Taking One for the Team


I am a rare breed: a man who gave up a promising career in order to support a woman. I admit it--I'm proud of this fact.

Well, OK: My career wasn't that promising. I was a graduate student at a top-notch research university, but my department was, at the time, among the university's weaker ones. My grades were excellent and my publication record was strong. I was several years ahead of my wife, so I used funds from one of the grants I wrote as a graduate student to pay myself a postdoc stipend. By the time my wife had finished her degree, my adviser had retired and I had taken over his lab. My productivity did not diminish.

But it was a really lousy time to be a physicist looking for a job. I got my Ph.D. in 1992, which may well have been the worst year of a historically bad job-market cycle. Distinguished scientists from the former Soviet block had been gushing west since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Industrial labs were cutting back on basic scientific research, unleashing even more distinguished senior scientists onto an already poor job market. Most annoying to young, ambitious scientists like me, a whole generation of physicists seemed determined to keel over at the bench at 80 or 90 rather than retire the way the elderly were supposed to, and the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled, not too long before, that colleges and universities couldn't force them out.

My record was strong, but my prospects, frankly, really weren't that good. Applications for every opening numbered in the high hundreds, often more than a thousand. Princeton physics graduates with excellent pedigrees were taking jobs at community colleges and third-tier teaching colleges or doing second and third postdocs. Yet another scientist-shortage prediction--a prediction, by the way, that was partly responsible for drawing me into the field in the first place--had proven wrong, absurdly so in this case.

On the other hand, my wife's career prospects were looking promising. She was a very good scientist working in a field, environmental chemistry, that had actual job openings--not many, granted, but some. Her publication record wasn't as strong as mine, but her letters of recommendation were far stronger. Undeniably, she had the better package.

We conferred and agreed that we'd take the first good offer, whomever it went to, her or me, and deal with the consequences, although we didn't spend much time figuring out what those consequences might be. We fully expected the offer to go to her. It did, and she accepted it.

By that time I'd grown a bit tired, not of science but of my little corner of it. My science was becoming algorithmic: Apply the same set of experimental techniques to a different material and publish the results. Publishing was easy but not meaningful. Someone obviously cared about those results, because I never had any problem getting my work published, but, increasingly, it wasn't me.

I was also determined to do whatever it took to preserve my marriage. If forced to choose, my wife, too, would have chosen her marriage, but we both knew that that choice--giving up a career--would be harder for her than for me. She loved science more than I, and I was better dealing with unstructured time. I was confident that things would turn out OK in the end. Another important factor for me was that deep down I had always wanted to be a writer.

Things did turn out OK in the end (or at least for now), but the end was a long time coming. My wife's offer was in Maine, which is not exactly the center of the scientific universe. Science opportunities do not abound here. It was at a small college with little possibility of creating an extra faculty position. Besides, though I was happy to follow my wife to Maine, some residue of masculine pride prevented me from asking her new employer for favors. I can't explain why; it was a personal thing.

So what did I do instead? I wrote, although at first I didn't publish anything. I did housework, odd jobs. I wandered aimlessly, through city streets and shopping malls. I spent long hours alone, first in our third-floor walkup in town, then in our house in the country, while my wife worked 80- to 100-hour weeks.

The house in the country was a big improvement over the third-floor walkup, but it was lonely. I was able to get out into the woods, which makes for much better walking than a shopping mall, except when the snow is past your waist. I cut, split, and hauled firewood. One winter I hauled four cords--about 15,000 pounds of it--a couple hundred feet out of a valley and up a 40-foot hill. Eventually I gained the courage to tackle larger projects around the house: replacing doors and windows, or installing wooden floors--neither of which, you'll notice, has much to do with crystal-lattice defects in solids. Although I managed to make a (very) little money freelancing during this time, and although I worked a couple of part-time jobs, my life went on like this for about 5 years.

It may seem ironic that someone--me--who took preposterously long to make a career transition now makes a living writing about career transitions. But that experience is, I believe, my most important qualification. For, despite it all, I was fine, and I grew a great deal from the experience. I'm a wiser, happier person because of things I learned during those difficult years. I learned that graduate work in electromagnetic theory does not help you rewire a house. I learned that simple things can provide great satisfaction: simple work done well; a clean house; rice meticulously washed; meals well prepared. I learned that good work is important--that it can save your life--but that, for me at least, one kind of work is just as good as another kind of work, as long as it is done with skill and care.

My wife, meanwhile, fought her way through the usual challenges faced by young scientists working at small colleges: learning how to teach courses she never took; starting up a research program while managing an oppressive teaching load; dealing with tenure pressures and associated political shenanigans. She, too, succeeded: She was tenured last year.

Are there lessons in our experiences that might be valuable to other dual-career couples? I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader, but for what it's worth, I'm happy to add my own spin: You have to think long and hard about what you need--not just what you want, but what you cannot do without. If you hold out for two great careers you might end up getting everything you ever wanted. Or you may not. You have to be sure that you can deal with the consequences if things don't work out the way you'd hoped. If you're smart and flexible and you persevere, even if you don't end up with the careers you always thought you wanted, you can still have a very fine life.

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