The Two-Body Opportunity


In many cases, professional advancement requires a new job, very often in a new geographic location. While this can be exciting for the person who is looking forward to a new professional challenge, it can be a challenge for the spouse who “trails” behind, hoping to find their own opportunity. The two-body problem (or for the optimistic among you, the two-body opportunity) is something every dual-career couple faces at a point in their professional lives. By addressing this issue early, planning and preparing, you and your partner can develop strategies that allow both of you to have fulfilling careers.

Even before you begin a job search, you and your spouse need to seriously consider and discuss your values, professional goals, and family goals. What must you have as a couple? What would be nice, but not necessary? What are you willing to do without?

In addition to what you need as a family, you should discuss what each of you individually needs and wants. One partner might need challenging work, while the other needs the security of a steady paycheck. You need to decide on a strategy that will work for both of you – will one person’s career always leads, and the other always follows? Will you take turns getting priority when it’s time for a change? Other factors to consider include:

  • Whose career is more geographically unrestricted? Can one partner develop a more portable career? Will your current company/organization allow for telework or distance telework?
  • What sorts of places are most likely to have positions for both of you? Large cities? Manufacturing centers? Rural universities? Conversely, what other types of jobs are likely to be available near where one of you wants to work?
  • What are the likely next steps and long-term career paths for each of you? How do they mesh?
  • Are you only going to apply only in locations where there are openings for both of you, or if one finds a great opportunity will they apply and assume the partner will find something?
  • In any particular geographic area, what are the other opportunities for future employment? If there’s only one employer in a certain location, changing jobs will almost certainly require relocation. If there are multiple potential employers, one partner may be able to change jobs without requiring the other to relocate.
  • How do you feel about both working for the same company/institution? Does the convenience outweigh the risks?
  • Is job sharing an option? Some universities will allow two people to share the research and teaching responsibilities (and salary) of a single tenure-track position, with the logistics varying significantly by institution and department. Some couples like the idea of trading income for flexibility, for others it’s too much togetherness.
  • At what point in the job search process are you going to disclose your spouse’s existence and employment needs? During the face-to-face interview lets you judge the company’s reaction, but waiting until after you have an offer in hand puts you in a stronger negotiating position.

Starting these discussions early, and continuing them throughout the job search process, will help ensure that both partners are advocating for each other, and working towards the best overall outcome.

Once one of you has a firm job offer, a position for your spouse can become part of the negotiations. Ask about other positions at that institution, spousal relocation programs, or bridging (temporary) positions to support the spouse while they continue looking for permanent work. You can at least ask the hiring manager and human resources personnel for suggestions on where else your spouse might apply.

Whenever you visit the new location, both partners should attend local section meetings of their own professional societies, seminars, and other events to start making professional connections. The earlier you get connected, and the more groups you connect with, the more you’ll find out what’s going on locally.

Once your search has been restricted geographically, you’re going to have to expand it in other ways. Consider an additional post-doc, non-laboratory positions and placement agencies – remain professionally active while you figure out which aspects of employment are really important to you. Checkout the ACS Careers site, LinkedIn and other social media outlets to expand your search parameter.

Once you and your partner have made your decision, accept it and move on. Don’t apologize for your choices, or compare yourself to other couples. Each couple is different, has different constraints, and each person has different talents to offer an employer. Focus on the value you have to offer a potential employer, and be glad you have a supportive partner who understands that science is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

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