Renee JiJi and Jason Cooley work together at the University of Missouri (MU), Columbia, and have a daughter at home. The two met in graduate school and got married while postdocs living apart—she in Washington, D.C., and he in Philadelphia. JiJi began a tenure-track faculty position in the MU chemistry department in 2005; Cooley followed suit about a year and a half later. JiJi and Cooley sat down for a conversation about working with a spouse and their different experiences traveling similar paths. Their comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Teamwork and the two-body problem
JiJi: Work morphs in and out of the conversations at home. You have an idea while you’re drinking coffee in the morning and you have someone to talk to about it, and that’s kind of nice. We study protein folding and dynamics, and our work has become very collaborative. We both have very distinct research agendas, but collaboration has worked really well because we have different backgrounds: I’m an analytical spectroscopist and he’s a biochemist and biophysicist.
Cooley: For papers we collaborated on, we made a rule at the very beginning that the corresponding author would be the one whose student was first author. It’s the same rule that I use with all my other collaborators.
JiJi: It’s cut and dried. There’s never any argument there. But sometimes I think our colleagues see us as a unit rather than as two different people, even though we do the work of two people.
Cooley: Certainly during each of our tenure processes, there was criticism that we had not worked independently enough. I think if I had collaborative papers with anyone else, there wouldn’t have been an issue. They just singled out the papers I had with my wife.
JiJi: We met about a year into grad school. We were in completely different departments but had mutual friends.
Cooley: We’ve been a little bit off-cycle since then. Renee graduated about a year before I did and left Phoenix for a postdoc in Washington, D.C. That was our first stint of living separately. Then I took a postdoc in Philadelphia, so we were within weekend commutes of one another. We got married shortly thereafter but were still doing weekend commutes. Eventually Renee moved to Philly.
JiJi: I decided to change my scientific focus a little bit and did a second postdoc at Princeton University, which was within commuting distance of Philadelphia. I went on the job market, just to test the waters, and happened to get an offer. I took the job here with the understanding that they had mechanisms for spousal accommodation and that, hopefully, would materialize into a position for Jason.
Cooley: I still had a year of postdoc funding left. Then I moved to Missouri and they gave me a courtesy appointment, with no money or lab space. They gave me a key to the building and an ID card. Renee graciously shared her office with me, and another colleague shared lab space with me, so I could finish up some collaborations and start working on what I wanted to do in my independent lab. I was using chemicals from our chemical recycling program, and I was able to fly back to my postdoc lab in Philadelphia to get some instrument time. I also started writing some preliminary grants and spent some time talking to vendors about what I was going to need for my lab, because I knew I would have a pretty minimal startup package. It was only after I got an informal offer from another university that negotiations about a tenure-track job here started in earnest.
I’m the trailing spouse, and in some ways, I get treated very much like a trailing spouse. The fact that I came here with very little startup money to facilitate the hiring of my wife was sort of discounted when I came up for tenure. My productivity was in line with other faculty members who had come up for tenure, but I was told over, and over, and over again, “Don’t make excuses that you didn’t have any money to start out with, that you couldn’t afford postdocs or buy equipment that you needed.” Constantly I was told that.
JiJi: Up until my faculty position, chemistry had been relatively—I wouldn’t say friendly, but not discriminatory. I would get the offhand comment, without my asking, about what I should or shouldn’t wear at a presentation. My graduate adviser once said to me that he noticed that I’d gotten a haircut, but he wasn’t really sure whether he should tell me if it looked good or not.
It wasn’t until I was in a faculty position that the biases really came to the forefront. If you’re a woman, you have to be even better than your male counterparts. I was pretty much as good as my male counterparts, but that wasn’t enough. I had to be better.
There’s sort of this unconscious bias that happens at the faculty level that I think isn’t happening at graduate level. Our undergraduates are about 50% women, our graduate students are over 50% female, and yet the chemistry department here has stagnated at about 20% women. We’re doing opportunity hires now instead of open searches, and for the most part they’re all men, because the people doing the hiring are all male and their friends are all male.
Cooley: I’m the trailing spouse, but my salary was based on Renee’s salary, plus some small amount because it was inconceivable that I would make less than my wife. It was literally said that way. I said, “Fine, that’s more money for us,” but maybe I should have said it wasn’t appropriate.
My colleagues ask me out for beer every once in a while; that certainly wouldn’t happen for Renee.
JiJi: I don’t ever get asked out. My department chair once said to me, “I don’t even know you,” and I had no idea what that meant. I still don’t have any idea what that meant. I thought, “You can read my papers. You can talk to me.” But it’s true. Jason went out and played golf with him once, but nobody’s going to invite me out for a beer or to coffee even. Female faculty members go out to coffee with female faculty members. There isn’t socialization between male and female faculty members. It just doesn’t happen.
My department chair also told me once, “Your students don’t think you care about them.” I often wonder if he would ever have said that to a man. Would anyone ever even think about whether a male professor cares about them? That’s something that we just don’t think about. Nobody talks about whether or not my male colleagues care about the students, but we talk about whether the female professors do.
Cooley: We always said that we’d have a kid when we lived in the same state, so when I finally arrived here, we decided to try to have a child. Our daughter was born in 2007.
JiJi: Once I mentioned something to a colleague about being surprised how exhausting it was after I had the baby, and the response was to the effect that I would have a lot on my plate because it would be mostly my responsibility to take care of the child, even though my spouse had the exact same job as me. I don’t think it was intentionally sexist, but it highlights the bias there.
I think that I’ve experienced gender biases to the extent that they work against my ability to be as successful as I can be. I’m often competing with other faculty members who have a support system at home, so they’re not juggling quite as much as I am, and that’s fine but sometimes it makes it hard for me to be here until 10 at night.
When I came up for tenure, my tenure extension for the birth of our daughter was held against me. I was expected to have been more productive than my colleagues—not just as productive.
Cooley: It was couched as, she was as productive as the other people, but she had an extra year. I didn’t take a tenure extension for having a child. I was told not to.
JiJi: If I had waited until I had tenure to have kids, it never would have happened. After our daughter was born, I had three miscarriages. Every one of them was horrific. The hormonal shifts were huge and somewhat debilitating, and I decided, for the sake of my career, to not continue to try to have another child. I was in the second half of my 30s, and I think I just waited too long.
Cooley: We have lots of friends in faculty positions and tons of anecdotal examples of people who had kids earlier and survived. My office mate in graduate school had a child while he was in school, and his academic career survived just fine.
JiJi: The caveat is that the people we went to grad school with who had kids were all male. Most of the women waited until they graduated. And I don’t know that I would do it any differently if I had it to do again. The way that our life was, commuting all the time, I don’t know if I could have done that if I had a kid. I remember when we were both postdocs living in Philadelphia, always thinking, we could never even afford day care. We barely had any money to live on.
My very first graduate student who had a kid was female, and since then I’ve had two other male graduate students who had kids. I’ve tried to be very supportive, not because of my own experience but because I know that the career is hard enough, and actually graduate school is, in fact, a really good time to have a kid because you have the flexibility to take time off if you have an understanding adviser. I tell my grad students that they shouldn’t postpone having a family for their career because they never know what their future is going to be.