For physicists, the two-body problem has a solution: neat equations describe the motion of two objects orbiting one another. But the career version of the two-body problem, which arises when two high-achieving partners try to find satisfying jobs, is much more complicated.
Scientific American posted a survey this past Valentine's Day to find out more about the two-body problem, and 1,594 people responded (fewer than the response to last year's survey, but still a nice turnout). The majority of respondents, 65 percent, were women and the average age was 33. Regrettably, 89 percent had experienced or expected to experience the two-body problem.
Just over half of respondents were academics, reflecting the prevalence of this problem in academia, where almost three quarters of people have employed partners, 36 percent of whom are also academics. (The proportion of professors in the survey could also be biased by our readership.) We also received sizable responses from people not in academia or science (28 percent) and scientists not in academia (21 percent). Commenters outside academia noted this challenge is also common for military families, musicians, dancers, lawyers and government workers.
The most telling answers came from the open comment section at the end of the poll. Here people anonymously shared their individual situations, sometimes including personal details such as inevitable divorces on the horizon. One common thread was frustration and the helpless feeling of being out of options. "We are in the situation now," a female academic scientist said, "both still looking for jobs, and it is frustrating and exhausting to know that we both worked so hard for so long only to get to this point."
Many commenters said they had lived apart from their significant other or given up their own career so their partner could pursue opportunities. They noted that people judged them for choosing either option. No matter what, it seemed, one or both partners had to make painful tradeoffs—accepting lower-paying, less interesting jobs or living far away from each other or in undesirable locations. "The only thing that still gives me a pang is the assumption that the people who are most willing to bear those costs are somehow also our most creative minds," said a woman who gave up her career to care for her children while her husband continued working. This strain on relationships caused some breakups, though most stuck it out. Of the 323 open-response commenters, only 8 percent said they broke up.
Half of respondents said they would not live apart when the survey asked how far it would have to be. But this figure dropped to 31 percent when the question was how long they would spend apart, and 37 percent said they would if it was only for a year or less. Similar numbers of participants said that they had moved for their partner and that their partner had moved for them (32 and 33 percent, respectively). Only 11 percent said they would not move for their partner, and 5 percent said their partner had refused to move for them. One commenter suggested following a "maxi-min" plan, taking “the positions that offered the best prospects for the spouse who was not getting the primary offer."
Some commenters also brought up the added layer of difficulty the two-body problem can pose for racial and ethnic minorities, gay people and women, who are already facing inequality hurdles. "I feel the whole situation is compounded by the fact that we are a gay couple and are not treated equally to our heterosexual peer couples in academia," said one academic scientist who had been offered tenure-track positions at highly selective liberal arts colleges, but whose partner was only offered adjunct-level appointments. "If I had a wife and kids, this would have been far different." Commenter Sabrina Lyn Cales, a postdoctoral fellow in astronomy at Yale University, suggested that hiring committees—which she has found to be completely unprepared to address the two-body problem—should provide a written survey at the end of interviews asking if candidates have additional concerns or questions. "Many people are more reluctant to say out loud what they might freely express in writing, especially if the concern is an easily tickable box," she said.
Securing positions at the same company or university for both partners can be particularly daunting. Only 12 percent said in the survey that they had successfully negotiated a position for their partner or that their partner had negotiated one for them. Seven percent said they had tried to negotiate and failed. Many commenters said universities should have better policies for addressing the two-body problem. Not all universities have programs or resources to help the second body find work either at their institution or a company in the area, though some do. Because of this, one academic scientist called academia "highly anti-family."
Another respondent, a woman in academic science, described living in a different country from her partner because they cannot find jobs in the same location. Looking to the future, she said, "The question is: When do you give up on being an academic just so you can be in the same place?"
Explore the full results in the graphics below.