Leader: Shared scholarly passions

Who'd marry a single-minded, career-focused academic? Other academics, it seems. But such a relationship can have downsides

July 30, 2009

When "most academics are more interested in their research subject than they are in emotional relationships", as one professor says in our cover feature, it makes one wonder who would ever marry a scholar. Who would want a partner who spends more time with dusty tomes than with their family?

Luckily for them, it seems the answer is another academic. According to Dual-Career Academic Couples: What Universities Need to Know, a survey of 30,000 staff at 13 leading US public and private research universities by Stanford University's Clayman Institute for Gender Research, some 35 per cent of male academics and 40 per cent of female academics are married to other scholars.

It is the all-consuming nature of the profession that leads the author of our cover feature to advocate a relationship with someone in academia, preferably someone with similar or complementary interests.

Marrying within an academic discipline - disciplinary endogamy as it is romantically known - is more common in the sciences and engineering than in other fields. About 70 per cent of physicists marry other scientists and 80 per cent of female mathematicians are married to other mathematicians.

Yet even an academic may have to adapt to their partner's first love, their research. The mother of the author of our cover story was never resentful of her husband's devotion to his career. "I was proud of what he was doing. I never felt neglected, never even gave it a thought." But for others, massaging the large but fragile scholarly ego can prove a high-maintenance and self-sacrificing activity. On the website Inside Higher Ed, one female scholar told of a colleague's ex-wife who confessed: "It's as if he wanted me to applaud for him every night when he came home. Believe me, I was impressed by his dissertation, his presentations, his research, his papers - even his thoughts - but at some point I had to ask myself, 'what happened to me?'"

Unsurprisingly, both these supportive examples are women. In the Stanford study, male academics were more likely to have a stay-at-home partner - some 20 per cent of men against 5 per cent of women - which helps in the single-minded pursuit of one's career.

On the flip side, when one partner gets a post at a different university, it is almost impossible for the other to find a similar position (this is the "two-body problem").

In all, couples comprise 36 per cent of the US professoriate, and one suspects the proportion in the UK is similar, although there is little data on the subject. For universities, this poses a big recruiting problem. In the US, couple-hiring strategies are common, with talk of a formula for assessing the combined talents of a candidate and his or her partner.

In some relationships, however, adding one plus one does not make a happy couple. For Mileva Maric, a mathematician and a scientist who became Einstein's first wife, the only formula that would apply would be E=MCP. She received a cruel memo from him outlining some shocking dos and don'ts for their relationship. These included the comment: "You will not expect any tenderness from me." It was not surprising that the cynical Albert would conclude: "Men marry women with the hope they will never change. Women marry men with the hope they will change. Invariably they are both disappointed."


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