A career in academia means choosing to be flexible. I have already written about the drawbacks and benefits of short-term research contracts and moving around a lot in terms of having a social life and maintaining friendships, but when it comes to maintaining your relationship, things can become a lot more complicated. Especially when both partners have a career, and are driven and ambitious about it.
Of course, it is fairly common for couples to move abroad for one partner’s career, if that partner has a high-earning job in business or industry. In general, it will be the husband that has the career, and the wife that follows, whether or not with children. If you think this is not the case anymore, you’d be surprised how many people responded with ‘normally, it’s the other way around’ when my partner and I announced that we were moving to England for my job (for the record: I am a woman).
However, maybe things are different in academia, and maybe the choice between the man’s or the woman’s career is more balanced. You might expect this to be true, because I like to believe that academics are rational, thoughtful, and generally quite liberal when it comes to equality issues. On the other side, there are fewer women in professorial positions than men, and this is largely because when women have children, they choose to work fewer hours whereas men generally don’t (note that I am not in any way judging this decision, but the facts are the facts – if you want to read more about this, have a look at the most recent special issue in Nature). At a younger age, men are more likely to be more advanced in their career because in couples, generally the man tends to be older than the woman. Because it makes sense to give priority to the most advanced, or well-earning, career, it is therefore likely that partners that both have a job in academia move for the man’s career.
So, I started a little poll on twitter (although admittedly, I don’t have enough followers to get a proper sample size); I asked whether couples with a (one or both) career in academia had moved for the man’s or for the woman’s job.
Although the sample size was quite small (I got fifteen responses), the result was remarkable: four women followed their partner, whereas seven men followed their partner; four couples took turns. So, a clear tendency for the men to actually follow the women. Apparently, the academics that responded to my poll have very equal relationships – whether this is the case for academics in general, I don’t know, but it is a very encouraging result! In addition, and with the help of the Dean, I did some research on employees of the Faculty of life Sciences of the University of Manchester (where I am a Research Fellow). I found that, in most of the couples that both work there, the man has a more senior position than the woman. (An interesting side-point was that all those couples were different-sex (as opposed to same-sex, of which I know none in academia), and almost none used the same last name. )
But what happens when only one partner is in academia? Academia requires you to move where the jobs are. You simply can’t do research in – in my case – soil ecology in every city or in every country. So, when one partner has a specialized job in academia, and the other has a job in which you can work pretty much anywhere, it makes sense to move where the academic jobs are. On the other hand, careers in academia can have a long stage of short-term contract after short-term contract, and salaries are modest. So, choosing to move for the academic career is a risky strategy.
Yet that is exactly what my partner and me did. He had a permanent and well-earning job when I was doing my PhD, but we were both excited to go abroad for a while. I applied for a post doc in Lancaster, and my partner gave up his job. Now, I am a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester, and about to start my own group. My partner is an artist, which is what he always wanted to do, but it is not an easy existence. So, in a way, he sacrificed his career for mine, but at the same time, got to follow his dream. Was this the right decision? We don’t know yet. Follow his blog here, and his art here, and decide for yourself!