The two body problem

In academic circles this is termed the ‘two body problem’ (if you’re planning on using google right now add in ‘academia’ unless you want to read about celestial physics).

The two body problem is essentially an issue that arises from couples having short-term contracts and an extensive geographical range of jobs but limited localised job opportunities. The balancing act needed in a 21st century relationship where both partners have the right, and possibly the desire, for a fulfilling career and family life is not limited to academia. But it is one of the major employment areas where this ‘two body problem’ causes issues.

In essence, if you want to be an academic post-PhD you usually have to score at least one or two short-term postdoctoral positions before settling into a permanent position. Where you can find these positions will be driven by research groups, funding availability, timing, politics etc. Competition is fierce and I know many people who’ve moved across the country or even the world to secure their next post. Complications arise when you are in a relationship where the other person is in the same position, most cities only have one institution, if you’re lucky two, and the chance of two suitable jobs coming up at the same time are slim. Other post-PhD research-related jobs in industry are also limited in many locations.

It’s not that academics are more likely to date other academics that makes this problem prevalent in these circles. Doctors, lawyers and vets all marry other doctors, lawyers and vets. But many other trained professionals have a variety of employment opportunities in each location.

Before I was even faced with the two body problem I kept coming across it in the science blogosphere. Reading through some of these posts (this post was triggered, for example, by a recent post at Red Lips and Academics) I’m struck by how often they’re written by women. Are traditional family values forcing women to bear the brunt of this problem? Or is it just the gender-stereotype that women think and worry more about the future than men?

Caroline Bicks writing in the New York Times in 2010 about her two body problem seemed to suggest the issue was greater for the woman; with her desire to work over have a family questioned as she applied for tenure track positions; “is the husband going to be a problem?”.  The woman-centric view is also discussed in this Nature article which, interestingly, claims that women are far more likely than men to have partners who are fellow scientists. (Do you think this is true? I’d love to see the stats on that).

Personally, I think I’m young enough that I won’t appear as a ticking biological clock at any interviews I attend and will have as equal a chance at a job opportunity as my other half. I’m lucky to have people around me who think we both deserve every shot at what we want, whatever that turns out to be. It’s not going to be easy, and like any problem everyone has different ways of dealing with it, we’re still working on ours.


4 thoughts on “The two body problem

  1. Thanks for the link back to my blog. I love this post! It brings up so many questions that my post didn’t cover. I think “the two-body problem” seems like more of a problem for women because we’re more open to talking about our struggles. My boyfriend is struggling with it too, but is he willing to write a blog post? No, but he’ll tell me privately. It’s just not as acceptable for men to admit to their problems and that they’re having trouble handling something.

    • Well congrats on being freshly pressed the other week! I hope you managed to make things work long distance with your boyfriend. I like to think things happen for a reason so who knows what opportunities will come from our situations?

      Happy blogging – I’m enjoying reading your posts.

  2. I’ve been having this dilemma in my head for a bit. My boyfriend isn’t in academia, and in some ways that makes it more difficult as he doesn’t seem to understand why I will probably have to leave the town we live in when I’m finished with my PhD. The flip side is that with his skills, he can work anywhere (he did a Computer Science degree), but part of the problem is asking him to quit his job and follow me where I go. I think academia kind of selects against people in relationships in some ways, but there are plenty who make it work, so I guess it’s just a case of working it out as we go along…! I hope that you are able to make things work 🙂

    • Sometimes I think people must make it work as there are lots of couples in academia…but do you think a lot of them get together much later? When they have more permenant positions possibly? Or are at least on their way to that? I guess there’s nothing you can do but go with the flow and see how things turn out (and be grateful for Skype, internet, texts etc. – when my parents lived in Singapore when they were first married they had to record tapes to send home to England!).

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