Flying solo

You think your commute is bad? In a tough job market, professional opportunities are taking scholars far from their nearest and dearest. Matthew Reisz asks if today's ideal academic is unencumbered by ties or responsibilities

April 5, 2012

Anyone attending a drinks reception at a big conference of American academics is likely to sense a strange undercurrent to the atmosphere.

One gets talking to a nice young couple but they seem preoccupied, looking mainly at each other or at the door. It is as if they don't really want to be there - that something else, a romantic assignation perhaps, is on their minds.

And then one realises. This is just one sign of something endemic in the US academy: people fall in love at graduate school and then, if they are both lucky enough to get university jobs, find themselves living hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles apart. They are only reunited - briefly - at conferences, during vacations and perhaps on the occasional weekend.

An event such as the annual convention of the Modern Language Association functions as a vast jobs market, bringing together recruiters and candidates. But it is also notable for the reunions of partners determined to make the most of their precious time together.

What is sometimes known as "extreme commuting" can make for a pretty challenging lifestyle. Take the case of the Anglo-American couple Alex Street (a political scientist) and E.J. Blitzer (an ecologist). They met at the University of California, Berkeley in 2005 while both were doing PhDs, and married in 2009. (Street's research on immigration and citizenship involved a good deal of travel in Europe, but Blitzer managed to spend some of this time with him by arranging a visit to a laboratory in Germany.)

When they both got their doctorates, says Blitzer, they started looking for posts, although they had "no big preferences for country or even continent, beyond where the best research options came up". Street obtained a one-year Max Weber postdoctoral fellowship at the European University Institute, based in Florence, and Blitzer hoped she would also "find something in Italy, even if not in the same city". In the event, the Italian funding crisis scuppered this plan and she secured a post for up to four years as a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University, where she studies the bees that pollinate apple trees.

The offers were "just too good to say no to", she explains, but they left the couple separated by the Atlantic, "so we thought we would just try to 'do the distance' for a year". Since Blitzer's fieldwork takes place in the summer, she was able to spend some of the winter in Italy doing the data processing for her research, yet Street reports that the many months apart have proved very hard. "It is something we knew might happen but still weren't fully prepared for."

For dual-career academic couples working in the US, the country's huge size is obviously a crucial factor. They may also need to be discreet about their commuting arrangements. One American academic, who asks not to be identified, does not want "the good citizens and legislators" of the state in which he works to realise that one of their public employees "actually lives in another state".

"Apparently they don't like that," the scholar says.

Another academic, Robert Markley, W.D. and Sara E. Trowbridge professor in the department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was "made a United Airlines million-mile flyer on the basis of my academic career".

He is now on his second marriage. The first lasted 26 years and he was "commuting for most of it - it proved a contributory factor in our divorce". At one point, while his children were young, he made a deliberate decision to take a position where he was "only" six hours' drive away from his family. Yet "the long-term prognosis for commuting academic couples", he suggests, "is to split up".

Markley now spends "summers, holidays and some weekends" with his second wife, who teaches at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, amounting to an average of 10 days each month together. The journey takes 10 to 11 hours in all: he has to drive from Urbana to Chicago, take a plane to Boston and then a bus.

Quite apart from the sheer fatigue and the emotional factors, around 35-40 per cent of his income is spent on commuting and maintaining two homes.

Yet the fundamental problem is not confined to those based in the US.

Dora Biro, Royal Society university research fellow in the University of Oxford's department of zoology, studies bird migration and chimpanzee cognition. Although she met her partner at Oxford, he works in the niche field of early music and is now professor of musicology at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium, where he lives with their four-year-old daughter.

While her work is not predictable enough to establish a firm routine, she makes the "very tiring and expensive" seven-hour journey to Belgium at least every other weekend during term time. In busy months, she spends a quarter of her salary on travelling and another quarter on rent.

Biro says she has "feelings of guilt about not being there for my child, and about being absent for talks or meetings (in Oxford). Leaving my child behind is not nice, but we have both got used to it and Skype every day."

When Ferdinand von Prondzynski began his role as principal and vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, his wife, Heather Ingman, wanted to continue her part-time job as professor of English at Trinity College Dublin, so she decided to cluster her teaching into two days each week.

"She is in Dublin for three days per teaching week, and in Aberdeen with me for the rest," von Prondzynski explains. "She has also done some part-time teaching at Aberdeen. The challenges include the stresses of weekly regular air travel and the occasional worries that weather or other conditions may disrupt flights."

There are, of course, many traditional scenarios of couples in different walks of life living apart for significant periods. For example, men have gone away for months at a time to work in fishing, construction or on military tours of duty, leaving their wives behind to "hold the baby". It is equally common for women from the developing world to take on domestic service in richer countries, often leaving their children at home so that they can look after other people's.

The trend for today's academic (and sometimes other professional) couples is obviously premised on far more egalitarian assumptions about the career aspirations of men and women. But that hardly means that the issue of "caring", and the ways in which it tends to be divided by gender, has disappeared.

In 2010, Kathleen Lynch, professor of equality studies at University College Dublin, wrote a powerful article in the Arts and Humanities in Higher Education journal, titled "Carelessness: a hidden doxa of higher education". Although there are now global opportunities for some academics, she argued, performance expectations are likely to be so demanding that "only a care-less worker can fully satisfy [them]".

"Given the gendered order of caring, senior managerial appointments and senior academic posts are most available to those who are 'care-less', those who have no primary care responsibilities, and these are likely to be very particular types of men (disproportionately) and women," she wrote.

Lynch believes that "the carelessness of education" (and a consequent distortion of research agendas) has its origins in a "classical Cartesian" determination to keep emotion out of scholarly work, and in "positivist norms" based on "the separation between fact and value", but thinks the trend is being greatly intensified by the "new managerialism". Today's "idealized worker", as a result, is "one that is available 24/7 without ties or responsibilities that will hinder her or his productive capacities. She or he is unencumbered and on-call, even if not 'at work'."

One could almost expand this into a kind of conspiracy theory. Think, for example, of a remote rural American campus where there are few other attractions to prevent people from working all their waking hours. While universities have monastic origins, it is neither realistic nor legal to create a higher education institution employing only celibate men. Yet the next best thing to an academic without any emotional or sexual ties to "distract" them is someone whose partner or spouse lives thousands of miles away and who is either childless or has managed to subcontract all her, or more likely his, "care work" to others. Many universities are de facto staffed by such people.

In reality, of course, this "conspiracy" is just the result of what Street sees as a fundamental feature of today's constrained academic job market: "If you can't be flexible and pick up and move, you're not going to make it in academia."

At the margins, pragmatic compromises are common.

In Markley's experience, "colleges in remote areas tend to be sympathetic to separated couples". He cites cases of his former PhD students who are worked very hard while on-site but are allowed to leave early on Friday afternoons to spend time with their partners.

Biro's partner has been able to schedule all his meetings and classes between 9am and 4pm so that he can drop off and pick up their daughter at school, while she feels her department is "supportive from the highest level down" if, for example, she is sometimes not around on Friday afternoons or Monday mornings.

While Blitzer has a good position at Cornell, it seems likely that Street "may be able to find work here with a professor he knows, with a little bit of lecturing, but it wouldn't be a full-time position, so it's not an ideal job". Although this may work as a short-term solution in both personal and career terms, he notes that "if I'm still not getting a better job after a year or two, at some point I'll need to think: 'What's my plan B?'"

There are also arguments that separation has its plus sides. Along with having a stimulating job, von Prondzynski points to "the capacity to experience some diversity in locations, university cultures and intellectual debate. Today's academic profession needs to feed off international, intercultural and interdisciplinary dialogue, and this can be assisted by experiencing different places."

Some studies have been done on the topic.

Mary Holmes, formerly based at the University of York, is now senior lecturer in sociology at Flinders University in Australia. Before she left the UK, however, she began an Economic and Social Research Council-funded study of distance relationships. This generated questionnaire data on 24 British couples, each including at least one academic, who generally saw each other either weekly or fortnightly. Most lived a few hours apart, although one respondent was trying to maintain a relationship with someone in Southeast Asia.

Holmes never completed the study, but some of the initial research was published in journals such as Current Sociology, Qualitative Sociology Review, Sociological Research Online and The Sociological Review. Participants were encouraged to look at "what was good about distance relationships", which led to many revealing anonymous comments from interviews with dual academic couples.

"Jane", for example, "liked her distance relationship because it offered opportunities to 'make plans without reference to anyone else' ". "Margaret" was delighted by the "liberty" she gained and "wasn't remotely traumatized" by going back to work part-time and leaving their small baby with her husband one night a week - although "the fact that the breast was on the move" too led to problems with expressing milk and mastitis.

Herself part of a long-distance relationship while doing the research, Holmes summarised some of the more positive aspects in a 2010 paper for Recherches Sociologiques et Anthropologiques (Research in Sociology and Anthropology): "Being apart is not inevitably emotionally traumatic or alienating. Women in this study reported that distance could give them some relief from gendered caring obligations and duties...[participants] describe how distance and constant mobility can make partners more reliant on each other as other sources of support become more difficult to access. On the other hand, looser connection can actually be enjoyable at times."

Yet it remains true that academic couples living apart who want to live together often face limited options beyond leaving the profession; early retirement, if age and finances permit; or one or both partners accepting a less-than-ideal job (often an administrative or ancillary position) in order to be able to share a roof and a bed.

"Some colleges are philosophically opposed to hiring spouses," explains Markley, but others fall back on "a great American sales pitch when offering a job, giving promises about what they can do for spouses, although they refuse to put them in writing - which leads to the national pastime of people suing each other". (Some institutions have also created policy documents with a similar "now you see it, now you don't" quality.) Alternatively, a "cowboy mentality" means that "most spousal arrangements are made in response to a threat of leaving and are often short-term positions which may lead to tenure down the line", Markley adds.

British institutions tend to be wary of anything like this: for example, Cardiff University says that it "has no policy regarding dual-career couples or any dual-career programme in place", and Teesside University notes that, although they "do have some married couples working here", this has been "on the basis of a suitable position arising and a level playing field for applicants". The University and College Union had no comment to make on the subject, while Jaspal Kaur, director of human resources at the University of Nottingham, said the institution had developed a "partner-support protocol to define the support we give to helping place partners of senior staff we recruit in positions consistent with their career needs", but "cannot guarantee employment".

So what are isolated academic couples to do? Blitzer believes in "working reasonable hours", but Street suspects that separation has meant that he "probably works even harder than I would otherwise. It may not be much fun, but hopefully it increases the chance of a job in the same place as [Blitzer]. The more successful I am, the more control I hope I'll be able to have."

Yet Blitzer admits that they "don't have a very good strategy for ending up in the same place. There seem to be so few jobs available to apply to that if one of us gets something permanent, the other may have to 'give up' and apply for something in that area. One of my friends says you have to 'maximise the minimum'. Assuming you both find jobs nearby, if one of you gets an amazing job and the other gets a not very exciting job, the average of those two might be higher than if both of you take mediocre jobs."

Such "races" between partners may not be a recipe for marital harmony, but they are a common feature of the lives of many of the young academic couples Street and Blitzer know from graduate school. In almost every case where they have managed to continue living together, Blitzer observes, "someone has compromised" - either by deciding to take work in another sector or by accepting something less than "the very best job they could get".

After four or five years of commuting, Biro feels that she has "two different lives: family time and on my own in Oxford". Although the latter gives her "a certain freedom to stay up late to work", the combination "feels a bit schizophrenic. I would like a more balanced and final lifestyle rather than what feels like a temporary arrangement."

She adds: "Compromise may be the way forward, unless we both find amazing jobs in the same university. It just depends on how long we can go on like this. We're not desperate - yet."

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