Kelly J. Baker

Editor at Women in Higher Education

The Two-Body Problem and Us

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This is Part Two of a two-article series by Kelly J. Baker on the two-body problem. Here, Kelly and her husband Chris chat about their own journey as an academic couple.

Read Part One—in which Kelly explains why academic couplehood is especially unfriendly to female scholars—here.

Chris and I got married in between semesters during the senior year of our undergraduate studies. We had originally planned to wait for graduation, but—much to our parents’ chagrin—we pushed up the date out of consideration for graduate school.

This harebrained idea was mine. I wanted us to enter our respective programs (religious studies for me, computational science for him) at the same university as a married couple, a unified front against whatever we might face. We had to negotiate two bodies and two careers from the very beginning. We were naturally concerned about the impact that graduate school would have on our married life; what we didn’t realize was how much an impact our marriage would have on our career options.

During graduate school, Chris was offered an internship in New Mexico, 23 hours away from our home in Florida. He accepted it, and we had a long distance relationship for 11 of the next 20 months. We were competent at living separately. We missed each other, but the internship bettered Chris’s CV and his job prospects (and there’s something to be said for augmenting grad school stipends with a real salary). Eventually, the distance was too much, and I left Florida to live with Chris. He continued his internship while finishing his dissertation. I adjuncted while writing mine. The experience highlighted a fact that we had previously suspected: We weren’t going to be content in a long-distance relationship. Moving back together was a temporary reprieve. The two-body problem soon caught up with us when we both entered the job market. The two of us will split the story from there.

Kelly: So we decided to enter the job market at the same time to see what kinds of jobs were available, but we also prioritized staying together. What happened is that we had interviews in very different locations, ranging from East Coast to the Pacific Northwest. In each place, we tried to figure out if there might be jobs for each of us.

Chris: It was a great time! Every time you sent off a job packet, I would spend a few days on Zillow looking at real estate. After all, my dissertation was done and Angry Birds hadn’t been invented yet …

Kelly: It was not a great time! From our first moments on the job market, I was hopeful that I might find a tenure-track job, but I was also afraid that my career might always come second because your degree was favored by academia and industry. Moreover, I feared we might have to live separately to pursue our careers. Otherwise, one of us might have to defer, and it seemed that it would be me. I also didn’t want to be a woman who gave up her career for her husband’s. What I eventually realized is that decisions about careers are never as easy as they might appear. There are so many factors to consider, including relationships and family.

When did you first realize that two academics might have a problem finding jobs in proximity to one another?

Chris: For the first few years, our two-body problem was apparently a hypothetical one. My understanding of the two-body problem at the time was similar to Wikipedia’s current definition: that situation where two sufficiently significant others are presented with career opportunities that are incoincident. (The Wikipedia authors were thoughtful enough to present a list of solutions; if only we’d read that page sooner …) We never had simultaneous job offers.

Kelly: It would have been much easier for you to find a job with a Ph.D. in computational science, so you were supportive of my job hunt and willing to leave your postdoc to follow me. Looking back at my early years on the market, I’m sort of in awe of your tireless support. You were always in my corner encouraging me to apply for any job that I wanted to. I think you were even willing to move to Oklahoma for me. (Seriously, Oklahoma?) You seemed ready to move and start another career if I found a tenure track position. Why?

Chris: Part of it was the logical realization that jobs in religious studies were going to be relatively hard to come by. Which isn’t to say that there were a ton of jobs “in” computational science; alas, I befell the curse of interdisciplinary training. Still, by virtue of my academic training and work experience, it did seem that there would be a greater number of opportunities for employment, whether in industry, government, or academia. When it became apparent that some of the tenure-track jobs you were applying for were receiving literally hundreds of applications, it seemed foolish to turn anything down. Solve the hard problem first, right? In the worst-case scenario (Oklahoma?), I could always go back to grad school. If at first you don’t succeed …

Kelly: Two Ph.D.’s are plenty for our household. Really.

While you were willing to follow me, search committees seemed to assume the opposite: that I would defer my career for yours. On every campus visit I ever had, I was asked about my husband and what he would do if we moved. Assumptions about traditional gender norms appear to be alive and well in academia. As a married woman, my candidacy seemed predicated on how my husband might react to a job offer. I was completely gobsmacked by this attitude. I assumed that academics, of all people, would not perpetuate gender stereotypes, but I was wrong.

How did others react to your desire to follow me? How did hiring committees treat you when they realized your wife was also an academic?

Chris: For the most part, there wasn’t a lot of concern. I primarily applied for jobs in industry and at government labs. My marital (and, ultimately, paternal) circumstances were occasionally discussed (per HR policies, under my own disclosure). When this happened, managers and interviewers both seemed quite content with the explanation that my spouse would be able to find a job nearby.

It is a fact that all of my interviews were in multi-university cities. However, there is something to be said about convincing yourself that the candidate that you want to hire is going to accept the job. In my experience (both from the inside and the outside), academic hiring committees seem to treat the hiring process much more personally than do industry managers—this is “our” tenure-track position that we’re handing out, after all. Industry and lab jobs exist because there is work that needs to be done and they need someone to do it; most academic search committees don’t seem to share that urgency.

There were some outliers for me, however. In particular, a manager at one of the national labs where I interviewed repeatedly expressed concern over the possibility that my spouse would force us to move after he’d gone through the personal trouble of hiring me. He was a former academic.

Kelly: My marital status, unfortunately, became a key part of my candidacy. I should have never worn my wedding ring. Yet I wanted to be honest about who I was. Additionally, no one ever advised me that my marriage might become a problem to potential employers. No one gave me the “hide your husband and kid(s)” talk, which I find to be a problematic method to manage sexism. In hindsight, it was likely a terrible idea to wear my ring and signal my marriage. Do you remember how much we talked about whether I should wear my ring? Did you even consider hiding your marital status?

Chris: I recall this wedding ring discussion coming up in the later years, after you’d had a couple of telling conversations around the subject. But in the early years, I don’t think it was something that I was aware of as a potential problem. In the interviews I had where I didn’t know anyone, the discussions about family were positive.

Kelly: So marriage and fatherhood made you appear more stable, while marriage and motherhood seemed to erode my competence and accomplishments. Maybe search committees feared I would refuse their job offer or that I would request a hire for my husband. I can’t really know why I didn’t get offers, but the focus on my husband couldn’t have helped. The irony, of course, is that I would have taken any of the jobs I applied for, even if it was in Oklahoma, and we had already decided that I wouldn’t negotiate a dual hire. No one ever asked me what I was willing to do, but they did ask repeatedly about my husband. In one conference interview, search committee members even implied that my research was more like a hobby than a job.

Talking about these incidents still makes me so angry. My CV, hard work, and assurances of mobility couldn’t balance out the threat of my wedding ring. What I now know is that there are plenty of studies that expose the bias against married women in academia; I just didn’t realize this during my many years on the job market. Our two-body problem never became a problem. It was pretty much resolved because I never received a job offer.

Chris: The two-body problem as we currently understand it is actually a three-body problem, involving the applicant, the significant other, and the hiring committee, and describing a peculiar system in which one of the bodies is often repulsive to another. Unfortunately, as Wikipedia tells it, though three-body problems have been studied for hundreds of years, they do not in general permit an analytical solution.

Kelly: Imagining this as a three-body problem is a more accurate reflection of the actual problem. While the two-body problem lays the blame on the couple, this is really a problem, as you note, for the couple and the employing institutions. The two-body problem appears as a result of the couple’s choices, which it partially is, but it’s also compounded by the attitudes of hiring committees and their institutions. More importantly, this is also a gendered issue, and there needs to be more reflection about the consequences to candidates and institutions.

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