The two-body problem isn’t temporary


Wouldn’t it be amazing if both you and your partner landed great jobs in the same city or even the same institution?

Hell yeah, that would be great! Even if you’re not in a dual-academic career couple, having landed two jobs near one another isn’t so easy.

I know some academics who are married to nurses and CPAs and K-12 science teachers, who have professions that are mostly portable. That offers its own set of challenges, but to academics partnered to those with less portable jobs, it sounds enviable. Those who find a satisfying solution to the two-body problem are fortunate. When my spouse and I both got great jobs in the LA area at roughly the same time, we were super-duper fortunate.

But here’s the rub: there is no real solution to the two-body problem. A two-body problem cannot be fixed, it just can have symptoms that don’t express themselves. You never stop having a two-body problem, you just go for a while without flare-ups.

Just like it’s harder to land positions with a two-body problem, it’s also harder to move to a new position with a two-body problem. Even if both partners have wonderful positions, there’s no guarantee that both of those positions will remain wonderful for the rest of their careers. Even if both people are absolutely amazing stars in their field, finding a new set of positions still isn’t easy. Universities know that moving a dual-career couple to a new job isn’t easy, so they can start taking these people for granted. They shouldn’t, but they can and often do. They realize that a pair of faculty members are unlikely to be able to move together.

Jobs have ups and jobs have downs. While the conceptual model for faculty positions is an extended career at a single institution, in reality there is a good number of faculty who switch during their careers. (I moved once, though not voluntarily.) If you factor in a partner’s job, moving gets difficult very quickly. It’s not common for both partners’ jobs to be equally satisfying. When one half of a couple has a better resolution to the two-body problem than the other half, well, that really sucks, especially when escaping from this kind of situation is difficult. (My spouse isn’t an academic, so this isn’t my situation. But I know too many pairs in this circumstance.)

I suspect that administrators, especially at teaching institutions, think that faculty are stuck at their institutions and that the institutions are stuck with their tenured faculty. Sometimes this is true. So are tenured faculty treated well to just boost their morale, and not to keep them? This varies from institution to institution, and depending on the budget. Meanwhile for those who have partners with other less-than-portable jobs who might want to move, their options for switching jobs are subject to the same constraints that happened at the outset. Though moving after tenure isn’t as easy as before tenure.

The longer you’ve resolved your two-body problem, the more likely you’re going to get a resurgence of symptoms. And when you feel like you need find a solution, it’s not simple. I just wanted to provide a dose of reality that the panacea of two tenure-track positions rarely, if ever, leads to permanent harmony. Is having two tenure-track positions, or two tenured positions, better than not having them? Of course. But this scenario could lead to a far-from-optimal situation rather quickly.

3 thoughts on “The two-body problem isn’t temporary

  1. You are sooo right, it’s not easy at all. I’m starting a faculty position in December and we are moving across the country. My husband is not an academic and his profession is pretty portable, but we are moving in a small academic town where there is only one company in his field. After a good interview (we were lucky they were hiring) he is supposed to receive an offer from them these days and we are really stressing out.
    (I love your blog, keep up the good work!)

  2. Bleh. I’m in the midst of trying to figure this out. Pretty sure I don’t want to stay in academia. But not completely sure what else to do. And now moving to a smaller area for my husband’s postdoc, where there are few jobs in my field outside of the university. And I’m supposed to be the “smart” one in my family!?

  3. I know what you mean. If you are in a TT position and all of the sudden you realize that your job is not satisfying anymore, it is so much harder to do something if your partner is also an academic. There is a certain level of guilt associated with just looking for a new job, knowing that if you move your partner will have to move as well from a job she/he enjoys.

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