Life After Grad School: A Compromising Position


So here I am, 10 years after college graduation and still trying to decide what I want to be when I grow up. It turns out that when there are two Ph.D.s in a couple, it's harder than you might think.

My husband and I met 7 years ago at that nerdiest of singles' parties, a regional scientific conference. To all those lonely young scientists out there, here's a tip: The person standing at the poster has no choice but to talk with you! After a summer of frequent (OK, obsessive) e-mailing from cities hundreds of miles apart, we officially began a long-distance relationship. Luckily our model organism is easily transported and didn't seem to mind a trip through the airport X-ray, so our monthly visits weren't too disruptive to our research. After a year and a half, "Sam" finally graduated and took a short postdoc in my department so we could be together while I finished my own Ph.D. degree. Shortly after I graduated, we were married.

From there on, things got harder, at least for me. My husband has always been a step ahead of me in his career, so his career decisions have been the driving factor in our choices as a couple. Because he wanted to take a second postdoc in another city, I rushed my thesis writing and graduation date and moved to a city I had never wanted to live in. He has always seen himself as an academic. And knowing the difficulties of finding two academic jobs in the same city at the same time, I chose to investigate other science-related fields--tech transfer, industrial research, commercial science, patent law--some of which genuinely interested me, but some of which were merely available. So although this second postdoc move has been great for his career, it has been a struggle for me to find a comfortable niche, in part because graduate school provided very little information on nonacademic careers and definitely because I had very little time to consider options before we moved.

Make no mistake: I freely chose to put my career second to my husband's. I have no desire for glory and no huge scientific ambitions, although I do truly love science. But it is also clear that, as a couple, we could have made different choices, promoting his career while also nurturing mine. Unfortunately, when both of you are scientists, compromise is inevitable.

Now we have the opportunity to do it better. My husband is on the job market interviewing for faculty positions, and when we make a final choice it will be based on opportunities for both of us. I have geographical veto rights. Academic departments or universities that actively accommodate me as well as my husband get higher ranking. I am also applying to graduate programs to receive specific training in a science-related field that I know I will love. Although this might require us to live apart for a year or two, the end result will be worth it.

The career conflicts of the last several years could have put a great deal of stress on our marriage. It has certainly put a lot of stress on me. But our relationship is strong, my husband is supportive, and nothing is more important to me than my family. For those who find themselves in a similar situation, we offer the following advice: Try to be absolutely clear about what each of you wants and needs before making career decisions. Ignore peer pressure about what you "should" do with your career and follow your heart. Both of you should be willing to compromise, but only to the extent that you can live with your choices. Be sensitive if it was your partner who compromised this time around, particularly if he or she is having a hard time. Most important, try to keep a long view: Nothing is permanent, and a short period of discomfort might be a necessary step toward satisfying careers for both of you.

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