Sunday, March 09, 2014

Solving the Two-Body Problem

For years now, my spouse and I have had what academics call the "two-body problem": two careers at two universities in two places. It's a common problem for our professional generation, and we have an easier version of it than most. My spouse (the more accomplished blogger Flavia) works at a school about 250 miles away from mine. We maintain two homes and commute between them. We have been lucky that we are not farther apart, and that we can travel by car rather than plane. But like most of our generation, we have had no visible or easy solution for our problem. Professorships are very hard to come by, and job mobility after one's early career is almost nonexistent except for a handful of stars. We have always promised each other that we would  live together full-time some day, but we have never been able to promise when or how that day would come.

Now we know. As Flavia has announced recently, we have completed a busy and complicated season of job searches. The result is that she will be moving to my university in the fall of 2015 with a position befitting her accomplishments. This, as she points out, is mostly the result of outrageous luck: both of our schools unexpectedly listed a job in just the right sub-field this year. That not only meant that we could apply to each other's departments, but that each department understood that it might lose us to the other. We never planned for this, because we could not have planned for this.

The particular version of a happy ending we got is the one I least expected. It's not just that I viewed it as the most unlikely result; I have operated for years under the assumption that it was not possible. I thought my employer would never offer my spouse a job, and was absolutely certain that they would never offer one she could afford to take. I was wrong. But that wrongness was the basis of my career strategies for years; that is how little I planned this.

So how to solve the two-body problem? My advice is worthless, in normal academic-job-advice terms. I could not have made this happen, nor could Flavia. Most of the key events were entirely beyond our control. But that is true of every academic job search. You cannot make someone offer you a job. You always have to be lucky. All you can do is be ready when the lucky break comes.

One of Flavia's old friends once asked us, "So what is the strategy for you two?" and we had to say there was no strategy, because there was no obvious endgame. The only strategy was to keep doing our jobs as well as we could and to build our professional value as best we were able. But that is a strategy, too: the only strategy you can really follow. The last few months and weeks have been exceptionally busy and superficially eventful, but most of what Flavia and I did to make this happen, the things that were about our efforts instead of about luck, happened over the four or five years before those jobs were ever posted.

The real success here is Flavia's. The ultimate resolution of our problem was a job offer to her, and I will  enjoy the privilege of living and working with my spouse mostly because I am lucky enough to have a talented and ambitious spouse. 

The conventional wisdom is that it is easier to find a second job for a less accomplished partner. If one of us were clearly junior to the other in career terms, or did not have a serious research agenda, the usual thinking goes, it would be much easier for a department to find a starter gig or to create a non-tenure-track job. It's harder and more expensive to find a job for a professional peer. So, on paper, marrying an intellectual heavyweight like Flavia should have been a big mistake; she is nobody's trailing spouse. And nobody moves back down to an entry-level job the same week her book comes out.

But that "wrong move" turned out to be the right move for me. My colleagues and my institution saw a chance to hire someone who, because of the nature of the profession, would not otherwise be applying for this job at this stage of her career. (Every academic job search gets an abundance of applications from talented new PhDs, but since the market is poorly structured for mid-career job-seekers only a few places get many talented mid-career applicants.) This was not about credentials that Flavia scraped together after this job opening turned up. She didn't write that book over Thanksgiving weekend. This was about qualifications she has been steadily building for years, before she had any notion that this job opening would exist.

My ultimate role was to strengthen Flavia's negotiating hand. The decision to offer her a job was about her qualifications. The decision to make her an offer reflecting those qualifications was almost certainly about both the opportunity to hire her and the possibility of losing me. Hiring Flavia is a bargain at virtually any price, but passing up a bargain is easier than giving up something you already have. My school could have saved money by hiring one of those promising-but-inexperienced applicants for less money, but only at the risk of losing one of their established faculty members.

I am sure that my colleagues believed that I might leave; I have spent the last five years working under the assumption that I would eventually have to. And I have tried to be aboveboard about external job searches, telling my department chairs when I was applying and keeping them up to date about the progress of outside searches (including telling my chair promptly when I was eliminated). That included being transparent about my application to my spouse's school. 

I have also worked hard on publishing my research over the last five years, because it's a publishing record that is most likely to help you change jobs. My annual reports have made it clear that my supervisors consider me productive. So the idea that I might leave my job in order to be closer to my wife wasn't a new concept introduced in the midst of negotiations. I didn't actually say anything to my bosses during negotiations. My institution had already spent a few years thinking about the chances that I might leave, and the chances that I could.

But I also spent the last five years trying to be a good citizen of my department and university. This should also have been the wrong move, because I didn't expect to be able to stay, but it almost certainly turned out to be the right one. The conventional wisdom when you want to change jobs is that you should focus as much of your energy on research and publication as you can, and as little on service or committee work as you can get away with. I've written before about research as hard currency and service as local scrip. Publication is valuable to outside employers, while service is mostly valuable to the place you're serving. One keeps its value wherever you go, and the other can only be spent on-site. Amassing local scrip has no purpose if you're planning to leave. More importantly, I didn't believe that my institutional scrip could ever be put toward what I really wanted, because I didn't think "Mid-career Job for Spouse" was something they carried in the company store.

But I've spent the last few years doing a lot of administrative work. I have told my department that I needed to look for other jobs, but I have also told them that I was committed to doing my job properly for as long as I was here. That means working for the school's long-term future whether I intended to share it or not, doing some serious administrative chores inside my department and also becoming one of the department's public faces to the rest of the university. I did those things for the same basic reasons that baseball players run out ground balls: not because I thought it would get me anywhere, but because I would feel bad about myself if I didn't and because I was afraid if I stopped doing things the right way I would develop bad habits and lose the ability to do my job properly. But today I see the last few years differently. If I had used my weekly commute as an excuse to slack off, I'm not sure my colleagues would have worked so hard to end that commute. And I don't think they would have focused on keeping me if I had focused on trying to leave, at the rest of the department's expense. This could not have possibly happened if Flavia were not so very qualified. It likely would not have happened if my department did not think I could, and would, eventually leave. But they also had to believe that I was worth keeping.

The other reason they teach ballplayers to run out hopeless ground balls is because occasionally it does actually get you somewhere. Sometimes you hit the ball and don't seem to have any chance at reaching base. But then some piece of unexpected luck, some fluke, gives you an unforeseen opportunity. Players are taught to run hard for first base, no matter what, so that they have a chance to be lucky. You need to put in the work before there is any apparent hope; if you don't turn on your full speed until something surprising happens, you're probably too late. If you ever get a sudden bit of good luck, you need to be running as hard as you can.

cross-posted from Dagblog


Renaissance Girl said...

This is a truly lovely piece of analysis here. Your institution is lucky to have the both of you. I celebrate vicariously the imminent demise of your commute!

Doctor Cleveland said...

Thanks, RG! We're thinking about our deserving and fabulous friends who are still solving their own 2-body problems.