Navigating the Two-Body Problem

by Marilyne Stains, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Two years ago, my husband and I started our tenure-track assistant professor positions in chemistry at the same institution. Although it may seem impossible to many of you, (it sure seemed impossible to us at times), the two-body problem is solvable!

My husband and I met in graduate school and we had to face the two-body problem twice: first when we looked for postdoctoral research positions and then again when we looked for academic positions. I hope to share in this post lessons that we have learned from our experiences and experiences of friends and colleagues who faced this same problem.

You are not the only ones!
While we were looking for academic positions, my husband and I start looking around for assistant professors in chemistry who had their spouse in academia as well. We could count them on one hand! As a result, we thought that we would be the unusual and problematic candidate that would be perceived as less than ideal by most departments. Well, we could not have been more wrong! Indeed, approximately, 80% of women in STEM fields have an academic partner. Moreover, in my department, beyond my husband and I, three of the four other assistant professors were married when they were hired and two needed positions in academia for their spouse. Two other senior faculty have their spouses working in the department as a professor or research professor. Clearly, this is a much more common situation than we initially thought and the two-body problem is solvable! Moreover, departments are aware of the commonality of this situation and can be supportive!

Some would say compromise is the key to a successful marriage. I would say compromise or at least the willingness to compromise is the key to a successful two-body problem resolution! While my husband and I were lucky enough not to have to compromise anything for our current positions, we had several honest and difficult conversations during the application and interview processes. The easiest conversations were during the application process. We both thought that it would be easier to find a tenure-track assistant professor position in biochemistry than in CER based on prior years of monitoring the job market. We had thus agreed that we would both apply to tenure-track assistant professor position in our respective field but that I would be ok with working at a two-year or four-year college if necessary. It turns out that the year I went on the market, there were several great CER positions. Moreover the interview timeline for CER positions was earlier than the one for the biochemistry positions. We suddenly realized that maybe he would be the one who has to compromise, something we had not thought about. One department in particular was eager to push us in that direction. They provided me an offer mid-fall and bluntly told me that we were unrealistic to hope to get two tenure-track assistant professor positions in the same city and that my husband should accept what they had to offer him, which was a position at a non-research institution. The fear of not knowing if more offers will come resulted in intense conversations: what compromises were we both willing to make? What we had agreed on at the beginning was no longer applicable and both of us had to review what we thought was the best for us individually, but also for us as a couple. Based on this experience, I would provide the following advice:

  • Both of you should consider and talk about what you will be willing to do if s/he gets a job and you don’t before and during the interview process.    
  • Do not fall under the pressure of eager departments who would do or say anything to get you there. While it is really flattering, you and your spouse are a team. Resentment is an awful feeling that never ends in a gold wedding anniversary! You need to understand what constitutes an appropriate compromise for your spouse and be willing to accept it. For example, in my situation, I knew in my heart that he would have been miserable not doing research and even though I was scared I would not get other offers, I knew I could do CER in other settings than my ideal plan.

To tell or not to tell!
When you thought the most difficult part was over, here comes the interview! Beyond the normal stress of an academic interview (providing coherent one or two talks, keeping straight the name of the ten or so faculty you will meet during one day, not spilling food all over yourself during lunch and/or dinner), the two-body problem brings another level of stress: do I talk about my “trailing” spouse? If so when is it appropriate? As the Nature paper listed below indicates, there is no universal strategy! I have tested two. During the first couple of interviews, I had decided that if I was getting a good feeling about their interest I would let them know by the end of the day that I have a trailing spouse. I felt it was only fair to provide them with the full picture since there is a high price tag with a faculty line that requires extensive planning and I didn’t want to seem deceiving. I would typically announce it to the chair of the department since s/he would be the one to have to deal with the consequences and planning. While some reacted positively, for others, there were some clear changes in facial expressions after the announcement. After a while, I decided that it may be in my best interest not to tell until I receive the offer even though I felt uncomfortable about it. This was not ideal solution either. Departments may take them weeks to obtain authorization for another assistant professor line and to find funding for the associated start-up package. In the meantime, their plan B candidate may accept a position and there is thus a high risk for them to lose both candidates. From your end, it is also not ideal since you do not know if they can come through with the offer and you may have to juggle other offers while waiting for an outcome.

In our situation, we both had offers from two similar places: in one case, the department chair was doing all he could to find money for my husband; in the other, the NSF ADVANCE program was present and facilitated the process from the day I received the invitation to interview. The NSF ADVANCE made a huge difference for us by preparing the upper administration to the prospect of doing a spousal hire early on, removing the stress of deciding whether or not I should tell them about my husband, and providing funding to support the cost of this extra hire. At the end of the day, it came down to deadlines and certainty of the outcome. It was clear Nebraska could provide us with everything we wanted. 

The dual-body problem is challenging but not insurmountable. At the end of the day, it comes down to you and your spouse and your love for each other. Some couples live a part for a while, others compromise location or put their aspirations on hold for a while. We have the following expression in French to describe this process: Tous les chemins mènent à Rome (all roads lead to Rome). There is a road for you and your spouse: it might just not be straight and free of obstacles!

Finally, I would like to share the following links:

Cliff and I in the chemistry classroom of my high school in France the day before our French wedding.

Marilyne Stains, Assistant Professor
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Department of Chemistry