Katie Mack: http://theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com/2013/11/19/academic-scattering/#more-2532
Katie Mack has been training as a cosmologist since about the age of 10 when she
decided she wanted Stephen Hawking’s job.
She got her bachelor’s in
physics at Caltech, PhD in astrophysics at Princeton, did an STFC
postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge, and is now a DECRA postdoctoral
researcher in theoretical astrophysics at the University of Melbourne.
Her work focuses on finding new ways to learn about the early
universe and fundamental physics using astronomical observations,
probing the very building blocks of nature by examining the cosmos on
the largest scales.
Throughout her career, she has been working on the
interface between astronomy and particle physics, studying dark matter,
black holes, cosmic strings, and the formation of the first galaxies in
Katie is also an active science communicator, participating in a
range of science outreach programs such as Scientists in Schools and
Telescopes in Schools. Her popular writing has appeared in Sky &
Telescope, Time.com, and the Economist’s “Babbbage” tech blog, among
She occasionally co-hosts a YouTube astronomy chat series called
“Pint in the Sky.” Katie blogs at The Universe, in Theory and tweets as @AstroKatie.
A couple of years ago, I was gathering my things after a seminar at a
top physics research institution when I overheard two of the senior
professors discussing a candidate for a senior lectureship.
Professor A was asking Professor B if the candidate had a partner, which might make him less able to move internationally. Prof B replied, happily: “No, he has no family. He’s perfect!”
I doubt any selection committee would
admit on-record to thinking a family-free candidate is “perfect”.
Nonetheless, the traditional academic career structure is built around
an assumption of mobility that is hard to maintain with any kind of
relationships or dependents. I’m still trying to figure out if I can
manage to keep a pet.
Right now I live in Australia, working as a postdoc in Melbourne. My
first postdoc was in England. Before that I was in grad school in New
Jersey, and I was an undergrad in my native California.
grad school I studied for a year in England. I’ve done two- or
three-month stints in Japan, Germany, Australia and the UK.
these moves or visits has been, while not strictly required,
extremely helpful for my career. And in a field where competition for
jobs is so fierce, if you want any hope of landing that coveted
permanent academic job, how many of these “helpful” moves can you really
If mobility is such an advantage, how does having a
family or a partner affect your chances?
A couple of months ago, Slate published an article with the headline, “Rule Number One for Female Academics: Don’t Have a Baby.”
The point of the article wasn’t actually to discourage women in
academia from having children (though backlash from the community may
have contributed to the change in title to the somewhat vague, “In the
Ivory Tower, Men Only”).
The article provided statistics and anecdotes
to illustrate how having children, or being suspected of the intent
to have children, could harm a woman’s progress in academia - from the
necessary pause in research output, to the unconscious or explicit
biases that act against “working mothers” but have no similar effect on
Personally, I found the piece deeply disheartening,
but my dismay was of a somewhat detached variety. In order to worry
about the effects of having children, one has to be in a position where
that seems like even a remote possibility.
As a single woman with a
short-term contract and no idea which hemisphere I’ll be in two years
from now, children are not exactly at the forefront of my mind. At the
moment, I spend a lot more time thinking about the two-body problem.
In this context, the “two-body problem” is the
problem of maintaining a committed relationship between two individuals
who are trying to have careers in academia. When the two-body problem
proves unsolvable, it’s sometimes called “academic scattering”.
It is by no means unique to academia, but the international nature of
the field, the frequency of short-term (1-3 year) contracts, and the low
wages compared to other similarly intense career paths make it
especially bad for academics.
In the sciences, the gender disparity adds
a further complication for female academics: when women make up a small
percentage of the discipline, they are much more likely to be partnered with other academics.
Of course, solving the two-body problem is not impossible. I have
many colleagues who have done it, either through spousal hires,
fortuitous job opportunities, extended long-distance relationships, or
various degrees of compromise. It takes sacrifice, luck, and, often,
But couples just beginning a relationship while
building two academic careers might find the odds stacked against them.
Even ignoring for a moment the fact that a no-compromise work-obsessed
lifestyle is still considered a virtue in many institutions, academic
careers are structurally best suited to people with no relationships or
dependents, who travel light and have their passports at the ready.
It varies by field, but for physics and astronomy, a “typical”
tenure-track career path looks something like this: 4-6 years in grad
school, a postdoctoral fellowship for 1-3 years, then usually another
(and maybe another), all followed by a tenure-track or permanent job,
which may or may not be the job you end up in for the long-term.
no guarantee all these steps will be in the same country - very often
they are not.
For me, it’s been an international move every time so far,
and it’s very possible the next one will be, too. When I took up my
first postdoc, I left my country of origin, most of my worldly
possessions, all my friends and family, and a committed relationship, to
start all over in England.
When I took up my second postdoc, I left my
newly built life in England and another committed relationship to start
all over yet again on the other side of the world.
internationally several times chasing the prospect of permanent academic
employment. I have yet to convince anyone to come with me.
I’m not trying to convince anyone that avoiding academia or refusing
to move around the world is the key to solving all relationship
problems. Anyone can be unlucky in love, even if they stay in the same
city their entire lives. But academic shuffling is particularly hostile
The short-term contracts mean that when you arrive in a new
country, if you’re interested in finding a long-term partner, you have
something like two years to identify and convince a person you’ve just
met to agree to follow you wherever you might end up in the world, and
you won’t be able to tell them where that will be.
If you happen to have
different citizenships (which is likely), you have to take into account
immigration issues as well - your partner may not be able to follow you
without a spousal visa, which can mean a rather hasty life-long
commitment, or, depending on the marriage laws of the country in
question, a total impossibility.
I had a friend in grad school who, at
the end of her PhD, faced a choice between living with her wife in
Canada, and becoming a tenure-track professor at one of the most
prestigious research universities in the USA.
The timing doesn’t help, either. The postdoc stage, when you’re doing
your best impersonation of a human pinball, usually comes about in your
late 20s or early 30s.
It’s a time when it seems like all your
non-academic friends are buying houses, getting married, having babies,
and generally living what looks like a regular grown-up life.
chances are you’re residing in a single room in a short-term rental,
wondering which country you’ll be living in next year.
If you’re a
woman, you might be keeping an eye on the latest research on fertility
in older mothers, and mentally calculating how long you actually
need to know someone before deciding to reproduce with them, because by
the time you’re in one place long enough to think about settling down
you’ll be, at best, pushing 40.
There are lots of ways to make it all work out, of course. You could
refuse to date other academics, and instead make sure you’re spending
enough time on hobbies outside of the university to attract someone’s
interest, while making sure you have a REALLY good pitch about the joy
of imminent mystery relocation.
You could date another academic, and
resign yourself to a relationship that will probably be long-distance
for far longer than it was ever face-to-face, with no guaranteed reunion
For this option, make sure that you have lots of disposable
income for plane tickets and that neither of you is committed to
spending too much time inside a lab.
You could swear off serious dating
altogether until you’re getting close to landing a permanent job, then
negotiate with your future employer for a spousal hire, with the
necessary career compromise that will be required of one or both of you
to be at that particular institution.
Or you could just wait till you’ve
scored a permanent faculty job somewhere, probably in your mid-to-late
30s, and (if you’re a woman) hope that you meet someone soon enough that
starting a family is still an option.
As a side note, my late-thirties
single straight female friends tell me that men who want babies won’t
date women over 35. Obviously this is an unfair and unscientific
generalization, but the point is that there are societal pressures that
women face when they choose to put off the prospect of families until
they have permanent jobs.
If you choose this option, you might also
want to keep in mind that a tenure-track job isn’t necessarily
permanent, and having a child before having tenure is one of those
options that the aforementioned article had a few things to say about.
Or you could decide to prioritize where you want to be (or who you
want to be with), and, more likely than not, end up severely limiting
your career progress and/or leaving academia altogether.
If one or the
other partner does have to make a big career sacrifice, gender norms
will suggest that, if you’re a woman, the one to make the sacrifice
really ought to be you.
As for me, I confess I haven’t figured it out. I have two years left
on my contract in Australia and no idea whatsoever which country I’ll
end up in next.
I’m applying broadly, and there’s no guarantee I’ll have
a choice about location if I want to stay on the path toward becoming
tenure-track faculty at a major research institution.
When it’s not
unusual for a single postdoc job to have 300 applicants, and faculty
jobs are even more selective, getting even one offer is considered a
I don’t know if there’s a solution. Having a pool of early-career
researchers who move frequently to different institutions unquestionably
advances research and keeps the ideas flowing.
It is also usually great
for the development of postdocs’ research abilities, exposing them to
new ideas and work styles.
But the prospect of a nearly decade-long
period of lifestyle limbo between graduate studies and the start of the
tenure track is, understandably, a significant discouragement to many
fine researchers who might otherwise bring their unique insights to the
field. And, statistically, more of these lost researchers are likely to
It may not be the dominant force keeping women out of science
or academia, and it may not affect all women, but any slight statistical
skew that disadvantages women more than men contributes to the
inequality we see. And that makes academia a little bit more lonely for