Thursday, July 11, 2013

Ask Cloud: Handling the Two-Body Problem

I have been way too slow writing up my answer to my latest Ask Cloud query. But better late than never! Here it is:

A grad student (I forgot to check if she wants to be anonymous, so I'll err on the side of anonymity) writes:

"As a dual-career tech-oriented couple, particularly one with one member not originating in the US, did you and Mr. Snarky ever run into the dreaded "two-body problem", and if so, how did you deal with it? Was there a point before you settled in your current location when you were both looking for jobs in different places and faced a potential geographical conflict? Did you ever have to give preference to one person's career choices?

I'm an American Ph.D. student in the UK, and I'll be finishing up in about a year and half (hopefully). My boyfriend, who is French and also finishing his Ph.D., and I are both interested in moving (back in my case) to the U.S. after we're done, and we're both potentially looking for biotech-y jobs. Leaving aside for now the issues of job specifics and the possibility of marriage, I'm starting to get nervous about how we go about our job hunt. Do we both look for jobs all over the country and hope that we get offers in the same places? Do we narrow our search from the outset? Should one person look first (in this case he'll be finishing his degree before I do) and then the other just follow along? I guess there is no one right answer, but I would love to hear any thoughts you have or anything you've learned from experience."

I have to admit: I have had an unusually easy run of things with respect to the two-body problem. Mr. Snarky is a software engineer, which is a fairly portable career. And he was happy to move to the city in which I landed after we got together. Therefore, I don't have much advice to offer on negotiating the basic two-body problem, beyond the general observation that if you both want to do something biotech-related, you are probably best served to focus your search on biotech hubs, such as San Francisco, San Diego, and Boston. Basically, you want to look for a place that has a lot of potential employers, so that you maximize your chances to have both of you land jobs you like- over and over, because if you are going into biotech, chances are you will each be laid off from time to time.

Now obviously, if you both land great jobs in Outer Podunk, that is great. I would just recommend doing your financial planning under the assumption that you may either both need to relocate if one of you gets laid off, or the laid off partner may need to accept a long period of unemployment looking in a place without a lot of biotech jobs. And if both jobs are at the same company, definitely plan for the possibility of both being laid off on the same day. I know people who have had this happen. In some cases, it worked out great- there were no kids or other financial complications, and they took the severance checks and went traveling. In other cases, it was a seriously stressful situation.

Mr. Snarky and I did at one point consider relocating- given his particular citizenship situation, we could easily work in the US, New Zealand, or the EU. I think Australia would be fairly easy, too. We were both unhappy at work, and considered moving to London, something he's always wanted to do. We ended up rejecting it as not having enough viable options for me. And then we went on our four month "big trip" and came back and had kids... and now we consider ourselves very much settled in San Diego.

Maybe some of my readers have more to say about the general two-body problem- if so, please do so in the comments.

But I do have some advice on the other aspect of Grad Student's question- the part about handling a two body American job search when one partner is not an American. First of all, I am not an immigration lawyer. I do not even play one on TV. I think it would be a great idea to find an immigration lawyer to talk to about this situation, because the immigration situation in the US is nowhere near as easy as you may remember from earlier times (like the 90s). Everything that follows is based partially on the experiences Mr. Snarky and I had (now at least 8 years out of date) and partially on conjecture based on what I'm seeing in terms of employers sponsoring visas right now.

Basically, getting an H1 visa has gotten really, really hard. The number available has shrunk, and from what I hear, the big tech firms pretty much slurp all of the quota up as soon as the window for applications open. Most of the people I've watch get sponsored for visas recently have ended up coming in on the visa that is used for rock stars- basically, your employer argues that you are so uniquely qualified for the position that only you can do it. Or something like that. I've seen people do it, but it has taken a fairly long period of time and required a lot of letters of recommendation. To be frank, few companies are going to undertake this effort for a candidate unless a hiring manager makes a really strong case- and hiring managers know this and will probably not consider a resume from someone who requires sponsorship unless there is some sort of personal connection or that person really is a scientific rock star.

In other words, to get someone to sponsor you, your best bet is to have networked to them and have them really want you. But that is hard to do remotely.

So, I'd recommend that the non-American partner seriously consider academic options as a stepping stone into the US (assuming that you guys don't want to get married, which would solve the work visa problem very quickly).

I think the J visas that most postdocs and even some academic staff positions use are still relatively easy to acquire for people from countries not caught up in the "war on terror" and accompanying issues. Also, back when Mr. Snarky converted from a J visa to an H1 visa, he did so via an academic institution, and at that time, there was a separate pool of H1 visas for academics.

So one possible strategy would be for the American grad student to conduct an industry job search in a city/region with both a lot of industry and at least a few academic options. Luckily, all of the biotech centers also have academic options- which isn't surprising since a lot of biotechs spin out of academia. Once she lands a job, the non-American boyfriend initiates a postdoc and/or academic staff job search in the same area. Or, since the boyfriend is finishing first, he could do the postdoc search but limit himself to biotech centers. Or perhaps you do these two steps together, with the idea that if one of you gets a job offer, the other will focus in that region. The boyfriend then works in academia for a few years, networking with industry types. Eventually, he will probably find a position that is such a good fit that the company is willing to sponsor him for a work visa. Or perhaps the couple decides that they want to get married, and marriage provides the work visa.

I also have to add: even an American trying to get her first industry position from a remote location may find it challenging- so I'd recommend she being open to doing a shortish postdoc, too. At my company, we have recently hired a couple of people who did really good academic postdocs that made them particularly strong candidates- so even though I usually say that there is nothing that prepares you for an industry job as well as an industry job, there are exceptions. And with the job market as tight as it is, I'm seeing more and more resumes with slightly circuitous routes into industry. You have to eat, after all, and hiring managers know that. The old rules about the transition from academia to industry are fraying. I've even seen people who had industry positions, got laid off, went back and did another postdoc, and then transitioned back to another industry position- which used to be considered an extremely unlikely career path.

I'm not sure if this was helpful, or what Grad Student was looking for. Please, everyone, add your advice and/or additional questions in the comments.


  1. Yeah, I recommend getting married if you want to live in the US long term, and you are committed to each other. Being a resident alien in the US can be really hard, even if you get a green card, there are restrictions on it (how long you can leave the country once you get it) plus it has be renewed. My partner and I weren't sure we "believed" in marriage, but between the health care situation and our fears about being at the mercy of the Dept of Homeland Security, we opted to get him citizenship and then we never had to worry again. (That means we can always go someplace outside of the US to live for a period of time and have the option of coming back without it being a huge nightmare.) It's gross (that this is the case) but getting married makes life in the US so much easier.

  2. Anonymous5:10 AM

    Even getting married doesn't make it easy-- my BIL and SIL had a huge hassle over the course of years to get him living in the states full time, and he's Canadian. Still, it's easier, just not automatic like they show in the movies.

  3. Yep, getting married means a sure and expedited green card and later citizenship for him (in 3 vs 5 years sans marriage post green card). Otherwise, getting a green card is a bitch; you can go as an outstanding researchers (a lot of my former students do that, but it's lengthy and you would have to pay someone, and it still leaves the question of what status to get in the meantime). So yeah, marriage to a US citizen would make things much, much easier.

    As for the two-body problem, the lack of a green card would be an issue for employment of boyfriend anyway, and small companies won't necessarily sponsor a green card or even H-1B I hear these days.

    Honestly, for jobs in the US I would advise the reader to seek first and count on the new husband to perhaps even be sans a job for a while until the paperwork gets worked out. Keeping an affiliation with old lab to get the papers out or be some sort of honorary fellow is pretty important in this in-between period.

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  5. General advice: talk about the options with your boyfriend and decide on a plan of action before the job search starts. That way, neither of you will be foundering around, wondering which jobs to apply for.

    Good luck!

  6. OH yes definitely talk to a lawyer. That's really going to be your biggest constraint. My hubby and I married right before the immigration laws changed. We were so lucky. We literally got married and he got a work visa the same day. Six months later? Fiances were shipped back to their home countries to wait for visas which took up to a year.

    (PS: And we've been married almost 20 years!)

    Now, if your boyfriend is handy and willing to work under the radar as a handyman while here on some kind of tourist visa, he'll be rolling in cash until you guys can sort out the immigration situation. Some folks don't mind this kind of work, others feel it's beneath them (although the money is great once you build up a clientele).


  7. Oh I should add my hubby was an illegal alien (visa overstay) and no one even blinked. It used to be a cakewalk.

    Now it's like trying to break into a bank vault housed in Antarctica using only a toothpick while wearing a swimsuit.


  8. I don't have any comments on biotech or academic jobs or US immigration - but I have been living a two-body/two country problem for a long, long time now (since 1999!)

    I met my now husband when he had just finished his undergraduate degree and I was about half-way through my engineering degree in Perth, Australia. He was just about to start medical school in Auckland, New Zealand. Our situation is greatly simplified by the visa situation between Australia/New Zealand - in that we both automatically get a working visa in each other's country without special applications (although there were restrictions on where he could work as a NZ doctor in Australia). So, after 3 years of being 'friends' I took the plunge and moved to NZ when I finished my degree (he still had another two years of med school and intern year to go). Plan A was the relationship worked out and I managed to get an engineering job before running out of money. Plan B was the relationship worked out and I got *some* kind of job and wouldn't have to borrow money from my parents. Plan C was the relationship didn't work out, so I changed my return ticket date and took up the PhD scholarship I'd been offered... Luckily, Plan A worked out (with $20 to spare in my bank account) - but the other plans were viable. When we moved back to Perth, he got a job first and then I networked into a job. Now we're back in NZ, because he got a job (on a one year contract) to move to. Again, I had a Plan A (find relevant job), Plan B (do some study), Plan C (enjoy some time as SAHM). Plan A worked out without too much effort but we don't have certainty for employment next year - so in Plan D, as I haven't had to resign my job in Perth, our fall-back for next year is moving back to Perth and I work full time again.

    So - my tip is basically, have lots of different plans and options worked out and save as much money as you can to help move and buffer any periods of unemployment. Also - think about your (possible) next move but try not to obsess about it - we want to bounce back and forth between Australia and New Zealand because we like both countries and we like being around our respective families. So we structure our finances to manage that. And also, we try to avoid accumulating too much stuff because it gets expensive to move and is a PITA to unpack. (Although, we managed to get my work to pay for our move from NZ to Australia and his work to pay for the move from Australia to NZ so it's not been that bad)

    My caution is that, it can be really tough to be the trailing partner. I have struggled at times with the feeling that the moves we make are all about his medical career and my engineering career has been derailed by moving and maternity leave and part-time work. This is exacerbated by the *oh but he's a DOCTOR and therefore SPECIAL* shite from our respective families. I'm not sure I have tips for dealing with that successfully. Probably just try to communicate honestly about what you both want from the relationship and the move and career.


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