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These 3 Winning Strategies Can Save You From The Two-Body Problem

Contributing Author: Mary Truscott, Ph.D.

The “two-body problem” means compromise — plain and simple.

The name of this problem is a bit of an inside joke. Essentially, classical mechanics acknowledges a two-body problem when certain obstacles impede the prediction of motion for two massive objects.

The career version is far less scientific, and way more personal.

Let’s say you and your partner have your PhDs, and you’re looking for work.

What are the chances you’ll both get a job in the same city?

Pretty low.

So, what happens when your partner gets a really good offer?

Compromise is what happens.

Unfortunately, if your partner’s field of work isn’t highly flexible, the compromising party will probably be you.

This is the two-body problem that I personally faced, and my own story goes like this:

As our respective research projects were coming to a close, my husband and I were running out of options.

Our income sources were drying up, and we had a baby on the way.

I was frantically applying for faculty positions but, before I got any offers, my husband got a great job offer via referral.

This job was in another city.

It all happened so fast that we barely had time to process what was going on.

In a very short span of time, we had a baby and moved to a new city.

I left my research, waved goodbye to academia, and looked into a strange new future.

This bustling new city was totally new to me.

I had no idea if there was even a job for me in this area.

My flexibility had taken a big hit because I was rooted where my family was — where my husband’s job was.

This is not a fun position to be in.

I’m glad to say that my story ended happily. I got an awesome remote job, and I’m still working there today.

But, not everyone is so lucky.

How The Two-Body Problem Affects Men And Women

The Pew Research Center found that in nearly half of all two-parent families, both the mother and father work full-time.

Within this same set of two-parent families, 26% consists of dads employed full-time and unemployed moms.

Ready for the most revealing data?

In a mere 2% of families, this is reversed: full-time moms and unemployed dads are 92% less common than the more traditional family models.

The takeaway is that, statistically, women run a much higher risk than men when it comes to two-body compromise.

Supporting this is research by Wolfinger et al, which found that a massive 89% of female academic faculty members have spouses in full-time employment.

Only 56% of male faculty members can say the same.

And, as reported by Rose Krieder and Jason Fields, women maintain a higher probability of being married in the first place (though only by a relatively small percentage).

It’s not heteronormative couples alone who face this issue. Same-sex couples must also deal with these concerns, whether they opt to start families or not.

This gives sex and gender psychologists plenty to work with, but it doesn’t change the sheer challenge presented by the two-body problem.

What can a couple do in the face of the two-body problem?

Beat The Two-Body Problem With These 3 Strategies

You already know the bad news.

Yes, PhD couples faced with the two-body problem will likely have to compromise.

But, the situation is far from hopeless. That’s the good news.

There are different strategies and approaches you can adopt when you find yourself in the two-body problem.

Let’s cover 3 ways to navigate this problem, break through it, and find your career waiting on the other side.

1. Build a unified plan, and stick to it.

Are you and your partner ambitious PhDs, hungry for fulfilling careers in your respective fields?

The two-body problem can be most upsetting for couples just like these.

The first thing to do is be open about your future.

Lay out a comprehensive list of possibilities, sacrifices, limits, and expectations.

If one of you is offered a position in a different location, don’t simply agree to become a long-distance couple and play it by ear.

This only creates (literal) distance, forms unspoken expectations, and makes the situation way harder than it needs to be.

Talk about your options.

Tell your partner what you’re looking for, specifically.

It’s a little like a job interview: where do you see yourself in 5 years?

No matter what your plans are, there is one rigid rule: Both people have to be in agreement on a unified future.

You both have to want the same things.

This doesn’t mean you should chase the exact same job, or anything like that.

It means you need to share a vision of your life together: the jobs you each want, the places you’re willing to live, the sacrifices you’re willing to make, the income you feel you need, etc.

This way, you each know exactly where the other stands.

The last thing you want is unfulfilled expectations or surprise decisions.

It’s important to stick to your plan.

If you want to make revisions, follow the same process of finding agreement between both parties.

2. Redefine yourself and keep an open mind.

Sometimes, it becomes clear that one partner’s career ought to take priority.

There are a number of reasons this might be the case.

One partner might have better earning potential.

Or, maybe your ideal town/city has way more to offer someone in your partner’s field.

Whatever the reason, this can be a real obstacle for some couples.

If you’re both driven and passionate about your future careers, how can you just take a backseat and let them follow their dreams while you wait around?

Here is part of the problem: if you characterize your situation in a way that makes you feel like a victim, you’re going to have a bad time.

Instead, try keeping an open mind.

What new opportunities might open up as a result of changing your goals?

Remote work is always a possibility, and that’s never been more true than it is now.

From blogging to web development, there are simply a ton of options.

PhDs can learn new skills. Accumulating knowledge is what they do best.

If your partner’s career is taking the forefront, this is an opportunity to work at self-improvement.

Look for digital opportunities and see if you can’t find a way to transition your skills to remote work.

3. Have a strong support system in place.

Some companies actually have some wiggle room when it comes to the two-body problem.

They may be willing to negotiate with a newly hired candidate and provide some job search support for the other partner.

This is always a good idea to explore, but don’t rely on it. Ultimately, it’s you and your partner who are in this together.

So, one simple yet important question to ask is this:

“Is my partner being supportive?”

Couples who manage the two-body problem successfully have this much in common: they support each other.

It can be very tough to allow your partner to pursue a career while you put yours on hold.

If your partner isn’t supportive during this time, it can even feel threatening to the relationship.

The compromising partner might feel left behind, or like they’re less important.

Part of this can be resolved by having a unified plan from the get-go.

Couples who support one another have an advantage over those who don’t.

So, what does this look like?

The “priority” partner should be empathetic, open to change, and on the lookout for ways to make the other feel valued.

“External” support is important too so, if possible, family and friends should factor into your choice of new cities to live in.

This is especially true for couples with children, who have the added challenge of parenting on top of the two-body problem.

The nearby presence of trustworthy adults should never be overlooked. Parents in the two-body problem need all the support they can get.

A little babysitting can go a long way.

Remember these 3 strategies as you face the two-body problem. Take them to heart and stay optimistic. The problem has been beaten before, and you can beat it too. If you build a unified plan and stick to it, redefine yourself and keep an open mind, and have a strong support system in place, you can join the ranks of PhDs who have worked through these circumstances and become successful professionals with fulfilling careers.

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Mary Truscott, Ph.D.

Mary Truscott, Ph.D.

Mary has a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and is the Operations Manager and Association Program Leader at Cheeky Scientist. She has a long-standing interest in helping PhDs succeed - she co-founded and led a university postdoc association, established several professional accountability groups, and is currently developing a PhD co-working community project. Mary also runs her own communications consulting business and co-chairs the Board of Trustees at an independent non-profit preschool.
Mary Truscott, Ph.D.