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Focus on Research: Dual Career Couples

By Judith Jenner

They make decisions jointly and both strive for successful careers - this is the challenging story of dual career couples. A new study has found that in almost half of all cases where offers of employment are turned down, poor career prospects for a partner are frequently cited as at least one of the reasons. As a result, increasing numbers of universities are setting up dual career offices to help the partners of top researchers find jobs.

Dual CareerSuparna Goswami and her husband Samarjit Chakraborty from Calcutta
Suparna Goswami and her husband Samarjit Chakraborty from Calcutta love their careers. Up until February they both lived in Singapore where he worked as an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore while she completed her PhD. Then Samarjit Chakraborty was offered a position the Technical University of Munich (TUM). For both of them it was clear that the new location would also have to offer career prospects for Suparna. "For this reason moving to a small town was out of the question", explains Suparna. Munich offers excellent career opportunities for both of them thanks to the first class university and the good network of companies. So in February, the pair, who are originally from Calcutta, India, moved to Munich. Figures estimate that some 30% of male scientists are romantically involved with a female colleague with this figure rising to 80% for female scientists.

The careers of both partners are an issue for discussion during the appointment process

During the appointment negotiations, the university offered Samarjit the services of its Munich Dual Career Office. The office has been managed by Kerstin Dübner-Gee since the start of 2008 and it seeks to "provide a highly personalised advisory service, particularly with regard to the competitive benefits of international recruitment". Dübner-Gee knows that "soft factors" such as providing support for partners in finding a job can help tip the scales in persuading a high calibre researcher to move to Munich. In the past five years the Munich Dual Career Office has provided 47 consultations, and 26 clients have found jobs. Support and guidance is still on-going for the others. So far in 2009 we have had 20 clients, five of whom have already found jobs.

"Start-up funding" for jobseekers is the exception to the rule

But the picture is not so rosy for all universities, particularly those in structurally weak regions. Dübner-Gee estimates that there are 25 technical universities which offer a dual career service. While the majority only offer this service to top-level researchers, at places like the University of Konstanz it is also offered to mid-level scientists. In exceptional cases "start-up money" can be given to couples while a partner is looking for a job. "The aim, however, is always to achieve long-term employment relationships", explains Julika Funk from the Dual Career Couples office at the University of Konstanz.

Subtlety is always required at universities where a position at the same university is to be created for partners, and, at the end of the day, expertise must always remain the key deciding factor.

The Dual Career Centre - Promoting Gender Equality

In the majority of cases Kerstin Dübner-Gee deals with the wives of top scientists, probably because she works at a technical university. Men accounted for just 14% of all consultations in the past year. Kerstin notes that men look for secure, long-term employment with the prospect of advancing their careers. She goes on to say that women, in contrast, easily adapt to situations once the decision has been made. She is convinced that the commitment to dual career couples will bring more female scientists to TUM.

Networks of Scientific Establishments and Companies

In their efforts to find suitable jobs for partners, universities are now working with companies and neighbouring universities. Braunschweig Technical University uses the South-East Lower Saxony Dual Career Network to provide links with potential employers. At the Technical University of Munich a number of partnerships are in place with the Max Planck Society, the Helmholtz Center in Munich, the German Aerospace Center in Munich, the Fraunhofer Association, Süd-Chemie AG, Infineon Technologies AG and Munich University. Kerstin Dübner-Gee used these contacts to help Suparna Goswami and forwarded her CV to various companies. Following a number of interviews at various companies, Suparna will probably work at TUM like her husband as she has been offered a postdoctoral position in the department for information management.

"In contrast to the typical misconception of Germans as being cold and distant, our reception here has been warm and very friendly", remarks Goswami. So far she has managed to develop informal private contacts. Leaving Singapore was not easy for her, not least because of its relative proximity to her native India.

Dual Career

  • Dual Career Centres support the partners of top scientists in finding jobs, often as part of a network with non-university research facilities and companies
  • Flexible, transferable research grants can help scientific couples to find employment at the same place
  • Dual career offers serve as a way of promoting gender equality because it is often women whose careers are disadvantaged as a result of moving

Mobile grants to help launch dual careers

Where accompanying partners also work in scientific disciplines, research grants can present job prospects that are mobile, provided a suitable facility can be found. The German Research Foundation (DFG) provides an independent research programme for postdoctoral researchers and another programme, the Heisenberg programme, which is for those who have qualified for professorships. The Humboldt Foundation supports the families of grant recipients although there is no specific dual career programme. A portion of the grant awarded to Alexander von Humboldt professors can, however, be used to create a position for an outstanding scientist's partner.

For Professor Chakraborty, his appointment as a full professor of real-time computer systems at the Technical University of Munich was a significant milestone in his career. Having gained his doctorate at ETH Zurich he has already gained experience of the European university system. "Research in the USA and in Singapore is more results-orientated than in Europe where there is much more academic freedom, for example, to pursue research where the results are open" he explains. So would he have come to Germany if his wife had chosen to stay in Singapore? "No" he says definitively. But he can imagine the day when he would follow his wife if she received an interesting job offer. And, if the services of a dual career centre were offered to him, he would gladly take advantage of them.

academics :: July 2009