Wednesday, June 09, 2010

A problem with the two-body problem

Does everybody know what the two-body problem is?

In a nutshell, it's this: If you're a professor (or would like to be), you generally have only a handful of appropriate job options, and they're scattered around the world. To advanace your career, it's best to be willing to move to wherever the job is. But then -- what happens if two professors are married to each other?

The field I'm most familiar with is Mathematics. As you may know, I have a Ph.D. in Math, but immediately after earning it, I switched my career path to software engineering. However, socially I've stayed in contact with mathematicians around the world -- playing hostess and attending receptions and dinners as a professor's wife. From this vantage point, I've observed a strange dynamic about the two-body problem.

The first thing to keep in mind is that there are a lot more men than women in mathematics. Most of the highest-level hotshot researchers are men. Why that may be -- and how/whether it can be changed -- is beyond the scope of this discussion; I'm merely stating the current situation. Also note that Mathematicians often meet (and later marry) other Mathematicians (see the mating game).

When a university wants to recruit a particular professor, arranging a position for the professor's spouse is often a necessary part of the recruitment package. Otherwise moving to the new job might mean that one spouse would have to drop out of academic research, which is out of the question for many couples.

Then the problem is this: Sometimes women -- women who are perfectly capable of getting a research job on their own merits -- end up taking jobs where they're perceived as "affirmative action cases" by their colleagues. In other words, they may be surrounded by colleagues who are thinking "You're not quite on the same level as the rest of us -- you're just here at super-prestigious-U because the university wanted him."

Now, I'm at enough of a distance from the whole situation that readers may rightly accuse me of not knowing what I'm talking about. However, I've heard too many stories at parties, etc., (from people around the world) where the wife is talking about how they were recruited by university X, and throws in "Of course, they were really interested in recruiting him."

In some cases, it can certainly happen that the wife is the one the university is most interested in. Or the wonderful situation where the university really wants to recruit them both. But, ultimately, I think the perception is a bigger problem than the reality. Regardless of the reality, if your colleagues perceive you as "less competent", it affects your opportunities for advancement, and it affects the dynamic when doing research as part of a group. As objective as Mathematics can be, people aren't immune to having their perceptions and conclusions colored by prejudice.

At least it looks like a potential problem to me. Anyone have any more experience with this situation?


Aerin said...

I don't have experience with this situation - but I do remember a handful of professors at my alma mater who were hired and might not have been the best person for the job. Their spouse was probably the best person for their teaching position.

I think it's par for the course for academia, personally. People are hired who aren't always the most gifted academically. People are hired because of who they know, or maybe because of what they've published, not necessarily if they can teach.

With that said, I think that actions speak louder than words -louder than rumors or impressions. Just because some people might think someone was hired because they were a spouse - doesn't mean it's true. Just because something is perceived (sp) as affirmative action by some people, doesn't mean it is or was...IMHO of course.

Anonymous said...

This happens in the professional world as well. It's totally down to perceptions IMO. If you're good enough to employ, you're good enough to be there -- what others think is hopefully as irrelevant as possible.

- wry