Monday, May 9, 2011

58. The one-body problem.

When both a wife and her husband have PhDs, the difficulty of finding two academic jobs in the same place creates “the two-body problem” (see Reason 48). But it takes only one PhD to a complicate a marriage. When one member of a pair makes the long journey through graduate school to a terminal degree, the stresses of that process are shared by both. Moreover, graduate students not only have little income (see Reason 12), but they also tend to be in debt (see Reason 1), so marrying a graduate student often means supporting a graduate student. Once that student has finished his or her academic program, a new problem appears.

For those who received doctoral degrees in 2003, it had taken a median span of 10.1 years to progress from a bachelor’s degree to a doctorate. Imagine that you marry someone while you are in the early stages of a doctoral program. In the time that you spend working toward your PhD, your spouse may go through a series of promotions into a nice position at his or her company. Upon graduating, you will be thrilled to land a job in your specialized field on the other side of the country (see Reason 16). Your years of work, after all, have been spent in a discipline in which few jobs will ever open, and in an extremely competitive academic job market. Unfortunately, your spouse’s company is in an industry that has no presence in that part of the country. Do you ask your supporting spouse to abandon a position (and salary) that has also been the result of years of work, so that he or she can follow you to an entry-level position?



35 comments:

  1. And it doesn't end with that first academic job. If you don't get tenure, or if it wasn't a tenure-track position in the first place, you could be moving again. And again. Meanwhile, assuming your spouse has been willing and able to keep moving around with you, he or she is probably becoming resentful and depressed. So are your children. The constant uncertainty is horrifically stressful. The repeated moves are financially and emotionally expensive. Don't ask me how I know this. Just about the only thing that has kept us married through five academic jobs in three states and two foreign countries is the fact that my skills are portable and I've been willing to take what I could find in the way of employment. If I'd been really invested in a career, our marriage would be long gone.

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  2. When I was finishing up my undergrad, a lecturer warned me that unless I went to Grad School A I'd be wasting my time, since I'm (happily) married and therefore stuck in City X. Alumni from other local Grad Schools B, C, D, E, and F have to go up against the "A list" (not to mention applicants from the Ivys and other distal prestige players) for the local jobs.

    Like a moron, I picked Grad School D anyway. Their reputation was that they were strong in my intended subfield. It turns out that those profs are just strong in assholery, so now I'm studying another subfield altogether, at a second rate school, knowing that if I'm dumb enough to bother finishing I'll have the prestige of being called "Dr. Jerkface" instead of Mr./Ms. Jerkface...while I'm filling out job applications to temp because the only jobs within commuting distance went to the applicants with a pedigree.

    Reason #1: The smart people are somewhere else.

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  3. Just read a hilarious comment on a web forum about the university of melbourne - apparently at the same time the university is launching a massive advertising/PR offensive, the university is refusing to provide its graduate history students with desks! Apparently the desks had to be sold to raise extra revenue. There's no question of it providing computers to its students, obviously

    It beggars the mind to what universities will sink to next, perhaps forcing their graduate students to bring tents and foldable chairs to use as offices?

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  4. Well, I posted my disagreement last time, so in the interest of being fair & balanced, I'll add an "amen" to this one. I got married at about the same time that I finished my PhD, and then began the job search. Because academic jobs were so much harder to get, we had to relocate based on where I got offered a job, and my wife left her job to follow me. Now, we're very happy with how things turned out in the end, but the funny part is that my job, whose application process took about 3 months in total and forced us to move 800 miles, pays about 12% less (with no cost-of-living increases in sight) than the job that my wife got after looking for a couple weeks.

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  5. This is a good reason, and definitely one that bears repeating. It's something that a motivated 21-year-old getting might never think of as a major problem. However, I'm sure several 29-year-old PhD holders are only too well aware of it. It also highlights how the long length of graduate education (6-8 years on average) isn't something that is seriously discussed with young potential scholars.

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  6. I feel like this could spawn an entirely new blog...100 Reasons Not to Date Someone in Graduate School, maybe ;)

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    1. One of my very good friends learned that the hard way and now screens for it on OkCupid. Frankly I do not blame her one bit. I wouldn't have dated me while I was in grad school either.

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  7. I just finished m M.A., and am not sure whether to continue my PhD (if I don't continue, they'll start charging me loans). The women in my department don't want to get married (now). And I'm not sure if any of them or me will ever find employment. But all of them are beautiful....
    M.M.

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  8. I make more than my partner who works full time with a good job. The issue with this whole blog is based on why MOST (not all) people shouldn't do a PhD in soc. sciences and humanities. If you can make 35-40K a year doing it, than its not so bad. My PhD funding is enough to pay off my undergraduate loans as well. Maybe its only applicable to the USA, where the nation as a whole seems inhospitable. Canadian PhDs, even the 'rift-raft' obtain substantive levels of funding

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  9. @Anonymous 7:17

    Do you mean "riff-raff"? I don't think there is such a thing as "rift-raft," not even if you have a PhD.

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  10. The one-body problem can be even worse than the two-body problem sometimes. At least with the two-body problem, both spouses understand employment prospects in academia and know they will both have to make sacrifices. Plus, there's always the (incredibly tiny) chance of scoring a spousal hire.

    There's also the fact that leaving academia is viewed very harshly (is this going to be a future post? I have a lot to say about that, having plans to leave academia myself...) so even when it's much more practical for the academic spouse to change careers--say the other spouse has moved up the ladder in his/her job and makes 1.5 times (or more) the salary that the academic spouse will ever make--the academic spouse won't budge. It's not just all of the time they've spent working on their PhD, it's also the idea that the "life of the mind" is the only noble profession and anything else would be "selling out."

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  11. "the academic spouse won't budge. It's not just all of the time they've spent working on their PhD, it's also the idea that the 'life of the mind' is the only noble profession and anything else would be 'selling out.'"

    (Please note: I don't mis/understand this to be the attitude of Anon 8:53.)

    This elitist attitude is yet another reason to steer clear of academia: the snobbery, often based in illusion. My "non-doc" partner has a richer, more stimulating career and more balanced life than I ever could if I were to stay in academia. He's more relevant, his work impacts more people, he enjoys it more, rarely complains.

    Koolaid-drinking academics who buy in to that "anything less than pursuing the life of the mind = selling out" crap have no business marrying outside the profession--they're just contaminating the real world by spreading the misery of this toxic mess.

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  12. I'm backing up Anon 8:53 in the call for a post on how hard it is to leave academia. When I left my program (as one of the top students) it was like leaving a cult. I was trash talked, looked down upon, ostracized, etc. I don't think they could understand why I would want to leave their dysfunctional cultish little family of narcissists.

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    1. To: Anon May 10, 2011 926; Your statement reminds me of many such statements about cults and cult-type environments. (Burning man fanatics, for example.) People act like that because they don't want to admit that anything they are involved in is less than fantastic. Very strange.

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  13. Have to agree with this. I got married before grad school and divorced at age 25 when I got my masters. The divorce was brought on in part because my spouse was miserable about having to relocate. For the next four years, I didn't get involved with anyone in a serious way because I knew I was going to move again once I got my PhD.

    I was able to move cross-country and now have my dream job, but given that I didn't remarry until age 37, if I had wanted to have kids, or if it would have bothered me to be single for so long, that would have been rough. I just didn't want to put anyone else through the stress of having to relocate for my job. Now that I know non-academicians who are miserable because they had to relocate to the University of BFE in order for their spouses to have a shot at tenure, I know I made the right choice.

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  14. "University of BFE"? Or do we not want to know?

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  15. I am the only person I know who has the same non-academic partner now as when I entered the program. Everyone else's relationships ended in tears and recriminations. Actually, I know one other person who managed to stabilize her relationship to a non-academic by dropping out of her program, but all the other folks who stayed in got dumped.

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  16. Depends who you marry and what they do. I've been married 15 years and moved a couple of times to further my academic career. It wasn't a problem for my partner as she is a nurse and was happy to try somewhere new. More difficult more recently with the kids and schools etc (the 5 body problem?)

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  17. @Anon 5:06
    I think University of BFE = Butt Fuck Egypt.

    I am in a department that prides itself in its study of "culture." But with the rare exception of an occasional concert, there is nothing resembling genuine culture within about 100 miles of campus. My first year I went to "artwalk Thursday" and overheard an artist at the local library complaining about the abysmal art scene in the city where the aforementioned "genuine culture" resides. The basis of her complaint wasn't that the art scene there was too competitive, but rather that it was somehow "bad." Munching on wilted crudite, I took a spin around her exhibit: all paintings of day-glo teddy bears.

    "BFE" is an unfortunate slur. But if you have a partner who is flexible enough to relocate to Day-Glo Teddy World (University of DGTW?) you either have a real gem or a real doormat. If it's the former, don't mess it up.

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  18. "Do you ask your supporting spouse to abandon a position (and salary) that has also been the result of years of work, so that he or she can follow you to an entry-level position? "

    The obvious answer is "yes." Because academics, even aspiring ones, are just that selfish and narcissistic.

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  19. *sigh*

    I love Academia and Academics... though am thinking more of the Sciences.

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  20. hmmm...you're entitled to your opinion. last i heard, the male grad students in my friend's hard science lab were still harassing (sexually and otherwise) the female grad students in the lab in a (largely successful) effort to push them out and get them to quit. pretty old school tactics, still in effect. the prof in charge of the lab did nothing to halt the abuse. this is a top R1 university.

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  21. Yes, grad school has this problem in that it just doesn't seem to conform to life moving on. I mean that seriously: I think to do well in grad school and put yourself in the best possible position to land a job, you must not fall in love, find a community, start a career, or have preferences of any kind. The minute you make any kind of commitment to anything, it becomes incompatible with the goal of academics. Which is, like, DUMB.

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    1. THIS exactly. The day I finally realized (nay, truly accepted) that my spouse, my community, and my non-academic aspirations were more important to me than being A Professor, was the day I resolved to leave. My life is a big happy puzzle and my job/career is only one piece of that -- which is totally incompatible with being an academic, anyway. Good riddance. My eternal gratitude to this blog for helping me see that.

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  22. hahaha--great response, Lauren W. there are two recent graduates from my program who have transitioned out of academia into massage therapy and related professions. they keep telling everyone how they have undergone "profound transformation." it's obvious that they're the same narcissistic jerks they always were, but that they've simply taken charge of their lives for the first time in adulthood and committed to something rather than remaining subservient to the whims of academia.

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  23. Lauren W. has it absolutely right. Unless and until you get that tenured position, you have to be prepared to drop everything, because the rug can be pulled out from under you at any moment.

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  24. Yes, but one would hope this is a problem posed in advance. Also, there's an issue of how both partners want the marriage to proceed in general -- when to have kids, if ever; major purchases like houses and cars; where you both want to live generally. If there major disagreements on the life path front -- and grad school is part of that -- then the couple should probably reconsider marriage. So this strikes me as less a problem with grad school specifically and more a problem with couple communication in general.

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  25. The problem as posed by the blogger is that one partner with an academic career destabilizes the rest of the couple/family, at least unless you like living separately. It's structural, not a "communication problem."

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  26. Its great post and great responses,thanks for sharing....

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  27. This is Anonymous May 9 6:23 and May 21 11:06 (same person), here to say from experience that Anonymous August 11 3:29 has hit the nail on the head. As earlier posts on this blog have pointed out, you rarely get to choose where you live if you're after an academic job. If the job doesn't have some semblance of permanence, you're not even thinking about buying a house. And if it's parenthood you want, you simply can't postpone it forever, as has also been frequently stated here; at some point you have to just go ahead and have the kids, whether you're professionally secure or not. Unless you're unusually lucky, it's an inherently unstable life, with very little room to be proactive on your own behalf.

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    1. Yes, I agree. It is very unstable. Something is really quite wrong with the academic world. Please, President Obama, come in and solve this mess!

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  28. Well, this has shed a lot of light on the beginnings of my marriage.

    My wife was a grad student in Art History at Yale. She was a catch: beautiful, flirtatious, insanely hard working, kindly, sweet, devout, funny, very, very sharp, very, very intelligent, loyal, generous and kind. And surprisingly lacking in suitors.

    Now it becomes clear. Academic men were intimidated by her genuine intelligence. Non-academics would quickly sense that she belonged to a cult.

    I, however, possess an insane and unjustifiable self-confidence in my intellect. So her brains did not trouble me. And, I thought her being an academic would keep me in touch with those who trod the intellectual path I had forsaken.

    When we got married, she refused to give up her fellowship at BFE Harvard-run Dumbarton Oaks. It would mark her as unprofessional, she said. Bummer, and obviously pointless.

    My career was not at all portable, investing in NYC real estate. I guess for her, I was the means for leaving the cult. Without any suggestion or pressure, she adopted my religion, my politics, and gave up the academic life.

    I did have the supreme pleasure of picking her up from an Art History Marxist Study Group, consisting of Yale grad students, and being asked by the leader, then teaching at Princeton: "Frank, you know about economics. Could you explain this stuff to us."

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  29. Of all the reasons on this blog for me to leave academia and pursue an "alternative" career with my MS, this was the one that resonated the most. I simply do not love science enough, nor think highly enough of myself, to ask my spouse to abandon his career (which makes the vast majority of our family income anyway). The numbers will never make sense -- especially since an MS has let me land a nonacademic job with a decent income.

    My committee and funders want me to go "on leave" to "keep my options open". Which I'll do as it is easy and essentially free, but I just want to tell them they're full of horse shit if they think the ivory tower is going to fool me any longer. 3 years was enough.

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  30. I have to say, again, that a PhD can lead to jobs outside of academia.

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    1. It is not generally useful for obtaining jobs outside of academia, however. If you are going to endure the gauntlet of grad school only to obtain a position that you could have held without a Ph.D, then you truly will have suffered for nothing.

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