The two-body problem

Scientific research is an exercise in failing. Imagine you have to overcome an unknown obstacle course – it is already hard when you can see what you are doing (and where you are going). Now imagine doing that in the dark! This is what most research is like. Many attempts to explore beyond the edge of human knowledge, where we are in the dark, are simply doomed to fail. There is hope though: each failure teaches us a little bit more about the obstacles we will encounter. Bit by bit, more experiments and failures light the way. Until eventually, we happen upon success. Then we write a paper about it, and hope the reviewers agree with our definition of success. A career in academia thus requires dedication, luck, and an unfailing ability to get up after falling down. Most of all, it requires time: time to learn, to struggle, and to do good science.

I think that naturally ambitious people tend to unconsciously couple their professional achievements to their sense of self. It is sometimes hard to not take failure personally. Add to that an institutional belief in survival of the fittest, plus the ticking clock of funding running out, and you end up with a dangerous combination. Symptoms of depression, anxiety and burn-out are alarmingly common among early-stage researchers. Worrying reports suggest that as many as half of PhD and postdoctoral researchers struggle with mental health disorders. There has been increasing awareness for the mental health crisis in academia, and growing criticism towards the institutional failure of the scientific community to take care of its own. Complicating matters is the fact that mental health intersects with many other systemic issues within academia, such as those related to race, gender, and class. I have linked a few articles regarding this (and possible solutions!) at the end of this blog post, because I do not wish to simply repeat their story. Instead, I want to talk about Two-body problem and its understated role in this crisis. 

A few months ago, my colleague and friend Lorena wrote about the nomadic nature of scientists. Her words resonated with me, and this post could be considered a follow-up to hers. Academics are encouraged, often-times even required, to migrate for their career – at least until they land a rare and coveted tenured position. Lorena questioned what “home” really means for a nomadic scientist. A proverb as old as time immemorial answers that question: home is where the heart is. For many people, home is where we find the people we love. Fortunately, when I expressed my desire to do a PhD abroad, my partner of (at the time) 4.5 years was willing to quit his job and migrate with me.

He was in the position of the so-called “trailing spouse”, the person that accommodates their nomadic partner’s career potential, sometimes at the cost of their own. We brimmed with initial optimism, because our destination, Denmark, has incredible living standards and English proficiency. Furthermore, classes on Danish language were free (at the time) and the University advertised that they offered career support to trailing spouses, in the form of a spousal network. Unfortunately, the bubble popped as quickly as this institutional support fell apart. My partner integrated, networked, and volunteered, yet he was unable to find steady employment. Although we could manage financially, he could not manage the boredom. In January 2020, he got an offer from an exciting company in the Netherlands, and we made the difficult decision to go long-distance.

Considering our transient lifestyle, it is perhaps unsurprising to learn that long-distance relationships are common among academics. Just among the 14 researchers involved in this MSCA network, eight are or have been in a long distance relationship during the course of their PhD employment. Academics tend to find their life-partner at university. This often-times results in dual-career relationships, possibly with both partners pursuing a career in academia. However, academic jobs are extremely competitive, with only few career opportunities compared to the number of talented people chasing after them. This disparity is not a secret, and will likely only exacerbate with EU’s decision to reduce science funding. Furthermore, highly specialized knowledge (in both industry and academia) is usually localized in hubs across the world. It is therefore unlikely that a city accommodates hubs for both partner’s specialization. All together, this is referred to as the two-body problem, an ironic allusion to the identically named problem in astrodynamics. For ambitious couples determined to stay together, there seem to be only two options: one becomes a trailing spouse, or they both go the distance.

When two giant objects – like stars – meet, they will each be affected by the other’s gravitational forces. As such, the encounter will change them, and how they move from that point onwards. Is it possible to predict the motion of such two interacting objects? This is theTwo-body problem in classic mechanics.

My partner’s own situation describes a possible outcome for couples who choose the trailing spouse option. His Danish language class was filled with other trailing spouses, many highly educated, who found themselves in a similar predicament.  Spousal networks set up by professional institutions are encouraging in theory, but they cannot generate job positions out of thin air. They are also often exclusive to partners of those above a certain rung on the academic career ladder, and therefore exclude early stage researchers. In the USA, an increasingly common (and controversial) solution for trailing spouses is that of dual career hiring. Herein, a university guarantees a position for the applicant’s partner. I do not need to explain the problematic implications of such a policy. Yet, without a better practical solution and with couples experiencing the two-body problem on the rise, dual career hiring becomes increasingly common. – What happens then, when a couple chooses to go long-distance? The most immediate costs are financial: two rental contracts and households, not to mention travel costs to see each other. To be fair to my own institutions, the MSCA funding tries to alleviate these costs by giving eligible hires a so-called family allowance. Unfortunately, eligibility is determined in a rather archaic fashion: you must be married, have children, or be in a formally recognized civil union. Not only is this uncommon for the age group that the MSCA ITN targets (first-time PhD candidates), it is also unintentionally discriminatory against gay couples (who still lack formal recognition in many European countries). Second are the professional costs. Time spent travelling and the challenges of maintaining a long-distance relationship, exert additional pressures to an already demanding career choice. Both partners experience the resulting fatigue, and women face another dilemma: with fertility decreasing with age, can you really wait until the stability of tenure to start a family?  Even if funding for a postgraduate position is available, a spouse can rightly object to another long-distance stint, especially if it entails postponing major life milestones yet again. Finally, and most importantly, there are the emotional costs. To feel supported and loved is incredibly important for our mental well-being. An integral part of that is having a sense of home, and being near our loved ones.

Yet when discussing the mental health crisis in academia, the two-body problem is rarely acknowledged. Naturally, it is only one symptom of the larger issue. However, the rate at which the two-body problem is worsening is both alarming and indicative of a failure to achieve deeper systemic change.

In astrodynamics, the two-body problem can be reduced to a pair of one-body problems, allowing it to be solved completely. This leads us to another, rather depressing, option besides trailing and distancing:  to break up and look for partners whose life ambitions are more compatible (and not identical) to ours. The well-intentioned advice “you can’t have everything you want” is offered frighteningly often, especially to women trying to balance family and career. Academia is a vocation; those wishing to make it to the end must simply be willing to sacrifice other things that they love. The fittest will survive is a mindset that some at the higher end of the scientific community wear like a badge of honour. And as much as I hate to say it, I do agree with that sacrificial mindset to some extent. We cannot be in two places at once. Even the most hard-working and dedicated people only have 24 hours in a day, and eventually have to choose how to spend them. Unfortunately, I am still a greedily optimistic person. I believe it is possible to change this stifling status quo.

Firstly, we need talk about these issues more openly. The scientific community too frequently sweeps discourse on relationships under the rug; it is too personal, too awkward, too unscientific. If early stage researchers persist long enough, those experiencing the two-body problem will either have solved it (by the above mentioned options), or the researcher in question will have left academia. However, as we have seen in the past year: wilful ignorance does not make real problems go away, such as the spread of a novel virus. That requires collaborative effort, research, and a willingness to adapt to a new normal. The scientific community needs to do better for its youngest members. Awareness is the first step.

Secondly, we can ask our institutions to update outdated and pernicious policies in regards to marriage, gender, and sexual identity. It is after all hardly undebased survival of the fittest, when the academic environment is artificially conserving biases that are entirely unrelated to an individual’s capacity for doing good science. 

Thirdly, the science itself shows that happy people are better workers. We thus need to stop perpetuating – even celebrating –  the fallacy of unremitting personal sacrifice in the name of Science. Finally, one might argue that the introduction of superficial symptom-soothing policies will not result in intrinsic institutional reform. Indeed, we need to gather more data in order to better understand these problems. We need to experiment with potential solutions, some small and seemingly superficial, others likely deemed too radical and controversial. Many of these proposals will inevitably fail. However, bit-by-bit we will be able to solve the systemic issues within our own institutions. We just have to keep trying. Fortunately, that is what we scientists excel at.

Sources and further reading

E. Loissel (2019). Mental Health in Academia: A question of support

Levecque et al. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students.

T. M. Evans et al. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education

M. Campbell (2020). Exploring Mental Health in Academia

C. Woolston (2019). PhDs: the tortuous truth

G. Panger (2015). Graduate Student Happiness & Well-Being Report

K. N. Laland (2020). Racism in academia, and why the ‘little things’ matter

L. Holman et al. (2018). The gender gap in science: How long until women are equally represented?

N. H. Wolfinger et al. (2016). Problems in the Pipeline: Gender, Marriage, and Fertility in the Ivory Tower

L. Mcneil et al. (1998) Dual-Science-Career Couples: Survey results

L. Schiebinger et al. (2008). Dual-Career Academic Couples

J. Walters (2010). Degrees of separation

A. Turcu (2012). Balancing Work and Life in Times of Economic Crisis: Strategies for Dual Career, Long Distance Couples

K. J. Baker (2014). On ‘Poor Husbands’ and Two-Body Problems

K. J. Baker (2014). The Two-Body Problem and Us

N. Zeliadt (2016). Academic couples see upsides to ‘two-body problem’

L. A. Rivera (2017). When Two Bodies Are (Not) a Problem: Gender and Relationship Status Discrimination in Academic Hiring

M. Prabhune (2018). Until academic careers do us part

Discussions on r/AskAcademia (link1, link2)

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