Monday, June 19, 2006

The Two-Body Problem

Many professional couples can have problems finding jobs in the same city, but for academics the problem magnifies. Even big cities will have only a small number of computer science faculty positions in major research universities and so try to imagine finding two such jobs. This quandary has a name that started as a joke, but no one laughs at trying to solve their Two-Body Problem.

Finding two open positions in the same department and often in the same area (like theory) can be particularly challenging as departments have a limited number of positions available each year. Still a department can often obtain one or two faculty members they might usually lose to a stronger school by going out of the way to solve a two-body problem.

Two-body problems become even more difficult when one member of the couple is considerably stronger than the other, or they are at different stages of their academic careers. In the latter case the older one might have a tenure-track position and then have to go on the job market again to solve their two-body problem. Even if they eventually do land tenure-track jobs at the same department, they will come up for tenure in different years adding more instability.

How about two academics in different fields? Some universities will go out of their way to accommodate such couples, with a dean or provost encouraging one department to hire in order to help strengthen the other department. Many other universities won't try as hard.

Finally are the couples with one academic and a non-academic professional that also has limited geographical jobs opportunities. Here a university can't help at all, one just needs to get lucky.

By US law, one cannot ask a candidate about the two-body problem when they interview, and if they don't mention it one cannot take it into consideration during the hiring process. Nevertheless you should tell the department about your situation. Universities often have ways of solving two-body problems and letting them know about it ahead of time will give them more time to make the right opportunities available.

In the end most two-body problems do get solved, though not always at the place as good as where they might have received a position on their own.

14 comments:

  1. By US law, one cannot ask a candidate about the two-body problem when they interview, and if they don't mention it one cannot take it into consideration during the hiring process. Nevertheless you should tell the department about your situation.

    Does this mean, "nevertheless, tell the department after you are hired so they can help you", or "nevertheless, tell the department during the interview"?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I would say during the interview. Of course, in some specific cases it may not be beneficial to you, but in most cases it probably is. It's not legal of them to ask, but it's certainly legal for you to tell them, at which point it's legal of them to try to do something about it, and to take it into consideration.

    ReplyDelete
  3. UofC grad student11:13 AM, June 19, 2006

    Boo hoo. Still working on the one-body problem.

    ReplyDelete
  4. By US law, one cannot ask a candidate about the two-body problem when they interview, and if they don't mention it one cannot take it into consideration during the hiring process.

    Hah, I didn't know this was the case. It explains why people kept bringing it up in very indirect ways...

    ReplyDelete
  5. How is a CS grad student to find love? Should he (without loss of generality) look to pick up medical students, rather than PhD students?

    ReplyDelete
  6. In the end most two-body problems do get solved, though not always at the place as good as where they might have received a position on their own.

    I imagine that a place where the two body problem is well solved is a better place for that person. Unless by "good", you just meant more prestigious.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I imagine that a place where the two body problem is well solved is a better place for that person.

    Just give the marriage 5 years, then reconsider...

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'd go with med school dates, at least as far as long-term relationships. Doctors not only have a comparative abundance of career options, they are also extremely handy to have around the house (if occasionally annoying). And, I would say, tend to be compassionate.

    Why they would want to date you, once they figure out that you can't even fix their computer, is another issue. This is another reason why we are hurt by the paucity of good popularizing books in TCS--researchers need more storytelling resources to dramatize and humanize their work to prospective friends and mates.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Our dean claims that more than 50% of the faculty candidates interviewed at our college have a two body problem, up considerably from even 15 years ago.

    ReplyDelete
  10. In our case (UC Irvine) we have a campus policy that, for the second body in a two-body problem (in cases where it's important for hiring or retention, not say when two already hired faculty members marry), the position is charged 1/3 to the unit the second person would be hired in, 1/3 to the unit the first person was hired in, and 1/3 kicked in for free from central administration.

    So this goes a long way towards making the second person's department feel they are getting a person for free. Of course, they don't usually have fractional units to spend; instead these charges add up and are kept as a debt against future positions.

    And of course, the second person's department has to be willing to take the person, so it doesn't help when there is a mismatch in talent. But overall I would say that the two-body problem has helped us much more than it has hurt us in hiring.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thats interesting that 50% have the two-body problem. Any idea how many are able to solve it?

    ReplyDelete
  12. In Germany the two body problem is so bad that many academic couples have resigned themselves to living apart and commuting back and forth on the weekends.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I know one academic couple who solved their problem by accepting to share 1.5 positions between the two of them (.75 salary and teaching load for each). Eventually, after several years, their situation was normalized and they got 2 positions.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Does this mean, "nevertheless, tell the department after you are hired [...]", or "[...] during the interview"?

    Our experience was that most departments were aware of our two-body problem before we even applied. Informing them was a non-issue, although informing them "officially" was important (so they could legally take it into account). So: at or even before the interview made sense.

    In the end most two-body problems do get solved [...]

    I think we hear far less about the two-body problems that don't get solved. When people drop out of the academic track, their friends are aware but the community as a whole may not notice. Joint hires (in the last few years Georgiatech, Penn State, U. Mich, Wisconsin, etc) get much more publicity at conference lunch tables and in blogs such as this one.

    ReplyDelete