Thursday, May 05, 2016


The One-Body Problem

Academics are well-acquainted with the “two-body problem.”  It refers to the difficulties couples have when trying to forge academic careers.  It’s often difficult to find two suitable positions geographically close enough for the couple to live together.  And if they do, and then one of them wants to (or has to) find another opportunity, they have to find two again.  In an industry in which good jobs are dwindling, that’s a tall order, and the tensions play themselves out in people’s personal lives.  Sometimes couples resolve it by living at a distance, sometimes by accepting positions beneath their qualifications, and sometimes by splitting up.  (I offered some amplification of Kelly Baker’s thoughtful comments on the two-body problem here.)

From personal experience, I’ll add that two-body issues aren’t limited to dual-academic couples.  Asking one partner to uproot for the sake of the other’s career -- especially more than once -- is asking a lot.  People make friends, form local ties, and put down roots in communities; uprooting isn’t easy.  If you have kids in school, add another order of magnitude to the degree of difficulty.  In a more robust market, there would be enough options that the issue would be relatively rare, but that’s not where we are.

From a hiring perspective, the two-body problem is insidious.  It plays out in weaker-than-expected candidate pools, regretfully-declined offers, and short stays for new hires.  If you aren’t in a financial and/or political position to offer a “spousal hire” -- I’ve never had the option, though I consider that a sort of blessing -- the two-body issue makes it harder to hire even one.

Having moved from the Springfield, Massachusetts metro area to the New York City metro area, though, I’m now seeing a “one-body problem” more clearly.

In most of the country, when people think of Massachusetts, they think of Boston.  But Springfield is a different flavor entirely.  It’s closer to a Rust Belt factory town than to Boston, and it’s far enough from Boston that a commute isn’t realistic.  

Which meant that in my time there, we had a hard time recruiting people who weren’t already coupled up.  That was particularly true for minority candidates, who faced the prospect of relatively thin dating pools.  (That isn’t just speculation; I heard it directly a couple of times.) The area has its charms, but if you weren’t either already from there or securely coupled, its appeal was limited.  From a recruitment standpoint, the problem of lacking critical mass was self-perpetuating.

I haven’t seen any of that here, though.  In the New York City metro, options are plentiful enough (and dating pools large enough) that single candidates aren’t deterred.  The major issue here is housing cost, which is real -- you have no idea -- but it’s not quite as fraught.  It’s economic in a really straightforward way.  

In my perfect world, of course, we’d have areas with both bustling opportunities and reasonably priced housing.  But America generally seems to be forcing people to choose.  For an institution as squarely aimed at the middle as a community college, that kind of polarization is becoming an existential threat.  

In the meantime, though, I have to admit that it’s refreshing not to see some of the same questions from candidates here that I saw before.  Big metros may be stupidly expensive, but they reduce both the one-body and the two-body problems.

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