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Two-body problem (career)

The two-body problem is a dilemma for life partners (for e.g. spouses or any other couple) in academia, relating to the difficulty of both spouses obtaining jobs at the same university or within a reasonable commuting distance from each other. The central dilemma is thus a no-win situation in which if the couple wishes to stay together one of them may be forced to abandon an academic career, or if both wish to pursue academic careers the relationship may falter due to the spouses being constantly separated. The term "two body problem" has been used in the context of working couples since at least the mid-1990s. It alludes to the insolvable three-body problem in classical mechanics.

More than 70 percent of academic faculty have a working partner, while more than a third of faculty have an academic partner.

Typical solutions include:

Although it is not an ideal solution, a possible outcome is a break-up of the relationship. Long distance commuting certainly places a strain on relationships, especially when maintained over long periods (years or even decades). Many academic institutes recognize the two-body problem is a challenging issue when they hire a new faculty member, and prepare policies to help dual-career academic couples to settle down at their institutions. An institution in a small, rural state such as Wyoming may be under increased pressure to hire a spouse than in a large metropolitan area with many colleges and universities such as Boston.

More proactive institutions may establish funds and procedures to assist with this situation. Frequently a university will seek to hire one person in a couple, thereby making the other the "trailing spouse." One approach is for a tenure-track position to be funded for the trailing spouse be a combination of funds from both academic departments involved with additional funds from the dean and/or provost. Substantial resources must be offered external to the department that would accept the trailing spouse, as this department would not typically be in the position to hire said person nor would that particular person necessarily rank highly if a search were to be conducted. For this reason, it is not unusual for departments to reject the trailing spouse even if substantial external funds are made available. This makes the problem particularly intractable, as qualified persons may remain unemployed simply because they are not an ideal fit for the trailing department. More commonly, institutions do not have such proactive programs in place.

  • two tenure-track positions at the same university
  • two tenure-track positions at two nearby universities (daily commutes possible)
  • two tenure-track positions with one or both partners commuting between two geographically separate institutions (daily commutes impossible because of distance; partners may be separated weekly or for semesters at a time, depending on their circumstances)
  • one tenure-track position shared (if they are in the same field)
  • one tenure-track position and one instructor position
  • one tenure-track position and one industry position
  • one tenure-track position and one administration position at a same university
  • one tenure-track position and one position in government or with a private consulting firm (feasible in fields such as engineering and management, probably infeasible in humanities)


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