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Wrestling With the “Two-Body” Problem?

Universities are trying out creative solutions to recruit and retain dual-career couples.

August 2010- Johns Hopkins postdoctoral fellows Hani Zaher and Carrie Simms admit to having some apprehension about their future.

Both postdocs at the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences, they each would like careers in academia running their own labs. But will they find faculty positions at the same institution or even in the same geographic region? What if they each receive dream job offers at institutions 1,000 miles apart? The couple already has experience living apart, which they did when Carrie was completing graduate school and Zaher was starting his postdoc. "It was tough," says Zaher. "We don't want to do that again."

University search committees increasingly encounter couples who share this predicament, a situation called the "two-body problem." "We're seeing it much more now," says Janice Clements, vice dean for faculty at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "Many more recruits now have spouses with a professional career."

In response, universities are trying various strategies to address the issue. Studies have shown that availability of employment for a partner is a major factor when a faculty member considers accepting a job offer, says Londa Schiebinger, director of the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University.

In 2006, Schiebinger and colleagues began one of the few studies to examine the issue of dual-career academic couples in the United States, a survey of 9,000 faculty members at 13 leading research universities (five private and eight public). They discovered that in the 1970s, dual hires (also called couple hires) made up only 3 percent of all faculty hires. Thirty years later, that figure had climbed to 13 percent.

The results also indicate that within the pool of academic couples, there is a high rate of "disciplinary endogamy," pairing up within the same field--particularly among scientists. Within the group of academic couples, 83 percent of women scientists have a partner who is also a scientist, a greater percentage than in any other academic discipline.

Universities are addressing the dual-career quandary through formal and informal channels, says Schiebinger. All 13 of the universities in her group's study practice dual hiring to recruit and retain faculty, but just five have written policies or principles on it.

Hopkins has no formal policy on the issue of dual-career hiring, although it is something that leaders plan to discuss, says Clements. "We're interested in how to make it a better process," she says. "It's clearly advantageous to Hopkins to have both spouses here. It engenders a certain loyalty to the institution."

For now, dual hiring at Hopkins is an ad hoc process. "Three-fourths of the recruitments we've done in the last four years dealt with this," notes Neuroscience chair Rick Huganir. "For most of these cases, you call everybody you know, both at Hopkins and in the Maryland area." At various points, he's phoned contacts in departments throughout the university, at the University of Maryland, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institute on Aging, and pharmaceutical companies to inquire about job possibilities for spouses of candidates he wanted to hire. Other department heads say they have done the same.

Sometimes the calls pay off; sometimes they don't. Occasionally, departments have created new positions for a spouse. At times, dual hiring has involved elaborate cost-sharing arrangements between different departments and offices in the university.

One recent case involved neuroscientist Alfredo Kirkwood and his wife, neuroscientist Hey-Kyoung Lee, who had a biology lab and a tenured position at the University of Maryland in College Park. The couple decided they wanted to work at the same institution so that neither of them would have to commute and so they both could spend more time with their young son.

The University of Maryland made Kirkwood a generous offer, which the couple seriously considered accepting. Eager to retain him and recruit Lee, Huganir called different departments to see if any might hire Lee, who had been a postdoc in his lab. None had the resources. So Huganir and other administrators came up with a unique plan. Lee received a primary appointment in Neuroscience, but her lab and teaching responsibilities are based at the School of Arts and Sciences on the Homewood campus. And funding for her lab's start-up costs came from five different groups: Neuroscience, the provost's office, the dean's office at the School of Arts and Sciences, the Brain Science Institute and the Dean's Office at the school of medicine.

"It was a family decision," says Lee. "We thought being at Hopkins would better our lives together."

The time and effort to craft the plan were worth it, says Huganir. "Both Alfredo Kirkwood and Hey-Kyoung Lee are well-funded investigators who do stellar work."

Outside of Hopkins, some universities have a designated broker to help coordinate such arrangements. A law professor serves in that role at Stanford, which does not have a formal policy on dual hiring. When a job candidate is being actively recruited, he seeks out job prospects at Stanford for the candidate's partner.

Several universities have written policies or guidelines on couple hiring, a practice that Schiebinger recommends. Berkeley, for example, outlines the protocol that departments should follow when the two-body issue arises. The guidelines explain, for example, that search committee members should not discuss the issue until after making a job offer. Then, if the job candidate's partner desires an academic position, the office of the vice provost for academic affairs helps facilitate the job search.

Dual hiring has its fans and its critics. Those who oppose the practice say it runs counter to the traditional meritocracy of faculty hiring by which departments seek out and compete for the best and the brightest. Others point out that it can stigmatize a faculty member who was co-recruited with a spouse.

On the other hand, supporters say that the practice can help universities compete for top candidates and expand faculty diversity. It might also have both tangible and intangible benefits, suggests Denise Montell. She and her husband, Craig, were hired several years apart--and not as part of a dual-hiring process. Yet they now have labs next to one another in the Department of Biological Chemistry.

Although they don't collaborate, they frequently exchange ideas, and their close proximity to one another has fostered a sort of intellectual synergy. They read and critique each other's grants and have lunch together almost every day, a time they use to talk shop. An idea that Denise Montell proposed during one lunch session became the basis for a new series of experiments in Craig Montell's lab that may lead to treatments for a neurodegenerative disease.

There was an element of luck in how it all worked out for her and her husband, says Denise Montell. She knows of other academic couples who haven't been as lucky.

Hani Zaher and Carrie Simms hope they experience the same good fortune as the Montells, but they're considering all possibilities.

"One of us may have to compromise" by accepting a position as a research associate or research technician, says Zaher.

-Melissa Hendricks

Related Stories:
Luring Prospective Faculty: How can basic science continue to woo—and keep—top talent?

Rick Huganir on the future of neuroscience and life-long learning