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Nicole Ackerman | SLAC | USA

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The Two-Body Problem

The two-body problem is often encountered in physics; one example is two gravitating objects, each on a trajectory influenced by the force from the other object. A common way to deal with the problem is to work with an “equivalent” system where one object is stationary and the other orbits. Another two-body problem is one not unique to physics but common in all of academia: the dual-career academic couple.

Many physicists – myself, friends, colleagues – are in a relationship with another physicist. While this is an issue that has mostly been analyzed anecdotally, I recently discovered an extended study on the issue. The Stanford University Clayman Institute for Gender Research is hosting a conference on Dual-Career Academic Couples: Strategies and Opportunities and have a link to a study done in 2008. This 108-page long study has statistics from “9,043 Full-Time Faculty from 13 Leading Research Universities”, which greatly improves what I know from the 20 or so physics couples I personally know. It turns out my colleagues aren’t abnormal: 36% of the faculty studied have an academic partner.

Tom and I, a typical physics couple

Tom and I, a typical physics couple


The dual-academic couple faces greater challenges than most couples, even when both partners work. There are many institutional moves in an academic career, some with relatively little flexibility. While Tom and I are the same year in graduate school, we may graduate years apart. The first one of us to graduate will likely be unable to find a (suitable) post-doc position within commuting distance. Post-docs last a varying number of years – usually 1 to 5 – so there will be no certainty that the second one will graduate before the first’s post-doc is done.

Even if we manage to synch our post-doc locations, faculty positions searches pose the greatest challenge. Many faculty opening are very specific; the department may not just be looking for a particle physicist, but someone working on a particular experiment or with very specific experience (electronics or cryogenics, for instance). The number of qualified candidates seems larger than the number of open positions – especially in difficulty economic times – so getting any offer is great. There are different ways that dual-academic couples navigate this – which the report discusses – which includes negotiating a joint-hire, finding jobs at nearby institutions, or simply living apart.

The report is fairly dense, but there are many interesting take-aways:

  1. Women are more likely than men to have an academic parter (40%, compared to 34%), which varies by field. Women in the natural sciences are most likely (48%) to have an academic partner, 83% of whom have partners also in the natural sciences.
  2. In many fields over 50% of academic couples are in the same department
  3. Women are more likely to view both their and their partner’s careers as equally important, even if the woman is at the highest ranks of faculty.

Perhaps what I find the most interesting is that 28% of female faculty in physics have a partner who is also a physicist. That number is only 11% for men. Addressing academic couples can really improve the number of women in fields like physics, and it will certainly improve the quality of life for the men involved too.

Source: L. Schiebinger, A. Henderson, S. Gilmartin, Dual-Career Academic Couples: What Universities Need to Know (PDF) (Stanford: Clayman Institute, 2008).

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