Insights on Navigating the Two-body Problem Full Stories
- Barb Shinn-Cunningham
- Megan Ballard
- Andrew Morrison
- Marcia Isakson
- Andy Piascek
- Veerle Keppens
- Juliette Ioup
For me, my approach to balancing work and personal life has always been about being mindful of my choices. By this, I mean that I thought about what made sense for me and my family jointly, rather than putting one aspect of my life first all the time. I knew I had to make compromises, but I tried to be kind to myself and not feel guilty about what I was not doing. Sometimes, I decided that staying late at work one night and missing a family dinner in order to finish a poster for a conference was worth it. Other times, I decided that my son’s Little League game was important enough that I would just put off getting my paper out for another few days. And once I made a choice, I tried not to dwell on what I was giving up: at the Little League game, I enjoyed myself 100% and didn’t let myself feel stressed about work. I was present, in the moment.
I have also been incredibly lucky: I was able to make choices because my husband, whom I met while still an undergraduate, has always been supportive. We split duties at home in ways that made sense for us (he cooks, I do the laundry; he does the monthly bills, but I handle the taxes and the college investment funds), but we both tried to be flexible and fill in when there was a pressing deadline or a business trip. This approach, of being understanding and willing to bend, has let us both raise our two sons while pursuing demanding, rewarding careers. Indeed, as I write this, my family is about to head out to sightsee in New York City. And my husband is rousing our two boys and getting them organized while I write this, giving me the few minutes I need. And I’ll reciprocate the next time he needs the same kind of support.
My (now) husband and I met when I was working at a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Brain and Psychological Sciences at Indiana University in Bloomington. He was living and working in Indianapolis, which is about an hour away. He grew up in Indianapolis and much of his family lives there still. After we had been dating for about a year, he moved to Bloomington. At the time, he was working remotely as a computer programmer so it was not a difficult decision to prioritize my work at that point. That said, one of the most difficult aspects of our career situations was that I was looking for faculty positions. I had known for years that I would need to go where ever the job took me and that I may not have a lot of choice about where that would be, if I wanted a tenure-track position. For him, this very “up-in-the-air” existence was a challenge — as a computer programmer, he could essentially live anywhere he liked. The stars eventually did align and one month before our wedding, I was offered a faculty position in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences at IU. We were happy living in Bloomington and thus the decision to take the position was straight-forward. Again, we prioritized my career over the next few years. He consulted part-time for both the University and the City of Bloomington, but did not have a full-time position. There were certainly benefits to that situation as it gave us flexibility to travel when I was not teaching. About three years ago partially through the connections he made consulting with the City, he took a full-time position within Information Technology Systems Department in City of Bloomington. Although it took many years, we are quite happy to both have full-time jobs that we find fulfilling.
My husband and I met in 2005 as undergraduate students studying Ocean Engineering at Florida Atlantic University. We both decided to pursue graduate degrees in Acoustics at Penn State, and we were married in 2006 after our first year of graduate school. Jeffrey graduated in 2007 with a Master of Science degree in Acoustics, while I was two years into a PhD. We moved to Austin, Texas where Jeffrey took a job at the Applied Research Laboratories at the University of Texas at Austin (ARL:UT). I had finished my coursework at Penn State, and I my research was funded through the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship (NDSEG), so I had the flexibility to move midway through my degree program. In part, Jeffrey chose to work at ARL:UT, because the academic setting would give me opportunities to participate in the student community at UT and collaborate with researchers at ARL. I attended the weekly seminar series for acoustics students, and I audited a class on estimation theory. I made several trips to State College, Pennsylvania to meet with my thesis committee, and eventually to defend my dissertation. I successfully completed my PhD in Acoustics from Penn State in December 2009.
The next step in my career was to obtain a post-doc position at a university or laboratory. Together, my husband and I decided it made the most sense for me to do my post-doc at ARL:UT, since he was already working there. Since the post-doc would only be a temporary position for me, it did not make sense for us to move to a new city where Jeffrey (who was becoming an established researcher at ARL:UT) would also have to find a temporary job. These personal reasons were combined with the fact that ARL:UT was an excellent place for me to work as a post-doc, offering me many opportunities to work alongside leaders in my field. I began my post-doc in January 2011, supported through the Office of Naval Research Postdoctoral Fellowship Award.
Near the end of my two-year post-doc fellowship, I interviewed for several faculty/research positions with universities and laboratories in the northeast. I received one job offer from a prestigious research university, but ultimately I did not take the job. The reasons were partially because my husband was reluctant to move to a new city without a job lined up for himself, and also partially because I was pregnant with our first child and not confident about starting demanding job with a new baby in a unfamiliar city without any support system. After much consideration and prayer, we decided to stay ARL:UT, and I was hired as a Research Associate in January 2013. The Lab has been and continues to be a great place for both of us to work. After almost 10 years, we have both developed successful careers in underwater acoustics.
My wife and I were married two weeks before I started my Ph.D. Program in physics at Northern Illinois University. We got married and moved from Iowa to Illinois. She left a job she had started out of college and had been working at for 2 years so that I could go to graduate school. She did not have any work lined up when we got to Illinois, even though she had been looking and working with a recruiter. Eventually she made a connection through a friend from college and was offered an IT position at an engineering and manufacturing facility about 40 minutes away from where we lived. For five years she made the drive every day to work while I was in graduate school. Other than the commute, she was very happy with all aspects of her work, and was quickly progressing in her career.
As I finished graduate school, I decided to not look for a post-doc and try to find a faculty position more focused on teaching. I wanted to do research with undergraduates and incorporate that into the teaching I was doing. I was offered a visiting faculty position at a place about two hours away from where my wife worked. We tried to find a place to live halfway between both jobs, but figured out that neither of us would be happy with that arrangement. We ended up renting two places near our jobs and one of us would travel on weekends to see the other. I would spend more time with her in the summer, but I was also trying to improve my CV to become more attractive to departments looking to hire tenure-track positions.
During the time I had the visiting position, I applied for a position out of state and far away from any facility that my wife could transfer to. The position I was applying for was very much an ideal job for me – probably the closest fit to a “dream job” if there is such a thing. But at about the same time, my wife was earning another promotion and raise at her work, and ultimately we decided that her career was going to determine where we ended up. I turned down the “dream job” and applied only for positions around facilities she could work at. I worked a string of visiting faculty appointments for 6 years at three different colleges before I was offered a tenure track position at a community college in the area.
I certainly did not anticipate teaching at a two-year college, and building a research program there has been more challenging than it would have been at a four-year college or university, but my college has always tried to give me whatever I have asked for and been able to justify as having an educational purpose. So although it doesn’t look like what I thought it would, I am ultimately doing what I set out to do originally: teach and use research as an extension of teaching.
One other thing to add – when I explained to my parents that I was turning down the offer to move out of state, my mother was especially confused because she didn’t consider the possibility that my wife was earning more money than I was and was likely to always have the higher income. She assumed that the husband would be “the breadwinner” (her words, not mine!) and that we would just go wherever I wanted. I don’t consider that fair to my wife and her career goals. I think the discussion of “two-body problem” is often cast only as the case of both partners pursuing academic positions, but I think there are plenty of situations like mine. I realize that many people would suggest that IT jobs (like my wife has) are needed everywhere, and that she could have moved with me again. But, I think that discounts her happiness and possible earning potential, which I don’t find to be fair to her. I would rather pursue a more fair/equitable/just way of life than to have my dream job at the cost of her dreams. Plus, obviously, the same argument can be made for my career: that I can teach physics and acoustics anywhere, so why not do it near her work?
My six years of searching for a permanent academic position gave me a lot to think about with regard to a lot of intertwined issues: work-life balance, feminism, academic job searches and hiring practices, parental leave policies, etc. I wish I had the ability to better explain how I think all these are interconnected, but I guess it’s not something I’m experienced in writing/talking about.
My husband and I met at West Point. He was a year ahead of me, but we were engaged starting in his senior year. Therefore, we knew that we wanted to be together after my graduation. I had plans to go to graduate school, so he picked a army base that was close to good graduate programs in physics. In our case, he picked Fort Hood due to its proximity to the University of Texas at Austin.
When I graduated, I received a Hertz Fellowship. With this guarantee of funding, I probably could have had a pick of almost any graduate program in the nation. Of course, I went to UTAustin. My husband got out of the army in 1994 and found Austin to be a great place for electrical engineers. I received my masters in 1994 then served in the army at Fort Hood from 1994-1997. I came back for a PhD finishing in 2002. Because my husband was established in Austin, I only looked for jobs in Austin and ended up staying at UT at Applied Research Laboratories.
Through the years there have been a lot of compromises to make the two-body equation work. I have been encouraged to apply for great positions in D.C., Massachusetts and even Italy. However, accepting a job in any of these locations would have disrupted my husband’s position. Therefore, we have chosen to stay and enjoy Austin.
- How both you and your spouse have found jobs
- My wife, Lisa, is four years older than I am; we met when I was in graduate school and she was a postdoc (in earth science). Before we married, she accepted a tenure-track position at a regional public university (Central Washington University).
- I moved with Lisa to Ellensburg, where I finished my PhD thesis and got to know many of the faculty at CWU. Nine months later, I began a postdoctoral position at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California.
- Upon completing my postdoc appointment, I joined the Physics department at CWU as an adjunct faculty. In addition to teaching physics courses, I took on part-time administrative positions, such as Director of Undergraduate Research, teaching in the Honors College, and contributing to grant-funded projects to enhance STEM recruitment and retention.
- After eleven years of adjunct status, I successfully applied for a tenure-track position in the Physics department. Today, I have tenure and am the department chair. Lisa is a full Professor in the department of Geological Sciences.
- How having a spouse has affected your career decisions
- Looking for employment at the university where Lisa was already a tenure-track faculty was the easiest path to follow. Although there were no tenure-track positions available in my field (physics) when I arrived, CWU did offer many other opportunities for academic and scholarly engagement.
- For a brief time, I applied for academic positions within a three-hour driving radius of Ellensburg, explored industry-sector employment in the Puget Sound area, and looked at job opportunities at Pacific Northwest National Labs; but I eventually decided make the best of my situation at CWU.
- How compromises were made to accommodate the careers of one or both of you
- Because Lisa was very happy (and successful) with her position, and we both liked the academic community at CWU, I was willing to accept a non-tenure-track position there after finishing my postdoc at LLNL.
- If I had accepted a job out of state, or even in Seattle, we would have had to make some difficult choices. But I quickly realized that teaching and mentoring undergraduates was a career path that I was well suited for, and I recognized that, even without a tenure-track position, the grass was probably greener at CWU for both of us than anywhere else.
Interview with Veerle Keppens, December 2017 by Traci Neilsen
TN: Can you please share your story?
VK: My two-body story starts when I first came to the United States in 1995 for a post-doctoral fellowship at Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee; I was only supposed to be here two years, maybe three at the most. I intended to get an international experience and go back to Belgium. My post doc was partially supported by Fulbright Fellowship, which has in the small print that upon completion you need to return to your home country because that fellowship, supported by US government, was not designed to be used as a vehicle for people to integrate: You have to go back home and be gone at least two years before you ever tried to permanently move back to United States. I had no problem with that because I was only going to be here two or three years, so I didn’t think much of that fine print at the time.
But while I was at Oak Ridge National Lab, I met my husband. He was a staff member at the lab and in the same group that I was working in, but not my supervisor. In time, we fell in love and wanted to find a way for us to get married and start a family. That’s when the requirement from Fulbright Fellowship came up—getting married was not sufficient to get out of their fine print. You had to prove like extreme hardship. So if, if maybe there was war in my country or something like that, I could’ve gotten out of it. Just being separated from your husband is not extreme hardship according to the US government. After I’d been in the State about two and a half years, I began looking for a job in either Belgium or at least to Europe.
I was engaged at the time I had to leave the State and took another post doc in Germany. My fiancé stayed employed at Oak Ridge National Lab. After a few months, my fiancé called me or emailed me to check the job advertisements in the Physics Today section: “There is an advertisement for a faculty position at University of Mississippi, and it’s like it was made for you. It’s exactly what you’re doing.” I checked it out and it was almost like it was really written for me—they wanted somebody who did was spectroscopy combined with materials physics, which was exactly what I did.
I’d only been a couple months out of the country, but I decided to apply anyway to see what would happen. They called me for interview and ended up offering me a job, at which point and I said, “Well there’s one problem. I cannot get visa to come to the United States right now because of this requirement.” They started to look into that and looking at all the possible reasons to make an exception. One possible reason for an exception was if you had expertise for a job that could not be filled by anybody in the US. They could actually prove this because the faculty position had been open for about almost a year, and they had not been able to hire anybody. So, they could make a case that I was the only person they could hire.
Because they hadn’t been able to identify anybody else that was able to fit that position, they managed to get an exception to the rule. After this, it still took a while because I got the job offer around. I think Christmas time, and it took until September to get all the paperwork straightened out. By that time, I had been almost a year and a half out of the US. Finally I took the faculty position at University of Mississippi which was, instead of 5,000 miles away from my fiancé, only 500 miles. That was measured progress, and we were happy. So in September 1999, I started that position, and we got married in May of 2000.
I was a professor at the University of Mississippi, my husband was in Tennessee, so we had about a six or seven-hour drive between us. What we would do is meet, about every other weekend, halfway just outside Nashville. Both of us would leave after work on Friday, drive about four hours, spend a weekend there, and then go back to our respective institutions. For long weekends or holidays, I would fly or drive the whole distance. This continued for quite a while. We got married in May of 2000 in July of 2002, our first baby was born, which made things a whole lot more complicated.
Our son was born in the summer, so that meant I didn’t have to teach. So actually he was born in Knoxville, Tennessee where my husband was living and University of Mississippi gave me fall semester off from teaching. So I was able to spend the fall semester with the baby in Tennessee. But then in January I moved back with a six-month old baby back to Mississippi. That’s when we said, “OK, this is ridiculous. How long are we going through this?” So, we started looking for new positions. I guess there were three major options. Either I will find a job in the Knoxville area, my husband would find a job at the University of Mississippi, or we would both go somewhere else together.
We explored all the options. The whole situation was complicated because we both have PhD’s in physics. We did approach the University of Mississippi administration to see what possibilities there are for my husband, but there was not a suitable position available. We started applying for faculty positions elsewhere but said, “Look, you have to hire us both.” The physics department at University of Tennessee, Knoxville did not have the possibility of any openings at this time but there was a possibility in the material science and engineering department. And my first reaction was like, “But I’m not an engineer. I mean, I’m a physicist.”
I didn’t know what would be expected in a material science and engineering department. So I looked at the description of courses they teach and thought, “I can teach good fraction of those.” I do research in condensed matter physics, which is similar to material science, so there’s a lot of overlap. After some consideration, I started thinking, “Maybe it’s not that crazy an idea.” They actually did not have a real opening, but they were willing to talk to the provost, and it looked like they would be able to make what they called an opportunity hire. I visited, gave a presentation to the department heads and the faculty and they made me an offer. At the same time the University of Mississippi were working towards an offer for David, but they were just a little behind time wise.
The job decision was also influenced by my father-in-law’s health. He had moved to Knoxville to be close to my husband and was diagnosed with cancer. So we had to make a decision. Well, given all that, it was probably best if I moved to Knoxville. I took that position and so I moved back to Knoxville in summer of 2003, when our son was about one year old at the time. I started over as an assistant professor at the University of Tennesse in August of 2003, even though I was close to making tenure at the University of Mississippi. I thought was a small price to pay to have our family altogether. The first thing to do as a new facult member was to go knock on my department head’s door and tell him that I was expected my second baby. He was born in March 2004.
TN: What advice would you give for people who are like looking at starting the two-body journey?
VK: I think that there’s two main things. One is be patient and the other one is be flexible. You need to be prepared to be flexible. And I guess depending on how flexible you are, you may need less patience. It takes compromise. In my case, I needed to be flexible and switch to material science engineering. My first thought was “No, I mean I’m not an engineer, I can’t do that.” So there’s some flexibility needed and some patience.
Interview with Juliette Ioup, December 2017 by Traci Neilsen
TN: Can you please share your story?
JI: The two-body problem is important. I was very lucky because after I got to know the man George, who became my husband, it was very obvious that we should be together. I recommend, for the two-body problem, be very careful about the other body and select the right person.
We met when I was an undergrad and George was a grad in physics at the University of Florida. We got married when I was in MS and he was in PHD program. I taught at a Jr. College while he finished his PhD. Then he applied for post docs and I applied to grad schools because I wanted to continue on for my PhD, at his recommendation as we discussed it. All our married life, he always offered wonderful advice, but he would never make a decision for me. There were a few occasions when I was very unhappy because it was a hard decision, and I would have liked for him to make it. But he would not. But whatever decision I made he was very supportive, and I was very supportive of what he did too.
He applied for post docs (1968); I applied for graduate schools—the same places, of course. Our family was mostly on the east coast, so we looked in the eastern half of the united states. We chose the University of Connecticut (UConn) which gave me a very good fellowship and him a good post doc. His post doc was just one year, but since I needed another year of classwork, he taught at the Coast Guard Academy, which was quite some ways from UConn, but at least in the same state.
During that year, he looked for various faculty positions, mostly on the eastern half of the United States, and mostly where there were many universities. We were both academic people, so we knew we would want to be associated with a university. This was in the late 60’s and early 70’s—jobs were hard to find. He applied many, many places. The University of New Orleans (UNO) offered him a physics faculty position (1969). They also offered me an instructor position in the Math department (ugh)—at least it was something.
We came to New Orleans, and he started teaching and doing research at UNO, which he continued the rest of his career. I was teaching the entry-level math classes (1969). I was not very interested because I was not a mathematicians, but it did give me access to UNO resources: the library, the computer center (such as it was). While teaching these math classes, I did the research for my dissertation, typed it up, and mailed it off to my advisor at UConn. No reply for several weeks. It took longer because I was in New Orleans, but maybe not because I could talk to George, who always gave good physics/math/science advice on anything. There were also other people in the physics dept. I could consult with the other professors in the physics department and also the library.
When I finished my PhD, I did not want to teach in the math department any more, and so I applied to all the universities in New Orleans. They all replied, “Thank you very much, but we have nothing available.” Two weeks or so before the start of the following fall semester, I heard from one of the universities (Xavier University) that one of the physics professors was going on leave for one year to do research, and they were wondering if I was interested in filling in for one year. I said, “yes, of course,” and so I went to Xavier University—a small liberal arts school, mostly African American students, definitely Catholic, a good, local school.
I taught physics and some math at Xavier, but I was in the physics department—very nice, congenial, small department. After one year, they decided they wanted to keep me. Fortunately, the professor who had taken leave was offered a position somewhere else, so he was not coming back. And so, I stayed on as a physics professor at Xavier and continued to teach and do research. Because Xavier is HBU, I was able to get grants and have student involved in research, go on summer activities, etc. And so I went for Xavier for 1 year and stayed 9 years, which was wonderful. Many good friends I still have from those times. One of my Xavier students is here at the meeting and is a co-author on the paper I have at the meeting. My time at Xavier worked out well.
Towards the end of the time, I discovered it was not exactly fair. Xavier was founded by The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, nuns in the Catholic church, and originally most of the faculty were nuns. A considerable number still were nuns when I was there, but the administration was mostly male, although not completely. I found out that some of the other faculty members who came to Xavier about when I did and were not getting as much grant money as I got, were being paid more. It was suggested that I had a man who could support me and the male faculty was a man supporting his family. While this was true, I still believed that faculty should be paid by what they are worth to the university.
All this time I was still associated with UNO. George had started some signal processing classes for geophysics data for all the oil companies and for the acoustics people at the Naval research Lab at Stennis Space Center. He developed a sequence of signal processing courses, but he could not teach them all at the same time. I taught some of these courses in the evenings starting in 1972-3—many of the graduate courses were in the evenings so the people working for oil companies or Stennis could come.
When I decided to leave Xavier, I applied to all the oil companies in town—at that time there were many. I got a couple of offers and ended up at Texaco doing geophysical signal processing on seismic data. I took a leave of absence from Xavier and worked in in industry for three years, with a much, much higher salary. It was interesting work; I learned a lot; and I think I did more or less what they wanted. I made many, many good friends there.
After three years, I realized that I am an academic person, not an industry person. Even though it was very interesting work, I wanted to be back in academia. I began considering applying to the many universities in New Orleans. About that time, we knew that one of the UNO physics professors was retiring, so I applied. With my connections with the faculty, their familiarity with my teaching, and the skills I’d gained working in industry, I was hired at UNO. (1984)
This was ideal. George and I had always done research together; we had complimentary skills. I really miss his part now. [George passed away January 2016.] Running the computer, doing all the details work, typing manuscripts, checking for errors, I can do this very well. He would often have an idea; I would sit down at the computer (type,type,type); then we would look at his plot—was his idea going to work or not? We worked together really well, getting more done than either of us separately. Administrative skills, he had so much more than I, so it is quite difficult without him.
In 1984, I came to UNO full-time, officially, tenure track position. (I had to go through getting tenure for a second time, but it was ok.)
The decisions—“Should I leave Xavier and go to industry?” and “Should I leave industry and go to UNO?”—we discussed extensively. They were very hard decisions, particularly the first one. Sometimes I could not even eat from worrying about it. George gave lots of good advice, but in the end made me make the decision, which in the end turned out for the best. Choosing your second body in the two-body problem is very important. I will be the first to admit that I have been extremely lucky in this regard. George was never ever jealous. When I was in industry, I was making a much higher salary than him, even though most of the time I was junior to him because he started before me. But it was no problem. We just continued on with what we were doing.
I am currently trying to continue with the department that became successful and well known in a large part because of George because of his work in teaching, developing program, and great research, getting good graduate students. I am trying to continue these things as best I can. It is extremely hard without him, but I cannot give up on what he started.
TN: What advice would you give to people who are starting this journey?
JI: First, you must be sure that you love the subject you are interested in because it is going to be a lot of work. George was brilliant; he didn’t do homework as an undergraduate and still made A’s on the tests. I was the opposite; I did all the homework and struggled really hard to do well on the tests. So you have to be willing to work hard.
I should perhaps also say, that I have been lucky in my parents who were very supportive in the first place. You need parents who require you to go to college. My mother was very strong. She graduated from high school in 1927. That fall she started teaching elementary school. She taught for one year to earn enough money to send herself to teacher’s college the next summer. She did this for several years. Her family was not going to send a girl to college. Her older brother went to a semester, and it didn’t turn out well. The rest of the siblings were girls. Momma was the only was who wanted to send herself to college. So she did and received a two-year teaching certificate.
She married daddy, and I was the oldest of three girls. Daddy never went to college; he was not ambitious. My sisters and I always knew “You are going to going and will not expect a man to take care of you.” They never said it, but it was implied, which I have to say, they were correct. We all did that.
After my sisters and I were older, momma began teaching again with her two-year degree. After a while she got tired of that and said, “I can make more money if I had a four-year degree.” She decided to go back to school in her late 40’s-50’s. This meant leaving her youngest daughter with daddy. She went back to college for two academic years and two summers, and got her bachelor’s degree in June of the same year I got my bachelor’s degree. So I could always tease her, “You just had to graduate before I did.” She went back to teaching, and I went to graduate school.
If you can choose your parents, that helps.
Please be careful about the other body. There are various things you can watch for. For example, how does he treat his family? When you marry him, you will be his family, and he will treat you like that. With George, at first I would get unhappy because he would say “I have to go help my mom,” “I need to go help my dad with this,” “Oh, let us go and visit my parents.” But this was fine. “Let me go and help my maiden. You can come along too.” I quickly realized that I did not need to be jealous of these relative, but grateful that he treats them this way because that’s how he was going to treat me. So that’s one thing you can watch out for: How does the other body treat his current family, because you are going to be his family.
The other thing is that you need to talk. George and I used to joke because there are all these studies that say things like “Married couples talk two sentences each week after they’ve been married five years, one sentence a week after seven years, and when they talk it’s about the children.” This was never the case. We know there must be couples not talking to each other at all because George and I were always talking to each other. Of course, we talked about physics all the time. That was one of the pleasures of working together. He would have an idea, then I would say “If we do this, what about that?” and push it on. Then he would say, “And if we do that, let’s do this,” and we would build on suggestions from the other person. So we would talk about physics all the time.
There is a bad side—you can’t put anything over on a physicist. If you say something that’s not right, they will catch it, so you have to be careful. 😉 That’s the fun part.
You have to see if the other body is tolerant; are they willing to let you do your thing if it’s a little bit different?
We chose not to have children. Our students are our children. It’s important that you discuss major issues like this and see if you agree.
Another big topic is religion, which George and I did not agree on. But we agreed to let the other do what they wanted, because we could, of course, understand the other choice.