Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Two-Body Problem Revisited

A piece I wrote over four years ago got new life this week on Twitter.  It was about the “two-body problem” in higher ed, or the expectation that anyone trying to break into the faculty ranks should expect, as a matter of course, to be willing to drop everything and move anywhere they could get work. If that wreaks havoc on intimate relationships, well, so be it; the job is supposed to come before everything.

There’s something a little unsettling about seeing something you wrote years ago gaining fresh currency.  I hadn’t read the piece in years, so rereading it involved a sense of “well, it sounds like something I’d write…” Most of it still works, though if I had a chance to do it again, I’d drop the line “the two-body problem is only a problem for people who have partners who don’t stay home…”  That’s simply not true. The problem is compounded in two-earner couples, but stay-at-home spouses still have preferences, loyalties, networks, and lives that are bound to specific places. In retrospect, that line was a mistake.

But the core of the piece is at least as true now as it was then.  The job market outside academia is booming, I’m told, but you wouldn’t know it within academia.  The most recent statistics from the American Political Science Association, for instance, show fewer than a third of new doctorates getting tenure-track positions at all, let alone in locations they’d prefer.  Poli sci may be taking a particular beating as law school falls out of favor, but the general direction holds across many traditional academic fields.  

In the early career years, that can mean dual-academic couples facing some awful decisions.  The odds of both of them getting the kind of jobs for which they were trained within commuting distance of the same home are slim.  So they have to decide either to live apart -- this, during the years when many couples start families -- or to accept underemployment for one or both of them. To make matters worse, “visiting” positions often offer shelter only for a year or two, requiring serial moves. And with many schools ratcheting up their tenure requirements, the partner lucky enough to get the “real” job may be distracted to the point of emotional absence.

This is not healthy. It is not reasonable. People who object to it are right to object.

At its core, the two-body problem is a hiring problem.  But that hiring problem won’t be solved just by calling attention to it.  I’ve been in administration for a long time at several different colleges, and I’ve never seen or heard anyone cackle with glee at the prospect of selling out the next generation. If anything, I’ve seen deans and others fight to preserve whatever positions they can. They’re (we’re) struggling against a panoply of cost drivers, ranging from Baumol’s cost disease to health insurance to demographic trends to public-sector austerity.  Some of those are potentially amenable to political solutions, but the politics involved are with the general public, and any positive effects would be both indirect and gradual.  

On the individual level, it’s helpful to combat the myth of a pure meritocracy of hiring, because it tends to encourage people to hang on longer than they should. I’m a fan of alt-ac options, including administration. For unattached academics, I advise dating non-academics. For talented undergraduates considering graduate school, I advise looking at other options. For those about to finish and already coupled up, I can only wish you well.

It would have been nice to reread that piece from 2013 and chuckle at how ephemeral the issues were.  Instead, it held up better than it should have.