Thursday, January 30, 2020

Two-Body Problem Series: Playing the Long Game

By Anonymous

Credit: Tod Strohmayer (GSFC), CXC, NASA
Illustration: Dana Berry (CXC)
This entry in the two-body problem series is an account of one person’s experience navigating the academic track with their partner. For context, the people in the relationship are white, cisgender, and heterosexual. If you would like to contribute your own story to this series, please contact us at wia-blog at

When did you and your partner meet?

We met in college. We both knew that we wanted to apply to graduate school and pursue academic careers (he's in engineering and I'm in astronomy).

Were you ever long-distance during your relationship? At what points? What were some things you did that made it easier?

We were long distance for five years while we attended different graduate schools. This was more or less intentional: I was one year ahead of my partner in school, and we had only been dating for a few months when it came time for me to apply for graduate school in my senior year of college. I was accepted to my first choice school, so I moved without knowing what the future held for my partner. The following year, he applied widely and his choice ultimately came down to two schools: one on the opposite side of the country, and one about an hour's flight from mine. He chose the closer school so that we could see each other more often, and we were then able to visit for about a week out of every month. My partner had also been accepted to my graduate school, but it wasn't a good fit for his interests; we decided that grad school was a time to invest in our individual careers.

The five years that we lived apart were very difficult -- we both struggled with feelings of sadness that intensified as time went on. Initially, we tried to visit each other on weekends as often as possible, but I found that the emotional up-and-down of frequent, short visits was unsustainable. For me, having longer but less frequent visits was a better balance. A strong support system of local friends, mentors, and mental health professionals was also critical for me during those years. On the positive side, it was clear to my partner and me that we were in the best places for our respective careers. If we had made a different set of decisions and sacrifices, we may not have been as well positioned as we ultimately were to find permanent positions at the same institution.

When were you able to live together?

We were able to live together again when I started a prize postdoc at my partner's institution. In the last year of my PhD, I only applied to postdocs in my partner's city. Fortunately, this was a major metropolitan area with many opportunities in my subfield. I had also made sure to network when I visited my partner during graduate school, and had started a research collaboration with an astronomy faculty member at his institution. This person ultimately became my postdoc host, and was wonderfully supportive.

How was searching for jobs together? What conditions did you have for accepting jobs?

In the first year of my postdoc, I didn't intend to apply for faculty jobs because my partner was still finishing his PhD. However, two positions came up that were great fits for my research, so with the support of my partner and a lot of encouragement from my postdoc host, I decided to apply. I interviewed for both positions, but didn't receive an offer. That summer, however, both departments got back in touch and expressed an interest in hiring me after all, but it was clear that it would be some months before an official offer could be made.

That fall, my partner was in the final year of his PhD, so we decided to apply for a broad range of faculty jobs together. We made a list of all the schools that were of interest to at least one of us, and then we ranked them on a scale of 1 (a bad fit) to 3 (a great fit). We only applied to schools that were a 2 or higher for both of us. We got some gentle pushback from our mentors, who felt that we were unnecessarily limiting ourselves by not applying to some of the schools that were good fits for one partner but not the other. Ultimately, however, such "sacrifices" were few and evenly balanced between us. It helped that my partner and I were 100% on the same page that we wanted to support each other's careers and that we would continue living in the same city.

Were you upfront with the institutions you applied to and interviewed with about your situation? If so, were those institutions understanding? If not, when did you make it known that you and your partner were looking for jobs at the same institution?

I did not bring up my partner when interviewing for my first two jobs. Once my hire had been approved at the departmental level, I let the chairs at each school know that my #1 priority was to find a tenure-track position for my partner. To my relief, both chairs, and the department leadership in general, were extremely supportive! They put in a great deal of time communicating with other parts of the university and working their own professional networks on my partner's behalf. Throughout the process, I felt that the astronomy departments and I were on the same team, and I couldn't be more grateful for how they handled my case.

My partner was invited to interview at one of my original two schools before any communication between our departments had taken place. On the advice of the astronomy department chair, we waited until after his interview to let his department know that I had already received an offer. I know that further discussions and negotiations took place between the departments at this point, and my partner and I weren't a part of those conversations. Ultimately, he received an offer and a strong startup package. For context, my partner and I were married before these negotiations started.

Once you and your partner received offers, what was the negotiating process like? Were the institutions willing to consider your requests? Were there any examples of an institution going above and beyond? Were there any examples of institutions unwilling to meet your conditions?

In the end, we were deciding between three schools: at #1, we both had faculty offers; at #2, I had a faculty offer and my partner had industry offers in the same area; at #3, I had a faculty offer and the principal opportunity for my partner was a lectureship. While the astronomy department at school #3 was very supportive and looked for creative solutions, we ultimately decided that #1 and #2 were better fits for my partner's long term career goals. Because he much preferred a faculty position to industry, I let school #2 know that I planned to decline as well. They responded by increasing my startup package offer. I shared that new offer with school #1, who was mostly able to match it, and my partner and I accepted our offers there. I didn't have any particular skill at negotiation here -- my strategy was to be as transparent as possible -- but I really benefited from department leadership who understood how to marshal resources.

Do you have any advice for couples seeking dual appointments? Anything you wish you had done or asked for? Anything that worked really really well?
  1. Play the long game -- while everyone's situation is different, we found that prioritizing our individual careers early on set us up for success when it came time to look for permanent jobs.
  2. If you feel overwhelmed, seek professional support -- because I was the "senior" partner, I put a lot of pressure on myself to solve our initial two-body problem by succeeding on the postdoc job market. This caused me a great deal of stress, which I was particularly ill equipped to cope with while my partner and I were living apart. I ultimately sought professional help, which I would recommend to anyone who is going through a stressful time no matter what the reason.
  3. Expect an equal partnership -- at every stage of my career since college, my partner has been my biggest fan, and has encouraged me to pursue my goals to the fullest. On the job market, we did our best to move forward in ways that fulfilled both of our career ambitions, and to make sure that we'd leave the process with no regrets.

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