When I was in graduate school, I had arbitrary rules for myself based on a stereotype I had about what a successful independent scientist would do. Rule #1: Never follow a man. Rule #2: Never live in the Midwest. Rule #3: Never postdoc for more than 4 years. Breaking all those rules at once was the best thing I ever did for my career.
Many people meet their life partners at work, and we were no exception: I met Lars Angenent while we were both doing postdocs at the University of Colorado. We were in different departments, but Lars was doing part of his project in the lab I was working in. The only problem was, we didn't realize we were each other's life partners until 2 weeks after my future husband left the state for an assistant professor position at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. So, it was too late to bargain for another job, and besides, at that stage--just starting out in our relationship and in our careers--it didn't really cross our minds that we should move together. When Lars would say, "You're moving to St. Louis," I'd laugh, thinking it was a joke. That was rules one and two combined.
This article is related to two other articles we're publishing this week. First, check out A Tale of Two Pathologists, Anne Sasso's profile of a dual-physician-scientist couple. Next, read a profile of Ley in this week's Science news section (AAAS membership or site license required).
For a couple of years, there was no solution in sight, and it was agonizing. Should I apply for tenure-track assistant professor jobs on my own? I did apply to a few but never got past the interview. This led to nagging self-doubt: Did I even want a tenure-track job? Given how much time I spent turning over that question in my mind and boring the people around me with my internal debate, I should have realized that I really did want it. The possibility that I wouldn't be able to find a tenure-track position was painful, but the possibility of losing the relationship was worse.
At this stage, several people asked me why I didn't just move to St. Louis and join my husband's lab. This is a solution for many couples in science but not for us. One reason is the classic "two chefs in the kitchen" problem; we have this at home, too. We have separate research interests, but even where our interests overlap, we're both headstrong and opinionated. Another reason is simply too much contact time; we need our own space. But mostly, we wanted independent research careers. And besides, when I asked Lars if I could join his lab, his retort was, "Get your own lab!"
So, with no job solution in sight, I started to look for a second postdoc in St Louis. Breaking all the rules seemed like the only option.
Finding a postdoc position at an institution with no obvious match for my expertise was challenging, but I did and it turned out to be fortuitous beyond what I could have imagined. Although my background and training was in environmental microbiology, I contacted a lab at the medical school at Washington University that was just starting to use techniques developed by environmental microbiologists to study microbes inhabiting the human intestinal tract. I soon realized the potential was immense: We brought together a number of disciplines in what became a highly productive and fun scientific experience.
While I was having a great time as a postdoc, my by-then husband was doing well as an assistant professor. His phone started to ring: Other institutions were recruiting him. Word got around that he was available and he got more phone calls. He'd tell them right away that there were two of us, and he'd send my CV over. Then I'd get a call. In several cases, people in the engineering department--where he was sought--would send my CV to the medical school to see if any particular department was interested in me. Then word got around that I, too, was available, and I started to get my own calls. It was an exciting time: The timing was perfect for both of us to be on the job market.
We ended up with several competing offers. We chose Cornell University because it offered the best overall fit for our family. We are in different departments, but our buildings are side by side. This allows us to help each other in research: We are currently sharing technician time, expensive equipment, and protocols. We have our own space and our own sets of colleagues within our departments to interact with, yet we also benefit from being near each other.
We're very happy to have landed where we are, but we don't feel that we're particularly special for having found jobs at the same place. Looking around, I see more and more couples who have had similar opportunities. Most of the couples I know are in separate departments, schools, or even institutions--but in the same general location. The hiring of dual-career couples is no longer surprising; it is increasingly seen as necessary and normal.
I'm sharing this personal story to reassure anyone in a position similar to ours 5 years ago--living far apart but wanting to be together, and wanting independent research careers--that you can't anticipate how things will turn out. Don't let the stereotypes about two-body problems get you down. If you both build up your CVs, the doors open. Take the time to strengthen your record. Universities create positions, searches are extended, and administrators gather resources for people they want to hire. We didn't feel that we compromised anything in the end. We both moved into positions we're happy about.
Lessons learned? One: It took a little longer to solve the two-body problem than I might have liked, but it ended up helping me tremendously down the line--so be patient. Two: Some people are worth violating your rules for. And Three: There's more to those "flyover" states in the Midwest than what you can see from the airplane.
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Photo (top):Hidde de Vries
Microbial ecologist Ruth Ley is an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology at Cornell University. Her husband, Lars Angenent, is an associate professor in Cornell's Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering.