Why Are Academics Expected to Move Around the Country Like They're in the Military?

News and views from academia.
Oct. 3 2013 12:31 PM

Two Bodies, One Job

Why academic couples struggle to find work in the same cities.

Graduate student couple.
Love may not tear academic couples apart, but their distant jobs might.

Photo by Viki2win/iStock/Thinkstock

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

Folks who have been following the academic labor market for some time are familiar with the “two-body problem.” It’s an inelegant term for the difficulty that couples have in finding good jobs for both people that are geographically close enough that they can continue to live together. Given the shortage of full-time academic jobs, couples are frequently put in a position where they have to choose between serious underemployment for one of them and living separately.

Rebecca Schuman’s recent post on a job listed at Sewanee is well worth reading. Among other things, she notes that the two-body problem is only a problem for people who have partners who don’t stay home; whether intentionally or not, it rewards the single-earner family. She further notes that faculty from racial or cultural minorities can easily find themselves severely isolated at many rural jobs, so in effect, they face an even more constricted market than they otherwise would. (Schuman is especially good on this point.)

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That’s not the fault of any particular college, but the impact adds up over time. For graduate students and new doctorates who aren’t superstars from superstar pedigrees, there’s a clear expectation that the only way to be seriously competitive is to be hypermobile. Go wherever the opportunity is, all else be damned.

But that’s a tough way to live a life. In the discussion to the piece, some readers noted that similar demands are made of military families, although one could probably argue that the military is far more upfront about it. (It also has a significantly earlier retirement age.) I’d be surprised if most prospective graduate students were apprised of just how mobile—and therefore unattached—they’d have to be. That’s tough to ask of people in their late 20s and early 30s, which are classic family-formation years.

The bad news is that location issues don’t really go away after that. In the community college world, it’s rare to hire faculty directly at senior levels with senior-level pay. Someone who starts here at age 50, with decades of experience, does not make what someone already here with the same age and experience makes. (They’ll get more than a rookie, but not as much more as you might think.) In effect, that means that once you’re well into a system, you can’t leave without either changing roles altogether—going into administration, say—or taking a significant pay cut. If you have kids who are hurtling toward their own college years, a significant pay cut can be a deal-breaker.

The market for administrators is also national. Sometimes moving up requires moving out; at that point, you have to decide how much you’re willing to put your family through (and you should expect your family to have some opinions on that). If you have school-age kids, you don’t pull up stakes without feeling it. Add the two-income issue, and the pull of rural locations gets that much weaker. In a rural setting, it’s unlikely to find two jobs; if one of them doesn’t work out, for whatever reason, it’s nearly impossible to recover without moving.

In a less straitened market, having options around the country could look like freedom. But when options are few and far between, that kind of freedom looks more like desperation. It’s one thing to daydream about the wide open spaces of Montana before snapping back to reality and applying nearby; it’s quite another when Montana (or wherever) is the only option.

In grad school, I remember absorbing by osmosis the lesson that if you were truly “serious,” you wouldn’t think twice about applying nationally. Acting on some sort of preference for place, or even region, was considered selfish, and reaching above one’s station. At 22, I didn’t think much about it; I was young and single, and the sheer brutality of the market hadn’t hit me yet. At this point, though, I would not—and do not—advise my kids to follow in my career path. Life is too short for nomadic monasticism, and wanting a family you actually see doesn’t make you less intelligent or less capable. The core of the two-body problem isn’t the second body; it’s the missing job. I hadn’t figured that out yet at 22. I hope someone tells this generation before it does anything stupid.

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