On Being Married to an Academic: Toward an Understanding of Being the Second in a Two-Body Problem (A Guest Post)

A month or so ago I requested a guest post that might speak to the misery and angst of the partner/spouse of someone on the academic job market.  I had received several requests for such a post, generally from non-academic partners/spouses trying to figure out how to cope with the stress and uncertainty.  I published one guest post about two weeks ago.  Here is another.  I think it captures splendidly the Alice in Wonderland nature of the Ph.D. process and job search from the perspective of anybody who is not actually in it.


by JJ Koczan

So where’s my piece of paper? Maybe even a title: S.Ph.D. “Spouse of a doctor of philosophy.” After a decade of charting my wife’s pursuit of degree upon degree, it seems the least “the academy” can do. Notwithstanding the crippling debt in which being married to so many student loans left me entangled, they owe me. If need be, I’ll book an auditorium or a conference room and give a Prezi slideshow to tell them why.

When it comes to being married to an academic, maybe I’m the wrong person to comment. She wasn’t an academic when I married her. We met at the tender age of 16, long before the innocent girl who’d later become my wife decided to make a career out of being smart. She was a high school student, good at taking standardized tests. How was I supposed to know she’d go pro?

At first, she didn’t. By the time I meandered my way out of an undergraduate degree at a pace that could best be called “creative professional,” she was employed full-time as a juvenile probation officer—a hard job that she still draws on for street cred in a, “See? I used to not spend every waking hour in front of a laptop screen!” kind of way. She made a good salary. State benefits. Opportunity for advancement. I had a dumpy editor’s job in the music industry. When I was asked at our engagement party by a distant cousin how we planned on surviving, I actually had an answer. The luxury!

Can you imagine? If so, you’re probably not married to an untenured academic.

She left that job, of course, in pursuit of her doctorate. It’s a peculiar and special kind of joy to wonder for months on end whether your spouse will have “funding” for the next year, or will work in what I as an outsider see as the unjustifiable indentured servitude of teaching assistantship and be expected to be grateful for the opportunity, putting in all the effort of a professor while reaping none of the prestige, years not ticking past so much as punching you in the face on their way by while you wait for—what, exactly?—I don’t even know at this point, it’s been so long since an entire league of people I knew didn’t define my existence by my wife’s ambitions. Oh yeah, him. He’s the one whose wife just got funding. Cue sigh of relief.

I can still recall the day my wife said to me in our small one-bedroom apartment that she was going to take an online class through the local state school; an idea thrown out so casually that I only paid any attention whatsoever in hindsight. In my mind, I see her flicking her hair back, carefree, her tone no more significant than if she were to have said she was going to make a sandwich. Like any trade that consumes the entirety of your being—see also your proctologists, plumbers, single-cell bacteria, etc.—the academy changes who you are, shifts your perspective, and in my experience, makes you more than a little bit of a weirdo.

To wit, us at a party. Oh, she was glorious. Uncomfortable and misanthropic as I am in every way imaginable and a few that aren’t, my wife could work a room like no one you’ve ever seen. Helps that she’s smokin’ hot—even now she can wear a professor’s scarf like it’s (ever) going out of style—but more than that, she had this charismatic ability to have a heart-to-heart with someone, a genuinely meaningful conversation to both people involved, in a crowded room surrounded by empty smalltalk. It was amazing to watch, and I can’t begin to recount the meaningless drivel it saved me both from hearing and from saying.

Now? Well, it’s hard to keep up conversational momentum when you’re pointing out the “problematic” statuette in the hallway, isn’t it? Or if you’re taking the full 45 minutes to answer a question as naïve as, “So what do you study?” I laugh every time I hear, “So what is your dissertation about?” The inquiry of an amateur! Who’d have thought to singular devotion to one idea for a span of years would result in a declining ability to relate to everything else in the world that isn’t that one idea? Crazy, right?

She of course wears this awkwardness as a badge of honor. It’s something she’s earned through years of effort. It takes a lot of thinking to become so strange.

When she earned her second Master’s degree, it was a non-event. The watering station a quarter of the way through the marathon. I don’t even think we went out to dinner to celebrate. There was reading to do.

Each semester brings horror stories of her peers who’ve graduated into the academic job market only to wind up with non-tenure track positions at the South Pole. “So-and-so got an adjunct gig at Someplace You’d Never Want to Live. Isn’t that great?” Well, I guess if you look at it on the level of that’s one job I don’t have to worry about you getting, sure. And the thing is, it’s supposed to be a good thing! She’s serious! My understanding of the academic job market is that it’s like the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. When they designed the infrastructure seven thousand years ago, nobody imagined there’d ever be so many people, so you funnel fifty lanes to two and hope that most of those who’d be foolish enough to attempt to cross the Hudson give up before they actually get there.

I paint a dark picture and stand by it, but I might be more in a position to criticize had my own professional choices not been SO terrible. “I’ll go work at magazines, because they’re bound to last forever!” We left that apartment because we couldn’t afford to keep it and moved back in with her mother, who fortunately for us had the space, where we’ve lived now for the majority of our marriage. I tell my friends I rent, or I mumble anything that isn’t, “I’m in my 30s and I live at my mother-in-law’s house because I chose my career based on the number of free CDs I’d get and I’ve failed at life really, really hard,” though I know that’s what I should be saying. Most of them get the idea anyway.

Of course, none of this would be worthwhile if I didn’t also love her more than I ever thought one as emotionally crippled as I am could ever love a human being. Perhaps too it’s something unique to the experience of someone smitten with an academic to be constantly floored by their partner’s brilliance, or to crouch and be astounded as I am to witness her dedication on a daily basis in a pursuit of something that… well, if you didn’t really believe in what you were doing, you’d be a fool for chasing.

After all these years, my understanding of what she does is cursory at best, and I’ve watched as our pillow talk has gone from, “So how was your day?” to a recitation of whatever abstract concept she wants to remember for the morning but is too tired to actually write down, but my admiration for who she is, this single-minded weirdo she’s become, has been more than enough to carry me through the wait for that dissertation to be finished, for the defense date to be set, for time measured in four-month groupings into perpetuity. I love my wife. I loved her before and I love her now.

Like any interpersonal connection worth half a damn, it can be frustrating as all hell, but my relationship with my hyper-educated academic spouse is the best part of my life. She makes me a better, stronger person, or at very least challenges me to become one despite the stubborn resistance she’s met with every step of the way, and I consider myself lucky she even talks to me, never mind occasionally lets me pick what takeout we get for dinner. It’s not always easy for me to remember how important her work is to her, but I make an effort, because that’s the part of it that means something to me: It’s who she is.

If that’s what I have to go on, so be it.

JJ Koczan is Managing Editor of New Jersey’s The Aquarian Weekly and genre-blogs music nobody cares about at http://theobelisk.net.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


On Being Married to an Academic: Toward an Understanding of Being the Second in a Two-Body Problem (A Guest Post) — 25 Comments

  1. “it’s been so long since an entire league of people I knew didn’t define my existence by my wife’s ambitions”–WHAM. That’s it, exactly. The rigid hierarchy, the tendency to see the world through the guild’s terms, the all-encompassing self-definition-through-academic-achievement.

    I also love the line: “It takes a lot of thinking to become so strange.”

  2. GREAT post…I am the academic and my husband….well, he sounds a lot like you. He is phenomenal. Would not be me without him!

  3. I can’t be sympathetic to either the poster or his wife. Anyone who stays in a Ph.D. program beyond two years knows exactly what the rest of the experience will be like, and exactly what the outcomes are – and chooses to stay anyway. It’s not the higher-level service to humanity that this poster presents as his wife. I don’t know any grad students who were shocked to find out about the terrible state of the tenure-track academic job market once they graduated. I am in my last year of a Ph.D. program and will not graduate with the expectation of a non-existent tenure-track job, unlike most of my peers, who have elevated whining about their collective future to high art. The blogosphere is filled with Ph.D.s who seem to think they should be exempt from the provision that thinking ahead generally improves your job possibilities.

    • wow…bitter much? Fortunately, the author doesn’t appear to be asking for your sympathy and is being sarcastic. Good job on missing the whole point. Just because your motivations aren’t as honorable as a ‘higher-level service to humanity’ doesn’t mean other people’s, aren’t. Keep your snark on a leash.

    • I think there are many academics who really DO think getting a PhD and teaching/researching is a higher service to humanity. And I don’t think they are silly for thinking so. I think teaching, at least, is an important service, one that is ridiculously undervalued. As for blasting away at PhDs who “should know better,” well…I don’t think many academics expect that they’ll receive little to no training on how to deal with the job market at its best, let alone when things are changing so much every year. Whether or not the pardigm this writer presents seems “logical,” it is certainly a good portrayal of many, many people I know.

  4. a bit off-topic: this post reminds me that our field isn’t the only one with a bad job outlook. as uncertain as my future in academia is, I am still glad I got out of magazine publishing. I hope that the author (as well as his wife) finds fulfilling and well-paying work wherever they end up.

  5. My husband could have written much of this, and he’s really sacrificed his career for mine…. so I am sending him this link, maybe because I think he’ll feel some solidarity with its contents? Maybe it’ll hit a bit too close to home. I actually do worry what my pursuit of a PhD has turned me into, but I am 34 and it’s too late to turn back now!

  6. My wife spent 6 years cramming on her MBA and PhD during which our family life experienced the worst aridity of any. It affected the bedroom activities to a disastrous level. And the academic mania converted that stunningly gorgeous woman to an unpleasant laptop-bound puppet. All I have seen or heard from my lovely wife is about how busy she is in publishing papers, going for exams, applying for funding, seminars, lectures, conferences, and meetings with supervisors. If a woman has a strict academic agenda, and if she has a good brain for studying, it is guaranteed that an easy going, classic style, fun-loving husband is going to have the worst suffering of any family life. My wife refused having kids due to her studies, and now we are separated that our life styles do not match at all. Think very well before finding your partner. It is injustice to the academic as well as for the classic, if the wrong pair gets married.

      • He’s not being sexist. Most women in academics will choose career over family. I know this, because my husband is a professor and I see this 99% of the time in this field. This man simply said that his wife chose her career over their marriage (that includes “bedroom activities”) and bringing children into this world. Last time I checked, a man can’t do it alone when it comes to pregnancy. This world will have us believe that we can “have it all”. We can, but at a price. You’ll never be able to put 100% into a career and also into raising a family. Sadly, most choose to put 100% into their career. If that’s the case for you, I hope your career brings you much peace and happiness after you retire. As for me, I’ll be spending my golden years with my grand babies.

        • Wow, judgey much? You present things as mutually exclusive that are not. Plenty of my successful Full Prof and Emerita friends are enjoying their grandchildren while still publishing books, mentoring junior women, and traveling the world. I recommend everyone see the documentary RBG to learn just how NOT mutually exclusive these things can be with a non-selfish, non-sabotaging supportive male partner. #ConcernTroll

  7. Pingback: Realities of academia: On the two-body problem, emotional states and research/career advancement – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD

  8. I’ll go ahead and pretend to be the the devil being the devil’s advocate.
    My situation is exactly what is described by OP. Even with the guy’s bad career choice. If I wasn’t aware that he hates writing for the web, I’d even be suspicious.
    Now. Please allow me to point out some things that the OP and some commenters above may not have thought about:
    – LOTS of guys in academia are praised for their dedication, their will to pursue the knowledge, their capacity of talking and breathing that research all that time. Now when you have a girl in the same role, suddenly this is something horrible.
    – Guess what, just like there are guys who have this absurdly-nerd-overachiever profile, so there are women. And often these end up in academia. That’s just the reality. Some women are just not cut for the girlfriend role, or worse, mommy role. Just like not all guys are family guys.
    – Looking at two of my most brilliant professors, who have this incredible all-about-science minds: both had amazing women who basically decided to take care of everything else for their lives. One of them wouldn’t even pick his clothes. And you know what? I don’t think that’s ugly. That’s a choice they made.
    – If you are not happy in a situation like this, and you think your girl became a monster, PLEASE PLEASE BE HONEST AND IF YOU CAN’T WORK IT OUT, BREAK UP. FOR THE SANITY OF BOTH OF YOU. Do you think a woman in a PhD program is blind and deaf to a man’s needs? Do you know how much guilt one carries every day when you have to pull an all-nighter, when the experiment demands that you stay longer, when you are so tired and absent-minded that you may just skip lunch, or not go watch that film, or the head is so full she can’t make it to a couple’s bedroom activities etc. (or if she does, she fakes it). This is HORRIBLE for her too, and may make her career suffer terribly (I know mine did!). Of course, your career will suffer too. It may not even exist.
    – She shouldn’t be carrying the weight of a relationship in which she is simply not the person the guy needs. And neither should you. If you can’t support her, and if you can’t see beyond her lab clothes anymore, then sorry. Time to move on. So ask yourself some serious questions before complaining that your wife’s PhD turned her into less than a human being.
    (at this point I’d like to recommend THIS easy reading if you think talking about one’s research/job is a sign of craziness: http://www.cracked.com/blog/5-questions-you-need-to-ask-to-avoid-ruining-your-life/)

  9. All my relationships have ultimately ended because I have had to move to wherever the opportunities are 🙁
    This is most often easier for men, because their partner are often less educated or career oriented more willing to move with them.
    /Woman academic

    • ahh it’s so true. I am 26 now and have finished 2 years of my PhD. I feel like a failure in my personal life. It’s because of the relocation I can’t have steady relationship. All my friends have child and here I am without even a bf.

  10. Thank you for this wonderful article. It is very eye-opening to me as I contemplate a relationship with a geeky adjunct professor who is the world’s sweetest guy and utterly single-minded about his academic discipline. (My BA is in the same field yet I don’t understand a word of his dissertation.)

    Yup, he’s a loving adorable weirdo, complete with strange food preferences, Tourette’s and no fashion sense.

    I am older than he is and I have a well-established lucrative career which I’m terrified I will have to give up to follow him to study in some God-forsaken place far away from my adult children. (It would be a second marriage for both of us.)

    I must be absolutely nuts. Someone talk me out of this.

  11. I just found this post and felt compelled to share as a I recognized so many similarities between the post and my life. I fell in love with a woman passionate about music, her family, movies, chess. She could talk about anything and wanted to too.

    Now in her doctoral program, I have a roommate who is going to change her field. I know it because she’s told me she’s willing to sacrifice everything to do it. I want to be supportive and show that I love her. But I spend a lot of time alone and it’s hard. Trying to talk to her about anything beyond her field gets short answers and a disinterested glaze. A few months ago she mentioned wanting children and I almost got sick. I can’t imagine being a single parent. Part of me wishes she would leave so I don’t have to. I love her, but she makes me feel like furniture. I’m not sure what to do, but this has been cathartic to share. Thank you

  12. i I just read your story. It really is tough to be partner of an academic. That is still true a bit further down the road as well.

    My wife and I moved to a small town 2 years ago with a small university for a position that at the time was assured (but not in writing) was to be a tenured position.

    My wife had a well paying job with good career opportunities in the city. As we had a young family, we thought that life in a small town, would be ideal. My wife has followed me the several different cities, which was all great before we had children.

    I just found out that the bar for tenure at my small University has been raised to a level that I do not think I can meet. The research expectation is now higher than big research intensive Universities, or the Research Institute where I held my last job, and where there was ample research support, equipment, collaborators and complementary expertise. If I could achieve what my tenure committee is asking for my research, I would be able to have a job at a more prestigious University.

    When I took the job, the committee assured me that if research didn’t go brilliantly (being at a small University with hardly any research infrastructure) I would transition into the T&R position, with the level of teaching determined by my research productivity. The current academic staff do not do any research, as they were employed when the University was mostly a teaching University. The University wants to increase its research presence.

    My wife is very upset. We thought that we were going to make our lives here. As I am employed at a small University not really known for its research, I am not at all sure where my career will go from here. We are discussing my wife going back to work full-time so that we can save enough money when my contract ends.

    Truthfully though, if we put her career first, we would be much better off financially. I was assured through annual performance review and informal conversations that I was doing fine and the job was all in name ongoing as long as I was publishing – until this weeks review.

    Now I am told that everything is not fine!

    At this stage I fell as if I have been lied to, and I have failed my family!

    PS I have several Honours students wanting to do PhDs with me next year. How can in good faith take them on if I am not going to be around for the life of their PhD. How will they get jobs when they finish???

  13. I never reply to blogs, but I feel I have to for this one.

    You’ve failed at life very, very hard? I haven’t felt this urge to keep reading your article since Ham on Rye from Charles Bukowski.

    Please keep writing, you are so very talented.

  14. I may have met the love of my life. I am a 48 year-old single dad, she is a 36 year-old newly minted PhD. Although we’ve only been dating for a couple of months, after reading this, if we go the distance (which I believe we will), I can totally see myself looking at her in the way that JJ Koczan looks at his spouse. In fact, I already have similar “embryonic” feelings that will likely grow into how this guy feels about his wife. Knowing her and talking to her lights me up and I have SUCH an admiration for what she’s accomplished. And honestly although my daughter has a mom already, having this big brained angel in our lives will be so good for her. Life is and will continue to be good.

  15. When this article came out I was the wife of a PhD student. I read it again when my husband went on the job market and eventually found his series of lecturer jobs. Two states and two kids later, I revisit it every so often because it is the most accurate description I have ever read of how a person changes as they go through the system. It is funny, and painful, and more than a little true, but ultimately feels worth it when you see the person you love thriving in their passion job. Thanks Karen for publishing other perspectives on this process. I know several supportive academic spouses who read you for a sanity break!

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