Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The 'two body problem' - and how we dealt with it

Countless articles have been written about the famous "two body problem". Here's my perspective and how I encountered this in the Indian context.

For those who are not familiar with this phrase, a two body problem is the situation when the two spouses are well qualified and due to the specialised nature of their jobs find it difficult to get suitable employment at the same geographic location. I personally hate this phrase due to the negative connotation and would rather like to call it a "dual career situation".

In most American and European universities, one is not supposed to talk about one's spouse at the time of job interviews. Either both of you apply independently and luckily get jobs at the same time; or one of the spouses lands a job and then persuades for employment of the other in the post-offer negotiations. In many cases, one of the spouses has to make-do with a relatively inferior job just in order to be at the same physical location. This phenomena has been discussed ad-infinitum and many times associated with the issues of gender inequality (link, another link).

like most cases, situation in India is quite different - in this particular instance, pleasantly so. During PhD and postdoc and while dreaming of becoming a professor and returning to India, this problem of dual career was the single most scary thought my spouse and I used to have. We had spent some years in different countries for the sake of career and had taken a firm resolve to accept permanent positions only when we get good and acceptable positions in the same institute. There aren't very many articles available online that discuss this problem in Indian context, barring small mentions here and there.

After conversations with some people - old professors in my undergraduate institution, friends who are currently in IITs and generally lurking in the comment section of Prof. Madras' blog - we came to the conclusion that the best way to tackle this problem in India is head-on. People are quite straightforward and most people (specially those in the newer IITs) are open to hiring of couples. Even during casual conversations people can easily ask your marital status and then offer free advice on how to make applications. During the casual visits to the IITs in the pre-application phase, we decided to go on the same days and give talk in our respective departments parallely (I was told it is a positive thing that we're not in the same field). It was also useful in gauging the mood of people and their attitude towards couples.

It turned out to be a good idea as we clearly rejected one IIT on the basis of the prejudice of faculty there. The attitude at N1 was very positive and one of our heads of department discussed our joint-case with the director who also gave a positive feedback. We applied at N1 soon after returning back from India around the same time. It so happened that the selection committees for our departments were scheduled only a few weeks apart from each other and we received our offers around the same time.

My observations during this whole process are:

  • Most places in India encourage couples to apply as long as they're not of the same field. They usually cite the fear of partiality during department meetings and possible unethical credits in case of research collaborations if they're in the same department. I don't know how true this fear actually is.
  • There is no concept of a joint application. The applications process, the selection committee etc. are all conducted independently for each candidate. (There may be some inherent bias in the director's mind if he/she wants to hire both candidates - but it is never apparent)
  • People can and will ask personal questions - this is fairly common in Indian culture. In most cases they're not trying to intrude but trying to understand your situation and thinking of solutions to ease your hiring process.
  • If one spouse is a superstar and the other one is sub-standard for IITs, most IITs will make only one offer to the deserving spouse. I was shown many evidences towards this.
  • During all these interactions, I did meet some "Science politicians" whose sole aim is to use a newbie's situation to further their own motive. Learn how to spot them and stay away.

Hopefully this experience is helpful to some other couples out there.

[N1 is an IIT I talked about in this post.]


  1. Congratulations to both of you on receiving job offers and solving the two body problem at a place of your choice. I agree with all your observations, except that IISER Kolkata (at least in its initial days:not sure about the policy now) and IISER Pune do encourage applications from couples in the same field if both are a good fit for the field concerned. Mathematics at IISER Pune, for example, has two couples: both the partners of whom are very strong and have brought in new research directions to our group. When I was at IISER K, another couple were considered (again, both were strong applications and in very similar fields), although they eventually joined another place. The fact that their research interests had an overlap was not considered to be problematic at all and they were judged on their individual merits. I feel that views about this issue depend on the suitability and expertise of the hiring committee or the people making the final decision: if they are scientists with expertise or at least a good understanding of the research work of the applicants, extraneous issues (like the fear of partiality etc) do not arise. The problem begins when the hiring committee consists of "science politicians" who cannot judge the scientific potential of the applicants and at the same time, are unwilling to delegate the judgment to those who can.

    1. Thanks Kaneenika. Also, it is good to know that there is no such bias in the two IISERs you have worked at.
      My observations are based on (and therefore their scope is limited by) the limited interactions I had as an outsider. You're right that it largely depends on the viewpoints of the decision making personnel.

      Overall, I'm happy that Indian academia is relatively much better than west when it comes to this particular issue.