Going Overseas to Solve Our Two-Body Problem

April 06, 2007

Six months ago, my husband and I began teaching at a large research university overseas. Somehow it still doesn't seem real that we managed to find two full-time academic positions in a wonderful location -- albeit 9,000 miles away from where we had been living in the United States.

I am one of the X-Gals, an informal group of nine female biologists whose members have been taking turns in these pages sharing our career experiences in the sciences. My story is a fairly familiar one in academe: Girl meets boy in graduate school. They fall in love, get married, and wonder how in the world they will both find jobs after graduation.

I knew of successful, dual-career academic couples in biology, so I had a glimmer of hope that we would both find good jobs. Some departments appeared to be teeming with academic couples, and that offered us even more encouragement. But we also knew that many academic couples never find tenure-track positions for both partners.

Our strategy: We hoped to live in a large city or in an area like North arolina's Research Triangle, with several nearby universities. If only one of us found a tenure-track position, the other would take an adjunct job, share a position, or leave academe altogether and work at the mall. I heard myself saying, "Hey, those jeans look great on you!"

We avoided the issue until I was about a year from finishing my Ph.D. (I started two years before my husband). After a painfully honest and tearful dinner at our favorite Indian restaurant, we came to the conclusion that we should do whatever would be best for us both academically in the long run. By sacrificing in the short term, maybe we could improve our chances of both getting jobs later.

We decided that I would leave to do a postdoc elsewhere while he finished his degree. The key here is that we decided. The fact that we were of one mind on the issue made it a little easier to accept.

And so began our long-distance relationship. We were 1,000 miles apart for two and a half years, with visits every other month when we could manage it. The financial and emotional strain was no picnic, I can tell you. We e-mailed and telephoned one another several times a day. On the plus side, we were both able to focus on our research and make good strides toward publishing.

Our goal: to work as hard as we could so we would never have to live apart again.

As my husband neared the completion of his Ph.D., the same unpleasant questions re-emerged. Should he find a postdoc and move wherever it was located? Should I move with him? Or should he move to where I was and find a job?

The department where I was working as a postdoc had money to support me for an additional two years. The thought of moving to take yet another temporary job, even if it was near my husband, was not appealing.

In the end, my husband ended up accepting a postdoc in the same department where I was working. Another faculty member had grant money for a project that fit my husband's expertise. It was a win-win situation for the lab and for us.

So how did we end up overseas?

My friend and fellow X-gal Greta, alerted me to an opening at the overseas university where she was working as a postdoc at the time. "You'd be perfect for the position," she wrote. My thoughts moved from "No thanks" to "Well, maybe" to "Why not?".

A few weeks after I applied, my references told me that they had been contacted to provide letters of support. After several more weeks, I received an e-mail message from the committee asking to schedule a phone interview. The time difference meant that I was at home when the committee called. I felt unprepared and told my husband when I hung up that it had not gone well. I guess I was wrong. Ten minutes later, the phone rang again and the committee invited both me and my husband to interview on the campus.

What I haven't mentioned yet is that the department knew upfront that I was one half of a pair.

For academic couples, the point at which you should mention your spouse is always an unknown factor. You don't want to deceive a search committee in any way, nor do you want to exclude yourself from consideration. These days, many job advertisements explicitly state that universities are sensitive to the needs of dual-career couples.

In our case, having Greta tell a committee member about us ahead of time put the matter on the table. During my initial interview, when a committee member asked who might move with me, I felt no hesitation to mention that my husband was also a biologist and would need a job.

We approached our on-campus interviews with open but skeptical minds. Could we really move that far away from our friends and families? Would there be any "real" job opportunities for my husband?

To make a long story short, the department offered me a job and suggested that it might create a position for my husband, too. It had been planning to conduct a search for another position, anyway. Shortly after we returned home, the department e-mailed my husband to offer him a job. Voila! Two full-time faculty positions.

Now a new question emerged: Should we take the jobs?

From what we had seen of the university, the town, and the rest of the country, we were really excited about the possibilities. Lifestyle was a big factor in our decision. After several grueling years of 70-plus-hour work weeks, we already felt as if we should be nearing retirement even though we were just beginning our careers.

We liked the culture of the place. People took weekends and holidays seriously, yet slackers were hard to find. Productivity was high, and our potential colleagues were well respected around the world and published in top journals. They also traveled abroad frequently to attend meetings or give seminars.

Additionally, both the town and the university seemed family friendly. The university offers a generous (by American standards) maternity leave of 14 weeks, which can be extended up to 52 weeks (mostly unpaid). Six weeks of parental leave are at full pay by the university, and the rest of the leave is government-subsidized at a lower rate (about a third of my current salary). My husband could take two weeks of partner/paternity leave as well.

Suddenly, the idea of starting a family as junior faculty members here without running ourselves into the ground seemed possible. After some negotiation (we managed to secure higher salaries for both of us), we accepted the offers. We each received our own offices and labs along with a modest but sufficient amount of start-up money. Wow.

So here we are six months later. It hasn't all been rosy. A beloved family member passed away the day after we arrived, and other family members at home have been sick. Meanwhile, we have been ill a lot as we adjust to the new bugs here, and bureaucracy in any country can wear you down.

Culture shock is an everyday event, but we are getting used to things. Professionally, we are quite happy as our laboratories are getting set up. It is an exciting time in the department, especially for the teaching program, as many changes are happening and we are both involved in the decision making. We don't know that we'll be here forever, but for now we just want to enjoy the experience.

I admit, we got lucky. I can't claim to be an expert on career advice, but maybe I can offer some encouragement for other dual-career academic couples:

Remember that you are a team. Be honest with one another about your wants and needs, and do so early and often. Try to work out the acceptable scenarios in advance. My husband and I have a mantra when things aren't going well, or when we are faced with a difficult decision: "You and me." Bottom line, that's what matters.

Be prepared for some sacrifice along the way. Ours consisted of significant time apart, accepting a less-than-ideal temporary position (for my husband), and taking jobs in a foreign country. Talk through all of the options.

Consider applying overseas. And do so, even if the move is temporary. If you are considering a move, talk through the cultural, financial, and professional aspects with your spouse and others who can shed light on life abroad.

Keep an open mind. Let your friends and colleagues encourage you to apply for jobs that you might not consider initially. You never know where you might end up.

On a final note, if we had had children, I doubt that my path would have been the same at any stage. Leaving my husband so I could go off on my own for a postdoc would have been unthinkable, and moving out of the country would have been difficult (but not impossible).

We all have to do what is best for our own family situation. Greta moved here when her son was young, and although the distance from her extended family is very difficult at times, she does not regret the decision. And at this point, I don't regret mine.

Helen Atwood is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of biology at a large research university outside the United States.