Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Two-Body Problem: Relationships and Physicists


One of the more difficult things about being a physicist in a relationship is that your partner is usually also a professional in a technical field as well.  Working in specialized fields make finding jobs in the same location as your partner difficult.  So many of us have experienced these issues that we have a special name assigned to it - the two-body problem (re-purposing the phrase referring  to the physics of two masses interacting, say in orbit).

The problem isn't about finding work, but finding work working in our specialties.  For example, I am a skilled physics educator and every college and university teaches physics at some level so there are job opportunities for me in that respect.  Of course, these jobs are still very competitive to earn, but you get the idea that there is work out there.  But many of these jobs would likely be strictly or mostly teaching without much in the way of research opportunities.  I could be employed but I would likely not be able to continue my LIGO research which is important to me.  There are about 80 institutions from across the country and around the world that work in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (click here for a list of these institutions).  While this sounds like many, the odds of not only landing a job at one of these institutions and having fulfilling job prospects for a spouse isn't great.

My two-body problem was made official in 2003.


This is usually most difficult for us academics as we finish our degrees (or when an appointment ends if the relationship started when not a student - mine did so this is what I reference).  For me, it was especially stressful since I finished my doctorate before my husband finished his.  My solution to the two-body problem: take a mini retirement.  He was supposed to graduate next semester so I figured that I would wait for him.  Besides, after writing my dissertation, I was quite burned out on research.  Well, next semester turned into the next next semester and I started to quickly lose my mind as I wasn't nearly as burned out as I thought.  I had a small contract teaching job at Penn State, but it was something that I had been doing for years as a graduate student and it wasn't challenging or time consuming.  Then I discovered vampire books and decided to do a normal person job for fun (almost all of my work previously has been in academia).  One of my students gave me tips on where to apply for a waitressing  job.  I was looking for something in the evening, like in a bar, but I ended up with breakfast/lunch service at a hotel restaurant.  Except for the very early start time (I had to be there for 6 AM, which I know isn't that early, but doesn't exist in my universe), I loved the work!  I met lots of new people and none of them treated me like I was odd because I was a physicist (since they didn't know).  This did come at a potentially steep cost professionally since effectively being out of the field for nearly a year (like I was) is usually career suicide.

Finally, there came a job I was willing to suffer a long distance relationship for - the one I have right now.  It was pure serendipity that they were also hiring engineers with my husband's skills at the same time.  We both got jobs and we are both happily employed at LIGO now.  This is EXTREMELY rare.

Now my concern is maintaining the ability to sleep under the same roof with my husband in the future.  My job here is a postdoctoral scholar is temporary, much like a medical doctor's residency.  I've been at this job for almost 5 years now (I did get promoted to senior postdoctoral scholar after my third year) which is a long time to be a postdoc at the same place.  That's not to say that it's unusual to have several postdoc appointments at different places for more than 5 years.

What to do now?  Well, I am trying to work out a new position but I don't want to jinx by talking about it here now.  This solution would let me stay put but definitely mix things up a bit for me.  Fingers crossed!


To give you an idea of how lucky I am to live with my husband through our transition from student to scientist, I've had two advisors on my way to getting my Ph.D. who both had extended long-distance relationships due to the two-body problem.  The first was Gabriela Gonzalez who left Penn State to go with her husband (also at Penn State) to LSU where he was offered a prestigious position and she would be able to work much closer to LIGO.  Before they found the Penn State (and then LSU) solution to their two-body problem, they worked for about 6 years hours apart from each other (you can read about their story here - you may need to register, but it's free).  When I turned down the opportunity to go to LSU with her (due to my own relationship), I then worked for Sam Finn at Penn State.  He and his wife also spent about a decade apart before they found their solution.

Conclusion, I am lucky beyond belief to not only have a job that I love but to have the one I love with me as well.

Read More:

A Dual Dilemma  (
Is the Husband Going to be a Problem?  (New York Times)
Women in Academia: The Two Body Problem  (Persephone Magazine)