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Partners in Science, Part One: Negotiating the Academic Job Market as Postdocs

Marie and Pierre Curie are perhaps the most famous scientific couple in history. But science has served as both Muse and Cupid to not only to the Curies, but to couples in all fields of scientific research. Figures generated in 1995 by the American Chemical Society show that nearly 40% of female chemists and over 20% of male chemists are married to other scientists. A survey carried out by the American Physical Society in 1990 revealed that nearly 70% of married female physicists and 17% of married male physicists are married to other scientists. As this phenomenon becomes increasingly common, scientific couples are finding ways to juggle two careers and relationships. In the meantime, hiring institutions are gradually becoming more attuned to the needs of the professional couple.

The extraordinary incidence of coupling among scientists, most argue, is due to the extreme time requirements of scientific positions and the fact that scientists are less likely to meet people outside of their profession who understand their passion for science. "The culture that science incites, which requires you to be in the lab all the time, makes true socialization outside of the lab impossible," says Jim McLaughlin, assistant professor of pharmacology at Tufts Medical School.

Indeed, most scientific couples agree that proximity was the greatest driving force behind their romance. For example, Kristie Boering, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley met her husband, a fellow chemist, while they were both post-doctoral fellows at Harvard University. "But," she points out, "you're not going to sustain a relationship simply because you never met anyone else."

In a similar vein, being a part of a scientific couple is more than just working in the same building or attending the same conferences. "It allows you to discuss what you do with a whole different level of sharing and appreciation," says Karen Loechner, instructor of pediatric endocrinology at Massachusetts General Hospital and a research associate at Tufts Medical School. For Loechner and McLauglin (now married) romance began not over a shared dessert at dinner, but over a shared research specimen, a slug. Peculiar inclinations, such as obsessive preoccupations with slugs, are alas, difficult to explain to non-scientists.

Although working together is what brings many scientists together, staying together is complicated by the difficulty of finding suitable positions for two scientists within the same university or geographic location. This is especially true of young scientists who have little leverage at academic institutions. While institutions such as Columbia University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill say they will exert some effort to accommodate a spouse when recruiting a seasoned scientist, they are not likely to facilitate two jobs for a researcher whose track record is not yet established. "A young researcher is lucky to get an academic position," says Bob Nelson, public affairs officer for Columbia University, "two is definitely unheard of."

Faced with the difficulty of finding two jobs, couples tend to gravitate to cities like Boston, San Francisco, and Washington DC that have a high concentration of academic and research institutions. Alternatively, couples often agree to long-distance relationships in the hopes that future positions will become available in a location where they can eventually reunite.

Post-doctoral positions are generally the easiest jobs to locate as a couple because post-doctoral advisors enjoy relatively autocratic powers for filling positions. In fact, post-doctoral advisors can be quite flexible in accomodating couples. Suzanne Admiraal, a doctoral candidate in biochemistry at Stanford University did not wish to be separated from her boyfriend and labmate, despite the fact that she will graduate before him. Instead, she found a post-doctoral advisor at Harvard University who will allow her to begin her post-doc with a collaborator at Stanford so that she can remain in California until she and her boyfriend can both move to Boston.

When two post-doctoral positions in the same place are not possible, Kimberly Gray, associate professor of civil engineering at Northwestern University, advocates taking separate jobs. "You have to work so hard at the beginning that it may actually be an advantage," she says. "Then, once you have some leverage, you can look for something together."

The "leverage" Gray and others refer to is the ability to negotiate a second position when one or both members of the couple are attractive to an institution. Gray and her husband, Jean-Francois Gaillard, assistant professor of civil engineering at Northwestern University, maintained a long-distance relationship and traveled frequently between the United States and France for three years before getting married. She had a tenure track position at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, and he was slated to be his post-doctoral advisor's successor. (France, Gaillard says, still subscribes to the 'student-succeeds-master' mentality of pedagogy.) Once their relationship progressed to the lifelong commitment stage, commuting became unacceptable. At that point, Gray began requesting that Notre Dame find a position for Gaillard. "I had some leverage," she says, "because I had other offers and there was a geology position open at Notre Dame." Faced with the possibility that they would lose Gray, Notre Dame offered Gaillard a tenure track position.

Long-distance relationships, however, are not for everyone. Loechner and McLaughlin were separated for three years while she completed her MD-PhD at Yale University and he worked as a post-doctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University. "Don't do a long-distance relationship," says Loechner. "It puts things off," she warns, referring to things like marriage and children.

Next week: finding and negotiating faculty jobs together

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