Thursday, July 6, 2017

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: How to deal with the two-body problem

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!


It's a story all too common in academia: two partners wanting to build up a life together, but each of them aspiring academic careers. Finding an academic position in itself can be very difficult, but finding two academic positions at the same university or in the same city is even more challenging. It's called the "two-body problem", and most universities decide to plainly ignore the situation and just hire somebody on a position that is available. Some universities acknowledge this situation, and are much more willing to hire couples or to provide support to your partner and help him/her find a position as part of your hiring package.

Being married to a high-profile (former) academic myself, while being very focused on my own academic career has sometimes been challenging. There have been a number of missed opportunities because of my family situation. But every time I feel that pang of guilt because I chose my life and family over my career, I try to imagine how my life would be without my family - and that's a rather lonely and miserable* image. I'm not even sure if my career would be where it is if I wouldn't have the support and understanding that my husband provides, as he knows the academic world, and the struggles that I face. For my mom, who is also very supportive, it is much harder to know what my career really involves.

So if you find yourself in a two-body problem situation, don't forget to be grateful for having that second body around. At the end of the day, it's all worth the headache of finding converging career paths. If you are in this situation, I can give you the following pieces of advice:

1. Ask support from your university


First and foremost, don't "hide" your situation. If you are about to graduate, and you and your partner will be looking for converging career paths, use the resources of your university. Most universities offer some sort of career development support. Take advantage of these services, and ask for an appointment with a career counselor, either for yourself, or for you as a couple. Have a meeting with a career counselor to brainstorm your options.

If you are being interviewed for an academic position, and if this position is in a new city for you, ask if the university offers help and services for your partner. This support could mean help at finding a position in the same university, or in the same city. If there are no such services available, maybe the university and interviewers will consider offering these services for the future. If nobody asks for this type of support, universities will never offer it.

2. Find common ground in an unexpected place

If you are willing to move far away as a couple, you may find common ground in an unexpected place. Academia in developing countries is developing at a higher rate, and universities in these parts of the world offer more faculty positions for recent PhD graduates. You may be lucky and find academic jobs for the two of you in a far place. If you are an international couple, you can try out options in both of your home countries to see where you can land together. I myself moved to my husband's home country Ecuador, where we were originally both hired by the same university.

3. Talk it through


If you are a couple of driven, career-oriented academics, you will need to be very open about your future together and talk it through. Which "sacrifices" are you willing to make? What is off limits for you? What are your expectations? How are you going to make things work? Don't just say that you'll do long-distance until your career takes flight, and then you'll see. If you are serious about making your relationship work, then talk about your options, and make decisions for your future. If you want to commit to your relationship with your partner, you need to have your compasses point together to the same North.

While the above description may sound harsh and discouraging, it's important to know where you stand if you're faced with the two-body problem. In every relationship, good and open communication is important. When it comes to a two-body problem couple, you need to be open and talk everything through, so that you can develop the foundations for your future together.

4. Be flexible and make conscious choices


Once you've talked everything through, you may decide that you will do long-distance for a certain period of time, provided that this option feels right for you at this point in your life. When I returned to Europe for my PhD studies, my then-boyfriend and now-husband and I had agreed on the fact that we'd be a long-distance couple for the duration of my PhD studies, and that we then would move forward and go look for a place where we could build our lives together. We knew the challenges ahead of us, but we also knew they were temporary. And at that point in our lives, it was the right decision. At the current point in our lives, however, we would not be up for another four-year-long stint of long-distance relationship. At that time, it was a conscious choice to go the long-distance route so I could go do my PhD in my dream program.

If, after talking everything through, you have decided that long-distance is not an option for you (and for most couples, it is not an option, for good reasons), be flexible in your career path. Apply to different types of positions, and don't stare yourself blind on academia only. You may be happier if only your partner finds an academic position, and you take on a government job or a job in the industry, but you can come home to the person you love at the end of the day, than when you'd have an academic position, but come home to an empty apartment at the end of the day. Define your core values and priorities in life, and adhere to these.

5. Find creative solutions


If you decide to take on a job in the industry, that does not mean that you will not be involved in research anymore. Your company may be interested in applying for funding for research projects in collaboration with universities. You may be able to travel to conferences, and/or hold service appointments. Moving to the industry does not necessarily mean that your tasks will be completely different from what an academic does. Many companies give a monetary bonus to their employees when they publish a research paper.

If you take on an academic position at an institution that may not be equipped for the type of research you carry out, as may be the case for a university in a developing country, then look for creative solutions for your research. Can you be a guest researcher at another university? Can you collaborate with international partners? Be creative, be bold enough to ask for collaborations, and build your career by laying a path where nobody has gone before.

* Note: I don't mean here that being single is lonely and miserable. I have some fond memories of my time in Brussels as a single twenty-something, spending lots of quality time with my cat. But, for me, at this point in my career and my life, imagining life without my husband is not pleasant.

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