Thursday, November 21, 2019

Kick-off Post for Two-Body Problem Series

Image Credit: SXS, the Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) project

The two-body problem refers to the complications of dual-working partners finding jobs in the same location. This is a special issue for academics for several reasons, principally 1) academics are more likely to be partnered with other academics and 2) jobs in academia are scarce and finding two in the same location is difficult. For women, especially those partnered with men, this becomes even more precarious as academics who identify as women are far more likely to have a partner in the same field or within academia. They are also more likely to “follow” their partner, resulting in compromising their career path for the ability to live with their partner and family.

The CSWA has recognized the impact of the two-body problem on careers for women in astronomy, and frequently posted to this blog. However, our last posts about this issue were in 2014, and we believe it is time to kick-off a new series, bringing in personal stories, insights from the hiring standpoint, and looking for solutions. If you would like to contribute a post, email the blog editors at wia-blog AT

In this kick-off post, we are sharing an interview with Timothy D. Swindle, Department Head and Director of the Department of Planetary Sciences and Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, who shared his insight into how departments and schools can address the problem. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Why is your department/school taking steps to address the two-body problem?

Almost half the people that we want to hire, male or female, have a partner who is also in academia. If we want to successfully recruit them, we probably have to help them solve that problem. If their partner is an M.D. or a lawyer or a schoolteacher, it's not an issue that we can address as a university, although we will try to provide contacts in the community.

What negotiated resources, tangible benefits, or other offers have departments implemented that have been effective? What has not worked?

Offering a tenure-track faculty line, complete with a start-up package that is large enough to allow for success, is usually effective. If the partner is not already in a tenure-track position, a staff position with a few years of security may be effective.

It is often not effective when the offer for the partner is (or appears to be) a step down in rank, e.g., from a tenured position to tenure-track or lecturer, or from tenure-track to staff.

Is it effective when departments make the offer or does the school/institution need to be on board?

The institution needs to be on board to allow the departments to make effective offers. In my institution, we have usually been successful when the partner was also in the sciences. The science departments typically have 20 or more faculty, and the department heads all recognize that there is a good chance that we will be the one shopping a partner in the future. Additionally, the dean has not held partner hires against us for future hiring plans, even if the partner doesn't align perfectly with our strategic needs. On the other hand, we have lost hires when dealing with departments in other colleges, especially smaller departments. Even if they liked the partner for a position, their dean would give no assurances for planned future hires.

Every situation is different. It works best when both partners are very strong so that the department hiring the second partner can make a strong case. But we have also had some cases where one department (or college) would cover the startup or the first few years of the partner's salary, perhaps in return for some indirect cost return. The negotiations can become involved. But the bottom line is that it's essential that the university administration, at the level of dean and above, be supportive.

What improvements have you seen in the hiring process for faculty with partners?

There is a growing recognition that a substantial fraction of the people a university wants to hire as faculty will have a two-body problem. Our department has been in an era of hiring, partly due to growth, partly to retirements, and our success rate for scientists with academia-minded partners, though not quite as good as for those who are single or have spouses in other fields, is not far off. Being better at solving the two-body problem does give an institution an advantage, given the number of talented couples on the job market.

Another improvement in the last decade or so has been the increased effectiveness of parental leave policies, allowing parents to take more time with newborns without it counting against the tenure clock. I have seen this both at our institution and at others. I know that is widespread, but a couple thinking of having children should check on that.

Anything else you'd like to add?

One of the very difficult things about this is that, unless it is a targeted hire of a couple in the same area, there is usually one partner who is the second body. Will that person be accepted as a scientist in their own right? My suspicion is that it is easier in a larger department and in a department with a more substantial history of dealing with the issue. I know of cases where that has been a problem, and that can be hard on an individual and on a relationship. For a couple where one gets a job offer, it's worth asking if there are other couples or spousal hires in the department, and if so, finding out their perception.

Tim Swindle is a Professor of Planetary Sciences and Geosciences at the University of Arizona, where he is the Head of the Department of Planetary Sciences and Director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. He has negotiated the hiring of 21 faculty members in the last decade.

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