The two-body problem

11th April 2015


I am currently on my way to Exeter in the United Kingdom. I am not travelling there for a conference or work meeting. I am travelling to visit my wife. My wife has just relocated to Exeter to take up a post-doctoral position at the university there. This marks the official start of my, with the help of my wife, attempt to solve the two-body problem.

I married my wife just prior to starting PhD studies. So it was not uncommon for me to hear about the two-body problem. It is just one of those things that couples who are both in professional jobs really have to think about. There are many different questions that have to be asked. The first, and probably the most important, is whether both of you will be able to equally pursue your careers. There is a tendency for compromises to be made. In particular, one will sacrifice their career for the sake of the other. Unfortunately, it is all too common to hear that the female partner is the one making that sacrifice. It is my opinion that both members of the relationship should have equal opportunity to pursue their chosen career. Upon believing in equal opportunity, the challenge of the two body problem really starts.

Not afraid of challenges

Entering into academic life is full of challenges. First, getting the PhD is damn hard, going through many stages of enjoyment and outright hatred for your work. Second, getting employed is damn hard. It seems that you really need to be in the right place at the right time, contacting the right people, and hoping that they have got some funds to support you. If all of these factors don't line up, then your job hunt can be really challenging. Finally, you are on contract work for a long time until you manage to secure that holy grail, a permanent position. Getting one of these can be difficult, and getting one in an area that you want to live can be even more difficult.

In amongst all of this, you have to manage your family life. Starting from the first point above, each of the steps in your career until you get that permanent position will probably last for at most 3 years. This is definitely not a rule, as your PhD may take 5+ years and it is possible to find research position that are available with longer duration (sometimes shorter). Since universities only employ a small number of people in your research area, unlike other professional jobs, such as banking where there can be hundreds of positions in the one city, at the end of a contract it is generally necessary to relocate. This regular need to relocate makes it hard for both you and your partner to successfully pursue careers. That said, while it is difficult, it is certainly not impossible.

What all this means is that you are presented with another challenge to make life much more interesting. How you decide to tackle this challenge is up to personal preference. But it is important to note that just because it is a challenge, it doesn't mean that this is something negative. It might just open up opportunities that you never thought of before.

Is it possible?

This is a question that I ask myself a lot. You hear about the two-body problem, but there are not too many people that I know of who have solved it successfully. Just thinking about my time as a PhD student, there were a number of other students who were married, but the situation regularly appeared were one of the partnership chose to make sacrifices for the other. Even within my wife's research group, there were not many couples that were both in academics, or even both in professional positions.

This just may be a factor of generational differences. There seems to have been a proliferation of university degrees and positions requiring them over the last 15 - 20 years. Given the slow movement of the academic industry, maybe the successful approaches to the two-body problem are just not that visible yet. Also, transportation is much more affordable now than it ever has been, removing a potential barrier to living in different cities and individually pursuing careers.

My approach

Looking to Europe for post-doctoral positions was primarily motivated by the regions connectivity. The airspace over Europe is filled with planes travelling between cities and regional centres. If you can't get between two places with a plane, then there are trains connecting all other points. This may sound a little funny to someone who grew up in Europe, but in Australia the connectivity is just not there. You can get between the capital cities easily by plane (easy is relative when Sydney to Perth takes more than 4 hours flying), but once you need to travel to somewhere else it starts to get really difficult.

Bringing it back to relocating to Europe, this move was designed so that my wife and I could be employed as post-docs in different countries while still being able to see each other regularly. So, even before my wife was offered the position in Exeter, it was understood that we would be living in two different cities. Whenever we looked at possible positions, much research was performed on trying to determine whether it was feasible to regularly travel between the two cities. Now, what was classified as feasible travel time kept growing during the time that my wife was looking for work. This was because it was becoming more and more obvious that post-doctoral positions for her were just not available in Germany, or even continental Europe. In the end, the travel was not really a priority when deciding whether the job was worth it, it was more whether the job suited my wife.

The Berlin - Exeter commute

It is not really a commute, but there will be many trips between Berlin and Exeter. While this first trip of mine is going to take 10 hours, I think that it is possible to do this in 9, maybe 8 if you are really game (this requires tight plane to train connections). I don't really know how this will all go, but is something that I am looking forward to.

One nice way to make you feel better about the travel time is to think about regular commutes to work. To put this in a little more perspective, it is very common to have commutes in cities up to 1 hour, so that means that you spend 10 hours a week on transport. In my case, I only have a 10-15 minute commute, so I am not using up much of my "commute budget". So my trips to Exeter are packing in all my commute time once every six weeks.

One of the great things about you and your partner living in different cities is that you get to be a local of both. It is very common to hear that you only really get to know a place when you live there, not just pass through as a tourist. In that way, I will be getting to know two different cities and learning the best parts of them. Further, I find that when you start to get comfortable in a place you stop seeing all of the fun things and life just continues on. Since I will be in Exeter once every two months and my wife will be in Berlin, there is always something new, different and fun to look forward to.

Will we solve the two-body problem?

It is difficult not to be negative about this. My life just got significantly harder by trying to manage not just my work and life in Berlin, but travel to England and a life there. Calendars have to be synced, weekends for visits have to be planned months in advance and sometimes it is not obvious when by wife and I will see each other. However, these are all things that add to the challenge, and being successful at managing them will bring much joy.

I don't want to think whether it will be possible to solve this problem or not. Also, I don't want to dwell on how difficult it may be. It is better to think about the fun things that will happen and opportunities that this situation brings to me and my wife.

One of these opportunities is that I am able to visit and experience England. In some ways I am a little jealous of my wife moving to Exeter. For a very long time I have wanted to live in England. I had some romantic notion of travelling to England from Australia and I really wanted to experience that. While I did not get there, my wife did. That means that I at least get to hear of and share in some of the experience. This is just one of the many exciting things that has only come about because of our attempt to solve the two-body problem.

© 2018 Stephen J Maher
Template design by Andreas Viklund with modifications by Stephen J Maher.
This page was last updated Tuesday, 23 January 2018.