In 2020, my husband and I were grappling with the ‘two body problem’ as we both searched for junior faculty positions that would keep us geographically near each other.At the end of it all (and amid the pandemic) — with patience, hard work and perhaps a bit of luck — we both started junior faculty positions within six months of each other at different institutions in Montreal, Canada.
My husband and I met in July 2016 as postdocs at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and were married exactly two years later. We are computational-genetics researchers, but we each approach problems in the field from different angles, based on our different academic backgrounds and trainings. We have occasionally collaborated on projects: we shared first authorship on a Nature paper1, published in February 2021, describing a highly collaborative multi-institutional whole-genome sequencing effort. As we wrapped up our postdoctoral projects, we began seriously talking about what was next for us professionally. Over the course of a year or so, we had many candid discussions to brainstorm our ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ for our next positions. From these, we made and modified a list of our top priorities.
We each had our minds set on tenure-track faculty positions and agreed that geographical separation was not an option. It was also important for us to be close to family. My husband’s family lives in Lithuania, where a language barrier on my end would have hindered my opportunities and advancement. My relatives are in Ontario, Canada, so we decided that settling there or in an adjacent province (either Manitoba to the west or Quebec to the east) would be ideal.
On the basis of discussions about geography and our career and personal goals, we crafted ‘Plan A’: searching for and seriously considering only junior faculty positions at research-intensive universities in one of the provinces we’d picked, with the hopes of both of us accepting and then starting our positions in the same city at the same time. In case Plan A ended up being unachievable, we were mentally prepared for possible timeline, salary or position compromises if those sacrifices would allow us to live together.
We ended up right in the middle of one of those hypothetical situations. The hiccup with Plan A was timing. I received the job offer for my current position at the University of Montreal and the Montreal Heart Institute before my husband’s first interview for a position in the same city. I was really pleased with the ‘fit’ of my position, so we decided together that I should accept the job. Fortunately for us, my husband accepted a faculty position at McGill University in Montreal a few months later, but those months of not knowing whether he would be able to secure an academic position in the same city were stressful.
The pandemic added to the challenges involved with our move from Michigan to Quebec. We faced a mandatory quarantine period on entering Canada, a longer wait time for my husband’s work permit, an inability to freely travel between the two countries and restrictions on in-person visits to homes on the market. However, it could have been more complicated: we don’t have children, for example, so finding a new school was not an issue.
Owing to differences in start dates and the visa waiting period, my husband and I lived apart for several months after I started my new position: I was in our new house in Montreal, and my spouse was nearly 1,000 kilometres away in Ann Arbor. On my birthday, my husband was able to relocate to Canada, and he drove 10 hours that day so that we could be reunited. It was the best birthday present I could have asked for.
From our experience in searching for and securing two academic positions, we offer the following advice to couples in which both partners are both looking to secure jobs in academia.
Communicate honestly and openly with your partner about top priorities. Be sure to discuss and agree on professional, geographical and personal considerations. This should not be a one-time talk, but rather one that’s ongoing. Revisit your priorities and re-evaluate whether anything should or can be modified as needed. Together, build a list of priorities that suit you both.
Tap into your professional networks and speak to colleagues and mentors, alongside browsing institutional and scientific journal websites and career forums, to find out about position openings. Word of mouth can be particularly useful in your search. Your colleagues could be aware of position openings, including internal or upcoming positions, through their networks and collaborations. In our case, both my husband and I learnt of our current positions through senior colleagues.
Respect shared priorities
Apply for jobs at institutions that are compatible with your and your partner’s agreed priorities. We had no interest in positions that did not match our key considerations, such as opportunities at institutions that did not fall within our geographical preferences. Be prepared to re-evaluate your top priorities with your partner, and modify or adapt the list as needed.
Throughout your dual-career search, seek advice from others — particularly from academic mentors and colleagues who’ve been in situations similar to yours — on everything from preparing applications to negotiating job offers. Remember that just because something worked or did not work for someone else, it does not mean the result will be the same for you. Each situation and experience is unique, and there is certainly no one-size-fits-all or ‘correct’ approach to a two-person academic job search.
Get back on the horse
Stay realistic, patient and motivated. At certain points, tears may be shed, but it is essential to always support and encourage each other, to re-evaluate your list of priorities together as needed and to continue to move forwards.
Solving the two-body problem in academia is hard: you and your partner will probably experience many ups and downs, frustrations and rewards throughout the process. Take one application at a time, and strive to always be one another’s biggest supporter through both the good and the not so good.
This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.