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Navigating the two-body problem in academic science by Billy Armstrong


Dr. Billy Armstrong is currently Assistant Professor at Appalachian State University in the Department of Geological and Environmental Science. He received his PhD in Geological Sciences from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is broadly interested in investigating earth surface dynamics, including the behavior of glaciers and rivers, using satellite remote sensing, field study, and numerical modeling. Dr. Armstrong's recent work has focused on the process of sliding at the bottom of glaciers, its sensitivity to meltwater production, and how it changes over daily to multi-decadal time scales.


Follow Billy on Twitter @glacier_glasses



For me, the most challenging aspect of starting my career in academia was not an uncommon scenario: making this dream work for two people in a committed relationship with identical career aspirations. I am certainly not saying that it is easy to get a job in academia as one person, but it seemed almost foolish to hope to find two tenure track positions at the type of place we wanted to work: an undergraduate-focused institution in an interesting location. I now write having cleared our initial hurdles and secured permanent positions in a good department, where we enjoy our research, teaching, and post-work life. However, this path has not been certain or straight-forward, and I hope that by sharing my experience I can help others who are in similar circumstances.


Our first phase of navigating the two-body problem came while we were seeking postdoc positions. My partner accepted a postdoc offer that seemed like a great way to advance her career at a world-class cryospheric research center where it seemed plausible that my glaciology background could earn me employment. I applied for any postdoctoral positions there that vaguely related to my research and cold-called professors to see if they had any projects in need of help. Everyone was very supportive, kind, and helpful, but the general response was “I’d love to have you, but I just don’t have funding”. There was some hope that I could just move, and funding would follow, but that was too risky for my liking. When writing postdoctoral fellowship proposals failed to secure funding, I knew I had to get creative.


Unable to find local funding, I began applying for positions more broadly, first emailing the supervisor to ask if I could work remotely so my partner and I could spend most of the year together. Responses were sometimes positive, but, understandably, I was a less-desirable applicant when there were other well-qualified candidates who would be there in person, and I had limited success with this approach. In my early stages of this process, I really sought to be forward and open about my personal situation. After not getting traction, I began to apply for positions where I conveniently omitted any mention of potential remote work. I figured that if I could get my foot in the door, then maybe I could find more flexibility for remote work. Or maybe I’d just accept the fact that we would have to live apart during our postdoc years, as I know many others have done.


In the midst of this flurry of postdoc applications, we were thrown a curveball. My partner was offered a tenure track at the exact kind of institution we hoped to work at, and the department chair was able to secure a non-tenure track role for me. We accepted these positions and I became a “trailing spouse” – a term that I’m sure feels much more belittling than the administrators who coined it intended. Working in this role meant that I had a higher teaching load while simultaneously pushing to have high enough teaching evaluations and productive enough research to be a strong candidate for the tenure-track position that would surely open the following semester … or maybe the one after that. We applied for other jobs, sometimes even ones we didn’t want, just to try to gain some leverage to create a new tenure track position. Ultimately, a faculty member left the University, which created a vacant line and teaching responsibilities for which I was well qualified. After a national search, I was offered the position, and am now moving into my second semester as an Assistant Professor, after working three semesters in a non-tenure track role. Looking back, this transition happened quickly. At the time, however, looking forward into uncertainty, it was a nerve-racking process.


To synthesize some kind of morals from my experience, I would suggest others in a similar situation to: 1) cast a wide net from the start, and try not to worry about having to make hard decisions until you are actually in a position to make them; 2) keep advocating for yourself, and work like you already have the job that you want, and; 3) remain optimistic. I am very aware that a healthy dose of privilege and luck played into my successful navigation of this hurdle in my career. Further, having reached this point, I now know the challenge of trying to optimize productive research, engaging teaching, and a committed relationship. But at least we’ve made it to this stage where we can worry about those things. Our circumstance is certainly not unique, and I hope that faculty members, department chairs, and university administrators continue to push for spousal hire policies that recognize the importance of both partners’ needs and best utilize their skills.


Armstrong (lower right) and two undergraduates after installing an automated weather station in the Canadian Rockies.

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