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The 700-km Commute


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Geologists Dominique Lattard (52) and Volker Schenk (57) are very close; in fact, they've been married to each other for 20 years. But in a geographical sense they are not very close at all: Dominique Lattard is professor of experimental and theoretical mineralogy at the University of Heidelberg; Volker Schenk is professor of petrography at the University of Kiel. After receiving her doctoral degree in geology in Paris, Lattard came to Germany in 1974 to conduct research at universities in Bochum, Aachen, Kiel, and Berlin, before she was appointed professor in Heidelberg in 1996 after her successful habilitation (German secondary doctorate degree). As of the end of last year, she also is the university's women's representative. Volker Schenk studied geology in Gießen, Marburg, and Göttingen. He received his doctorate and habilitation degree from Ruhr University Bochum before he was appointed professor in Kiel in 1985.

Lattard and Schenk talk about their experiences as dual-career couple and weekend long-distance commuters.

Next Wave: Professor Lattard, Professor Schenk, for how long have you been in this long-distance relationship?

Schenk: We got married in 1983, and since then we have mostly lived in different places, with the exception of a 2-year interruption from 1986 until 1988, when we both were in Kiel together.

Next Wave: But your plans at the beginning of your careers were probably different.

Lattard: Of course, but the circumstances have always led to our scientific careers being tied to different cities. We didn't choose this voluntarily.

Next Wave: How far are you currently commuting?

Lattard: Since I became professor in Heidelberg in 1996, we have commuted between Heidelberg and Kiel.

Next Wave: Have you split up the burden?

Schenk: The distance is more than 700 kilometres each way. We travel alternately, so each of us visits the other one every other week. The train ride takes 7 hours one way, which means that each of us has to travel 14 hours every 14 days.

Next Wave: Isn't this exhausting?

Lattard: After such a long time, you get used to it. I can work on the train; that usually works very well.

Next Wave: How did this dilemma of having to commute start out?

Lattard: The problem didn't exist in the beginning. We met each other in Bochum in 1974. I was a German Academic Exchange Service ( DAAD) fellow. Prior to that, I had received my doctoral degree in France and a permanent position at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris. When I came to Bochum, Volker was a PhD student. I enjoyed the year in Bochum, not only because of him, but also because the work environment was very productive. After my return to France, I actively sought a position in Germany and got a scientific assistant position in Bochum in late 1975.

Schenk: After I finished my doctoral degree, I got a position as a scientific assistant in Bochum. So my career seemed to run a pretty normal course.

Lattard: The commuting started in 1983 when I had reached the term limits in Bochum. After that, I took a position at RWTH Aachen while Volker was working on his habilitation.

Next Wave: So you were the one who started commuting?

Lattard: Yes. We gave Volker's career some priority. As a matter of fact, it is important to point out that it was quite difficult for women to find adequate positions in those days, because we were discriminated against.

Schenk: That's absolutely true. It was very common to place men on permanent or assistant positions while women were "tolerated" on temporary or project-funded positions.

Next Wave: Did the need to commute have any influence on your decision to get married?

Lattard: No. It may have had minimal impact, but in general not.

Next Wave: When your terms in Bochum and Aachen came to an end, did you try again to find jobs at the same geographic location?

Lattard: That turned out to be quite difficult. We had agreed that we would go wherever the first one of us found a job. But Volker got his appointment in Kiel immediately after he finished his habilitation. So I followed him to Kiel, although I had not yet found anything there. It wasn't easy for me. A decisive moment for me occurred at a scientific convention, when a colleague of mine seriously told me that since Volker had gotten the offer, I could stay at home now. That was the last thing I wanted to do! That really was a big setback for me. The only things I managed to get in Kiel were a few temporary jobs at the university, but I never got rid of the feeling that I was no more than tolerated there.

Schenk: I tried to support Dominique, but that was regarded by others with mistrust, especially because there were two other couples in my work group. One of these couples, by the way, has solved all the problems arising from being a dual-career couple by sharing one full-time position. But this wasn't possible until 1998 and was a difficult process until it got through.

Next Wave: Was there an opportunity for your wife to get a position at your institute?

Schenk: The institute didn't want it. That was also due to the competition among the work groups. Internal infighting should not be underestimated. And even if Dominique had gotten a position in a different work group because of her different scientific focus, people would have said in secret that it was only to support me. Envy can be a major incitement.

Next Wave: The time in Kiel was really frustrating for you?

Lattard: Definitely. I had no chance to get a job in Kiel, I couldn't start my habilitation, and when I applied at other places I was told more than once, "If your husband is in Kiel, you won't come here anyway." But after these frustrating times, I managed to get a job in Berlin in 1989. It was a 1-year temporary contract, reduced to two-thirds part-time. Since I already had my doctorate, I was overqualified for this position, but I was just happy to have found something, and my new colleagues welcomed me warmly. When the university started a women's support programme a little bit later, my position was turned into a full-time assistant's position. And I was almost 40 by then! Nevertheless, the time in Berlin was very productive. I completed my habilitation at 44, and then I got the offer from Heidelberg.

Next Wave: Do you still have hope that you might work in the same city one day?

Schenk: No, I think we have come to terms with the fact that this situation will last for the remainder of our professional careers.

Lattard: I'd consider a half-time position if this option were available ...

Schenk: ? which is problematic because half-time positions are rather unwanted in the scientific community. It is still highly unrealistic that two people share one professorship; this is still a taboo.

Next Wave: Does the necessity to travel affect your work schedule?

Schenk: Certainly. We both have full work weeks, and I mean real work weeks. We have not become so-called "DiMiDo-professors" because of our situation. ["DiMiDo" stands for "Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday," and is a colloquial term for professors who rather seldom show up at their institutions. - Ed.] When I leave for Heidelberg for the weekend, it is not before 16.39 on a Friday afternoon.

Lattard: We usually try to keep our weekends free from work, which is sometimes really difficult during the semester. During the week, I need some avocation, too, so I am trying to do something other than work on two nights each week.

Next Wave: And during the week, you communicate by telephone?

Schenk: Yes, we talk every day. It helps us reflect on the daily business, talk about problems or frustrations. It really is an advantage that we work in similar fields and environments. We have a good understanding for the other one's situation.

Next Wave: Do you think that you would still be able to live in one place for a longer period of time?

Schenk (laughs): Yes, it is not a problem at all.

Next Wave: Are there any positive side effects from commuting that much?

Schenk: We got to know several cities, which wouldn't have happened otherwise.

Lattard: We often also meet other interesting people on the train, sometimes other commuting scientists.

Schenk: From our experience, there are a lot of scientific couples who commute between places. If you want to meet scientists, just take a train across Germany on a Friday afternoon or evening.

Next Wave: What could be done to improve the situation for such dual-career couples from your point of view?

Lattard: Solutions are not easy to come by because scientific positions in Germany are tied to a certain place. The prevailing hierarchical system also obstructs solutions. I would favour the idea of creating portable jobs or funding schemes. The CNRS in France has created such a scheme, which includes portability of the position. Although it is anchored to one place originally, you are free to choose whether you want to stay there or move to another place. And if your partner happens to be bound to a certain location, you could just move there with your own position. Such a scheme would also be helpful for German universities in general, because there's a lack of postdoctoral positions overall.

Schenk: The active support of job-sharing models should be considered, too.

Next Wave: Do you have any advice for others who are in a situation similar to yours?

Schenk: It is difficult to give general advice because situations vary individually. One thing is for sure though: Our situation would be much more difficult for two people who just got to know each other. It requires a strong bond between partners. But in retrospective, we can both say with conviction that we would again decide to pursue scientific careers.

Lattard: Most certainly. Maybe today it would also be easier to combine career and a family, something that didn't work out for us because the situation was very difficult.

Next Wave: How do friends perceive your unusual relationship?

Schenk: We know many other couples with science careers, so I think we are not really regarded as unusual. Only the finance office thinks this: We keep all our tickets because some people there obviously think that our marriage only exists on paper.

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