Making Marriage Work: A Challenge For Scientist Couples

Geologists Priscilla and Edward Grew have been happily married for the past 14 years. Yet the success of their relationship can hardly be attributed to “togetherness.” Far from it. Priscilla, director of the Minnesota Geological Survey and a full professor of geology at the University of Minnesota, lives in Minneapolis. Edward, meanwhile, is a research associate professor at the University of Maine in Orono. And that’s where he lives—about 1,000 miles as the crow flies,

Sep 4, 1989
Julia King

Geologists Priscilla and Edward Grew have been happily married for the past 14 years. Yet the success of their relationship can hardly be attributed to “togetherness.” Far from it. Priscilla, director of the Minnesota Geological Survey and a full professor of geology at the University of Minnesota, lives in Minneapolis. Edward, meanwhile, is a research associate professor at the University of Maine in Orono. And that’s where he lives—about 1,000 miles as the crow flies, from his wife in Minneapolis.

In their 14 years of marriage, the Grews have lived together a total of about a year. Op average, they get together every other month or so. They exchange letters four or five times a week, and they also stay in touch by telephone.

Another successfully married scientist couple are biologists Elizabeth Grayhack and Eric Phizicky, both 37-year-old assistant professors at the University of Rochester. In a typical week, Grayhack and Phizicky—who have two young children—each spend 50 or more hours teaching and working on research, either at the university lab or at home. With their demanding work schedules, their time is horrifically tight; they haven’t been to a movie together in two years. Still, they consider themselves a lucky pair. At least they—unlike the Grews—have found a way to pursue their science careers in the same city. It wasn’t always like this for the two biologists, however. For the first year or so of their five-year marriage, Grayhack lived in northern California, where she did her postdoctoral work at the University of California, San Francisco, while Phizicky was carrying out postdoc research at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and living in southern California.

“We used to joke about it,” Grayhack recalls. “Everyone was living together before they were married. We couldn’t even live together after we were married.”

Grayhack, Phizicky, and the Grews are all scientists looking to balance the demands of successful careers while simultaneously maintaining a rewarding marriage and do mestic life. In doing so, they’re not much unlike most dual-career couples. As scientists, however, they face a set of unique career and domestic challenges, challenges that experts such as Paula Rayman, a Boston-based sociologist studying the work and family relations of science couples, attributes to the very ethos of “doing science” in this country today.

“The demands of keeping up a career in science are intensive,” says Rayman, who is research and public policy director for the Stone Center at Wellesley College. Her study, entitled “Professional Families: Falling Behind While Getting Ahead,” was delivered at the 1989 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The need to pick up and move where the research opportunities and jobs are is just one of these demands, Rayman adds. Others include the long hours and hard work required of a good scientist, a relative lack of job security, and the absence of any guaranteed sustained financial support for research.

Also, she notes, the urgency for original discovery across most scientific disciplines creates both intellectual pressure and a work environment that can encourage rivalry and one-upmanship rather than mutal nurturing. “To be at the center of discovery or to be at the top of the science profession is usually the result of a special single-mindedness about work,” says Rayman, who is also the coauthor of a study on “Women, Unemployment, and Mental Health,” published by the Stone Center in 1988.

One might think that a scientist, recognizing firsthand the peculiar hardships of his profession, would look anywhere but to a colleague as a potential life partner, and instead seek out someone whose career would bring fewer pressures to a relationship. However, the fact is that many scientists wouldn’t look for anyone but someone in the same line of work. In many ways, such scientists say, the success of their relationships is owed to the fact that their partners share the very same challenges.

At the same time, the limited research that has been done on dual-career science couples by Rayman and others clearly shows the potential adverse impact the demands of a science career can have on marital and family relationships. After in-depth interviews with 125 men and women scientists, Columbia University sociologists Harriet Zuckerman and Jonathan Cole noted the prevalence of the notion that—even among younger scientists—marriage and a scientific carrer are incompatible (“Marriage, Motherhood, and Research Perfor- mance in Science,” Scientific Amer- ican, vol. 256, Feb. 1987). Along with Rayman’s studies, research by Zuckerman and Cole also shows an ongoing gender gap in the occupational structure of the sciences. Says Zuckerman: “Our work shows two things. Women scientists whose research performance is more or less the same [as men scientists’] do less well than men in regard to their rank at universities and the prestige of the institutions with which they’re affiliated.”

While not altogether surprising, these findings are disturbing to organizations like the National Science Foundation, which supported Zuckerman and Cole’s research, and AAAS, which has earmarked the issue of scientists’ work and family lives as a topic for special study. It was also AAAS that commissioned Rayman’s pilot survey of 20 science couples. Additionally, the findings are also cause for concern for universities, industry, and research consortia, all of which rely on a well-trained and skilled scientific and technical work force.

“There’s an increased interest everywhere in the issue of work and family, and a lot of the thrust for it comes out of concern for the future of the scientific workforce,” says Rae Goodell, coordinator of parent programs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of a year-old committee on family and work that is reviewing policies and programs and their effect on university employees. The purpose of the committee is to develop workplace policies that accommodate family needs.

There’s evidence that industiy is also making moves to develop family-oriented policies for scientist employees. For example, a growing number of companies and nonprofit institutes have opened corporate day care centers or subsidize a portion of employees’ day care costs (The Scientist, Oct. 31, 1988, page 17).

For the most part, however, traditions, programs, and policies in the world of science are far from conducive to a trouble-free coexistence of career and family, says Rayman. The struggles between the pulls of work and the pulls of life ‘begin almost immediately during scientists’ training and continue as they advance through postdoctoral research and to permanent appointments in. academia and industry.

After earning Ph.D.’s, for example, most young scientists must decide on postdoctoral research appointments, and, more frequently than not, couples find that available slots are in two different places. For married scientists, this is one of the most difficult career junctures, according to a 31-year-old microbiologist, who says, “In science, you have to go where the jobs are.”

Of course, not all married couples choose to live separately for the sake of career advancement. Research shows that a wife will often follow her husband, and, in doing so, accept a less-than-satisfying position as a trade-off for staying together. In a recent study of women physicists in the United States (Fava, S., Deierlem, J., “Women Physicists in the U.S.: The Career Confluence of Marital Status,” CSWP Gazette, Aug. 1988), for example, researchers found that those women married to physicists were the most likely to be involuntarily employed, sometimes having unpaid positions at institutions while their husbands held paid jobs.

On the other hand, there are scientists like the Grews, who opt to live separately so that each can pursue what Priscilla Grew describes as “appropriate work.’’

“You have to give up things and make sacrifices,” she explains. “We decided we had to sacrifice being together. We also decided that if I gave up my job or he gave up his, we’d only have a lot of unhappiness. We’re both very work-oriented.”

For many married scientists, the long hours and intense commitment their careers demand play a central role in deciding whether to have children. Rayman’s study cites two couples with no children who were in different stages about deciding this issue. One couple had not reached an ‘agreement. While the husband maintained that “having children would make career more difficult, principally because of conflicts of time,” the wife reported that “I would like to have children, but my spouse does not feel ready for it.”

The second couple had already firmly decided against raising a fam ily for career reasons. “We decided we could not each have a career and raise children the way we think children should be raised,” said the husband. “The world has plenty of children, and we decided to commit ourselves [instead] to educating other people’s children.” “Both of us felt the demands were too high,” the wife added.

On the other hand, children do fit into the plans of George Stephens, the 46-year-old geology department chairman at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and his 34-year-old wife, Suzanne Nicholson, a geologist with the U.S. Geo logical Survey. The two met at Bryn Mawr College, where he was her professor. According to Stephens, he and Nicholson are in a better position to start a family than many other young science couples because of the flexibility his tenured university position offers.

“I think we might have more flexibility because of our age difference. Also, because I’m further along in my career, I have more flexibility than she does," he adds, noting that teaching allows him to tailor his schedule so that he could also meet the demands of raising a child.

A desire to have children make some science couples circumstances all the more difficult, because generally the traditional child-bearing and child-raising years—the twenties and thirties—coincide with the most rigorous part of a scientist’s career training. Because of the Herculean demands each of these life choices entails, MIT biologist. Nancy Hopkins asserts that the idea of simultaneously nurturing children and acareer is preposterous. Hopkins, now 46, was married to a nonscientist and decided to forgo having children for career reasons.

“For most people, it’s not possible in the early stages of a science career to have children,” Hopkins says. “It’s the most intense phase they go through. The notion that you can have it all is nonsense. It just isn’t realistic to have a career at a place like MIT plus have kids.” At the same time, she adds: “I do think it gets easier after a certain point. If you could push pregnancy into your early forties, you may have this thing. licked.”

Raising children and advancing a career is by no means easy, but it is possible, according to Grayhack, the mother of two. Scientists can’t, however, entirely remove themselves from their research to solely pursue parenthood, then expect to resume a successful career.

“Several of my friends in medicine or law have taken themselves out of the fast lane for a few years, had a child -and worked part-time, and then resumed their careers,” she says. “But that just isn’t possible in science. This is the hardest part—the struggle between family and job.

“On the other hand,” she adds, “we are surviving. Life is hectic, but it’s better to be pulled between two alternatives that you want.” Still, she agrees with Hopkins about the importance of timing when it comes to starting a family.

“We’ve had two children since we became professors. It’s certainly impaired my productivity,” Grayhack notes, “but having kids during our postdoctoral work would have been more difficult.”

Grayhack, like all of the scientists interviewed on the subject by The Scientist, maintains that being married to a fellow scientist offers a huge advantage in- dealing with the struggles between marriage and career.

“One of the good things for our relationship is that we understand each other better than most couples,” Grayhack says. “Research is an up-and-down field. You’re always looking for the surprise, and until you find the surprise you’re bored because you’re waiting. Nobody else but a fellow scientist could understand that.”

On the downside, she adds, “While it’s fun and intellectually stimulating to discuss scientific problems, we could discuss news, kids, and outside interests more than we do.”

For Nicholson, being married to a fellow geologist is particularly beneficial. “What makes geology unique is the amount of field work and travel it requires,” she says. “We both appreciate why we need to take assignments that require travel, and we appreciate what is needed to make our work satisfying.”

Looking back on her marriage, Hopkins, who is now divorced, says, “Being married to a fellow scientist would have helped enormously.”

All in all, Rayman says, her study clearly shows that married scientists rely a great deal on each other to cope with work and family experiences. At the same time, she notes, trying to “find time” is a common refrain of most scientists, especially those with children. “It does not seem possible for most respondents to have it all,” she says, adding, “Most seem to put enormous time and energy into work and feel lack of time left for family.”

Julia King is a freelance science writer based RidleyPark, Pa.