A cerebral solution for star-crossed stargazers

November 25, 2005

It is a tragic tale: two academics meet and fall in love, then one gets a job elsewhere and a choice must be made between relationship and career.

The scenario is all too common in higher education, where academic couples find it difficult to get jobs at the same or neighbouring institutions.

Young academics and postdoctoral researchers are particularly vulnerable because they tend to move more often while establishing their careers.

Now a possible way forward is being pioneered in the form of a virtual institute for astronomers that allows a fellow to move anywhere he or she likes while continuing research uninterrupted.

The Carolune Institute for Quality Astronomy (CiQuA) offers research fellowships to highly qualified astronomers. Because it is web-based, the recipients of the fellowships are not tied to a particular place.

Carolina Odman, a researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands, set up CiQuA in April specifically to help dual-career couples.

If one person in an academic couple gets a good job in a different location, perhaps even a different country, the couple face a difficult choice. The one with the new position could relocate on their own and hope the partner can join them before too long.

But because many people worry about the strains of keeping up a long-distance relationship, the partner without a new post will often put their research, and thereby their career, on hold to be with their loved one.

Dr Odman said: "The dual-career problem is often seen as something that concerns only women because women traditionally take a career break to have a family. But it's important to realise that the problem affects both partners equally."

Although she believes that similar initiatives could work for any theoretical discipline that involves a great deal of computer modelling or simulations, such as mathematics, computer science or engineering, she admits that the concept has limitations. "It would not work for disciplines that need a laboratory, such as applied biology," she said.

The institute will discuss with fellows what resources they need to complete their research and will then provide them directly or in collaboration with universities.

Ross Church, an astronomy PhD student at Cambridge University and administrator of the CiQuA computer cluster, said the dual-career problem was particularly acute in subjects such as astronomy, in which there are few academic positions and almost no employment opportunities outside academia.

He said: "CiQuA's scheme of offering use of its computing facilities to a research fellow is a first step towards allowing a researcher to continue work outside a formal institutional setting and, as such, could prove very fruitful."

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