The two-body problem: postdoc edition

The three-body problem. Source:

My partner (soon to be wife!, Tayler) and I met while we were in the same PhD program. We are both interested in pursuing academic careers, and thus both wanted to do a postdoc. We managed to secure postdoc positions in the same city, and were able to move there together! Here are a handful of things we did that we think helped us pull this off.

Maximized our flexibility

We both figured out our range of possible start dates, and what we could do that would allow us to start earlier or later. I was in the position where I could probably quickly wrap things up if needed (though I would have had grad school papers to finish during the postdoc, which would be not-ideal), but I also had another year of funding on a grant, which would let me get more papers out before leaving. Tayler had a better idea (a range of a few months) of when she would definitely be wrapping up, but also had the opportunity to do a short postdoc with another faculty member at our grad school institution.

Considered locations of each other’s choosing

As it happens, we ended up in labs that were in both of our top-choices from the get-go. But it didn’t have to happen like that. First, we independently generated lists of the labs we’d be most excited to work with. We then compared lists, and in cases where one of us had a city listed that wasn’t on the other’s list, we looked into whether we had overlooked a lab in that city that would actually be a great fit. After that, we had enough overlap that we felt comfortable removing cities where there wasn’t a good option for the other person.

We put the other person first

Both Tayler and I entered this process with the attitude that we were willing to consider different research avenues than we would have if we were applying alone, if it meant preserving our relationship (which for us meant not only staying together, but also not doing long-distance). For instance, Tayler became interested in combining alcohol and pain research — it would have been a really cool niche that she might not have otherwise considered. We were also both prepared to restart the application process if we didn’t land positions in the same city. We knew that, no matter what, we were still going to be together, and thus the extra-stress that would have come with leaving the other person was removed. This made the whole process a lot more pleasant, and everyone who we interviewed with was very understanding that we would not be able to accept a position if our partner didn’t find one in the same city.

Applied early

The early bird gets the worm. Source: Angry Birds Movie

By ‘early’ I mean we applied as soon as we realized that Tayler was really and truly on track to graduate very soon. She put out feelers about a year out, and went on interviews around 6 months out. I applied at the same time, which as it turns out, was more than 1.5 years before my postdoc starts (this coming September). Applying this early was tough, as a lot of labs simply didn’t know if they would have funding or not. It ended up working out, as it gave me time to secure some funding.

How this went for us

V is for victory! Source: Pokemon TV show

We both found postdocs in Pittsburgh that we are very happy with. By the time Tayler defended her PhD, I was at a point in my work that I all I had to do were some analyses and then a whole lot of writing - so we moved to Pittsburgh together. Tayler started her new postdoc, and I finished writing my PhD remotely (my postdoc starts this Fall).

Final thoughts

It’s not uncommon for academics to be with other academics. Close proximity, similar opinions and experiences, and overlapping interests and priorities make it all but inevitable. There’s no single solution to the two-body problem, but there are conditions which make it dramatically easier to find one. Both Tayler and I recognize that we are very lucky to have mentors (both PhD and postdoc) who support us and enabled us to successfully make this transition. So if you are reading this and have grad students or postdocs, think about how you can support them in their life transitions. Remember, happy scientists are more efficient and produce better work! :)

[originally posted at]