Dual Academic Couples and Long Distance Living

October 25, 2011
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In 2008, the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University published a report on dual academic couples, confirming what many of us in academia already know: there are a lot of professors married to other professors. In fact, 36 percent of the U.S. professoriate are academic couples, in which both partners are professors.

I’m in one of these couples. So are many of my friends and colleagues, as well as many of my wife’s friends and colleagues. What separates my wife and me from many of the dual academic couples we know, however, is that we’re not at the same institution. We’re not even in the same state.

My wife is a tenured professor (and now, department chair) at a prestigious small liberal arts college in North Carolina. I am an assistant professor (up for tenure this year) in a large state university in Virginia. It’s a seven hour drive between our campuses. As the crow flies—or, in my case, as US Airways flies—it’s an hour flight, accompanied on both ends by two extra hours of driving, parking, line-waiting, and so on. I typically squeeze in all my classes and meetings between Tuesday and Thursday, and the rest of the time I spend back at home with my wife and our two sons, ages four and seven.

This is what my work week looks like: on Monday I volunteer at my youngest son’s co-op preschool and spend the afternoon hanging out with him and my other son. On Tuesday I wake up at 5am, drive 30 miles to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, fly at dawn to Washington Dulles International Airport, get myself over to George Mason’s campus, where I teach, advise, write, grade, collaborate, eat, and occasionally sleep until Thursday at 7:45pm, when I fly back to Charlotte, making it home in the best of times by 10:30pm. In the worst of times—say, flight delays due to inclement weather—I might not get back until 2am or even until Friday morning. Then on Friday I attempt more work while the kids are at school, but it’s not unusual for this work to be derailed by all the life-management tasks I put off during the rest of the week—doctor appointments, paying bills, getting the car repaired, or, as happened last Friday, staying home with my feverish and vomiting older boy and taking care of him. Saturday and Sunday are a blur of spending time with my family, working around the house and yard, and catching up on all the reading, grading, and writing I’ve fallen behind on.

Then the following week I repeat the entire schedule. And the week after that. And so on.

The only aspect of this commute that makes it tolerable is that I love my job. I’m good at my job. I thrive at my job. And I’m surrounded by kind, generous colleagues at an institution that values my unconventional teaching and research. My wife likewise loves her job and is committed through and through to the project of undergraduate liberal arts education.

And yet.

It’s a grueling, brain-frying, wallet-emptying, time-wasting, body-breaking, soul-draining way to live.

It’s incredibly hard on myself, schizophrenically split between two commitments—work and family—that I both take seriously. It’s incredibly hard on my wife, who for three days a week is essentially a single working mother. And it’s incredibly hard on my children, who, I am relieved to say, don’t seem to hold it against me.

Commuting even creates difficulties for the institutions for whom we work. The Stanford report on dual academic couple notes:

Couples who do not find positions at the same or neighboring institution(s) often commute (or one may drop out of academia altogether). When professors face long  commutes, universities tend to lose in terms of faculty research, contact hours with students, committee work, and, most importantly, in terms of the kind of serendipitous intellectual exchange that happens when people run into each other informally. Faculty tend to lose in terms of time spent with family and with scholarly colleagues. (Schiebinger et al., p. 68; emphasis added)

Commuting is no way to work. It’s also no way to live. And yet I’m surprised by how many of us there are. Probably every professor knows at least one couple in a similar situation. And I hear many tales of other professors who once had difficult commutes but who are now in the same city or even better, at the same institution as their spouses or partners.

When I hear about these couples who have managed to end their commutes and continue building their careers, I experience a moment of hopefulness. I am truly happy for these couples, and their examples encourage me. But only for a moment. Lately, every story of academic commuting misery that has a happy ending only discourages me. I have a deep, gnawing sense of dread that if my commute were going to end, it would have done so already. My wife and I have been a dual academic couple since 2005. That’s a long time to be commuting. And of course we have both tried the obvious ways to end this commuting. To no avail. Despite doing everything right, we can’t help feeling we are doing something wrong. If we haven’t somehow managed to find ourselves in the same city let alone the same institution by now, then it must be we’re doing something wrong.

I can tell myself that I’m being irrational, that landing a job—any job—in academia is a lottery, as Jason Mittell put it in an earlier column on Antenna. But the problem with irrationality is that even the suggestion that one is being irrational can itself seem irrational in the face of the mounting evidence.

What do I do when I am buffeted by irrational thoughts, weary pessimism, and the general bleakness that goes along with years of commuting?

I think about the word commute.

I look past the historical origins of this word that describes how I keep my job, a word, it turns out, which is a shortened form of commutation ticket—in the 19th century, a ticket issued by a railway company for repeat travel over the same route during a period of time. (Incidentally, no airline I ever encountered has commutation tickets.) This etymology of commute, which highlights its sooty industrial age machine-like repetition, does me no good. It does my wife no good, nor my sons.

Instead, I think about the verb commute, which is not an abbreviated legacy of some 19th century suburbanite’s daily life, but a deeper, more powerful word. Commute: from the Latin commūtā-re, meaning to change altogether, to alter wholly. And that is my only hope, that one day, and one day soon, my commute will itself commute, changing altogether. Wholly altered.


Schiebinger, Londa, Andrea Davies Henderson, and Shannon K. Gilmartin. Dual-Career Academic Couples: What Universities Need to Know. Stanford University: Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, 2008. http://gender.stanford.edu/dual-career-academic-couples-what-universities-need-know.

I strongly encourage any administrators reading this column to take a look at the full report (PDF) of Dual-Career Academic Couples, which offers guidelines and best practices for hiring academic couples, as well as significant reasons why it makes logistical, pedagogical, and economical sense to do so.

[Crazy Sad Face Drawing by my son, Niko]


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4 Responses to “ Dual Academic Couples and Long Distance Living ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on October 25, 2011 at 9:40 AM

    Thanks so much for this, Mark. My wife and I lived in various long distance configurations (transatlantic, coast-to-coast, then Amtrak-able) for six years, so I know some of the pain you discuss (no kids, though, so only some, not all).

    To add to the gloomy side of things, I’d note that it really hurts one’s social life, since there’s usually a home-base, and whoever doesn’t live there has a tenuous relationship to wherever they are and to the people there, while it’s also easy to want to greedily horde time with one another — to the exclusion of others — when at the home-base.

    To add a bit of a silver lining, though, that experience helped us mature out of a mushy “I can’t live without you, snookums” dependency that grips too many couples. I also found it really easy to be academically productive when I had so many evenings and weekends without friends to hang out with (see above par.) or my wife to spend time with, and all the motivation I needed to use that time to publish my way closer to her. Mind you, that was without kids, and I’m sure kids change the dynamics of what’s possible, especially for whoever has the kids 24/7.

  2. Claire Warwick on October 26, 2011 at 2:46 AM

    I sympathise, I did the commuting thing for 6 years: it’s no fun. Also my employers were not flexible and wanted me at work Monday to Thursday or even Friday. Result I left as soon as I could for my current job where I ‘only’ have a 100 mile round trip every day (luckily we have very good trains here in the UK). There is no prospect of this improving as far as I can see: Cambridge (where husband works) does not do serious DH and I don’t expect it will and I’m now Dept Chair and Associate Dean at UCL, never mind director of UCLDH. So it would be very hard for me to leave for all sorts of reasons, not least that I love it. Needless to say husband is happy at Cambridge too – who wouldn’t be?. We don’t have kids, so it’s easier for us. In the end I could not figure out a way to do that without compromising jobs we both love. I tried leaving academia but hated it. I dont see much prospect of change: spousal hires are almost unknown in the UK, even for senior Full positions. We make our choices I suppose….

  3. Shahril Lazzim on October 26, 2011 at 6:35 AM

    Dear Mark,

    I strongly agree with you since I got friends who are in your similar situation, although some of them are apart form each other, most of them have the same reason as why they are married or coupled together. Intellectual quality is the main reason as far as I know of. The other is the profession “way of life” which they are comfortable living as a professor or lecturer. It the challenging to cope up with the day-to-day life sometimes hold them to be a social parents. But, once they have their time to be with others like gatherings or alumni, they are the ones which be interact more. The change of character can be noticed for sure.

    I am no professor nor lecturer, but I find that sometimes when meeting in a gathering with intellect people (like you guys), being a little bit dumb can make a conversation open and interesting thus inter-act closely without any educational/professional gap. I think.


  4. Cynthia Meyers on November 11, 2011 at 6:11 PM

    I’ve been a member of two dual-academic couples and have experienced most of the variations (trailing spouse, adjunct, tenure track). My current husband commutes 1,000 miles to his tenured job, Tuesday through Thursday, while I stay put for mine. We had both sworn we would never tolerate a commuting marriage, and yet, here we are.

    If I tell you that the only way we are able to tolerate it is because my husband is planning to take early retirement next year, that there is a specific “end date” to the commute, it will be of no comfort to you because you are up for tenure and therefore without an “end date.”

    My only advice is to ignore all advice and do what feels right for you and your family.