(Note: while the majority of this post was written prior to an inspiring talk I heard, that talk was the incentive to finish it off since it explicitly acknowledged this trend).
It seems to me that there are increasing numbers of couples who both pursue careers in research institutions. This is sometimes known as a Two or Dual Body Problem, but I prefer to see it as a Dual Body Opportunity. This is not surprising since I am one half of just such an opportunity.
But, while I think there’s increased awareness of dual body opportunities, I think that it’s not well understood by people who are not part of such a partnership. The intent of this post then is to offer some experiences and reflections, but to most importantly get the conversation started. Because I think that there are real advantages for Universities to employ dual body opportunities. Among them I would include that they hire two people who are implicit mentors to each other, providing support, guidance, throughout the career; and if those couples enjoy working together and start conversations, then they have the possibility of crossing a significant hurdle faced by interdisciplinary research which is crossing the terminological/disciplinary divide. Given the emphasis on interdisciplinary research that seems like a huge win.
From the outset, I’ll add that I’m going to largely talk about two body opportunities where both partners are researchers and working at the same place, but I think that’s a variant of the far more common situation where people live in dual income families. All of the challenges any working family face, are also faced by a dual body partnership. I think those aspects of dual earning partnerships are better understood.
1) Balance. How much do you identify with your partner versus how much you establish your individual identity.
It’s crucial for the individuals as well as the institution to know and feel that they’ve hired two scholars. So it’s important to set up independent streams of work. That’s not to say that you can’t do some work together (although I know dual body opportunities who prefer to work apart), but its crucial that each person has a very clear sense of what their individual contribution is to the project and how that fits into their own career trajectory. I’ve work with my partner, but also with other faculty and independently.
2) Substitution. Thinking about when substitution of one for the other is appropriate.
People are busy and a dual body is occasionally seen as a short-route to passing on information or having the conversation with the actual person. But it’s not good for anyone. It’s certainly not good for the dual body, opportunities to network are a valuable if not vital part of scholarship. Research is a very communicative business. Each opportunity missed is just that, an opportunity to be part of a valuable exchange. From the perspective of those taking the short cut I would also suggest that time saved is also opportunity lost in talking to the *right person*, i.e the expert rather than the expert’s partner! This doesn’t happen often, but it does, and I’ve tried to be very good about encouraging the person to talk to the expert.
On the other hand, there are classes of completely reasonable requests. I’ll help a staff member figure out receipts for travel that involves my partner, and so forth. That’s helping people do business more efficiently and it doesn’t affect my or my partner’s career in anyway.
Perhaps what I would stress here is to be aware of the substitution and ask a question before replying, is this career related?
3) Conflicts of Interest. Times when explicitly considering the dual body is crucial.
The above two points mostly turn on establishing individual identity. In unusual circumstances the successful establishment of individual identity actually works against the dual body opportunity. Tenure is a good example. My partner went up for tenure the year before I did, and spent the subsequent year distancing himself from the process because I was going up for tenure. Universities are used to the transformation of responsibilities assigned to newly tenured faculty, a set of new processes kick in. But, of course those processes have to be examined not just whether they are appropriate for the dual body person to be in, but from the perspective of whether it’s appropriate if you consider both partners.
My sense of the year that my partner spent was that he was asked to be vigilant to the potential conflicts of interest and recuse himself from anything that was problematic. I think it would be even better if we could get to a culture where these sorts of consideration were borne more widely. So, my advice to dual body opportunities is to be very sensitive to conflicts of interest, and to raise concerns quickly to appropriate parties, and use that as an educational process for the university.
In conclusion, I can’t help thinking that dual body opportunities are just one aspect of creating a diverse University. What may seem like a small population (the number of people who are in a dual body partnership) reflects a different type of person entering academia. Perhaps that’s a stretch, although in my case I am a woman in Computing which makes me a minority. What I really mean is that these configurations stretch and test our processes and culture by inviting us to reflect on the assumptions embedded within. And if it makes us more thoughtful about our processes and how they support people who have different life configurations, I can’t help but hope that it gets us towards a more critical reflection on what we might do to attract the best people whatever their life circumstances might be.