A Story of Ones and Twos


If you are, or have been, a research scientist, chances are you know someone who has struggled with the "two-body" problem--the challenge for both partners in a scientific couple to find suitable jobs in the same place.

A couple of years ago, a writer for this publication wrote that virtually every married member of the Next Wave staff has been either a "trailing spouse" or the spouse being trailed. Readers of the Chronicle of Higher Education last year followed the story of Joshua and Kathleen, a psychologist and a chemist, as they sought, publicly but anonymously, to end 4 years of professional separation by finding work in the same area. Even science's most prominent dual-career couples are not immune: Marie Curie secured a professorship at the Sorbonne only after Pierre died.

Science is highly specialized, and the chance of finding a job in your specialty in a particular geographic area can be slim. Scientists often have to go wherever the jobs are, which means that when a couple needs two jobs in the same place, they tend to be pulled in different directions.

"It's still a story of ones and twos," said Laurie McNeil of the department of physics and astronomy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "Even large institutions don't hire that many people in a year."

In 1999 McNeil, together with Marc Sher of the physics department of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, published a detailed survey of dual-career couples in physics. The results were startling and well-publicized. While men and women can both struggle with the two-body problem, the survey showed that it is typically a greater barrier to the advancement of women. According to the study, more than 68% of married female physicists are married to other scientists, whereas only 17% of married male physicists have a scientist spouse. Sixty percent of respondents said that either they or their partner had to take a lower-level science job or a job outside of science in their most recent job search. Given those statistics, it's inevitable that women will end up on the short end.

McNeil and Sher reported that anecdotal evidence, including the survey results, indicated that dual-career employment difficulties lead in many cases to women leaving physics because they cannot find employment in the field that suits their professional and personal needs.

But McNeil emphasized that the problem is more universal than that. "Men are more likely to be married, and even if it isn't to a physicist, they are trying to find that second job," she said. "This is not just a problem for physicists and it's not just a problem for women."

The survey seemed to strike a chord. In recent years the number of stories about dual-career couples has exploded.

Emily Toth, the Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge English professor who writes the Ms. Mentor column for the Chronicle of Higher Education online, said questions about the two-body problem are among the questions Ms. Mentor receives most often. "A lot of people don't realize the extent of the problem," Toth said. "Often they can be a little bit unrealistic about their ability to get two good jobs in the same place."

Maresi Nerad, director of the Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education at the University of Washington, Seattle, has studied the oft-entwined issues of careers and relationships. In 1999, when she was director of graduate research at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, she and Joseph Cerny, graduate dean of UC Berkeley, published "Ph.D.s--10 Years Later," a detailed survey of graduates in a range of disciplines.

"Why suddenly it's more and more an issue is because the number of women Ph.D.'s is steadily increasing," Nerad said. National Science Foundation figures showed in 1998 that the rate of growth for female doctorates averaged 7.5% per year, though the percentages are distributed differently by discipline. In comparison, there was an increase of just less than 3% annually for male doctorates.

When two serious professionals have to make choices that will affect not only their careers but also their relationship, the stakes can be huge.

"Sensible couples should sit down and talk about it in the same way that they talk about whether they want to have children," said McNeil, who is married to a physicist herself. "It's equally critical to their lives."

"I know couples who have gotten divorced over this," she added.

One scientist who asked not to be identified recently secured a research position in the same city where his scientist wife works. But for the past 20 years they worked 1000 miles apart and saw each other every 2 weeks. "We both liked our jobs," he said. "This allowed me to concentrate on my work, and she was also happy with her work. We made adjustments." The couple and their daughter, now grown, are living together full-time.

For couples not interested in commuting there have been institutional advances, although the changes have been slow. In recent years, some institutions have begun to specify in their advertisements that they welcome dual-career couples. Some, like Purdue University, have an office responsible for trying to secure spousal employment on and off campus. Others, such as UC Davis, have set up programs to address the needs of dual-career couples. And still others, such as Cornell University, have announced plans to put in place more formalized arrangements to address the matter.

Major universities located in urban areas with other top-level schools are not actively recruiting dual-career couples, unless it is to secure a star in a certain field, Nerad said. But for institutions located in more remote areas, a spousal-hiring policy has great advantages. "They see they can have a competitive edge over Harvard or MIT for an up-and-coming, really exciting scholar, if they can offer a position to their spouse," she said. "Many of those have gained two very good people if they made an offer to the spouse, or made an attempt to find something for them."

The Partner Opportunities Program at UC Davis was able to resolve 80% to 95% of issues relating to partners or spouses of incoming faculty in its first 3 years. "We don't have positions that we can hand out, so what we try to do is work with deans in the various schools to accept these individuals, and we've been reasonably successful," said Barbara Horwitz, vice provost for academic personnel at UC Davis. The university had funded 13 faculty slots under the program last year, 20 to 24 staff positions, and also helped interested spouses find work off campus.

"There is a lot of competition out there for the very best faculty and I don't think there is any question that this is a benefit for us," Horwitz said. Under the UC Davis program, the bridge funding for the spouse's university salary is split three ways: the department of the primary job applicant pays one-third, the department the spouse is joining pays one-third, and the provost's office pays one-third.

"If everybody buys into it, it's going to be much more successful," Horwitz said. "And that's worked pretty well."

Eve A. Riskin, a professor of electrical engineering and director of the ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change at the University of Washington, said that married academics might choose to wait until the end of the interview process before mentioning a spousal hiring issue. But some administrators advise that waiting may not be the best approach. "Our dean says that waiting until the last minute to mention a partner can backfire," she said. "And if the place would allow a dual-career issue to jeopardize your chances for an offer, you should ask yourself if you really want to go there."

While ADVANCE doesn't address dual-career couples per se, the center has sponsored a workshop for deans and chairs on spousal hiring. "We might be able to help in creative ways," she said. The center is also holding seminars in negotiating for women postdocs. "Women tend to say, 'Thank you,' when men might say, 'Is that all?' " Riskin said.

Natarajan Ganesan and Thanemozhi Natarajan did their Ph.D.s together at Madras University in India and now work as postdoctoral fellows in genetics at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. They have decided that staying in the same geographical area is a top priority for them. They plan to have children and know that will add challenges to the balance they are trying to maintain.

"We knew it was going to be a challenge, but we didn't know the hows or whys exactly," Ganesan said. Now that they are on the lookout for permanent jobs, they are learning. Ganesan and Natarajan have decided that they are willing to look for work in their field outside academia if it means that they will be able to live in the same place.

Dual-career couples need flexibility, they said. "One of them has to be flexible, at least," Natarajan said. Ganesan has seen advertisements from institutes and universities that embrace dual-career couples. "It's such a welcome statement, but there are so few," he said. "We would like to see others being more flexible."

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers