Sunday, January 21, 2007

Two-body situations

There's been a brief flurry of posts about dual career scientist couples (well, here and here at least, and see also this thread). One thing that struck me was that it seems to be mostly the female halves of the couples are writing about this issue, not the male ones. So even though our situation isn't particularly exciting or noteworthy, I thought I'd add a few thoughts from my perspective.

Actually, I'm not entirely convinced it is such a unique experience for scientists (or even academics). Dual career couples are pretty much the rule rather than exception these days (except perhaps in Japan) and the need to compromise and negotiate on career and personal goals must be rather similar in all cases. But I suppose scientists are generally expected to move fairly often, and suitable jobs are probably more sparsely located than for say two school teachers, lawyers, doctors or any combination thereof. Therefore, scientists probably come up against this issue more than most.

The foundation of our solution is to work in the same field. Both of us were happy enough to move straight out of our PhD specialities (maths and astrophysics respectively) and do something a bit more useful. Our working hypothesis is that there's a better chance of finding two jobs in the same lab than finding two labs in the same location with wildly different foci. The first situation also gives employers the opportunity to make things happen in a way that the second does not. We've not worked in universities (except me briefly) but rather research council labs in the UK and the equivalent in Japan. It's possible that they tend to be more willing and able to accomodate than university departments, with greater emphasis on long-term employment and less on throughput of short-term postdocs.

Anyway, our experience is that our labs have always been helpful. Immediately after graduating, we weren't sure how things would work out and ended up in a long-distance situation but soon decided it was not for us. When I told my boss I was planning to leave, and why, the department director's immediate reaction was to ask for jules' CV to see if there was any way of getting her to join me rather than vice versa. We didn't take him up on it as I'd already judged that the writing was on the wall for my lab (after several rounds of redundancies it finally closed last year). At the same time, jules's boss was making efforts to find me a post at her place. On a couple of subsequent occasions when one of us has been a bit vulnerable in our positions (to put it euphemistically), the desire of the other's boss to keep their staff member in post has motivated management to solve the problems (which were essentially political, not performance-related in each case).

My impression is that in the UK at least, employers have as much of a problem finding and retaining decent staff as scientists have in finding jobs, so they can see the benefits of capturing 2 people at once and being able to keep them. If you are one in a gazillion indistinguishable post-docs hoping to work as a lab slave for ~18 months before moving elsewhere then I guess you might not have much leverage.

I can think of 3 couples in climate science, all 6 of who are fairly prominent although in each case I think it's fair to say the man has a higher profile (possibly, the females have taken on the bulk of childcare responsibilities, I don't know them personally). I'm sure there are plenty more I don't know about, especially since name-changing is relatively rare these days. Here's an article which mentions one of the pairs, in fact.

One thing that surprised me about the linked posts at the top is the number of times one person seems to have applied for a job and only later started to worry about what to do as a couple. Maybe that's fair enough if you aren't really sure whether you intend to stay together, or if one person's career is somewhat secondary (eg due to childcare responsibilities), but it's not for us. Given the high drop-out rate of scientific careers, I suppose it might be arguable that following a famous spouse around is a decent strategy - at least you'll have someone putting their weight about to get you a job. Anyway, we got married as soon as the question of joint career decisions came up (when I left my first job) and subsequently have not even applied for anything that wouldn't have at least a strong possibility of two jobs. As a result I guess we might not have climbed the greasy pole quite as high and as fast as we could have were we single. On the other hand, I reckon it's been more fun this way. There are advantages in combining two sets of office gossip, being able to attend two different meetings simultaneously (and only having to put up with to half as much bureaucratic guff) while quickly picking up the gist afterwards, and conference travelling is a whole lot more fun. Hence my post title - I wouldn't describe it as a problem!


C W Magee said...
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Gen Chem said...

I hope to be able to apply for pairs of jobs with my fiance when that comes up. We are in wildly different fields, so that will be more difficult in some ways and less in others, I imagine. I'm glad it's worked for you!