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Relationships in an academic career - the 'when' question

  1. Feb 11, 2010 #1

    I am currently a Bachelor student in Physics, and I am planning to pursue an academic career. If everything works out as planned, I am going to obtain my Bachelor degree in the summer and my Master degree 2 years later.

    Sometimes, when I look ahead with this plan in mind, I wonder whether and how I could have a relationship. Although I would definitely consider myself a workoholic, I could never imagine myself living my life without a lovely and loving woman by my side. But as far as I understand what an academic career is composed of, my future should look something like this:

    - 2 hectical and difficult years of Master studies
    - Afterwards, 3 years of doctorate studies, most probably in a dfferent city or country
    - Afterwards, I'll be a post-doc somewhere, and will probably have to move a couple of times according
    - If I shall do well, this wandering life will continue for some time, always (in the first place) led by my developing research interests

    This makes me wonder when I will be able to have a relationship? I certainly am not now (examns, then Bachelor thesis and more examns). But if, say, in my Master studies I'll meet a nice girl, most probably our ways will separate after the Master. And if, as a doctorate student, I'll meet someone nice, then probably our ways will separate after the doctorate. Seriously, distances can be huge (say, one goes to USA, the other one stays in Europe, which is certainly not a far-fetched scenario).

    Honestly, all of this makes me a little scared. Turning down a good offer for staying close to a girl? That's romantic, but certainly risky.

    What do you think of this?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 11, 2010 #2


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    When? Right now. Anything else is just making excuses.
  4. Feb 11, 2010 #3


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    You've just discovered the famous two-body problem...And a bit earlier than most people.

    (Although the term "two-body problem" is usually only used when both people in a relationship are scientists, but that is on the other hand quite common)
  5. Feb 11, 2010 #4
    And I thought I had learnt how to solve it in the first term or so...

    Seriously, what do you mean? Why have I discovered it early? Fellows doing social studies just head from relationship to relationship while I am beginning to theorize about it, why is that early?
  6. Feb 11, 2010 #5


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    The "two-body problem" is the semi-official name for this problem. It usually refers to the fact that scientists are -more of less by definition- much more mobile than most people, it is not at all uncommon of people to have worked in 2-3 different countries before getting a permanent position.
    This means that you have to move a lot (and move long distances) which in turn makes it difficult to be in a long-term relationship. The problem gets worse when both people in the relationship are scientists since they will then BOTH have to find work in the same area, a very tricky problem if both want to work at a university. This is the two-body problem.

    But most people don't discover this problem until they are doing their PhDs or maybe during the first post-doc, probably because this the age where people start thinking about settling down and having kids etc.
  7. Feb 11, 2010 #6


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    I think you're putting up an obstacle for yourself that doesn't have to be there.

    Sure, dedication to work and instability in geographical location can be issues in a relationship. But they aren't reasons for avoiding one in the first place.

    These issues aren't unique to scientists. I have some friends in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who have to move on a regular basis. I have other friends who work in IT and rarely stay with the same job for more than a few years. I know entrepreneurs who have to put just as much time into their business to keep it afloat as an academic does to keep research moving forward. They all have successful relationships. I also know post-docs in successful relationships.

    What you choose to do is a part of who you are and ultimately anyone who enters into a relationship with you will have to accept that - just as you will have to accept everything about who she or he is. And for the record, some people actually get excited about moving to new cities and exploring the world, so this isn't always a bad thing.
  8. Feb 11, 2010 #7
    I like your excuse.
  9. Feb 11, 2010 #8


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    I agree. I became engaged during my senior year of my undergraduate degree. I got married right after graduation and attended grad school with my wife.

    If one isn't involved in a relationship, then there's nothing to worry about. Meet some nice girls and keep it friendly/platonic to start. Then see where that leads. While dating, one can discuss one's plans and see where that leads.
  10. Feb 11, 2010 #9
    I think it is very common. Happens to almost everyone I believe.

    So far what I have encountered relationship takes the priority.
  11. Feb 11, 2010 #10


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    Don't worry about it. They're still social studies students. They still get the short end of the stick.

    Just remember, while you're disovering new things, or at least getting a research grant once in a great while, those guys are still going to be wasting their lives having sex with beautiful women.
  12. Feb 11, 2010 #11


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    It might be a common problem, but what is the common solution? Move together to a different country, resulting in a miserable partner, skip the career, or try to maintain a long-distance relationship (which will be doomed to fail)? Someone will need to give in.

    Working abroad is a requirement for getting future grants. It's not even accepted to stay in the same building, even though you would love the research that is being performed there. It's also not accepted to move abroad and return back to do similar work, because you need to show independence. It appears to be a catch-22 situation, I haven't figured it out yet :smile:
  13. Feb 11, 2010 #12


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    In the research group I belong to there are three women. One is married to another member of our group (offices are about 10m apart), one is married to a guy who works in our department (office about 50m away). The third is also married to scientist, but he works at another university.

    It was the same story when I did my PhD. My thesis advisor (the only female senior researcher in the group) was married to one of the other professors in same group. One of the biggest groups at the same university is still being led by two professors, they are of course married to each other.... A few years ago the professor of the experimental atomic physics groups there got married to the head of the atomic physics theory group, when she was offered a better job in another country the university that recruited her created a position for him as well so that they could both move.

    Ending up married to a colleague seems to be an occupational hazard....

    Anyway, in at least some of these cases the solution to the two-body problem was simply that the university simply created an additional position. This is actually quite common but of course it can only happen if BOTH the people involved are already well-established.

    To some extent it is obviously easier if there is only one scientist in a relationship, although one advantage with being a scientist is that it is quite easy to find a job abroad and you don't even have to speak the local language; it might not be as easy for the other person even if he/she is willing to move. I used to work with a Russian guy who mass married to a psychiatrist and she was never able to find a job because her qualifications were not transferable (and she did not speak the language very well), so eventually they gave up and moved back to Russia.
  14. Feb 11, 2010 #13
    A grad student in my lab only saw his wife on weekends for a couple of years, and they're still married. (It happens to be an arranged marriage, if that makes any difference.) I also have friends doing a long distance relationship, but they hope to be in the same city for their phd.

    I know a few professors married to professors at different schools, but yeah. A CS grad student I know is married to a masters student in the same program and I also know grad students dating other students in their program. I guess selection bias and common interests also play into it.

    Basically, I think this is one of those problems that's dealt with as it comes up, not planned for in ahead.
    Last edited: Feb 11, 2010
  15. Feb 11, 2010 #14


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    Excellent advice.
  16. Feb 11, 2010 #15
    It's actually what my friend told me when she and her boyfriend (another friend of mine) were applying for grad schools and I asked her how they were gonna deal. She said they'd figure it out if it happened. They ended up in different states, but close enough that they can visit each other semi-often.
  17. Feb 12, 2010 #16

    thanks for all those replies! I shall heed your advice that it's not worth worrying about this now but only when the of a "two-body problem" comes up. Nevertheless, it was definitely worth for me discussing this issue.

    Additionally, I must say that I am surprised that even found their partners as grad students and some even married! When I look around in my University (where I am also going to stay for the Master degree) I must say that we have very few female students, and even though some of them are quite interesting (in many points), I have no promising realtionship to either of them. There are definitely female students whose apparent lack of interest in me really hurts because they are very interesting persons (not only because of their Physics skills) and I would adore to know more about them, but I had no really personal conversations with them. Whenever they ask me about something personal, they don't really seem to be interested in what I say (or they don't even ask), which I cannot understand because even apart from Physics, I do some uncommon and interesting stuff (at least that's how I think of it - it's cnot collecting stamps I am talking about). But I once had a relationship (years ago) which basically failed because she was not a serious student and claimed too much time from me for the relationship and was not insightful when I had no time. We broke up and she later changed to another subject. This experience which I recently thought about again actually inspired this thread.
  18. Feb 12, 2010 #17


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    The best time, I think, is whenever you happen to stumble across the right person in your life who makes these questions an issue. If you meet someone and it develops into a serious relationship, and you truly love each other, you'll figure out a way to make it work. There are all types of solutions, from getting lucky about finding jobs you both want in the same area, to one of you finding a job you love and one finding a job you are okay with in the same area, or one of you not really caring as much about where you work as the other, all the way to living separately for a while doing jobs you're both enjoying until the right opportunity comes along to live together again.

    So, I say just go ahead and keep meeting people as you would if none of this was a concern, and if one of those turns into a solid relationship, figure out the right answer for the two of you at that time. There is no single or right solution to the problem, there are many, and it all depends on the couple.
  19. Feb 12, 2010 #18


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    This is the right answer - as long as you've decided your career is more important than any relationship that might develop. And pushing the problem into some indefinite future is basically making the decision that your career is going to take priority, since you're pushing it off to a point where you've already committed yourself.

    I would think it's something that one would at least think about when deciding on a career, though. Better to consciously make that decision than to just drift into that decision.
  20. Feb 13, 2010 #19
    All the planning in the world doesn't factor in that life throws some curveballs. I have a friend who dropped out of her PhD program when she got married (even though she stayed in town after she got married), and I know two non-academics who got married and lived in different states for almost a year 'cause she didn't want to make her kid switch schools for 8th grade. She moved to his state in the summer, but she'd never planned on moving out of town. Another friend (undergrad) has a girlfriend in a different country 'cause he met her while visiting family, and neither them can put their education on hold. I guess my point is that stuff happens, regardless of what you plan for 'cause life is unpredictable that way.

    You're also implying that you can't be a phD student and have a relationship, which is just weird. A friends sister is getting a PhD, is married to a post-doc, and has 5 kids. Far as I know, they'd never really planned anything 'cause he was a grad-student and she was an undergrad when they got married.

    As much as I do hear where your coming from, it's ridiculous to put your life on hold 'til you get a phD, post-doc, whatever. Nobody recommends that college students shouldn't date just 'cause they may end up wanting jobs in different states, but that also happens (as different fields are strong in different regions.)
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