Doing the Spousal Two-Step

I am a trailing spouse. So was my wife. My parents, my wife's parents, assorted siblings and friends, and virtually every married member of the Next Wave staff is currently or has recently been a trailing spouse--or the spouse being trailed. By all accounts, this is typical. In fact, if you are pursuing a career in scientific research, there's a good chance that you are intimately acquainted with quite a few trailing spouses. You may even be--or have--one.

If you have never done it, tagging along when your significant other takes a job in a new city might seem easy. After all, they have to do all the work, right? Wrong! Trailing spouses are not now, nor have they probably ever been, the stereotypical demure and "unemployed" wife following her careerist husband as he steps nimbly from rung to rung on his professional ladder to success. In fact, the term "trailing spouse" is widely seen as a disparaging misnomer; the preferred term is now accompanying spouse or simply dual-career couple.

The reason for the semantic shift is not hard to divine: Research scientists are almost always married to other professionals. According to "Dual Career Couples," a 1999 survey of university administrators by Lisa Wolf-Wendel, Susan Twombly, and Suzanne Rice of the University of Kansas, Lawrence, up to 80% of all university faculty members have spouses who are working professionals. And in science families, both partners are likely to be scientists: the "Dual-Career-Couple Survey" of the physics research community, which is reported online by physicists Laurie McNeil of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Marc Sher of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, found that an amazing 89% of all physicists are married to other scientists.

Wan Ling Chiu and Jeff Elhai fell in love and married several years ago at Michigan State University, where she was a graduate student and he was a postdoc, both in molecular biology. It was the beginning of an odyssey that has seen the birth of three children, a tenure-track job for Elhai at Florida International University, a monthly airline commute to Boston for Chiu's postdoc, and now a shared laboratory at the University of Richmond, where Elhai teaches. Neither Elhai nor Chiu thinks this is the best solution to the problem of two academics in one family, but it could be worse. "At least we get to see each other in the same room," says Elhai. Nevertheless, both Elhai and Chiu hope to find better positions this year. And who knows, maybe this time it will be Chiu who has the job offer and Elhai who follows dutifully along!

This raises an important question. In the current academic job market, it is hard enough to find one tenure-track research position, so how are couples ever going to find two at the same university, or even in the same city? The short answer is that the vast majority of couples don't. And that means that they're having to make some hard choices. Most of those choices fall to the accompanying partner. Teaching? Research? Administration? Academia or industry? Part-time or full-time? Live apart or commute? What about the children?

The decisions can have far-reaching career implications. Now that she has left the bench, "it would be difficult, but not impossible, for me to go back to research," says undergraduate biology education professor Christie Howard ( see sidebar 3). McNeil and Sher agree. Anecdotal evidence from their study indicates that adjunct or part-time teaching posts are often the first step on the road out of science.

Joe Weber and Virginia Trimble were already gainfully employed physicists when, after a whirlwind 3-month courtship, they married. There was only one small problem: Weber worked at the University of California, Irvine, and Trimble at the University of Maryland, College Park. But the prospect of a bicoastal relationship didn't deter the newlyweds. "We simply assumed that the problem would have a solution," says Trimble. And it did. At the suggestion of their respective department chairs, they now split and share both positions, staying in Maryland from January to June and living in Irvine between July and December. There are drawbacks. "You had better be prepared to own two of everything," says Trimble. "Fondue pots, sets of cars, residences, sets of the Feynman lectures. ..."

There are no easy answers, but there are people to turn to for help. Recognizing that happy employees are productive employees and that couples are (usually) happiest when they are together, more and more universities are instituting programs to help the accompanying partner integrate into their new professional community. Although a relatively low 20% of the universities surveyed in "Dual Career Couples" have a formal policy of assisting accompanying spouses, only 15% said they would do nothing to help a spouse. "Spousal accommodation is essential to attracting and retaining top candidates," said a typical anonymous survey respondent.

Formal or informal, universities help in one of five ways: assisting the partner to find work outside the university, offering an adjunct or part-time position in the university (see Next Wave's recent repost of a Science magazine news story on this topic), splitting the original job into a shared position, finding administrative work in the university, or offering a tenure-track position.

Even with the university's assistance, finding that second job takes time. "It takes on average 4 to 5 months to find a high-level job," says Tari Alper, a counselor who helps accompanying spouses find work in and around Purdue University. And because you can't always have everything your heart desires, says McNeil, the key is to know your priorities. "You must know what you want," she tells Next Wave. "Then you can get the parts that make you happiest."

Take a short look at four couples who have solved the dual-career problem in their own ways.

Christie Howard and Dave Shintani, both biologists, have what many academic couples only dream about: two tenure-track positions at the same university. But it didn't start out that way. When they arrived at the University of Nevada, Reno, Shintani had a 2-year postdoc position and Howard just an unfinished thesis. Doubtful that they could swing two faculty positions in the same field, "we thought we would be moving on to another university soon," recalls Shintani. Instead, Howard discovered her love for teaching. Three years later they both won faculty positions, he in biochemistry, she as an undergraduate biology education specialist in the biology department. "Some people told us we were crazy to move to a small college," says Howard. "But people who don't take risks don't find these kinds of positions."

Bruce Toth is a gypsy biochemist. It all started when he decided that a tenure-track position just wasn't that important to him. His wife, Emily Toth, however, had different plans for her own career. "She was more ambitious than I was," explains Bruce, who is currently a research associate at Louisiana State University (LSU), Baton Rouge. Their solution: move as much as necessary to advance Emily's career. "My husband was one of the pioneers," says Emily, an English professor at LSU and the Chronicle of Higher Education's online font of career wisdom, Ms. Mentor. While following his wife in her quest for academic glory, Bruce has enjoyed a satisfying and adventurous career. And despite several moves, he has never been unemployed for more than a few months. "There is something about a man without a job," he says. "People are more sympathetic."

They said it ...

Not everyone thinks that accommodating partners is a good idea, and they occasionally let their opinions be known. Here are a few gems culled from hundreds of anonymous responses to "The Dual-Career-Couple Survey" by physicists Laurie McNeil of the University of North Carolina and Marc Sher of the College of William and Mary.

"They suggested that I might consider giving up my career."

"Her husband has tenure, why waste a real job on her?"

"I was told that I might be able to find lab work as long as I was willing to change fields and didn't expect to be paid."

"The department chair called me at home and asked me several questions about my marital status. He said he knew these questions were illegal but he was going to ask them anyway. ... I reported this to the dean and the search was cancelled."

"Jobs offered to us as a package deal had miserable salaries as a result of their knowing we wanted to stay together."

"One professor suggested to my husband at his interview that one way to solve the two-body problem was to divorce me."

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