My wife is a successful research fellow. She is a world class researcher and has a strong publication record. She is a talented lecturer and is respected by her students. She collaborates with academic and industrial partners and is invited regularly to speak at conferences around the world. But when her funding runs out this October, the Russell Group university where she has worked for the last eight years is making her redundant. She is struggling to find another position. And it is my fault.We call it the ‘two body’ problem, after the scenario in physics when a pair of particles interacts with each other. In our case, though, it comes about when the demands of an academic career collide brutally with the obligations of being but one half of a couple, with owning a home and with generally having a life. But while physicists can solve their two body problems with a few deft equations, the real life equivalent is significantly less tractable.
We have managed to cope reasonably well so far. I was happy to adopt the role of ‘trailing spouse’ so that my wife could develop her career. So when we stayed with her parents while she wrote up her doctoral thesis, I got a temporary job nearby. When she secured her first postdoctoral position at Warwick, I found a respectable graduate job down the road in Birmingham. And when she moved down to Bristol, I put in for a transfer to my employer’s office in the city.
But this time things are different. I now run my own successful business and have developed strong ties to the area. I like our house, I like our garden and I like where we live. Moving somewhere new and starting again from scratch is really not a tempting option. So when my wife speaks of jobs in Manchester, Munich or Mississippi, I really want to be supportive. But deep down I just don’t want to go. And, if we are being honest, neither does she.
My wife’s colleagues seem less than sympathetic to our plight. ‘Just go anyway’, was the response from one. Another was presumably ‘only trying to help’ when he forwarded her details of positions in the United States. I don’t know whether it is because my wife’s fellow academics are mostly male, because they already have permanent posts or because they are not used to a two-career family, but I find their presumptions that she can simply pack her bags and move to another city, country or even continent particularly disturbing.
We cannot be the only couple in this position, forced to compromise the career of one so that the other may flourish. I can see that working in different research environments and with people from different backgrounds is a positive thing, but why does nobody seem to notice that having to postdoc in several countries before anyone will even consider you for a permanent lectureship – should such a thing even still exist in the current environment – is just not compatible with how most people want to live?
I have read in recent weeks a number of articles criticising the lack of diversity among academics and lamenting the ‘leaky pipe’ of, in particular, female researchers who complete a PhD or a first postdoctoral position only to then leave academia for something else. While it is unlikely to be the only cause, the two body problem must surely constitute a significant barrier to aspiring academics with a working spouse, children, caring responsibilities or any of the myriad other obligations that we take inexorably upon ourselves as we got through life.
In our house, meanwhile, things are looking bleak. While my wife is keeping her fingers crossed for an academic post in our neck of the woods, she is starting to look at alternative career options. I am confident that she will be brilliant at anything to which she decides to turn her hand, but I cannot help but be angry that we have to be in this position in the first place. And while I am willing to accept some of the responsibility for our predicament, I think it is only right that the sector itself shoulders its share of the blame, too.
Simon Perks is a writer and consultant based in Bristol, UK – follow him on Twitter @simonperks
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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