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Some thoughts on the 'two-body problem'

10/3/2015 1:47:02 PM

For the past two weeks, I’ve been writing posts with lots of faculty jobs in areas of interest to ASBMB members (see week 1 / week 2). Searching for any job is complicated, and searching for a faculty job has even more challenges, so what if you and your spouse or partner are looking for academic jobs simultaneously? Or an academic job and a nonacademic one? The two-body problem, as it is often called, happens when a couple is undergoing the job-search process together and can add another layer of complication to a process already fraught with difficulties.

I had the opportunity to interview Adam Hughes and Bridget Todd-Hughes, a science couple who went through the job-search process and came out the other side with both of them getting their ideal jobs. I asked them what their strategy for their job search had been, what they found to be most challenging and what advice they might give for other couples undergoing simultaneous job searches.

Adam and Bridget met as graduate students at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and then coordinated so they could be postdoctoral fellows together at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Now at the beginnings of their careers, Adam is an assistant professor in the biochemistry department at the University of Utah, while Bridget is the associate director of research program development at the University of Utah’s Office of the Senior Vice President’s Research Unit.

The couple made the move to Utah about a year and a half ago and do both really love their new careers. “We love our jobs, we love our kids, and our life. For this reason, we chose a location that allowed ‘easy living.’ We chose Utah because we could afford the lifestyle that we wanted to live, all the amenities we were looking for, and convenience of getting around,” said Bridget.

Sounds great, but what did it take to get there? “It is extremely common these days for two partners to both be looking for science jobs at the same time,” said Adam. “In our situation, I was looking for a faculty position in academics, and Bridget was interested in transitioning from a research position into science administration or biotech.”

The process Adam and Bridget used to coordinate their job searches started well before the first application was submitted. “We started discussing the situation very early on in our postdocs, and this was key to being able to find positions that we are both very happy with. I knew that I was interested in leading my own lab, and Bridget spent a couple of years before I went on the job market exploring options for her career,” said Adam.

Bridget added that she initially chose her postdoctoral lab because it would provide her with an appealing skill set for a biotech career but began considering other career paths to be a little more flexible. “After Adam started applying for jobs, I quickly realized that a lot of the institutions where he may get job offers might not offer many biotech positions. After months of career exploration during my postdoc, I decided that a career in research program development fit my career aspirations and skill set quite nicely,” she said.

Once they had committed to applying to certain kinds of jobs, the application process started for Adam first. “Because of the difficult nature of the academic job market, I applied broadly to a number of places that we were interested in living and that would potentially have job opportunities for both of us. I went through the process first, and then Bridget began to explore options at places after I had secured a job offer for myself.”

The next step was for Bridget to begin exploring her career options in the narrowed-down list of locations. “After Adam was invited back for second interviews and received job offers, I sent out a cover letter and resume highlighting my career interests and relevant skills to the various institutions where he had offers. This made it much easier for institutions to connect me to relevant people or opportunities. We requested informational interviews for me to explore career opportunities. It’s also worth noting that some intuitions would have done this automatically and at others we had to ask.”

Adam adds that this was one of the most challenging parts of the process. “Because Bridget was interested in making a transition into research administration, one of the biggest obstacles for us was being able to identify the right people for Bridget to speak to about her own job opportunities once I had acquired a position.”

Another challenge they experienced was one that will sound familiar to anyone with a Ph.D. who has searched for a nonresearch position. As Bridget explained, “One major obstacle that we came across at multiple institutions was the lack of opportunities for Ph.D. scientists outside the traditional career paths. I think that is changing now, as people are realizing the value of having PhD scientists in administrative roles.”

When asked what advice they would give to others in a similar situation, Adam and Bridget emphasized the importance of flexibility, patience and communication.

“I think, for dual-career science couples, success if more likely if one person has a little flexibility in their job choice,” said Bridget.

Adam agreed, saying he would advise couples to “support each other, be flexible and realize that each person’s job is just as important as the other. One of the biggest factors to keep in mind is that finding jobs for both partners takes a very long time, and a great deal of patience is required when going through the process. Because we both needed to find a job we were happy with, we had to be careful not to make any snap decisions just to have the process finish more quickly. Patience and communication are key, and we are very happy with the outcome of our dual-career search.”

Ultimately, everyone’s situation will be different, but success stories like Adam and Bridget’s highlight the importance of planning, coordination, and being open and honest with yourself and your partner about your career aspirations. Do you have a story about a coordinated job search? Advice for what to do or not to do? Tweet us @ASBMB with the hash tag #twobodyprob and add your voice to the conversation!

Looking for more jobs posts? Check out some of the other posts I’ve written about immunology, lipid research, bioinformatics, translational research, pathology, genomics, developmental biology, biodefense, biochemistry, virology, molecular biology, pharmacology, sequencing, neuroscience, drug discovery, stem cell research, mass spectrometry, plant biology, microbiome, RNA research, metabolism research, microscopy, genetics, protein purification, neurobiology, structural biology, cancer biology, microbiology, cell culture, and cloning jobs. Looking for other tips on how to search for jobs? I wrote posts on networking, strategies for job searching (part I and part II), how to decipher a job post, the job acquisition process, and four things to consider when choosing a career. As always, we’d love to hear your feedback or suggestions. Leave a comment or reach out to ASBMB on Twitter or Facebook!

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