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The Black Hole

Academic couples

BY BETH | APR 09 2011

I was out for dinner the other day with a friend and colleague of mine who I hadn’t seen in awhile, catching up on the goings in each other’s lives. Two big things had happened in her life recently – she’d gotten married and she’d changed jobs. What makes this relevant here on The Black Hole, however, is that she’d left an academic job (specifically, a grant-funded tenure track position) to take a non-academic job (in this case, it was in the health care sector). So of course we got to talking about that and, given my interest in the reasons why PhDs leave academia, I asked her what prompted her to make this career change after so many years of pursing the tenure track and her answer did not surprise me. Her husband is currently a postdoc, with a position that runs out in December. The grant that funds her grant-funded tenure track job runs out three month later, in March 2012 and there is no way of knowing if that grant will be renewed or not. Having a mortgage to pay and kids to worry about, it would be extremely risky to hope that her job gets funded and/or he finds an academic position in Vancouver. They aren’t really in a position to leave Vancouver. So the possibility of both of them being unemployed is very real, so she made to the decision to take on a more secure, budget-funded position. Not an easy decision by any stretch, but certainly one that many people face.
According to this report from Stanford University ((based on a survey of “9,000 full-time faculty at 13 leading U.S. research universities”)), “Academic couples [i.e., academics married to other academics] comprise 36 percent of the American professoriate.” It makes sense: when you spend so much of your time immersed in academia – as PhD students, postdocs, and profs do – there’s a pretty good chance that you are going to meet your partner in those same circles.

And even if you don’t have an academic partner, your partner’s career is likely to figure into your decision of where you work. An additional 36 percent of profs have a partner who is employed (though not an academic themselves), which means that someone looking for a faculty position has to consider not only finding a job for himself or herself, but also a job for their partner. In fact:

In independent internal studies analyzing factors influencing failed faculty recruitment, two prominent U.S.
research universities found that partner employment ranked high (number one or two) in lists that included salary, housing costs, and some 14 to 15 other factors. Similarly, a German study found that 72 percent of German scientists abroad cited “career opportunities for the partner” as a decisive factor for scientists contemplating a return home.

I can think of a few people right now who are in some stage of dealing with this issue. In addition to the friend I mentioned above, I know a dual-academic couple who both work at the same university, I know a couple where both partners are former-academics (they did their PhDs at the UBC, found their first postdocs together in another city, came back to UBC for second postdocs each and then both left academics for non-academic jobs) and I know a couple where the academic partner is seriously considering leaving academics because of a variety of reasons, with family being one of the big ones.

So, I’m interested in hearing about your experience in being in a couple, dual-academic or otherwise. Are you part of an dual-academic couple? Would you turn down an academic position if there weren’t the possibility of an appropriate job for your partner? Does your institution have a policy for hiring couples?

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  1. Dr 29 / April 14, 2011 at 18:20

    I met hon in college and then we re-connected while we were in grad school many miles away from each other. I’m finishing my postdoc and looking for that coveted staff scientist position where I’ll have some security and benefits that I lack as a postdoc. I have turned down a position (mainly because it was a 2nd postdoc, with really crazy lab rules and would have requiered a really intense move) and I wouldn’t consider something very seriously if hon’s prospects of finding a job were bleak. I’ve experienced first-hand what it feel like to be in place that doesn’t make you happy and where the science is not really getting your juices flowing. Hon has been very supportive and understanding (I took my postdoc position to be close to him while he finishes his PhD) and more so now. He’s been very encouraging saying that I need to find some place where I feel valued and like I’m making a real, good contribution … but if it the prospects of him finding a job that offers something similar are non-existent then I’m more than willing to look at said job twice and see whether it will be a win-win for everyone included. I don’t know what my current institution’s policy is on hiring a dual-career couple, but I know it mostly works for faculty-type positions and not for staff. At my PhD institution it was normal to try to find a job for the second half of the prospective faculty (we had a meeting with a couple of dual-career couples and they shared how the job search and hiring was like for them).

  2. […] a topic most of us don’t think about when we’re talking about careers in science, Academic Couples. Excerpted from the […]

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