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Do You Have a 2-Body Problem? Yes, You Do [Poll Results]

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Physics students learn about the so-called two-body problem early in their training, a classical mechanics scenario that can be used to describe the motion of binary stars or a planet orbiting a star. But any romantic couple knows that they too must solve this problem, at least metaphorically, when it comes to deciding between partner A’s job offer in City A and partner B’s job offer in City B.

So, this past Valentine’s Day, we posted a poll about the career version of the two-body problem: when both members of a couple pursue careers but are unable to find jobs within commuting distance of each other. The term is sardonically used by couples in academia or the sciences in particular where one might request a “partner hire” to accompany his or her job offer at a university or research institution. But, as evidenced by many of the responses to our unscientific poll, it crops up for many non-academic couples as well, especially for people married to someone in the military.

A total of 3,074 people responded to our poll over the course of two weeks, with respondents including academics and non-academics, scientists and non-scientists. (Please accept our apologies for failing to include “non-science academic” as one of the options). Although the poll was merely exploratory, the results and comments paint a picture of the challenges that couples face when juggling job offers on opposite sides of the country (or the globe), career development and raising children.

Respondents included 1,714 females, 1,330 males and 30 people who selected “other” or did not answer the gender question. Some 74 percent work in academia or sciences. And painfully, 90 percent said that they had or expected to someday face the two-body problem. Among females, 47 percent said they would move to another city or state for their spouse or partner’s job, and 56 percent of males said they would; however, 33 percent of females said that they actual had done so, whereas only 20 percent of males said that they had. The partner hire is elusive: 11 percent said that they had successfully negotiated a position for their significant other (or, as some noted in the comments, their partner had negotiated a position for them); 9 percent said that they had tried but failed to do so. The majority hadn’t faced the possibility.

We also looked at the data by age. About half of our respondents were aged 25 to 35, with the next largest group (20 percent) aged 36 to 45. As might be expected, as respondents got older they were more likely to have moved for their spouse’s or partner’s job, or for their spouse or partner to have moved for their job. Prestige of a job as a deciding factor became less important as people got older. This trend did not hold for respondents 76 and older, but as there were only 16 respondents in that category, percentages in that group were more prone to variation.

You can see the full results, broken down by gender (below) and age (at the end of the post).

Credit: Jen Christiansen

We also invited respondents to share their personal experiences coping with the two-body problem. A handful of couples had successfully solved the problem: finding their dream job, or something like it, while living with their significant other. Some of these successes only came about after many years of searching for the right situation; others worked out by chance. In one case, a student’s academic advisor was offered a position at a school across the country where his partner happened to be studying, so he simply followed his advisor to the new school.

For many couples, however, a solution to the two-body problem was divorce or a break-up. Some who tried long-distance relationships so that both members of the couple could take ideal jobs found that the distance caused too much of a strain on the relationship. Others made a clear decision, ending relationships in favor of pursuing jobs far away from their partners.

Some people actively try to avoid the two-body problem by refusing to date other scientists. “I have stopped dating physicists,” wrote one commenter. “I deliberately married a non-academic to avoid this problem,” wrote another. A logical solution, to be sure, though not the most romantic one.

Many people who left comments simply ended up giving up on their dream job or career for the sake of their relationship or their family. Some felt strongly that a job should never outweigh love. “A career should always come second to a person who loves you and is committed to you,” one person wrote. But others clearly felt deep regret at their dreams deferred. “I still regret giving up my dream, and will probably always feel at least a little bit ashamed of the choice I made,” wrote one woman whose husband had an established career when they met.

Children appeared to shift the equation for many couples (although the poll failed to include a direct question about children). As one person wrote, it becomes a “3+ body” problem in families with children. However, almost universally, the comments mentioning children made it clear that living apart was not an option. This often meant that one of the parents ended up making a career sacrifice for the sake of living together as a family.

Several people made suggestions to the poll questions. Some felt that the questions were biased towards the Americans. In Europe, for example, “there are a lot of high-speed trains that are much more practical than flying or driving,” one person wrote. And many readers felt overly constrained by our forced choice question among three options for the factor that is most important if both members of a couple are offered jobs in different places; in the open-ended “other” response to that question, many readers wrote in “All of the above.” Many others said that the future career prospects of a given job were important, and many simply wrote “Happiness.”

A few people wished that someone had told them of the likelihood of encountering the two-body problem when they were first going in to academia. “Please tell students that choosing [an] academic career they will have to solve such problems,” one person wrote. “I did not know this.”

Consider yourself warned.

Credit: Jen Christiansen

Geoffrey Giller About the Author: Geoffrey Giller is an editorial intern at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @GeoffreyGiller.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. NathanCohen 3:39 pm 03/26/2014

    This problem is one of the reasons that feminists and other associated types discourage committed relationships. Women need to be able to run around the country is search of money and so-called “self actualization” from jobs, the way men traditionally did. Traditionally, it was the woman who moved to be with the man. Notice how the Stuff White People Like know that’s not the way it’s supposed to be anymore, but they do not act in line with their beliefs:

    Among females, 47 percent said they would move to another city or state for their spouse or partner’s job, and 56 percent of males said they would; however, 33 percent of females said that they actual[sic] had done so, whereas only 20 percent of males said that they had.

    Women are less likely to say they are willing to do it, but are much more likely to have actually done it.

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  2. 2. Whiffer 5:46 pm 03/26/2014

    One of the bigger reasons why this is a problem in academia, at all, is the current tenure track system. Applicants for tenure-track jobs are expected to be the best candidates among the national pool of applicants for that job. If you have chosen to forego your own best job in favor of following your partner’s best job, you will typically not be sufficiently competitive in the local academic market, given the national pool you are competing with.
    So, many people opt for and get non-tenure track positions. But the problem with this is that, even though such a person might qualify for a TT position at half of the schools in the country, they don’t even qualify for a raise, retirement benefits, or anything even approximating the kinds of professional development opportunities offered to those in tenure track jobs. The difference is practically all or none: lots of professional opportunity and attention for the tenure track, or nada – there is nothing in-between.
    The tragedy is that the teaching needs for locally based hires are there, frequently sought out, and filled. But to accept such a job is practically to accept martyrdom or career suicide. If non-tenure track jobs were treated like real jobs, and their occupants like real academics, the two-body problem would be far less of a problem. As it is now, it is an artifact of the current tenure track system.

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  3. 3. hkraznodar 6:13 pm 03/27/2014

    Tenure is an evil archaic idea that needs to be eliminated. All employees should be treated as employees with the same pay and benefits.

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  4. 4. CogPsych 3:30 pm 03/28/2014

    NathanCohen, you have misinterpreted the statistics in your reasoning about this quote from the article:

    “Among females, 47 percent said they would move to another city or state for their spouse or partner’s job, and 56 percent of males said they would; however, 33 percent of females said that they actual[sic] had done so, whereas only 20 percent of males said that they had.”

    This does NOT mean that women are less likely to say they’re willing to move, but are in fact more willing to move. The survey allows you to choose one option. If you are willing to move but have not had that opportunity yet, you say you’re willing. If you’ve moved and you’d be willing to do that again sometime, you say you’ve moved.

    If you want to say which gender has sacrificed more, you can say women have (33 to 20 percent), but that’s not fair to the many men willing to sacrifice. If you want to say which is more willing, you just need to add the numbers: 33+47 = 80% for women, and 20+56 = 76% for men. They’re not so different afterall.

    One limitation of the study is of course the forced choice component. I’m only 32 but my husband and I have made 3-4 such joint career decision moves, and both of us have sacrificed at various points. I actually marked down that my partner sacrificed for me because that was the most recent and most permanent one, but truly I’ve also sacrificed, and I’d also be willing to do it again should the situation arise.

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