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?