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Dual careers: breakfast together only at the weekends

Interview with Angelika & Stephan Nußberger

A successful "dual career couple" in conversation.

Dual careers: breakfast together only at the weekends© Forschung & LehreAngelika and Stephan Nußberger have managed what many still dream of: a successful dual career in academia
Forschung & Lehre: A glance at both your CVs makes one thing clear: you are a successful "dual career couple". Was this only possible because you were both prepared to live apart for longer periods of time?

Stephan Nußberger: I think so. After our doctoral period together in Heidelberg, I had the opportunity to accept an interesting post-doctorate position at Harvard Medical School. If my wife, who had just begun working at the Max-Planck-Institute in Munich, had not been prepared to let me move to the USA, my entry into the world of academia would undoubtedly have been very different. Luckily my wife ultimately also found a position as a visiting researcher and was able to follow me over there shortly afterwards with our two children. Since my wife's appointment at the University of Cologne and then Strasbourg, we have had to accept permanent spatial separation.

Angelika Nußberger: And this for around ten years now - and an end to the separation is not in sight before the ends of our careers!

F&L: How does a relationship work in which one of you lives - and works - in Strasbourg and the other in Stuttgart? Is there a shared centre to your lives?

Angelika Nußberger: It's difficult that we are both involved in entirely different lives during the week. We rapidly reconnect again at the weekends though, particularly when we have something to plan and do together. But always being on the go remains tough. There's no denying that packing our bags again on Sunday afternoon certainly isn't fun.

Dual careers

When the career paths of an academic couple lead to different locations, a great many challenges must be overcome together - particularly when children are involved. Is a fulfilling life and career possible in a dual career family over long distances?
Stephan Nußberger: This lifestyle wasn't planned - rather, it was simply unavoidable. We accept that due to our professional careers, that we consider to be our "callings", breakfast together is only possible in Cologne at the weekends. Cologne has remained the centre of our lives - it is also where our children grew up.

F&L: In what aspects is a willingness to compromise necessary?

Stephan Nußberger: A willingness to compromise is definitely essential. My wife's work is so demanding that I have to give her sufficient time for it; she reads constantly. I find the spatial separation easier to cope with. Finding time for shared activities is far more difficult.

Angelika Nußberger: Yes, the problem is that I also have to work on weekends. It's particularly unfortunate when I have to perform additional professional duties in the precious little "free" time I have, meaning that I also cannot come to Cologne on weekends.

F&L: Phases in which a life together were possible have alternated with phases in different locations. How does this work with children, particularly when they are still young?

Angelika Nußberger: We were fortunate enough that our children were healthy and happy. I worked part-time for the first ten years after completing my studies, and enjoyed being able to spend a lot of time with the children. I only worked half days and tried to always be at home by noon. During this time, the family also wasn't living apart. However, there were difficult phases, such as the second law state exam, the final phase of the habilitation postdoctoral qualification, and the career start at the University of Cologne when I had to commute between Cologne and Munich for a year. At such times, preparing for a child's birthday seemed a virtually insurmountable task. Looking back, I think that it all worked out very well. But there were also moments in which I questioned whether a career in academia and a family could be combined. Hence I also took a break from my work at the Max-Planck-Institute for one year and worked for a Munich-based company. But that simply didn't suit me.

Stephan Nußberger: Within the family, the focus was always on the children. To be able to care for our children, we were fortunate enough to be able to work flexible hours and to have a tightly woven social network, which allowed us to overcome unforeseen circumstances. We are particularly thankful to our au pairs, who enriched our home. They were fully integrated into the family, and were able to participate in all celebrations, cycle rides or moves to a new home. We remain in contact with them to this very day.

F&L: When you both decided on careers in academia, there was not yet such a thing as "dual career support". Did other support exist?

Stephan Nußberger: Yes, there was support - not from the German universities though, but rather from international organisations such as the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, my doctoral position, and Harvard University during our time abroad. The EMBL offered us a place for our son in their day-care centre, which we did not wish to accept though, because as an articled clerk, my wife generally worked from home. In the USA, the Harvard Neighbours organisation took wonderful care of us. Before I had even moved to the States, my wife received a letter offering support should we bring children with us.

Angelika Nußberger: Unlike today, combining family and work was almost exclusively seen as the woman's "problem" back in the 1990s. If in doubt, I - not my husband - was asked how I intended to combine the two. I find that it was less the institutional and more the personal support that was helpful - for me personally, particularly from my habilitation supervisor, Max-Planck-Institute director Professor von Maydell. In general, I have always felt the pressure to have to prove that I am "good" as a woman with children though.

F&L: Were you met with understanding for your dual career issues in application and appointment interviews?

Stephan Nußberger: I did not raise this issue in my first application and appointment interviews.

Angelika Nußberger: During my appointment negotiations in Cologne in 2002, it still seemed to be a sensitive subject that no one officially wanted to discuss. In contrast, the dual career concept formed a focus of my career negotiations in 2009 after I was offered a director position at the Max-Planck-Institute in Munich. The times and sensibilities have clearly changed; it has become an aspect of university policy.

F&L: Looking back, would you say that you have paid a heavy price for your careers in academia?

Stephan Nußberger: When I'm honest, I do sometimes think of the saying "I wish I had an ordinary wife and an ordinary life". But in spite of everything, I am convinced that an "ordinary life" would be nothing for either of us.

Angelika Nußberger: Yes, the price is high, but not too high. I thoroughly enjoy it when the four of us - and meanwhile six of us with our sons' girlfriends - meet up, and each of us has something exciting to report from our lives. It is wonderful to be on the way to and with one another. Neither of us wants to do without the interplay between cultures - biophysics and law, university and court, fundamental research and human rights issues.

About the interviewees
Angelika Nußberger is Director of the Institute of Eastern European Law, and Chair of Constitutional Law, International Law and Comparative Law at the University of Cologne. She is currently on leave while working as a judge at the European Court of Human Rights.

Stephan Nußberger is a Professor for Biophysics at the University of Stuttgart.

The Nußbergers have two grown-up children.

From Forschung & Lehre :: May 2012