If you are reading this blogpost, chances are you have relocated recently for your academic position. Many of us have relocated several times in pursuit of a permanent (tenure-track or equivalent) academic job. This frequent relocation has large financial costs - with employers providing limited (in the best case scenario) or no funds for relocation, but it also has psychological costs, as this blogpost points out in great detail.
If your relatives are anything like mine, the frequent relocations spark disbelief or disapprobation among your parents and other family members. For the years I worked at the University of Leuven as a postdoc, my parents could not fathom why they did not offer me a permanent job, or why I would not just ask them for a permanent job “After all, they know what you are worth. Just tell them you will move on otherwise”. Moving on is what I eventually did. I went to the University of Oxford, then to the VU Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and then Oxford again (Oxford Brookes this time) for a permanent post, in a city where I still have friends and a support network. Oxford is an expensive city, but real life friends are valuable.
Our itinerant lifestyle as academics brings with it n-body problems, as the author of this post points out. It brings out the classical two-body problem. Many people I know are in this situation and I am in this situation too. Often the choice is between one of the partners being underemployed or unemployed, or the partners living apart, sometimes even in different continents. When there are children or other dependents involved, the problems amplify. But academic relocation also results in a one-body problem, namely the problem to find a suitable partner, especially for well-educated women, ethnic or other minorities.
Relatively more women than men have academic partners. In a 2008 study, among STEM academics, “Fully 83 percent of women scientists in academic couples are partnered with another scientist, compared with 54 percent of men scientists.” The two-body problem is a feminist issue. Still, the issue is under explored on fora such as Feminist Philosophers or Being a Woman in Philosophy.
Bad as relocating and the associated n-body problems are, especially for women academics, there are structural incentives that make it worse. For instance, the Marie Curie postdoctoral fellowship, which is the main postdoctoral opportunity offered by the European Research Council, explicitly asks that a prospective fellow has not worked in the country where the institution is situated, or has not lived there for at least 5 years. It is almost as if the Marie Curie Fellowship is written with the express intention that the fellow should go somewhere where she has no support network whatsoever. People who have followed their spouses to a permanent academic post are de facto excluded, because they live in the country where they would want to do the postdoc, even if they have never worked there.
As Chris Lebron (on FaceBook) suggested, “I think one reason there is a lot of silence [on the two-body problem] is because the academic life is so closely associated with the idea of a solitary male achiever. In this model, there is never a need to take account of anyone else except him. Women are becoming a more powerful and present force in the academy, but the idea of the solitary achiever just seems to be moving over to women as well (though often with perverse forms of unfairness). In both cases, it then becomes a disincentive (not justifiably, but due to social norms and pressures) to openly declare that one's professional well-being in fact depends on more than what is happening in one's mind and one's bank account.”
I think Chris is right in saying that there is a certain disincentive in openly talking about one’s n-body problems (I was hesitating to write this post since we have this problem, but I felt it was important to discuss the issue). So I hope that commenters will weigh in with stories of how n-body problems have affected them, how they solved their two-body problem, and with ideas of how we can address the issue.