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United States: Two Scientists and a Baby

The conventional wisdom for job seekers is "keep it simple." It's hard enough to get a tenure-track job without any complications; forget about finding two jobs in the same place, for instance, or adding children to the mix. By that standard, earth scientist Alexis Templeton and biophysical chemist Amy Palmer did a lot wrong in their search for tenure-track jobs. They were determined to stay together, seeking faculty positions in the same city, even the same institution, and they started a family just as they began searching for jobs. Yet Palmer and Templeton have ended up together at the University of Colorado, in jobs that they each wanted.

If they did so many things wrong, how did things end up so right? The conventional wisdom, it seems, is no longer always so wise. It's been eroded by cultural changes at leading institutions. And, as Templeton and Palmer's experience indicates, talent, hard work, audacity, and--especially--being ready can overcome some high barriers. "We felt ready," says Templeton. "We just felt that we had to go for it."

Palmer and Templeton have been aligning their plans and ambitions since they met as undergraduates at Dartmouth College. Templeton graduated first and began working on a master's degree at Dartmouth. When Palmer finished her bachelor's degree, she took a technician job in a Dartmouth laboratory while Templeton finished her master's degree. Then they headed west together, where Palmer enrolled at Stanford University in bioinorganic chemistry and Templeton did a technician stint of her own, in a stable-isotope lab at the nearby Lawrence Berkeley lab.

Later, Templeton joined Palmer in graduate school at Stanford, and soon they were deep into their first dual job search. "We actually co-interviewed for postdocs at some places," says Templeton. "That was our first run-through." They decided to stay in California but headed south, to the University of California, San Diego: Palmer in the department of pharmacology and Templeton at the UCSD-affiliated Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Both scientists changed direction with their postdocs. Templeton took up the study of the ecology and chemistry of microbial communities that live on the flanks of submarine volcanoes. "We're looking at the ways life can exist in these systems. We're at the early stages of trying to figure out who's present, and then we want to look mechanistically at how they do it." Palmer studies the movement of signaling molecules within and between "living cells, and in real time."

Two scientists and a baby
As their scientific paths diverged, Templeton and Palmer's personal lives became more tightly intertwined: Just as

they began looking for faculty positions together, Ethan was born to Palmer on 29 November 2004--the middle of the interviewing season.

Just a few years ago, any one of these complicating factors--the unconventional nature of their relationship; requiring two jobs in the same place; having a baby in the midst of the job search--could have caused problems. But "what we found is that many institutions have worked very hard in the last few years to be very open" to assisting new parents and dual-career couples, as well as about lifestyle choice, says Templeton: "I think the landscape has changed a lot."

"Institutions were very good about helping us, if one had an offer, trying to accommodate the other," adds Palmer. "We had no idea going into this that that would even be an option."

Universities also went out of their way to accommodate the demands of the baby. Several rescheduled interviews, and even when her hosts didn't know what to do, "they were always willing to ask," says Palmer.

And what about the fact that they were two women in a relationship? "There wasn't a blink, which was really astounding," says Templeton.

Although things were going very well for the couple--top institutions were expressing interest in both of them--the experience was exhausting. When Templeton wasn't interviewing, she was off in the South Pacific collecting data. "It was great and hard all at the same time," says Palmer. "I've never been as deeply tired as I was from November until about April when we finally decided where we would end up."

Templeton remembers when the call came and their collective future began to gel. Palmer already had an offer from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and they were waiting to hear from the earth science department, which had interviewed Templeton independently. "I was totally out of touch, in Samoa, which is where we were working," she says. "There was very little telephone contact, and we had no e-mail or anything like that." Templeton's offer finally got through, and the family converged on Colorado. Now, even the obligatory working dinners were family affairs. "We ate and mixed together, each of the individual initiatives that were hiring us, we worked out our kinks with each of them."

Now that they're settled in, Templeton and Palmer spend much of their time ordering equipment, setting up their labs, and writing research grants. Both received startup packages sufficient to buy essential equipment and support students, but support for professional staff was not a part of the deal, so Templeton is trying to scrape together funds to pay a technician to help get her lab up and running. Graduate students will soon start "rotating" into Palmer's lab, but Templeton won't have students until next year at the earliest because at Colorado's earth science department, students are admitted only after hooking up with a research group. Neither scientist is teaching yet--both got teaching-load reductions for the first year--but Palmer will begin teaching later in the semester and Templeton in the spring.

The secrets of their success
In an era when most postdocs fail to get even a single tenure-track offer, Templeton and Palmer received several, and a handful of institutions offered both of them jobs. What made them so successful?

One factor was the receptiveness of universities that, just a few years earlier, might not have been prepared to deal with the complexities they presented. This is largely a result of policy recommendations from the American Council on Education and recent, well-publicized scholarship by academics such as Bob Drago, Mary Ann Mason, and Marc Goulden, believes Cathy Trower of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, an organization that aims to "improve the quality of faculty work life." "Academe is finally, slowly, waking up," says Trower.

Apart from that, Palmer and Templeton's success was due partly to the usual virtues: talent, hard work, strong records of research accomplishments, strong letters of recommendation from well-known mentors, and so on. Yet Palmer and Templeton had one other thing going for them: They took their time, and by the time they went on the job market, they were ready.

After considering going on the market following their first postdoctoral year, the couple decided to put off their job search for another year so that they could focus all their attention on their postdoctoral research. That extra year, they figure, changed everything. "Suddenly, it was a feeling of real independence in terms of the directions we wanted to go in," says Templeton. "We felt very well established in what we were working on in our postdocs and really excited about new opportunities and looking for ways to make those new opportunities come into being."

"Looking back on it," Palmer adds, "I would say that was the smartest decision I ever made because the next year, the reason I knew I was ready is that I had all these ideas of my own that I wanted to pursue. I felt that I really wanted to study them in my own way. I felt like I was cutting the cord."

Together in Boulder
Now the cord is cut, and the three of them are thrilled with the result. Ethan, now 10 months old, "has been very happy since we've gotten to Colorado," says Templeton, "because he's not traveling across the country all the time, and he has a stable routine." As for the parents, they're both busy but fulfilled. "It feels really good to just know what it is we're trying to do and just focus on it," she adds.

Yet Palmer and Templeton still face all the challenges of beginning a new faculty position: recruiting students and staff, finding research funding, teaching, integrating themselves into the academic community, and establishing a steady flow of ideas and data. It's daunting. "I wish that there was double the amount of time in each and every single day," says Palmer. "There are so many different draws on your time that you're just not used to. No matter how many times people tell you what it's like, you just don't know until you experience it. But it's just great."

Jim Austin is the editor of Science's Next Wave. He can be contacted at

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