Recently, a friend wrote me that he was moving: his wife, also an academic, had gotten a better tenure-track offer than had he, so he was following her to the Northwest. Romance in academia is hard.
Interestingly enough, "Modern Love" is taking on the same territory this week, although under slightly different circustances. In the case of the author, neither partner wanted to move for the other, and in their commitment to equality, she and her husband take jobs in different cities. When they end up only a few miles from one another, it seems like fate - but their bliss is cruelly destroyed when he is denied tenure while she gets it.
Some disparaging parental types will tell you that grad school is a retreat from the real world into Ivory Tower safety. But any academic can tell you that the reality can be brutal - especially for couples. A partner can become a liability ("is the husband going to be a problem?" asks one prospective employer of the author), a rival, a source of continuous resentment. The romantic vision of Curie-esque scholars working side-by-side is a distant dream in this increasingly competitive world of few jobs and many applicants. Even in the most collegial relationships, as the author makes clear, when you are in the same line of work and facing the same hurdles you end up "endlessly comparing our jobs, progress and institutions." And you want harsh? Here's how the author describes the period after her husband is denied tenure:
I left the gymnasium and called my mother, who is (horrifyingly) an alumna of the college that had just rejected him. "What should I tell people?" she asked. It was as if he'd died under unseemly circumstances. And in a way he had. When you're denied tenure anywhere but at a few elite institutions, it's virtually impossible to get another tenure-track job. You're academic roadkill.
He ultimately finds satisfaction in another field, but it's an interesting glimpse into the world of the academy. Curious, I wrote my friend and asked him how he felt about the move, about turning down his own offer, and deciding instead to teach high-school history in the short-term. He was philosophical; he said he had known from the get-go that his wife was in a "field with more demand," that she was brilliant, and that while it wasn't ideal, it was a reality he'd been prepared for. "At the end of the day, how can you succeed at all in this field without compromise?" He wrote. "If you're in it for love of the subject and a passion for teaching, it's not always bad to be thrown back on that. I'll be doing that, and I'm with the love of my life. Could be a hell of a lot worse. "