some rules.

First rule: No varnishing. I am a firm believer in converting traumatic episodes into instructive anecdotes…

… Second rule: Be honest about the good stuff as well as the bad… we should count (and communicate) our blessings as well as show our scars.

Third rule: No pretending that we know how the stories will end—theirs or ours.

But the build-up to those last paragraphs struck me as patronizing. Perhaps it’s his use of youngsters to describe twenty-something grad students. Or the perplexing notion that the couple in question had not come to him for advice. Or maybe it’s statements like this:

If an alien landed and surveyed our program, the creature might assume that we were operating a dating service or a fertility clinic. What’s gotten into the youth of today?

Excuse me a moment …

OK. Now we can proceed.

There are a few points raised by the column and subsequent conversations on Twitter (which you can read on Storify, because I can’t figure out how to embed here) that I would like to address.

Juggling two academic careers is hard.

The column carries the tone that these young whippersnappers just don’t understand that  trying to find jobs for two academics is hard. I do not disagree with that statement. But the column seems to imply that this is a unique problem for those residing in Academelandia.

It’s not.

I get it – there are only so many universities and colleges out there. But there are a number of other career trajectories with their own limits. Consider:

  • Non-academic science careers – There is not a pharma/biotech/engineering company in every town, and there’s a fairly limited list of cities where a scientist can build a career in policy or editing.
  • Military – And you thought academia was geographically constrained.
  • Licensed professionals – If your partner has a career that is dependent on a state-issued license, it may not be such a simple thing to put stakes down in a new town. Transferring a professional license is not as straightforward as your driver’s license.

Even outside of these examples, lining up two jobs in the same city is not simple, especially in the current economy. A partner’s present and future career should not be an afterthought. Telling someone s/he has it “easy” because hir spouse isn’t in academia or can “get a job anywhere” isn’t a response that invites discussion – neither does telling a couple how much harder they’ve made it for themselves by marrying another academic.

Balancing two careers is tough. Period. More eloquently put by Dr24Hours…

The ‘casualties’ aren’t invisible.

These academic youngsters need to be warned!

They don’t see the trailing spouses who never got hired, or the couples who divorced and moved on, or the full-time/half-time arrangements that collapsed, or the adjunct professors who worked so many jobs they had scant time to be a couple. They don’t see the partnerships torn apart by publishing demands, asymmetrical career prospects, or odious commutes. The casualties simply aren’t around to instruct them.

Emphasis mine. Perhaps things are different in the Yale history department, but I’ve seen or heard about the ‘casualties’. In fact, one professor – who I had only just met – sardonically wished me luck on staying married through grad school, based on hir own experience.

Again this is not a problem unique to young academics. Deals fall through. Promises are broken. One career is stifled to support the other. Commutes or work hours erode time together. Relationships fall apart. Not every relationship ends happily, regardless of what careers couples pursue.

Mentoring might not mean what you think it means.

Mentors, don’t be offended or perplexed if your trainees don’t consult you on every major life decision whilst they are under your professional direction.

Mentoring comes in many forms from many people, especially when it comes to personal matters. In many cases, it’s not about having a designated ‘talk’. It’s about seeing dual career couples who have made it. It’s about impromptu conversations over lunch or drinks. It’s about observing actions that support partners and families. Some of us don’t feel comfortable discussing very personal matters with someone who is supervising our work, someone who will be sharing hir opinion with potential/prospective employers or collaborators. We may seek out other mentors when it comes to person matters.

If young academics do seek advice, mentors might give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re not completely clueless. I realize the column was targeted at mentors, but the condescension toward students was a bit thick. I think few are blinded by youthful optimism, believing that life together is going to be all sunshine and unicorns and rainbows. We realize that there are going to be challenges and conflicts, calling for compromises and sacrifices. But it is our path to choose.

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8 Responses to Advising on the two-body problem

  1. chall says:

    I might have become sort of bitter/cynical the last couple of years but mostly I think it’s what said in this post “it’s hard to be two careers in a marriage and make it work”. Add children and you got yourselves in a nearly impossible situation (all based on how you think about the terms “parental functions” of course but…) I don’t think it’s that strange really, tbh – children should take time and you only have that much time in a week – however, I still wonder on how to make the “now you get your career and then in a few years we’ll get me time for my career” etc…

    Mainly I just wish that it wasn’t said in a “it’s easier to solve if you choose a parter outside academia” since it’s not true. I wish I had a solution or a happier outlook on it, alas – not today ^^

  2. As someone married to a person who has a career outside of academia, I’d think it’s similarly difficult. As you pointed out, Dr. Man’s medical license is not that easily transferable (it’s a very expensive process) and finding a place that will suit both our careers is very difficult. Add Kiddo to the mix and it’s almost impossible. (We want to stay geographically close to family, because– spoiler alert!– raising a kid is hard and it’s good to have back up.) I’m getting tired of this constant message to put off your personal life until your career is established and things will be much easier. While that may be true with regards to some aspects (namely money and not having to live a nomadic lifestyle), it is not true with regards to many others like fertility and finding a partner.

    Ok, I will have some coffee and come back and try to be more coherent.

  3. jbashir says:

    side note. I’m pretty sure that piece was written my a humanist. Like much of the material in the Chronicle the focus tends to be more for humanities folks than science. As far as I can tell, everything that is bad or annoying in academia is worse in the humanities. Discussions about dual-body problems, geographical snobbery, etc. All have more of a fevered pitch to them.

    This is my way of saying, if that article annoyed you, I wouldn’t recommend reading a lot more advice columns in the Chronicle.

  4. biochembelle says:

    Things tend to annoy me mainly because they’re reflective of attitudes/behaviors I’ve witnessed. I mean, do we really need to get into a ‘who has it worst’ competition? I think not…

    Or maybe I’m just getting crankier 😛

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