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Science Careers Blog

July 9, 2010

Dual Career Couples at ESOF

esof-th.pngAs I was queuing for lunch at the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) in Turin, Italy, earlier this week, I started talking to a young scientist from FarAwayCountry A. She was writing her Ph.D. thesis and looking for a postdoc in Europe, seeing a research experience abroad as a key step in her career. But she also saw such a period as a "make or break" time in her relationship. Her non-scientist boyfriend had a great career lined up in FarAwayCountry A. How they would juggle the two careers was a source of arguments, she told me.

As it happened, juggling dual careers was the topic of a session organized at ESOF by the Marie Curie Fellows Association (MCFA), an association gathering scientists who received a mobility research training grant (a Marie Curie Fellowship) from the European Commission. "As a researcher, you are always required to be mobile," said the session's moderator Maria-Antonietta Buccheri. But it can be "difficult to reconcile mobility with family life." According to recent surveys, this is an issue that more and more scientists are facing as the number of dual-career couples is raising, she added. 

Buccheri outlined several typical ways couples deal with dual careers. A common strategy is what Buccheri referred to as the "hierarchical" model, in which couples decide to favor the career with the better prospects and opportunities. Because women are typically younger and, hence, at earlier stages of their careers, usually "the leading career is the male career," Buccheri said. In contrast, some couples take an "individualistic" strategy "in which everybody follows their own career and the relationship plays a second role," she continued. Another model still is to adopt an "egalitarian" approach where each "partner is ready to make compromises for a rewarding career for both partners." 

It "mainly depends on you and the compromise that you are ready to make," said Manuela Giovanetti, a senior researcher at Queen's University Belfast in the United Kingdom, who shared her story during the session. "At the beginning, I chose my career and I was satisfied," said Giovanetti, who over the years gained research experience in the Republic of Panama, Germany, the United States, and Spain. But "at a certain point, I started to have a relationship," she said. "That is why I accepted ... to come back to Italy" -- knowing that when her 3-year postdoc came to an end she would be left with little opportunity to find a more stable position, she said. 

After a couple of years of unemployment, "We decided [to resume] my career, which meant being mobile again," Giovanetti continued. She obtained a Marie Curie Fellowship to go to Belfast. The new situation -- maintaining two houses and traveling to see each other -- was difficult and expensive. "The expenses doubled," Giovanetti said. Frequent travel sapped time and energy; the situation was "really stressful. "If you want to be a dual-career couple, you need a lot of money ... and a lot of enthusiasm both in the work you are doing and the relationship that you are keeping."

"The situations are different for each couple, and even for [a given] couple, the situation changes according to the life cycle," Buccheri said. There are signs that institutions are willing to help. In the United States in particular, some universities have dual-career offices or "brokers" whose role is to help partners -- whether academic scientists or not -- find jobs, Buccheri said. As part of the Swiss Federal Equal Opportunity at Universities Programme, universities in Switzerland have started offering temporary positions to help following partners progress in their careers and created a new kind of high-level position in which the two partners share the research and teaching load. It is "the same money as one position, but they can split the burden of the job. The shared position is considered in the C.V. as a full position," Buccheri said. 

Much more common are dual-hiring strategies, in which universities offer positions to the partner according to his or her specialization, Buccheri said. Be aware of your power to negotiate. Say, "'It is a very good position, but I have a partner," Giovanetti said. One of the risks "is that the trailing spouse is always considered a trailing spouse, someone who is less prepared and maybe giving less to the university," Buccheri said.

Being the one who follows doesn't necessarily mean harming your career. When her husband followed her to the United Kingdom so that she could take an 18-month Marie Curie Fellowship in London during her Ph.D., it opened new doors for him, said Giovanna Avellis of InnovaPuglia, a company in the Apulia region fostering local innovation. Her husband, then a professor of combinatorics, took a leave from his university to study in the British Library and pursue a secondary interest of his in "the origin of formal thinking, [of the] formal manipulation of signs by humans like in logic and computation," Avellis said. This topic has since become his primary research and teaching interest. "After 20 years spent playing with numerical signs, he wants to spend the next 20 years understanding the origin," Avellis said. 

The Marie Curie Fellowships are already offering great support to dual-career couples, but the MCFA is currently putting together a report with suggestions to the European Commission on how the program may be improved. They are soon to launch a survey on related issues -- keep an eye on their Web site to take part.


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