Is Your Trailing Spouse a Significant Other?

Dual career couples in science

Today’s blog post is a little bit of a cheat, it’s a re-run of a feature I wrote for HMSBeagle the now defunct life sciences webzine for its Adapt or Die column to which I contributed on a monthly basis for a couple of years. However, the content and sentiment (if not necessarily the cited relationships) may well be as valid today as they were when I originally wrote the piece. I’d value your opinions on the article and whether or not things have changed in recent years for dual-career couples in science. Is your spouse an SO or an iSO?

Ever since Madame Curie said, Oui!’ and probably well before, there have been dual-career couples in science. Today, finding a satisfying and well-paid job is difficult at the best of times, but what happens when there are two of you? Job-hunting takes on an extra dimension when both partners are looking for that rare position. Often they are forced to live apart or maintain two residences sometimes having to fly between ports to see each other, and then only when either one is not on conference. Getting tenured positions for two at the same institution or even the same city can be almost impossible.

In many cases, it seems, the so-called ‘trailing spouse’ – a rather dubious phrase – gets to take on an administrative, part-time or basically lesser role while their partner scrambles up the academic ladder. It cannot be easy for someone to watch as the academic career of their partner soars as they garner publication, gather promotions, and gain peer respect, while they idle along with little prospect of catching up.

There are many permutations – couples may both be in the same scientific field or not. They may be at a similar stage in their respective careers or not. And, they may or may not have children. Questions constantly arise from these permutations such as how do both partners attend the conference in their joint field when childcare is not available. The problems can be immense when one partner heads for a center of excellence while a more ‘junior’ spouse stands little chance of tenure there. Chemical engineer Diane Rossiter, for instance, is in a dual-career couple but has decided due to pressures of work and family commitments to take a career break now her husband is moving jobs in academia. She would have been condemned to commuting some 2.5 hours each day otherwise in order to maintain her position as a lecturer at Loughborough University.

There are of course, many successful dual-career couples: University of Washington zoologists James Truman and Lynn Riddiford, Oxford neuroscientist Susan Greenfield and Oxford chemist-author Peter Atkins, bird researchers Kenneth and Mary Able at New York State University. Molecular biologists Seth Schor and Ana Schor at Scotland’s Dundee University. Geneticist Ruth Shaw and statistician Frank Shaw at Minnesota University. Crystallographer Judith Howard, the first female full professor of chemistry in England and her consultant physician husband David. The list goes on…

But, institutions that ignore the two-body problem can lose their primary candidate when satisfactory employment for the spouse fails to arise. Even when a candidate accepts a job, they might soon leave if better prospects come to light elsewhere for their spouse. Traditionally, according to Laurie McNeil of North Carolina University and Marc Sher of the College of William and Mary in a report on the plight of two-body physicists, the male partner has taken the lead and the female followed behind. But, for younger couples and for partnerships where there is not much of an academic disparity between them, this is not such an easy choice to make. Indeed, the issue is even more complicated for same sex couples.

McNeil and Sher point out that, at least as far as physics is concerned, there are very few institutions that face up to the problems facing dual career couples. The establishment of formal programs to assist a spouse have been slow to gain prevalence, although some establishments have had policies in place since the 1970s. Institutions can so easily cite anti-nepotism law so they can shrug off responsibility for a new employee’s partner. Departmental culture too can be very resistant to accommodating dual career-couples. Colleagues may not only perceive nepotism, but also see personal problems impinging on their laboratory time and ultimately having a disruptive influence on the department. Indeed, problems can go deeper as one academic in a UK university found to her cost when her husband got a lower-ranked job at her institution and could not cope with having his wife as his ‘line manager’. The couple ended up in the divorce courts.

Rhonda Malone first came across the problems facing dual-career couples some five years ago. She took on a new job at the University of Maryland with the aim of establishing the Dual Career Program there. She points out that helping new recruits avoid being distracted by personal matters and giving them a positive vibe about the university are the prime movers. ‘The purpose of the program is both to facilitate recruitment and to aid in getting new faculty off to a good start,’ she says. Such programs also help “formalize” an institution’s response to assistance, such as offering new recruits useful information like the job listings and contacts at local institutions, research centers, and other major employers.

UMD’s scheme is particularly successful because there are so many opportunities for biomedical researchers in the area. There are several other institutions, federal government facilities, many companies, hospitals and other research centers. On two occasions, Malone told me, spouses have obtained tenure-track positions at UMD, for instance. For the first, Malone helped the male partner, find an interesting and relevant job initially, then the department hired him the next year. ‘Our program is broadly for significant others, I’ve worked with spouses, partners, and fiance(e)s.

‘While our program doesn’t guarantee a job at the university or elsewhere for the unemployed spouse,’ adds Nancy Crist of Ohio University, it is designed to serve as a job-hunting resource.’ She adds that Ohio has a Dual Career Fund available to help fund university positions for spouses of current and prospective employees. Indeed, there are some imaginative financial arrangements possible at various institutions. Splitting a salary is sometimes possible irrespective of the types of position involved as long as they are roughly equivalent. But, a job share can only work well if the partners are at the same academic level. As a formal solution it can have problems, such as how to deal with promotion, cover disciplinary issues, and approach financial aspects such as benefits, raises, insurance and pensions. There are also issues such as what happens if one retires? If one partner dies? Or, if a couple split? The big advantage of a job share is the potential for freeing up time for other pursuits. Even then, couples might find their total working hours far exceeding 100% without additional recompense.

Despite the best efforts of those running such programs, there are several other negatives, such as the reluctance of academic departments approached to make special dispensations even for the short term. It must be in an employer’s best interests to help both partners. Couples where both partners are in satisfying job positions are more likely to stick around and be academically productive.

The Graduate College Scholars Program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, was initiated in 1984. According to Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Janet Glaser, problems facing dual-career couples in what is a much smaller than average community can be a particularly severe problem. Indeed, there is only one institution of higher education – the University – so there are few options, especially if both individuals are in the same field. Despite that, Glaser says that the UIUC scholars program has provided a successful transition to placement of spouses in faculty employment or in academic professional or administrative positions, especially in social sciences and humanities.

Computer professional Letty Foulkes who is spending a year in the US while her husband is on sabbatical at Cornell says, ‘Dual-career couples still face problems.’ Her husband is a reader in Physics and she adds that if they wanted to move he would have to find a job first because his is the more specialized field. She does concede that although she could be considered a ‘trailing spouse’, she feels employable and could find a challenging and interesting job in her field. Nancy Cox, a geneticist at Chicago University, believes part of the problem is simply male dominance in science and academia. ‘In many disciplines, the most successful practitioners were successful in part because they had a joint effort,’ she says, ‘There were/are plenty of labs in which a spouse (usually the wife) is responsible for running a big lab. When women go into the workforce, they almost never have that kind of support – their husbands have lives and careers.’

Indeed, the problem of having a tenured spouse can lead to long-term disaffection by academia. Elizabeth Griffin, an astrophysicist has spent her career in Oxbridge on a long succession of short-term grants. She attributes this state of affairs largely on the attitude of universities to her then being married to a tenured staff member. She was told, when attempting to enter faculty, that she “didn’t need a job”, she “had a husband and he had a job” and she “wasn’t starving”.

David Jefferies, a senior lecturer at Surrey University is married to Christina a professor of Social Gerontology at the University of London and they have been a dual career couple since she got her PhD in 1978. ‘It has posed constraints,’ he says, many for her, fewer for me although she is better adapted to the routine work requirements of modern academia and, he adds, ‘she has taken over the lead, if such there is, in terms of status and income.’

Geographer Megan Blake of Sheffield University in England has studied the issue of dual-career couples. She herself left New England-New Hampshire where her husband was working at Dartmouth College. In her words, she ‘trailed’ her husband to Leeds and secured a job at nearby Sheffield. Blake works with husband Adrian Bailey (Leeds University) and Thomas Cooke (Connecticut University) on career trajectories for married couples. ‘Many US universities will consider offering a second post to a trailing spouse,’ she says, ‘but, historically this second post was for the female partner and often involved some type of administrative or temporary job rather than a job with a reasonable career ladder.’

The whole issue of dual-career couples can affect almost anyone in a partnership. There are countless permutations and this article did not even begin to address the added dimension of same-sex relationships. The problems have been around for a long time, ranging from a commutable home to dealing with divorce when a couple undertake a job share. There are some initiatives and for some couples the situation has improved, but, says Blake, ‘The point needs to be made over and over that the issue of dual career couples needs to be addressed.’


Dual couples resources web site – no longer online, but found in

Problems facing physicists – McNeil and Sher’s report and dual career couples and links to spousal hiring programs.


FACT 43% of married female physicists are married to other physicists, whereas only 6% of married male physicists have a physicist spouse

FACT Some 38% of female chemists are married to other scientists, while just 21% of male chemists are married to a scientist, according to statistics reported by the American Chemical Society.

Author: bob投注平台

Award-winning freelance science writer, author of Deceived Wisdom. Sharp-shooting photographer and wannabe rockstar.