Monday, March 22, 2010

Scientists marry other scientists as successful as themselves

Anybody else take the nature salary survey? I did. I said that I didn't make much money, had few financial resources, was not entirely satisfied with my benefits BUT that I had a high degree of job satisfaction, liked my colleagues and supervisor, had a very high degree of freedom and a great vacation package.

There's a question at the end asking how much the "two body problem" had a factor in my decision to where my current job is. It's great that they are thinking of that. Clearly this has become enough of an issue that it ranks right up there with health insurance, salary, etc. on this survey.

I recall a conversation I had in graduate school at a dinner table for a retreat. Sitting there was a very senior scientist in a different but very closely related department than mine. His hobby was/is to track and run stats on all of the trainees of the combined PhD programs he was associated with and nationally, and had been doing that for years.

I said to him jokingly, "so should I marry a plumber to be successful in science (probing his knowledge about the two body problem)?" He said something very simple: Scientists marry scientists as good / successful as themselves. Excellent scientists marry excellent scientists, and mediocre scientists marry mediocre scientists.

I was shocked at this fatalism.

This rang through my head when I dated a guy in my class for a short time. He would make a lot of promises but not keep them about showing up for dinner, going out, etc. He was extremely unreliable as a companion. Very often this had to do with him staying at work much later than he expected or going in at odd hours, but not always. I was working my butt off too, don't get the impression that I was an underachiever just trying to tempt him into goofing off all the time. His broken promises and rejections were completely unreasonable (can't we eat in the hospital caf together at least?). I broke up with him, knowing that I couldn't live with that for my whole life. Well that guy is now at [Top Three research university] in a tenure- track position. Let's call him Rock Star.

Now I have a guy (Hub) who is faithful and trustworthy, someone who makes me very happy. I think Hub is brilliant, and he's doing OK career-wise. He's trapped in the senior post-doc treadmill, but that isn't really because he's not talented. It's because he's pretty meek and is much more comfortable working semi-independently as opposed to fully independently. I have a job I love that my personality and affinities are clearly cut out for. I certainly wouldn't call us mediocre scientists, perhaps A-/B+ scientists. And strangely happy, happy, happy together.

I would likely have been divorced by now had I chosen to "follow" the Rock Star A+ scientist. I could be in some sort of instructor "trailing spouse" position or teaching at a community college in the same city as "Top Three". The choice between Hub and Rock Star scientist was very natural- and has lead to my happiness. Perhaps this senior scientist was right, and fate says that I couldn't have chosen for Rock Star even if I knew it would have been better for my own scientific career.


  1. I am very curious to learn everyone's experience and opinions on this. Sadly, mine is somewhat negative. My husband and I have been dealing with the two body problem for too long and this has shaken our marriage substantially. Is it just my case, or there are other examples too?

  2. I'm sorry to hear that things are rocky. We are fairly new at the two-body problem, but find it complicated by having small kid(s). I haven't yet heard from anyone else as to how it is affecting their marriage

  3. I've heard different things. All from excellent people marry excellent people and "not true". The main research I have seen so far though points that men tend to marry women with lesser degrees than themselves... and that women tend to marry men with higher degrees or "having a few years ahead of them" and from there things sprial (children, staying home, falling 'behind' on the career ladder, becoming the trailing etc..)

    It seems to be ok as long as there are no children involved. It's after that, things differ a lot.

    that said, I am not a two body problem and I have only seen somethings to myself. Personally, I haven't had good experiences with partner in the same field but like that he is in his field and I am in mine. Not really the same thing though?!

    Good luck with everything and it seems like the baby time will be a good time for you to write your papers/take care of your timea nd head. I hope that you will be in the same place as your spouse then though!?

  4. chall that is the dumbest thing ever! people who define themselves by a degree/piece of paper are insecure and ignorant!!!!! just like society looks down upon want to concoct a way to "level" people?!!! have several stadium seats down! if a woman wants to be a housewife..thats her great choice! she doesnt wanna throw her kids to some daycare!!! and if she has a supportive husband and also wants to do other things...thats cool! havng children affects nothing!

  5. “Excellent scientists marry excellent scientists, and mediocre scientists marry mediocre scientists.”
    -- Is there any evidence to suggest a causal link, as opposed to coincidence? I happen to know of many NAS/NAE members with a stay-at -home spouse.

    1. Anon Jan 2014, the post was intended to address a scenario of two working scientists. There has been a lot of ink spilled with regards to successful scientist who have stay at home spouses and potential career advantages thereof. This post was only a personal response to a comment made at dinner.