It was a Friday evening. My partner and I were sitting on the sofa close to each other, eyes locked on a screen. We were not watching a movie though. Nor were we looking at the same screen. I turned to him and asked: “How pathetic is it, the two of us working on a Friday evening while we could be out enjoying dinner?” Somehow his answer did not make me feel better: “Well, at least I am being compensated for my overtime.”
“I sometimes felt I was losing on both ends, and I envied my colleagues who had partners who shared their lifestyle.” —Aurélie Ambrosi
Perhaps I should mention that at the time I was a graduate student, and my partner had become a software developer for an IT company.
That day, like many others, I brushed aside the thought that my long working hours were not remunerated as his were. I didn’t care; I loved research and was happy with my work. And sure, we were both working late, but we were sitting close to each other as we worked. That has not always been the case.
Over the last 9 years, I have worked in my native France, in Sweden, and in the United States, as a summer student, graduate student, and postdoc. In all those places my personal life set me apart because most of my colleagues had relationships with other scientists. This is not surprising, considering that many people meet their life partner while doing their studies. I am no exception to that: Erwan and I met at one of the French national engineering grandes écoles. But after we received our master’s degrees, I chose to seek a Ph.D. in the life sciences and he started working as a software developer.
These career choices made us a “mixed” academia-industry couple. We did not realize at the time how this would affect our relationship. This became apparent over the years, as differences in our lifestyles appeared and issues arose.
The mobility question
I decided to go abroad to do a Ph.D., without giving Erwan much say. While pursuing my master's degree in France, I spent 5 months in a research lab in Sweden. While there, my principal investigator invited me to stay in the lab for a Ph.D. and I didn't hesitate to accept. I think Erwan understood how important it was for me to pursue my goals.
I chose Sweden because I knew Erwan could be persuaded to follow me there. He liked the idea of living in a Scandinavian country and could speak some basic Swedish. However, he soon realized it would be difficult for him to find a job in Stockholm without first acquiring some work experience. So he took a position in Paris, and we spent my first 2 years of graduate school apart, accumulating frequent flyer mileage. Erwan eventually quit his job for a new one in Sweden and we were reunited.
After I finished my degree, the obvious next step was a postdoc at another institute. For Erwan, it was more advantageous to remain at his current company. Moving to Sweden had been my career choice, so it seemed fair that the next choice would be his. I stayed in my Ph.D. lab for one more year until Erwan won a promotion that landed him in his company's New York office. I followed him on a sabbatical, knowing I could find a job in New York if we were to stay for a longer time.
Whereas two-scientist couples know they will have to move around before (hopefully) settling down in tenure-track positions, it is not so in industry. In the end, I was lucky that Erwan was willing and able to move without having to give up his career.
Different life patterns
Being in a “mixed” couple, I was intimately exposed to the lives of people my age who were not pursuing academic careers. I felt acutely the gap between their life situations and mine. We scientists were all students, often on stipends, running experiments that required long hours and weekend work, with no immediate prospect of long-term stability. My partner and nonscientist friends all had permanent jobs with good incomes and regular working hours.
On a practical level, this meant missing the occasional dinner party because of a late experiment, or thinking hard about whether I could afford a getaway weekend with our friends. But I could deal with these minor inconveniences.
The occasional drop-by-the-lab was OK with Erwan, but the need to constantly adjust our weekends and evenings to my lab schedule wore on him, and I was angry with myself for denying us more time together. On the other hand, whenever I postponed an experiment so that we could have a lab-free weekend together, the decision left me stressed. I sometimes felt I was losing on both ends, and I envied my colleagues who had partners who shared their lifestyle.
I eventually found my own balance, mostly by learning to prioritize—did I really need to run that assay right now?—and not to fret over my decisions. It helped that Erwan’s job was so demanding that he, too, occasionally worked weekends and evenings.
Building a career in academia is often associated with other, big-picture timing issues, including delays in the traditional milestones of adult life such as marriage, mortgage, and children. Erwan once thought he would have his first child before he turned 30, as most of his friends did. I always knew I was likely to be past that age, just as my colleagues were. There aren't any good solutions to issues like these, but we learned to deal with them as we went along by being honest with each other, and with ourselves, about our priorities and the compromises we were willing to make to try to make them work for us.
The plus sides
What was probably the only career-related issue I could have predicted from the start—the fact that I would never be able to tell my partner about my work—turned out not to be an issue. Erwan could no more understand my latest experiment than I could decipher the program he was coding. Neither of us expected help or insightful comments from the other. That turned out to be OK: My lab was already full of scientists, so I didn't need another one at home to discuss my research project with in-depth.
We did talk about work, and this turned out to be very beneficial for me. Every day, I practiced communicating science to a nonscientist. I learned to relay science stories I was excited about in a way that got him interested. But there was a limit to how much we could share, which made it easier for us to switch off from our jobs and turn our attention to our common interests.
In two-scientist couples, both partners understand and accept the compromises and sacrifices associated with the pursuit of an academic career. In a “mixed” couple, only one partner makes this choice and both have to live with the consequences. The two of us have managed to make it work so far—through a Ph.D., a postdoc, two jobs, a marriage, and a mortgage. Let’s see what comes next.
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Aurélie Ambrosi is an affiliated scientist in the Department of Medicine at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. She is currently on sabbatical in New York.