The Body Problem: Tales of the Trailing Spouse

Feb 01 2011 Published by under Dual Career Issues

My husband felt ready to move on from Nebraska a couple of years ago, but we both knew that moving our son during high school (just as he finally made the varsity baseball team) would not make us popular. As a PI "between grants," my position was not particularly favorable for recruitment; it could be a really difficult time to move, especially given the current NIH prospects.

Last spring a search firm called my spouse with a tempting position in Oklahoma City. He asked me if he should take a look at the position; I said yes because you should almost always look. Ready for promotion to full Professor, the hubster needed to know his value in the open market.

My next car?

You Never Know

I admit some trouble with the concept of moving to Oklahoma. My interactions with the state involved interstate highways and Big XII sports, with no serious consideration of the actual state:

Q:  Why doesn't Texas fall into the Gulf of Mexico?

A:  Because Oklahoma sucks!

So it was probably wise of the university to bring me along on the initial recruiting visit. Oklahoma City proved lovely, with lots of parks and lakes and trees. Once I figured out where it was in gardening geography, I decided that the city would be fine. As the trailing spouse, they still had to come up with a position for me.

For our first two faculty positions, I had been the primary recruit. An institution needed a pediatric nephrologist, and I negotiated the specific requirements for my position. I made it clear from the start that I came with an endocrinologist. There had to be a position in town for him. With the first move he found a private practice-with-teaching job. The second position provided his opportunity to jump back in to academic medicine.

Oklahoma wanted a Medical Director for their Diabetes Center; they were not actively seeking another Pediatric Nephrologist.

Time for Self-Assessment

The trailing spouse position felt foreign, but I finally looked at it as an opportunity for change. I began thinking about what I really liked doing at work. Frankly, my NIH interactions recently left me frustrated and bruised. A couple of years ago I began to sense that small labs with 1 or 2 R01s were facing difficult times, and nothing since had contradicted my impressions (for more on that see DrugMonkey and Mike).

In the meantime, I was editing a magazine. I started blogging. And I had a faculty development hobby. University of Nebraska Medical Center has a generous program to develop skills in teaching, leadership, writing, and other areas in which most faculty lack formal training. I was even doing some research in the area, all without salary support.

Maybe Oklahoma could use these skills.

So I packed up information about the courses I directed and handed the brochures out to everyone I saw. I toured the beautiful Oklahoma Children's Hospital, and I enjoyed a reunion with Marty Turman, the Director of Pediatric Nephrology. He and I survived fellowship together at the University of Minnesota. I would be the fourth person in the section! What a treat that would be!

A second visit followed a few months later. My husband's official position offer included all he wanted. I knew he had dreamed about this sort of job. Would I have to screw up his opportunity?

Finally, my call came. One-third of my time would be as Associate Dean for Faculty Development, and the remaining as a Professor of Pediatrics. I could live with this position.

Leaving Science?

Some colleagues have asked how I can leave science. I do not plan to leave science; all I am leaving behind is my "independent" laboratory. I still have skills that collaborators find useful, and all I need for morphometric studies is a microscope with a digital camera and my computer. I can still participate. I can still read. I can still critique.

What I leave behind are "pink sheets" from reviewers dissing my productivity.

Will there be days when I miss my lab? Absolutely. Will there be days when I miss the third reviewer?

I'll get back to you on that one.

10 responses so far

  • Glad its all coming together for you guys. Have you put the house on the market yet?

  • brooksphd says:

    What an excellent and brilliant post! You're an inspiration to all of us, seriously.

    I might also be in touch with some questions 🙂

  • KBHC says:

    This is great. You were so smart to think about what you valued and what you wanted to do in order to figure out your new position.

  • Zuska says:

    Thanks for laying out the thinking that went into assessing the move and the options for a new job. So many folks get stuck into thinking they have to keep doing exactly what they have been doing, or some near approximation of it. Reinventing yourself and your career is invigorating. Also, laying out your story like this gives one more example that it's not just a linear trip along a well-trodden path - people can craft all kinds of solutions for themselves for fabulous successful and satisfying careers. It sounds like the new job has just enough stuff of the old job to be familiar and satisfying, shedding some of the unpleasant stuff, while letting you incorporate some new stuff that will be really interesting.

    And I hope the garden blossoms, too!

    • WhizBANG! says:

      As soon as I figured out I would be far enough south for a real magnolia tree, well, I was OK with the location.
      I had already determined they had Target, DSW, and Sephora in town, so survival was possible.

  • gerty-z says:

    Wow-it sounds like you were able to find a perfect niche. Congrats, and good luck in your new job!

  • I've been to Oklahoma a few times to give workshops at Oklahoma City Community College and Tulsa Community College. It's really quite a lovely place.

    I wish you the best!

  • Meadow says:

    Congratulations. I'm in a different field but I fully understand what it means to reinvent yourself. I would write more about how I reinvented myself, but I'm not sure I want to lose the pseudonom being on the tenure-track and all. I've followed your blog over some years and I like the frank way you say things without pissing off too many people, yet getting your message across. Good luck.

  • Jenny says:

    Ooooh -- Associate Dean for Faculty Development sounds fun and perfect for you! Good luck with everything!!!

Leave a Reply