The Endless Trade-offs of an Academic Marriage

June 08, 2001

Several weeks ago, my husband, a postdoc in biology at a leading California university, got called into the department chairman's office. The chairman thrust an application under Arthur's nose: Cooper Career Award for Biologists: two years' support as a postdoc, three years' financing as an assistant professor.

"You do want to be an assistant professor here, don't you?" asked the chairman. End of discussion; Arthur filled out the application.

Actually, there was a little more to it than that.

"Would you like to have this?" he asked Arthur. "Yes!" Then the chairman asked if it was O.K. with Arthur's mentor. It was. And finally: "Is it okay with your wife?"

And there's the tough problem: the spouse. The wife flung her arms around the husband and cried tears of pride when he told her about this conversation in the produce aisle of the grocery store that night. To be an assistant professor at this university would be an honor and a tremendous opportunity. It's not a sure thing that Arthur will get the award, or even the faculty job, but it's a wonderful sign that the department chairman thinks he deserves both.

I've just earned my Ph.D. as an H.I.V. researcher at the same institution, and I am moving into the postdoctoral phase of my career. If I stay with him in California, then what will happen in a few years when I'm ready to apply for faculty positions? Will the university make the same offer for me? Will I need to move somewhere else to be employed? And if I need to move, will Arthur be able to leave if he's sunk his heart and soul into a laboratory here? We don't know and we can't predict that far ahead. All we know is that staying here promises to put Arthur in a stronger position down the road.

So where does this leave me? I have a job waiting for me in Paris, one I'd dearly love to take -- a postdoctoral position at a leading research institute. It's a job I think about every day and will be very sorry to have to turn down. But a separation would be very difficult on our marriage. What's the good of being in Paris if you're miserable?

So with Arthur looking to stay put, the question becomes what to do with myself in California. There are three possible laboratories that would be interested in the kind of work I want to do. One is run by a professor dividing his time between two universities and a company. Actually, I don't think he really exists. I've never physically seen him. And no one has responded to my two letters, three e-mails, and eight voice-mail messages left at all his offices. This professor's postdocs made a very poor showing at a recent scholarly meeting, and it was clear that his personnel are foundering and producing poor science in his absence.

The second lab is run by a very bright and successful professor, who, unfortunately, has a reputation for insulting his employees and burning them out on administrative, rather than scientific, duties. When I spoke to him, his eyes lit up and he suggested I come in and supervise his five other postdocs and write his grants for him. He was certain I could do my own research on spare nights and weekends. I polled five current students and postdocs in his lab, and five out of five opened their bloodshot eyes and urged me: "Save yourself! Don't come here. I wish I hadn't."

The third place is the same lab I'm in now. For my first four years of graduate school, I toiled here on an incredibly difficult project with no help and far fewer resources than other students in the same lab. I collaborated with both a physics professor and a biologist, and worked out of the physicist's lab. Now that my research project has succeeded, I seem to have won the physicist's respect and he's quite enthusiastic that I might stay. He now gives me free rein and complete control of my project. His letters of recommendation are glowing.

I am concerned that staying in the same place will hurt me professionally. I might never learn alternative ways of doing things. The position might look like a pity postdoc -- a position offered to me because I couldn't find anyone else to hire me. It is clear that fellowship-granting agencies frown upon postdocs' staying at the same institutions where they've earned their doctorates. However, I have to have faith that the research you produce is paramount, and it is better to do good work in the same place than mediocre work in a new place.

For my postdoc, while I would stay in the physicist's lab, the emphasis of my research would shift and I would collaborate more closely with the biologist. In that way, I would at least nominally be in a new place. But there is a more important advantage.

The biologist's interests and my own coincide perfectly. We get along extremely well personally. He has already offered to continue the collaboration and produce proteins for me to take wherever I want to go (although he'd strongly prefer that I stay here). In this biologist, I have a truly wonderful collaborator, and I'm quite fortunate to have him.

The added advantage will come when I'm done being a postdoc and am ready to start my own lab. Since my skills and experience and tools are in biophysics, we can continue to work together and I'll never compete with him, or be a threat to him. Many postdocs are not able to further develop their postdoctoral research when they start their own labs because the project and materials "belong" to the postdoctoral adviser. With my current collaborator, that's not an issue, and I am free to fully develop this work into my own lab. Any way that I can move this research forward benefits us both. And the physicist I've been working with feels the same way.

So, although I may be stuck in the same place, I do get to work with professors who will treat me as an independent scientist. That's not a guarantee anywhere else. And I have already won their respect, which might take me years in a new place. And, most importantly, I can go home to Arthur every night.

So, it wouldn't be a complete disaster for me to stay put. This might be one marital compromise that doesn't really hurt me.

Elizabeth Athelstand is the pseudonym of a graduate student at a California university. She and her husband, Arthur, a postdoctoral fellow in the same department who is also using a pseudonym, have been chronicling their dual job search over the course of this academic year for Career Network.