Mette Bendixen is a physical geographer and postdoctoral scholar at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at the University of Colorado Boulder. She and her husband, Lars Iversen, an ecologist and landscape geographer, co-authored an October 2017 Nature paper1 about the effects of climate change on the coasts of Greenland. They are now recipients of a two-year Carlsberg Foundation Scholarship, which enabled them to move to the United States from Denmark in March 2018. Iversen has a research fellowship at Arizona State University in Tempe — 1,200 kilometres from the home the couple shares with their four-year-old son in Boulder.
Lars: During and after our PhDs, Mette applied for six grants, whereas I focused solely on the Carlsberg one. We are our most important allies. We collaborate and mentor each other, so we discussed various scenarios in case one of us was unsuccessful.
When we were applying for grants, some senior colleagues told us that it is almost impossible for a couple to succeed and stay in academia. If we had listened to them, one of us would have quit. But we challenged this perspective.
It’s important to be realistic with each other. We couldn’t live in Boulder on one salary. You have to accept that you can’t easily live on a shoestring budget, particularly if you have a child.
While applying for the Carlsberg Foundation scholarship I got a call from the foundation director, who asked how we would make it work if we both got funded. I told him that I would work from a remote desk but still intended to honour my obligations as a father. It was a good decision to be honest about our situation. We have had several positive interactions with the foundation since then.
Mette: I got mixed advice on whether to mention that my husband also worked in academia when I was applying for my six grants. For one of them, I was specifically advised not to mention Lars’s career. Does it work against you to have a partner with the same career path? Are you a better candidate if you do not have a partner and children? In some fields, people will not mention maternity leave in their CVs. We ended up getting the same grant, where we both stated that we were a couple with a four-year-old son. Our research hosts are really supportive of the fact that we have a young son and are working in different states.
We chose to live in Colorado rather than Arizona, and arrived in March 2018. Our son started preschool in April without knowing any English. We thought about which place we believed we would thrive in as a family, and this ultimately affected our decision on where to live.
Our first trip here was in 2016, during my PhD. We stayed a month. Colorado is more expensive than Arizona, but it is a good place for climate and environmental science — and a good place to raise children. In some ways, it feels similar to Denmark. It’s very bicycle friendly, for example.
Some advantages of being a couple in academia include sharing ups and downs, and having a mutual understanding of our fields’ ‘non-linear’ working conditions; for example, fieldwork, conferences, deadlines for paper submissions and grant proposals.
In the first few months after permanently moving to Colorado, we had some late-night conversations in which we worked to calm each other — to remind ourselves that the city and its surrounding areas, our universities and research groups and the preschool were perfect. We just needed some time to adjust to the gigantic change of moving to a new country. It took about three months for us to feel settled, to start establishing a network and for our son to start speaking English. Then we started to feel more at home. We get lots of visits from friends and family, who find it fascinating that we can see the Rocky Mountains from our backyard.
Lars: I try to limit the days I spend away from my family, and I spend about 20% of my time travelling. On average, I travel once a month, and when I’m in Arizona I spend a week at a time there. It’s a 3.5-hour trip door to door — a 2.5-hour flight and then an hour-long bus journey.
My travel costs are covered by my fellowship. For us, it’s essential that the Carlsberg Foundation acknowledge our situation. As two full-time working researchers with a child, we are dependent on the extra funding to cover childcare and other related expenses. Tempe is a big university town, and I stay in an Airbnb when I’m there. I keep life pretty simple and mostly just work and try to engage with the research group.
Mette: We are both 34. In the United States, that’s quite old to be a postdoc, whereas it’s more typical in Demark. During my PhD, at least 80% of the women in my cohort became pregnant. That’s completely common in Denmark, and we have half a year of paid maternity leave. It’s unusual here in the United States for a young postdoc to have children, probably because of the need to be highly mobile and the lack of paid-leave programmes. Because grants last for only one or two years, you have to be willing to move to another state or country, which is not the easiest thing to do if you have a child — it really puts a lot of pressure on the family.
It’s rare that we have a classic working day starting in the morning and finishing eight hours later. One of us drops off our son at 8:30 a.m., and the other picks him up at 3:00 p.m. So we do have to take turns leaving work early. We’ve become really flexible in how we manage our time and are good at working at night and during the weekend whenever necessary.
When Lars is away, I have to drop our son off at preschool and pick him up, and of course, I work more during the evenings in these periods. But it is not like we count each other’s childcare hours every week. The week before Lars goes away, and when he is back, he is the one doing more pick-ups and drop-offs. It evens out. And the fact that we are both in this somewhat special career path, gives us both an understanding of the whole situation around work and family.
Lars: We have made some good friends here already, and people are very inclusive and open-minded in Boulder. They find it dramatic that we pay more than 50% of our incomes for taxes in Denmark.
We feel privileged and excited to be in a different country and to work on our own research at leading universities while having easy access to natural features, such as the mountains, nearby. We are both ambitious and keen to develop our own research groups. So hopefully, the next step for both of us will be to slowly transition to permanent positions. Our advice to other couples is to always think about next steps and options. Think about whether you and your family can thrive in a new place in a new country. Also, be open about your family situation: let people know that you have limited hours at work, and that leaving early doesn’t mean that you are not committed. Articulate the strength that you get from your family.
I don’t know how we feel about staying in the United States forever. Time will tell. We will continue to advocate for principal investigators, universities and funding agencies acknowledging the strength and diversity academic couples bring to science, as well as the challenges they face.