Being the partner of an academic is not too dissimilar from being a military spouse. Both of these groups must often follow their significant others to unfamiliar locations, which can result in fewer suitable employment opportunities. Due to lack of access to flexibility, specifically location variety and location independence, these trailing partners are often forced to “opt down” into lower paying, less challenging positions, or leave the workforce entirely.
This problem can also affect academics who marry other academics since job offers don't usually come in pairs. As a result, a lot of couples in academia have to make a tough choice: split, go long-distance, or sacrifice.
"We call it the 'two body' problem, after the scenario in physics when a pair of particles interacts with each other," consultant Simon Rogers wrote for The Guardian in 2012. "In our case, though, it comes about when the demands of an academic career collide brutally with the obligations of being but one half of a couple, with owning a home, and with generally having a life. But while physicists can solve their two body problems with a few deft equations, the real life equivalent is significantly less tractable."
Werk spoke with a married couple who both managed to secure tenure-track positions at the same institution. They overcame the two body problem, but it wasn't easy—and their colleagues haven't fared as well. For purposes of anonymity, we'll call them John and Jane.
At first, John was the trailing spouse. Jane was offered the tenure-track position at their current institution, so John left his non-tenure-track position and followed her across the country, negotiating a hard-to-land job at the same school: a one-year, full-time visiting position. This is very rare, John tells us, but it's still not ideal. It meant he had no job security from year to year and had to hit the job market each year.
What happened next, though, was even more improbable. After reentering the job market, both John and Jane got tenure-track offers at another school, which they used as leverage to get John a tenure-track position at the couple's current institution. "It felt amazing," John tells us. "It was a completely and categorically different mental existence for me. Last year was the first year I did not go on the academic job market in five years, which for me at least is a very stressful and often disappointing process, so life is infinitely better for me now."
John and Jane know they've hit the professorial jackpot, so to speak. "We know tons of horror stories from our friends who are not half as lucky as us," John says. "We're friends with multiple couples in which both partners have PhDs but only one is in a tenure-track job, while the other is only working part-time (e.g. teaching adjunct classes) or working a staff position they are very overqualified for."
Indeed, some schools do make accommodations for trailing spouses. Perdue University's Dual Career Assistance Program, for instance, "provides assistance to spouses and partners of faculty members who are seeking faculty and non-faculty appointments at Purdue." And a dean at Georgia Institute of Technology told ASEE Prism Magazine the school does everything they can to find trailing spouses work, either at the school or elsewhere in Atlanta.
But when universities are less funded or more isolated, this is easier said than done. "I know of folks who have gone into long-term unemployment or underemployment in order to be near their partners," Jane reveals. "Our current institution is a wealthy school in a very small rural community, so the employment options outside of the university are incredibly limited for white-collar professionals.”
John tells us he and Jane are also friends with couples in academia who have to live across the country from one another and can only see each other on weekends. He and Jane were determined not to follow suit. "I also remember a much-loved mentor of mine—who is brilliant and successful and whom I absolutely respect—telling me that I might just need to get used to the idea of a long-distance relationship during my early career," Jane says. "We were unwilling to do this, and it is even more untenable now that we have an infant."
The two body problem also impacts women more than men, as both John and Jane have witnessed. The Atlantic reports female professors were more likely to have a spouse or partner with a doctoral degree—54.7 percent to men's 30.9 percent—and more likely to have a spouse who works in academia—49.6 percent to 36.3 percent. Tara Nummedal, an associate professor of history at Brown University and a member of the school's search committee, tells the magazine she has noticed women will often turn down a job offer because her husband cannot or will not leave his job. "The person who ends up getting the job," she said, "is a man who has a woman who is willing to follow him, or is single."
While inflexibility affects most dual income households today, the problem is felt even more acutely when at least one partner works in academia—but flexibility can go a long way. John and Jane have some professor friends whose spouses' private-sector employers allow them to work remotely, for example. And that's a win win both for universities and private sector companies alike as they work to solve their talent attraction and retention problems and beyond.