A Commitment to Research: Solving the Two-Body Problem

In this second of their series A Commitment to Research Dr. Jennifer Dahl describes the path she and husband Dr. Bart Dahl took to negotiating and solving the two-body problem. Through all the twists and turns, the diapers, and the sleepless nights they maintained an inspiring  commitment to family and undergraduate research. 


cxwupicwsaakam7In our last post, we described our ongoing involvement in undergraduate research at UWEC. To some readers, we might have described an ideal scenario for a married academic couple: two tenure-track positions at the same university, a shared research lab with no shortage of equipment, and the maintenance of separate projects that reflect our unique identities as chemists. Given that dual-career scientists are now so commonplace (your university probably has at least one such pairing), we thought it might be useful to address an issue that Bart and I have been decoding for two decades: the dreaded two-body problem. We’ll walk through our timeline, with the hope that our experiences will relate to the present circumstances of the current undergraduate researcher, grad student, post-doc, or even faculty members who might be struggling with this issue.

Back when we met as undergrads in the mid-90s, Bart and I had no idea that we were so blithely inserting ourselves into the two-body career equation.

It begins (or as we like to say, choose your lab partner carefully)

Back when we met as undergrads in the mid-90s, Bart and I had no idea that we were so blithely inserting ourselves into the two-body career equation. We both ended up majoring in chemistry, but despite our shared experiences, our degree progress didn’t move in lock-step. Bart graduated one year before me, which led to our first now what? moment. As I finished my degree and continued my internship at Kimberly-Clark Corporation, Bart took his first chemistry job at Sigma-Aldrich, synthesizing many fine pyrophoric chemicals that cause us to don much personal protective gear. We also went through the process of selecting a grad program that worked for both of us, taking us to the University of Oregon.

Bart graduated one year before me, which led to our first now what?

How we solved the two-body problem:

  • We stayed focused on completing our individual goals. This can entail a pause of your career trajectory. When this happens, do something relevant to your goals while your partner “catches up.” Here, Bart learned more about synthesis at Aldrich while I finished my degree.
  • We accepted that our separate tasks meant daily commuting to different cities.
  • We worked to realign with each other’s goals in the next phase of our science careers. The key is compromise, not concession.

The grad school years

As graduate students, we found ourselves on equal ground in terms of career demands. This was quite fortunate, as we both understood the challenges each other faced, and better yet, we knew that the magnitude of demands were identical for both parties. This understanding was critical to establishing our work-life equilibrium. At the same time, we started to differentiate as scientists, with Bart specializing in organic chemistry as I focused on inorganic chemistry and nanoscience. We followed our true interests while minimizing any chance that we would ever compete for the same grants, same jobs, same resources.

We followed our true interests while minimizing any chance that we would ever compete for the same grants, same jobs, same resources.

scattered-jodDespite this sense of alignment, we once again found ourselves a bit out of phase as our graduate years concluded. Bart was scheduled to finish his doctorate one year sooner than I. This time, Bart forged ahead into his postdoctoral position at Trinity University while I stayed behind in Oregon. Our decision to delve into a temporary long-distance marriage came with a bit of a curve ball: just two days before he defended his dissertation, we discovered that we were expecting our first child.

How we solved the two-body problem:

  • We pursued somewhat different paths as chemists, broadening our employment opportunities.
  • We maintained two separate residences for about six months. Though not desirable, I believe it was manageable because we knew it was both temporary and finite.
  • Sometimes allowing one partner to keep moving on the path to a faculty position makes more sense than pausing. This is a highly individual decision.

The postdoc years

 d4f96cdd616a0229bf86e2e5834c2684We became parents as I was completing the draft of my dissertation. Bart’s postdoc was off to a great start, and I would later join him at the same university. Caring for a newborn in a new city was no small feat, however. Our lives were now filled with all the usual trappings of infant care, complicated by the fact that we were in a brand new environment and lacking the usual social supports. The idea of “work-life balance” became absurd, as I found much of the care of our daughter necessarily fell into my lap most days.

As our time concluded, it was clear that Bart was ready to accept a tenure-track position and move into the next phase of his career. On the other hand, I was still in a post-partum haze, feeling increased pressure at home

Our time at Trinity provided essential training for our current faculty positions, as we began to craft feasible but relevant undergraduate research projects, gained deeper teaching experience, and learned the landscape of a career at a primarily undergraduate institution. As our time concluded, it was clear that Bart was ready to accept a tenure-track position and move into the next phase of his career. On the other hand, I was still in a post-partum haze, feeling increased pressure at home. Our best scenario? Bart accepted a tenure-track position at the University of St. Thomas, where I would also serve as an adjunct. This allowed Bart to keep moving forward as planned, while I could recalibrate myself for a year before resuming my own search for a tenure-track position.

How we solved the two-body problem:

  • When the circumstances of your life change drastically, it might not feel right to maintain perfect job parity. Sometimes it is better for one partner to take the career lead, while the other trails. (Notice a theme here?)
  • As one partner leads, hopefully the other can stay engaged as a scientist. I was happy to teach a few classes in my discipline as I planned my full-time return to academia.

Our final stop: UWEC

As our year at UST proceeded, I began my search for tenure track positions in the Twin Cities area. Much to my dismay, there were no openings in my field, and I began to worry that carrying out nanoscience research at a four-year school just wasn’t feasible; after all, what I do requires access to a lot of instrumentation that often isn’t available, such as a TEM.  As we moved into the spring semester, there was a call for two positions at UWEC, which is an institution that places a premium on undergraduate research, and they had all of the major instrumentation that I needed to support my research as well as Bart’s. It wasn’t easy for Bart to leave UST so soon, but UWEC was a perfect fit for both of us.

The idea of balance is absurd. The best one can hope for at any moment in time is a dynamic equilibrium. Parenting roles change, work demands fluctuate, social interactions shift; there are simply too many moving parts to “balance.”

How we solved the two-body problem

  • The idea of balance is absurd. The best one can hope for at any moment in time is a dynamic equilibrium. Parenting roles change, work demands fluctuate, social interactions shift; there are simply too many moving parts to “balance.” Never put pressure on yourself to make everything work perfectly all the time, and (as one wise chemist* once told us), when it comes to life, don’t extrapolate.
  • Don’t be afraid to leave one job for another. If one scenario just isn’t a good fit for all parties, move on.

As one wise chemist once told us, “when it comes to life, don’t extrapolate”

And so here we are today, starting our seventh year at UWEC. Two more children were born, a house was purchased, papers were published, grants were awarded, many exams have been graded. Bart and I are both enjoying an environment that values strong teaching and scholarly activity. Our path was long, convoluted, punctuated with countless diapers and nearly sleepless nights, but we’ve been able to maintain our commitment to our family as well as our commitment to undergraduate research.

 

* That chemist was Nancy Mills of Trinity University. She was the first person to meet our newborn daughter.

Dr. Jennifer Dahl and Dr. Bart Dahl are associate professors in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Outside of chemistry, they enjoy second careers as self-styled small primate handlers.

 

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