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Scientific Success: What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Does marriage sink a scientific career or send it soaring?

Several years ago, Satoshi Kanazawa, then a psychologist at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, analyzed a biographical database of 280 great scientists--mathematicians, physicists, chemists, and biologists. When he calculated the age of each scientist at the peak of his career--the sample was predominantly male--Kanazawa noted an interesting trend. After a crest during the third decade of life, scientific productivity--as evidenced by major discoveries and publications--fell off dramatically with age. When he looked at the marital history of the sample, he found that the decline in productivity was less severe among men who had never been married. As a group, unmarried scientists continued to achieve well into their late 50s, and their rates of decline were slower.

"The productivity of male scientists tends to drop right after marriage," says Kanazawa in an e-mail interview from his current office at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the United Kingdom. "Scientists tend to 'desist' from scientific research upon marriage, just like criminals desist from crime upon marriage."

Kanazawa's perhaps controversial perspective is that of an evolutionary psychologist. "Men conduct scientific research (or do anything else) in order to attract women and get married (albeit unconsciously)," he says. "What’s the point of doing science (or anything else) if one is already married? Marriage (or, more accurately, reproductive success, which men can usually attain only through marriage) is the goal; science or anything else men do is but a means. From my perspective, scientists are no different than anybody else; evolutionary psychology applies to all humans equally," he adds.

The marriage toll on women

Marriage has also been shown to have an adverse impact on the careers of female scientists. Data from the National Science Foundation show that female doctoral-level scientists and engineers are less likely to be married than are their male counterparts (66% versus 83%). Among those married, however, women are more likely to confront problems accommodating a two-career marriage--one reason being that they are twice as likely as men to have a spouse who works full-time.

Add children to the mix, and the problem is compounded. Research by Kimberlee Shauman, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, found that time off for birth and child rearing poses a significant, often irreversible, impediment to a woman’s career.

Marriages that enhance careers

Is marriage truly and inevitably a scourge for male and female scientists? Or can it help advance scientific careers? To hear some real-world viewpoints on the impact of marriage on a science career, I raised the issue on the ScienceCareers Forum .

Several forum contributors saw marriage as a source of emotional and financial stability rather than a dangerous undertow. David, a molecular biologist, met his wife while both were in graduate school. Now married for 6 years, David "wouldn’t change anything. I cannot even imagine trying to get through all that I (we) have without her as a partner."

"Having a working spouse in graduate school or as a postdoc can be a tremendous advantage since you’re no longer trying to make do on the single, low-level salary," says Rich, an engineer. "In my case, it’s also helped that I’ve been very good at making sure my career is part of my life--and not the other way around."

"I’m a final year Ph.D. student," says another. "We both are in medical research, and she’s got a master's degree and believe me, it helps to be married. We both don’t have enough money, but there’s a lot of happiness as each day is exciting, a great future to think about."

Kristen married her closest colleague 6 months before completing her dissertation and is satisfied with what she calls her "in-lab" and "at-home" collaboration. "One major advantage is that we are both scientists, in a similar field of research, and we understand the drive and passion that is part of the profession. Having someone who understands you and supports you wholeheartedly is a great asset through grad school, the postdoc years, and beyond."

Last month, when I attended a writers' conference in New York, one of the speakers was Sreenath Sreenivasan, an assistant professor and dean of students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. A scene he described from his marriage evoked a vivid image in my mind. He was sitting against his pillow in bed with his laptop in hand. His busy, multitasking wife (a management consultant and mother of twin toddlers) was also working on a laptop, seated right beside him. The two were tending electronically to their demanding jobs, but they were also instant messaging each other, obviously on the same emotional "bandwidth" in their devotion to both career and marriage.

Marriages that fall apart

Some marriages aren’t strong enough to withstand the strains of a scientific career. "I was always hoping it would get better--after graduation, after the postdoc, after tenure," says Chris, a second-year postdoc in Canada. "Unfortunately, nothing improved. If anything, it got worse (more committees, more conferences, more papers, more students, more grants, more reviews, and more frustration). I would say if you are the scientist, yes, get married. If you are the scientist’s partner, think long and hard if you can live with that in your relationship," he says.

Rewton, a tenured associate professor with a 9-year-old child, couldn’t agree more about the personal challenges posed by a scientific career. "The balance of work and home life has always been an issue in our marriage. There is a certain scientific culture that is difficult to relate to for a nonscientist," he says. "It was a more serious issue earlier in my career when I was jockeying for faculty jobs, etc., but it is still an issue."

"I was married to a fellow scientist, but the relationship deteriorated after I got a faculty position (and he didn’t). My new job forced us into a long-distance marriage (300 miles) which didn’t survive," says Elizabeth.

Nasif, the principal in a Mexico-based organization called Biology Cabinet, recounts that over 30 years of marriage, his wife was jealous of the time he devoted to his career. As his work continued to increase, she became bitter and finally left. He doesn’t blame her. "What bothers our wives is neglect. Buy her a rose bouquet each week, when you purchase scientific supplies for yourself like a book, a microscope, a Petri dish, etc."

Marriages that never happen

Many scientists complain that the very nature of a science career limits opportunities to find a partner. "Much of science is disproportionately male," says Chad, an engineering trainee. "There were weeks during graduate school where I literally did not speak to a female. I also remember attending parties of 50 people or more, yet you could count the women on one hand; all of whom were taken."

"The moving-around issue is a huge problem," he adds. "Even if I found my dream girl, which is unlikely given the intense workload, why would she be interested? Fewer things are a bigger downer than telling a date that you’ll be moving to a distant place in the near future."

"To be honest, I was one of those people who put everything on hold through my scientific career," says Os. "However, I wouldn’t suggest others do this because meeting people and starting relationships just gets harder."

"It’s like Noah’s Ark, and you’ve missed the great pairing up," says Kelly.

According to a recent article in the German newspaper Die Zeit , it’s not only finding a partner but also starting a family that is made more difficult by a scientific career. The article reported on a study of scientists ranging from doctoral students to assistant professors. It found that a whopping 73% of 37- to 42-year-olds had no children. Explaining the phenomenon, the article noted that it is so difficult for scientists to find a permanent position in Germany that those below the age of 40 are often forced to take short-term employment without any financial or residential stability.

Forty Winks: Science and Sleep

In an effort to achieve and "do it all," many science trainees cheat on sleep. A recent report from the Institute of Medicine suggests that busy people have come to consider sleep as an "expendable luxury." Do you get enough sleep? Are your sleep patterns regular? Do you ever find your productivity compromised by sleepiness? Do you or someone in your lab have a diagnosed sleep disorder? What tips can you provide for trainees coping with daytime sleepiness or nighttime wakefulness? For an upcoming column in Mind Matters, please share your thoughts and experiences with our readers. Send your ideas to:

Making it work

Unfortunately, the academic climate often exacerbates the problems inherent in scientist marriages. "The situation of young families can be especially problematic given the long road (from undergraduate to graduate to postdoc to junior scientist) that certainly extends through a woman’s fertile years," says a postdoc, who is also a parent of a young child. "The Whitehead Institute, Caltech, and Stanford have made steps in the right direction, but the current training environment is not 'family-friendly', " he adds.

This postdoc then rattles off his wish list: more liberal leave programs that allow graduate students and postdocs time off; small grants to hire technical or institutional support staff to help manage experiments when a sick baby has to be picked up from daycare; assistance in defraying the costs of childcare; loan assistance for postdocs; options for part-time work; and comprehensive administrative, financial, and legal assistance.

Other trainees note that juggling science and marriage often requires sacrifice as well as flexibility: giving up a job opportunity to allow a partner to remain in his or her lab, missing a family event to keynote a conference, or being late for work because of taking care of a sick child, for instance. "In a perfect world, you could have it all, never sacrificing anything for either marriage or career," says Liz. "The world isn’t perfect. Is it worth it? Every minute."

"Sacrifice is a two-way street. Sometimes you sacrifice time in the lab to spend with a girlfriend or a wife, … but I can tell you it’s well worth it. In the end, when your friends get married and have their own families, your parents pass away, and families move apart and you grow older, your gel box isn’t going to be there for you on the holidays and those moments when you need someone for support," says Bob. "Really, what’s the point of discovering the greatest thing in the world if you have no one to tell it to when you come home?"

Resources to Re-enter Research After a Career Break

--The Institutes and the Centers of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) along with the Office of Research on Women’s Health award administrative supplements to existing research grants to hire "reentry candidates," individuals with a high potential to return to an active research career after taking time off to care for children or attend to other family responsibilities. The supplements pay for full- or part-time salaries, fringe benefits, and other associated expenses.

-The Daphne Jackson Trust offers scientists wishing to resume their scientific career after a career break two-year part-time fellowships that cover expenses for a research project in a U.K. institution or company, as well as some retraining.

--The Wellcome Trust offers Career Re-entry Fellowships of 2 to 4 years to European postdoctoral scientists wanting to resume a career in biomedical research. These include a salary, research expenses for a project in a U.K. institution, and the opportunity to retrain.

--The Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF) offers 2-year Marie Heim-Vögtlin return grants to Ph.D. students and postdocs in all disciplines to carry out a research project within a university after a career break.

--The German Helmholtz Association offers 2-year reentry fellowships ( Wiedereinstiegsstellen) that may be used in any of the Helmholtz research centers. Further training and childcare costs may be part of the funding package.

Irene S. Levine is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in many of America's leading newspapers and magazines. Trained as a psychologist, she works part-time as a research scientist at the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York, and she holds a faculty appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. She resides in Chappaqua, New York.

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