Ask the grumpies: Advice for trailing spouses?

Jess asks:

Advice for trailing spouses? I am not an academic, but my boyfriend is about to start a PhD program. Assuming we stay together, which I would like to, reading your blog makes feel like I’m signing up for a lifetime of moving to wherever there is a job for him (in potentially not great places). He promises that he will not take a job in a place I’m not happy with, but it’s still easy to get stressed about my lack of control and options. I am confident that I can get a job in most places, but I am pretty career-focused and it is weird to think that each job I’m in has an externally defined end date for the foreseeable future (current job prior to PhD program, 5-6 years for PhD, then a few years for post-doc before hopefully getting a professor position). Would love any advice from Grumpy Nation :)

So first off, don’t let your career become completely secondary.  A lot can happen in 5-6 years.  Don’t lean back.  Just because someone starts a PhD program doesn’t mean they’ll finish.  Just because someone gets a PhD doesn’t mean they’ll go into academia.  Just because someone starts an academic position doesn’t mean they will stay in academia!  (See:  #2, #1’s DH, lots of people, particularly in fields where post-docs are common.)  You may end up being the leading spouse and he may end up being the trailing spouse!  In either case, having savings and being very good at your job will give you more flexibility in finding new jobs or being able to keep your job as a telecommuter.

While it seems like it for people on the academic track while they’re in graduate school or reaching for tenure, there is more to life than just getting tenure at an academic institution.  Academia is just a job.  It can be a very nice job, but it is still a job.  There will be trade-offs (unless he gets a tenured offer at Stanford or Columbia, depending on your joint geographical preferences).  Working for low pay and a high teaching load in a tiny town at a university without a lot of resources may not be worth it, especially if there aren’t good job options for you.  In places that are better, there are more likely to be options for you because they are more likely to be in cities or more likely to have industry surrounding the university.  (Not entirely– my DH currently doesn’t have options locally unless he wants to change careers or work as an adjunct/research assistant, but he’s also telecommuted since leaving his university position because he is very good at what he does.  Though he is currently unemployed, so we will see what happens.) As one gets older one starts to value quality of life options more.  Industry salaries tend to be higher too.

You will have to make decisions about whether you are willing to live apart from each other for short periods of time.  If he has a one-year position, will you move for that or stay where you are and rack up a lot of frequent-flyer miles?  Sometimes time apart allows couples to focus on work and end up being so good that they can more easily find a place together.

And remember that people outside of academia don’t stay at the same job forever.  Follow your career aspirations and look at potential forced job changes as opportunities.

Basically:  My best advice is that you cannot predict the future.  Take these changes as they come and figure out your choice sets at the time.  Then decide on the trade-offs for those choice sets, remembering that nothing needs to be a permanent decision. You don’t need to make decisions years before you know what your options are going to be.  Academia can create a lot of unnecessary anxiety because it seems so clear what the “right” choices are, but that’s really an illusion that seems ridiculous to people outside of the ivory tower.  Also, the more money you save up, the more options you will have at these choice points and the less stressful some of those choices will be.

Grumpy Nation, what advice do you have for trailing spouses?


18 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Advice for trailing spouses?”

  1. Steph Says:

    I agree that you shouldn’t lean back in your career at all. Aside from your point about job prospects, covid is making more companies willing to consider telework. So if you spend the next 5-6 years in a job you love and where you’re valued, it’s not impossible that you could continue to telework until (or even after) your partner has a permanent job. I’ve known plenty of dual-career academics, and it’s not always a “dragging my partner wherever I can get work” situation – I have a colleague who lives pretty far from campus so that he and his wife can commute to their respective jobs, and another colleague’s partner has been teleworking for years, and I know lots of academics who remain in or close to the city where they did their PhD because of their partners’ jobs.

    If staying in a particular place (or just placing constraints on future moves) is important to you, make sure you bring that up to your partner. It should change the way they approach their networking and maybe even the selection of their thesis topic. In my field, for example, it’s possible to stay in the same city from PhD to tenure, but you either need to be really marketable, really popular, or willing to take a position that you might otherwise avoid. The “really marketable” folks are all doing buzzword-related research in the most popular and fund-able areas of our field. Also, the prevailing wisdom is that it’s easier to leave for a postdoc and then come back to settle in the city permanently, though if there are a lot of universities in that place then you might just be able to hop around.

    And as the post says, an academic job is just a job. Your partner might get through grad school and decide academia isn’t for them! Or you can make that decision together as you go. I’m single, so prevailing attitudes say I should be willing to move anywhere, right? But when I applied for jobs 1.5 years ago, I decided that I didn’t want to move again unless it was for a permanent position. So I looked at my non-academic options, and weighed any postdoc or permanent job application against those options. That’s the kind of thinking I would recommend you and your partner consider – when is it worth it to move, for both of you?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      At the same time, the worst thing in the world for an academic is for a spouse to say, “We moved for you for graduate school, we’re not moving again.” (As one of our friends with a jerk of a husband was told. They’re still together and she’s a housewife now, despite being the one person in the world we knew with an all-consuming academic passion. )

      Having a mobile specialty is important for many reasons, not just wanting to stay where you are!

      • mnitabach Says:

        IMO & IME a non-academic spouse with good earning potential should never compromise their own career ambitions to accommodate the supposed needs of the academic spouse. Academia is such a speculative random unlikely career path that it is a very bad bet. And I mean if the supposed academic spouse hasn’t even started grad school yet…

      • Steph Says:

        Yes, sorry if that sounded like should be an all-or-nothing conversation! I just meant that it’s important for her partner to know her ideal situation, because that’s important information for them to have – to make sure neither of them is assuming that she will automatically move wherever. Obviously there should still be compromise on both sides.

  2. Turia Says:

    Hi Jess!

    First up, you are not a trailing spouse. Your boyfriend hasn’t even started his PhD program yet. He doesn’t have a career. You are equal partners and one of you is about to start a very long educational process that *might* (emphasis on might) eventually lead to him becoming a tenured academic. Try to avoid the mentality that his job is more important than yours – it isn’t. If you are still together when he finishes his PhD (if he finishes, because we should acknowledge that many many PhD students do not finish), then at that point you should be making joint decisions about where he applies and what happens next.

    Does he own a copy of Karen Kelsky’s The Professor Is In? Does he read academic blogs regularly (like hers) which discuss the state of the market? On her blog (I don’t want to link to it in case putting a link in consigns my comment to the spam folder) she has a recent post which is the transcript of her chat with Beyond Academia which he should read. Is he aware that in most fields it is now the exception (in many fields the very rare exception) to end up with a tenure stream position? If he does his due diligence, he should go into his PhD program with his eyes wide open. He should know exactly what is required of him to even stand a chance at landing a tenure-stream position, and he should know what the real likelihood of that is in his field (which will also depend on where he’s going for the PhD). Regardless, he should also spend the PhD developing an exit strategy – building the transferable skills that will make it easier for him to get a job outside of academia (this is probably easier/ more obvious if he’s in STEM but it holds just as true for Humanities). He should not expect his department to help him or understand (or respect) what he is doing, but he should do it anyway. No one should be entering a PhD program these days assuming that they’ll get an academic job at the end.

    Lots of people get partway through the PhD and realize that academia is not going to be the right fit. In my field, students can often start a PhD after a one-year Master’s. This means they applied for the PhD in the fall semester of their Master’s degree, before they had any real idea of what would be expected of them. Many do well with the coursework and comprehensive exams, because those have clear deadlines and there is a lot of structure and support, and then fall apart with the dissertation when it’s just them and the library and 80-100,000 words that have to be written (I’m in a Humanities field so YMMV).

    I guess I don’t want you to get into the mindset at this stage of thinking “I’m going to be an academic’s wife” because there’s just no guarantee that that will happen. If your boyfriend’s PhD program is in a city where there are good career opportunities for you, then you don’t need to look further ahead for now. Focus on your work, build your skills and your experience. By the time your boyfriend finishes, you (and he) will have a much better sense of whether academia is a possibility (and there is NO SHAME if it is not, whether that’s because he doesn’t want to sign up for the life of a tenured prof [which has a lot of negatives], or his work/CV/timeline isn’t good enough to be competitive, or because the market went off a cliff and there are no jobs in his field at the point he’s on the market).

    I think both he and you could benefit from reading some of the (many) articles online about the gaslighting in academia, academia as a bad boyfriend/abusive relationship, etc. PhD students are conditioned in so many ways to believe that they are failures if they don’t stay in academia, even if they don’t get a permanent job. Refusing to scrape together a meager living as an adjunct and choosing instead to leave academia and get a job where your skill set is valued and compensated accordingly is presented as ‘selling out’ or ‘giving up’. Don’t let him believe this narrative.

    Best of luck to you both!

  3. Alice Says:

    I’m not an academic, but would offer this perspective: follow your own career path, whatever it may be, and go with the belief that he will find a job in an area that works for you when the time comes.

    I opted out of a ph.d. program after obtaining my master’s. Academic job prospects for my (humanities) field were terrible, and I was really worried about being unable to pay my loans if I didn’t get a job. My first job after leaving was at a consulting firm that required a lot of travel–nearly everyone I met who worked there who was in a relationship saw their significant others when they traveled home on weekends. If the location was somewhere with fun things, sometimes a spouse would come out for the weekend instead. It was not a way I would want to live forever and for me would not be doable with kids in the mix, but it was fine for the few years that I did it.

    I work from home now and have done so for more than 10 years– I can live pretty much anywhere with solid internet access. My husband, meanwhile, had a 1-hour commute to his office early in our marriage, then had a 3-year period of 1-week away/1-week home travel, then a 30-minute commute (we moved closer to his job), and is now working from home because of the pandemic.

    I think what I’m trying to say here is that if you and your boyfriend can be balanced in your approach and figure out what’s the most you can each say “yes” to in terms of location/travel flexibility, it’s likely going to be okay. He shouldn’t apply for work anywhere you both can’t live/work, any more than you should. But “can live/work” can have a broad interpretation that’s really driven by what you both can personally be comfortable/happy with. There are people who are happy with 2-hour drives to their jobs and people who can’t be happy if they have to drive at all. You have to figure out what works for you both. Have a generous spirit towards each other, be honest with yourselves about what is likely to make you miserable, and you can find a navigable path. And if something you thought would be okay turns out to be awful for either one of you, then work together to find another situation– another place to live or another job.

    Oh, and: unless you have a very hands-on in-person sort of career, if worst comes to worst and your boyfriend’s only prospect is far from anything good for you, your employer may flex to meet your needs when the time comes. I have an M.D. friend whose husband’s employer kept him as a remote worker when they moved 800 miles for her residency. This is pre-pandemic, when work from home was less common. He was good at what he did, had a good track record with them, and they were willing to be flexible in order to keep him. I strongly suspect that with so many companies now getting experience with remote workers, if your job doesn’t require a lot of in-person stuff, you may find location to be less of a hurdle than it’s been in the past.

  4. Jessica Says:

    Thank you all for the great advice! All of the comments on job prospects after grad school are somewhat reassuring. Honestly, we’ve been talking about this and it seems quite likely that he will go into industry or work at a lab after graduation, rather than trying to get a professor position. He’s in STEM, and his job prospects should be good in industry. Not so much in academia, and I don’t think he would enjoy a TT job anyways. If he goes into industry we will have a much easier time finding a solution that we are both happy with.

    I should have been more clear that he was moving in order to start the program, so this is an issue I’m facing now. He started school in September. I’ve been working from home due to the pandemic, so I was able to move with him temporarily, but as work becomes safe in person again I will have some decisions to make. My employer will allow me to keep teleworking if I want, but I am very extroverted and we don’t even have video calls, so I don’t really want to stay telecommuting for too long, especially once my boyfriend is working from school rather than home. I need more human interaction than that. I am considering moving back to where I work, for a little while, but we agree that we don’t want to do long distance for more than a year at one time. So unless he can move, I will want to find a job here in the next year or so. Which is a challenge for me because I’ve never put a geographical limit on a job search before, and industry is fine here but nothing I’m hugely excited about.

    The further he gets into the program, the more we are also considering creative options during the program. He might be able to do research in a different city than his school is in, for example.

    • Jessica Says:

      Oh, also, one of my fears is that he will decide to quit the program after I finally bite the bullet and get a job where he is. I’m okay with this city, but don’t intend to live here if we don’t need to! So far, he seems like he will stick with it, though.

    • Steph Says:

      I’m glad to hear you’ve started talking about this with him! I know in my field (physics/astronomy) it’s very possible for people to spend a significant amount of time as a visiting grad student at another institution. However, we do not have major industry prospects and I don’t do lab work, so IDK how similar this will be. He should definitely see if he has any mentors willing to talk about these things, especially if he hasn’t picked his PhD advisor yet. It’s worth choosing which mentors to talk to carefully, because unsupportive mentors could view him negatively for wanting to support his relationship (I know! Why is academia so terrible?). But that’s definitely a possibility, especially if you’re still sorting things out post-pandemic – a supportive advisor with good collaborators might be able to help him find a workable remote situation.

  5. Lisa Says:

    Jessica – these are all perfectly valid concerns and are questions that none of us can answer for you, anymore than you can answer them yourself right now. You sound like a kindred spirit – I’m always wanting to see the end and divine the optimal path to get me there and wishing for guarantees that nothing would go amiss. Perhaps the best we can do is to reassure you that we’ve seen it all work out in many different ways and that sometimes, unexpected diversions can work out even better.

    I’ll give a couple of examples – my partner and I ended up taking turns moving to “follow” one another. We ended up living in lots of fun places, spent a year apart on opposite ends of the country, and are now back in our hometown (which is challenging but not unprecedented – I’m in academia and partner is in healthcare).

    Things worked out in different ways for several friends from grad school who were partnered before starting. One pair moved across the country for grad school with the partner “following”, but he decided not to finish grad school and they ended up moving back across the country so she could go to med school. Another pair met in an MBA program, moved together for jobs, and then the wife became the “trailing spouse” as they moved around the world to several different fun locations with his job. The wife has been able to keep up her career and raise their kids and has been happy with the moves. Another pair had a more traditional “trailing wife” situation – husband got into a top program for his PhD so she did a Masters there and then followed him to several different academic job locations because her field was much more flexible than his. Another pair was not married when they started grad schools in different fields in different areas. They married after he finished his law degree and he followed her to her grad school city and to an academic position. All of the above-mentioned couples are still together and happy in their current locations, which they selected jointly based on what was available to each of them. (I’m sorry that these are all examples of cis-gendered heteronormative couples who are married and now have kids. I don’t have a good example of a same gender couple who were together before grad school, although do know many who met in or after grad school and have negotiated the same decisions successfully…)

    I’m sure we all know partnerships that didn’t work out, too, which is not what anyone with a partner they love wants to hear about, but I could point to a bunch of examples where that worked out really well for the people involved, too. Bottom line – you can make it work out together. Take it one decision at a time and be creative with the options, as you mentioned. You can find your own unique solutions to the challenges inherent in the grad school – career – life journey.

    • Jessica Says:

      I love these examples, thank you! You’re right that being flexible and open to opportunities is the way to go. I certainly wouldn’t complain if I became a “trailing” spouse all over the world! He is also very open to working remotely in the future if he’s in a job (probably in industry) that allows it, so I can definitely picture a future in which he follows me.

  6. Jessica Says:

    In reply to mnitabach, I think it depends what you’re considering”compromis[ing] their own career ambitions.” I can get a high paying job, that I enjoy, that gives me good experience, that is located where he is now in grad school (this question was submitted last summer). Or I can stay in my current high paying job that I enjoy, and work remotely, and continue climbing the ladder at my current company. Neither of those would destroy my career. However, I am not currently in my ideal industry, and would like to switch into it if possible. I may not be able to do that if I’m also focusing my search in this area. Is my desire to try out a particular industry (that I’ve never worked in, and might not end up enjoying) enough reason to not follow my boyfriend to this city?
    I certainly would not give up my career based on his grad school location, but I can see how my desire for the ability to pursue ANY job I want could be unreasonable in the context of a long-term relationship.

  7. RH Says:

    Probably differs by field but in my area of science, the majority of PhD students have no desire to get a job in academics. Industry is 100% the goal. I always get confused when the assumption is PhD = professor job because that was never my experience.

    Anyway, during my PhD I saw partners/spouses do all sorts of things to make it work including living apart for years or short-term. I personally was lucky in that I met my husband while in grad school and he was working in that same city in a job that could fairly easily be found anywhere in the country. We never could have predicted the trajectory of our lives (we’ve done 2 big moves since then but not for what you’d expect) so it’s really not worth worrying about future decisions. Focus on the things in front of you right now. Invest in your career if that makes you happy.

    As another example- a friend from grad school moved to Europe for postdoc and eventually job. Wife’s company loved her and made her position fully remote so she continues working for them even today from Europe (they are US-based company).

  8. xykademiqz Says:

    I’d say pursue your careers (both of you) as hard as you can, until the very last moment before you actually have to make compromises because of the other person’s job or kids or whatever. The more established and valued you are professionally on your own, the more leverage you will have once the time comes to negotiate a new job, or changing location, going part-time, working remotely, what have you. Right now, you are a boyfriend and girlfriend, and hopefully you stay together as you’d like, but who know? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. but in any case there is no point taking your foot off the professional gas now for what is still a hypothetical future. Don’t slow down until you have to. Then again, I drive like a maniac, so maybe take my advice and my driving metaphors with a grain of salt. ;-)

    • First Gen American Says:

      I was going to write something very similar to this comment. The first 10 years of your career are critical. Mad skills and a good network will give you more quality of life options later on when you will need them most.

      I didn’t make compromises, I travelled a ton, changed job functions a bunch of times, lived apart from my spouse, and enjoyed seeing the world on the company expense account. Build your resume now for more job choices later. It’s almost like saving money. Early good job choices compound on themselves later because more doors are open to you when you have a strong resume and personal network. Some jobs may not be dream jobs but needed for the resume to get to that next step. If your relationship is strong, it will survive putting your career first for a while. (Neither of us compromised for a while, until we needed to)

      Kids, home ownership, debt, an elderly parent, health issues, discrimination are just a few examples of how your choices will become more complex and limited as you age. Yes it is possible to reinvent yourself in your 40s and 50s but it’s a LOT harder on many levels.

      I can’t stress enough how important it is to use your current freedom to its fullest. Right now all doors are open. Go through as many as you can to get the experience and learn what you love most. Live abroad, go work for a startup, take a job outside your comfort zone, start a side business. I am not saying do all of these but take some risks now so that in 20 years you’re not wondering “what if.” There are a lot of things I tried that weren’t for me, but I am glad for the knowledge I gained and know for sure to not go down that path again. There is value in that.

  9. SP Says:

    I read the comments, and your responses, and you’ve gotten good advice already! At this juncture, and possibly at future junctures, you should be thinking of this a making decisions as a dual career couple, not as a trailing spouse. Unless one spouse has a very portable career that you can do anywhere, it is common for career decisions between partners to be weighed, academia aside. Academia has some particular challenges, it is true.

    We’re a dual career couple, my husband is the academic and I have a career in an industry that is only active in certain areas. We were not married when he started his phd, and I moved to that city since it had good opportunities for me – probably better than the job I had at the time. We got married in grad school. I did not move for his 1 year postdoc because I was unwilling to move 2x in one year. He had a job offer at a 2nd university in the PhD two, but we did end up moving for his TT job. I even left my industr

    • SP Says:

      Hmm, I hit enter too soon. *industry. But I did not like the other job and now am back in my industry. My job is really awesome. I could have never predicted we’d end up here, but we made each decision as it came up. at the time, I did not want to move here, really, but i was willing to do it Now, I’m glad we did. That’s my story.

      The only specific advice is similar to what others have said. Just assume things will work out, and continue to pursue your career fully!

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