Monday, August 15, 2011

Nanopolitan Bleg: Two Body Problem

A friend writes:

Both my wife and I are currently late into our postdocs, and would both like to have independent positions (classic two body problem). ... How hard is it for two people to find [faculty / research positions] in the same city in India? Do institutes have policies against hiring spouses?

Within the two-body problem, my friend's case is still more special: his wife and he are also in the same STEM field (but in different sub-fields).

In large cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune, and Hyderabad, which boast multiple STEM institutions (universities and R&D labs), this problem is less acute. But, even in such a case, I can think of reasons (horribly long commute times for one partner, for example) that would make it necessary for both partners to be working in the same place.

I am sure there is no written policy against hiring spouses at any of our institutions. But, ...

  1. How receptive are our institutions to the idea of hiring spouses? What vibes do you get on this issue?

  2. Which is a better course of action for a couple to take: be upfront about the fact that both spouses are applying, or apply as individuals and hope that both will make it to the same place?

    [Of course, if the second option is chosen, how does one deal with personal questions -- we all know there are always personal questions, don't we?]

  3. Are there institutions (and specific departments within them) which are known to be couple-friendly -- going either by recent recruitment history or by (internal) discussions among their faculty / administration?

It'll be great if you can share your experiences / information / suggestions on these and other related questions. You can use the comments section below, or send me an e-mail (I'll post a summary of e-mail responses in the comments).

Many thanks in advance.

[Update: Post edited to (a) improve clarity and focus on constructive discussion, (b) add a link to NPNI's post.]


  1. Neelima said...

    As some one who has been at the receiving end of the two body problem, I would tell the couple the following:

    1) For your own professional development, and not for any other reasons, it is best not to work in the same department. Consider a long commute instead, it's not such a big deal. Or try two different departments in a big institute.

    2) It is best to be upfront.

    3) I think personal questions are ok if they have a relevance to your job. e.g. it is fair enough for the employers to assess whether a couple will consider one position, one trailing position, one position and one promise, one position and nothing else, etc. Employers have the right to ask if the couple will work independently of each other or not, specially if they are in the same field.

    4) Reasonableness on both sides should produce a working solution.

    Needless to say, other people may have other opinions.

  2. Hari said...

    I think if both are not able to get into same institute (which I feel one should prefer even compromising some professional aspects) then one can try a combination of IIT and non-IIT. Example, IIT Ropar and Thapar, IIT Hyd and BITS etc though in both the cases there is traveling problem.

  3. New prof in new India said...

    I am not exactly an expert on this issue, but from what I have perceived at my institute and by conversations with friends at others, it seems that many new IITs and IISERs are very couple friendly and will do their best to resolve a spousal hiring situation, whether the couple are in different departments or in the same department.

  4. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    I agree with Neelima that it is better to be nearby but not exactly in the same department, if possible; also that it is better to be upfront (if you are upfront and they don't like it, you probably don't want to work there anyway). It helps, of course, if there are actually institutes nearby that can each hire one person. We (IMSc) have been lucky to have IIT-M nearby, and many two-body problems have been solved, and this has benefited not only the couples but, I believe, both institutes. But if that is not possible, as NPNI says, the new institutes (and many of the old ones) are quite couple-friendly these days.

  5. Dheeraj Sanghi said...

    At IIT Kanpur, we have 12 couples where both husband and wife are in faculty. This is probably the largest percentage of couples amongst top institutes in India.

  6. Nappinnai NC said...

    A couple can be in the same department or different dept. or different institutes that are nearby or far apart. Let us not forget the Curies from same lab/field/institute(with Becquerel) sharing the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics and their daughter & son-in-law would later similarly share the Nobel Prize. The couple need to figure it out how, what and where they want to compromise.

    Long time back, when i was at IISc(aero), one young Faculty's(he was in Aero. and would look more like a student than faculty and we all used to hangout and he would even tell us his 'unpublished' ideas and we would tease him what he would do if we plagiarised his ideas. He would laugh and say 'i'm trusting you guys blindly!') wife couldn't join IISc(who was a PhD in BioChem) due to this stupid issue 'couple can not work at the same institute'. So, he left IISc for good! I don't know what is the scenario now at IISc wrt that issue. God of Physics once said, science should never go to bed with politics. it gets dirty and ugly!

    Anyways, the probability of the couple working in the same dept/field especially in Math/Physics/Chemistry and even some Engg fields like Aero/Mech/Materials/Electrical is very low compared to biological sciences. I have no idea about other areas like humanities.

    Wrt liberalism, i still consider India as a toddler. It needs to grow up a lot:-)

  7. Vishnu said...

    I know of institutes in India who have created departments to accomodate spouses (yes!), and (the same) institutes who have refused to even consider pushing departments for hiring spouses. Just stating a fact; I do not have an opinion on this matter.

  8. Rainbow Scientist said...

    As far as I know there is no official policy in India regarding hiring couples and they need to work on their own. I only know of one such case where both husband and wife work at IIT, but in different department. They both did PhD from the same institute so they were familiar with the institutes. Both went for a high profile post-doc fellowship abroad. First husband got the offer from IIT and wife joined a nearby university. Then she went abroad for another prestigious fellowship to make her case strong and finally got hired by the same IIT independently. I know another such case where wife went abroad to do a post-doc and applied from there to be hired indepentely. Don't know the outcome though.

    My suggestion for your freind is to send two separate applications first and once one of them is short listed, bring up the issue of the other since both works in the same field...but of course please take this advise with a grain of salt.

    In govt college where I have worked there was a offical policy to place couple in the same institute but hiring was always done independently.

  9. iitmsriram said...

    Nappinnai's story about 'couple can not work at the same institute' is just that - a story. The very same IISc featured in the story has a faculty couple who have been there for like 30 years. I remember a faculty couple at IITM during my student days (late 70's) - of course, they are retired now. And we do have a couple who have been with IITM EE department for almost 20 years now. This 'couple can not work at the same institute' is just a convenient excuse sometimes.

  10. Vijay said...

    1. I have heard that some institutions have formal policies against hiring couples (as distinct from couple being formed after they are hired). I find it very difficult to see how such an HR policy can be legal. If it is in place anywhere it should be challenged and overthrown. Some institutions have a policy now that they will not hire spouses in the same department: Again, not clear how this can be legal!. Many institutions, informally, have a policy of reluctance to hire couples. This too is incorrect and (in my opinion) illegal. Its one thing to have a view that its wiser for couples not to share a workplace or other similar views on relatives. It is quite another to implement this view as policy. We just should not be doing that.
    2. Yes: be upfront that you are applying and so is your partner.
 Have a session to discuss the two-body opportunity and keep the discussion to this session. Choose a faculty member you would like to discuss this with.

    3. Yes! The IISERs are fantastic! They have transformed the two-problem into a two-body opportunity.
    In this context, I feel that facilitating a happy home environment ( Housing, help with commute, creche, school-commute for kids, transport for personal use on payment, medical access etc.) allows an institute to make legitimate strong demands on academics at work. Here too, hats off to the IISERs! (I don’t know too much about the others)

  11. chitta said...

    Since a lot of places in India have multiple universities, colleges, etc. I think your friend probably is more interested in "quality" institutes (IIX types, Central Univs, Research institutes etc.) in terms of research.

    While a few years back only a few cities had multiple such institutes the options now have greatly increased; even a couple of places now have multiple IIX type institutes. Chandigarh area with IISER Mohali and IIT Ropar; Bhubaneswar with IIT Bhubaneswar and NISER Bhubaneswar; and Trivendrum with IISER and IIST come to mind.

    Now, within a metropolitan area, the distance/commute/proximity between these places would be of some concern.

    In this regard, the IIT and NISER Bhubaneswar permanent campuses are going to be 2-3 kms apart. In Pune, the IISER campus is carved out of the NCL campus. I think in Hyderabad, the proposed new TIFR campus is a part of the U of Hyderabad campus. Others may add more.

  12. Himanshu Shekhar said...

    Hi All,
    I would like to post this relevant blog here from Dr. Jonaki Sen at IITK which deals with the same issue.


  13. bela said...

    What is the meaning of STEM? Sorry if the question is naive and I am missing the obvious.

  14. Vijay said...

    I think its another way of saying everything but humanities and medcine
    Actually: Here's what the infallible Wikipedia says:
    "The acronym STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The STEM fields are those academic and professional disciplines that fall under the umbrella areas represented by the acronym. According to both the United States National Research Council and the National Science Foundation, the fields are collectively considered core technological underpinnings of an advanced society. In many forums (including political/governmental and academic) the strength of the STEM workforce is viewed as an indicator of a nation's ability to sustain itself."

  15. bela said...

    Ah Wikipedia!! *hits forehead with hand* I should have looked that up. Thanks Vijay! :)

  16. harkris said...

    Dear Abi. Thanks for posting your friend's question. I am in the same situation.

    Myself and my spouse, both are postdocs in US. We went around looking for jobs in India. I can tell one thing. It is tough. Anyways, our plan is to get one job first and then the other one will start applying. Of course, it has to be a big city. What if one person gets the job and we move and then the other have difficulty in getting a job? I read in this post about IISERs being good in dealing with this. Again, what are the odds of two people finding jobs in an IISER located in a small city. At least in two of the places that I interviewed, I was unofficially told that they do not want to have two independent faculty couple in the same institute. Somehow I feel something is wrong somewhere - why everyone does not see it as a two-body advantage? (like Vijay mentioned). I personally feel our research complement each other in many ways. I hope senior faculty and administrators take note of it and I appreciate any comments and suggestions. Thanks in advance.

  17. Giri@iisc said...

    iitmsriram is right. IISc has never had a policy against spousal hiring. We have faculty couples who have put in 30, 15, 7 and 0 (just offered) years of service. This indicates that such hiring happened 30 years back and continues to happen. In three of the above cases, both the faculty are from biology. IISc has also hired brothers in the same department last year.

    Again, iitmsriram is right in saying that "This 'couple can not work at the same institute' is just a convenient excuse sometimes." The chairman (HoDs) do not want to convey the bad news to the candidate and say other things. For example, I know of several cases in which the department did not want to hire the candidate for several technical reasons, the chairman calls up the candidate and tells him that the department is in favor but the institute is against the hiring because he is over 35 years old.

  18. WebMiner said...

    Giri's slip brings up an interesting issue: "We have faculty couples who have put in 30, 15, 7 and 0 (just offered) years of service. This indicates that such hiring happened 30 years back" --- fail, unless one of them was freeloading. Should be 15 years. At one IIX, housing allocation is strictly by years of service, and NO other criterion is allowed. However, in case of a multi-professor family they do not add up years of service. Of course, none of the family members gets HRA either. The secretary of the Faculty Forum (hush, no unions in IIX), a math prof to boot, failed to understand the justice in adding years of service OR giving HRA. Some affected parties wrote to Dean Planning. Silence. Escalated to Deputy Director. Silence. It is not enough for a couple to be "generously" granted permission to apply. (Imagine thick Austraailian slur here:) "Sirr uthakar jiyo" is pretty darn difficult amid such jokers. No wonder many IIX profs get the hint and start working half time!

  19. WebMiner said...

    "department is in favor but the institute is against the hiring because he is over 35 years old" --- That's age discrimination. IISc will do well to learn a principle of stark honesty, or it may well get sued one of these days.

  20. Kautilya Wannabe said...


    1. Could both husband and wife get separate apartments? That would give a huge middle finger to the administration in a place that cannot even accommodate all faculty members on campus (by a large margin).

    2. I heard that there's an unwritten policy at the IIX's which prevents hiring people above 35 as Assistant Professors. Perhaps the more enlightened ones can shed more light on this. (Sorry for the topic hijack.) If there's no such policy, my department could benefit from this. Thanks.

  21. Abi said...

    Thank you all for the comments. It has been a huge learning experience, allowing me to update my own knowledge of this issue from two years ago.

    Now, much as I appreciate a wider cross-section of views, can we get the focus of this thread back to the two-body problem, please? Thanks.

  22. Ajit R. Jadhav said...

    Yes. The two-body problem. At IIX, and even at COEP, I have faced half of it. (Now, that's called keeping the focus---no? (Sorry, Abi! Just couldn't resist it!!))


  23. WebMiner said...

    @KW -- Separate apartments? There will literally be blood in the streets unless a divorce affidavit is pasted on the doors. Perhaps even then. As regards age discrimination, the IIX rulebook is a breathtaking example of 16th century culture: "wives of faculty members cannot accept gifts" (great loophole for two-career hetero families), "offer may be withdrawn in case of physical infirmity" (even as any civilized university cowers in shame if all lecture rooms are not ramp accessible). Let me just get back to "what did you expect? this is India".

  24. Mostly Rational said...

    Here is my experience. I am a few years older than my spouse and so I applied first. This was some years ago when new IIX's had barely started. I didn't apply there. Institutions in metros were obviously preferred because they afforded more options. I got an offer in metro 1 (M1) and joined the institution X1 thinking it would be a lot easier for my spouse to find a suitable job in M1. My post-doc spouse started applying in various places in M1 after a year of postdocking. Meanwhile I was told frankly by my dept. that it would not be a good idea for my spouse to apply there.(We work in different fields but in interdisciplinary areas so both of us would have fit in well in my interdisciplinary dept.) My spouse was applying to conventional depts as well as interdisciplinary depts. After a year of trying without results in M1, we decided my spouse should apply elsewhere as well, without revealing the 2-body problem. She would also keep trying in lesser known (LK) institutions in M1. I would apply elsewhere after my spouse had a concrete offer and reveal the 2-body problem during the time of application.

    After a year, my spouse got offers from an old IIX in M2, a new IIX in M3 and from another LK in M1. We felt that OIIX in M2 or even NIIX in M3 would be a much better option for my spouse and so I wrote to these places revealing the 2-body problem and asking if I would be considered. OIIX in M2 did not respond. NIIX in M3 was more encouraging and asked me to apply. Both of us also applied to another new IIX (NIIX2) in different depts. Their response was very encouraging and some months later both of us were offered positions in NIIX2 which we accepted.

    Some thoughts on the experience.

    1. It is obvious as Vijay says that formal policies against hiring couples in the same dept. would be illegal. However, informal policies exist and therefore the outcome is the same.

    2. The advise that it is better for couples not to be in the same dept. may be a judicious one, but it says a lot about the maturity (or lack thereof) of Indian academia.

    3. New institutions are more receptive to this problem problem than older institutions, but it often depends on the head of the institution.

    4. I am still not sure if it is better to reveal the 2-body problem at the time of application. In some but not all places, my spouse was specifically asked in interviews if this was the case. The decision to reveal it (or not) at the time of application has to be considered on a case-by-case basis. In the end, I feel it is probably better to reveal it if the couple is applying at the same time.

    5. This is a tough problem with no easy solutions, especially given the attitudes that still exist among a large section of Indian academia. We were lucky because I know lots of people who have had to make sacrifices on the personal/career front.

  25. Giri@iisc said...

    Webminer: I do not understand what you mean. I meant that a husband and wife joined IISc in 1970 and have completed 30 years of service each. I am not adding up the service of each member.


  26. Neelima said...

    Wow! This really provoked a discussion. There is an important fact I would like to place on record. While there were cases where couples were hired as long as 30 years ago, they were fairly isolated, and often due to the specific circumstances of the case. While there was no rule against hiring couples, there was often serious prejudice. Even people who were not parties to the prejudice were reluctant to be the first to break the (unwritten) rule. This log-jam was broken by Prof. H.S. Mani who hired a very distinguished couple in Harishchandra research Institute. Many institutions followed suit. So thanks, Prof. Mani, on behalf of all those who have faced the two-body problem.

  27. Vijay said...

    Hi Neelima
    With all admiration for H. S. Mani and for his success, hiring of couples have taken place for a while, including in this case at the institute where the couple you refer to were from. Their move was a serious loss and showed up institutional myopia. In a similar vein as Giri@IISC, institutions and departments have often cited nonexistent policies for turning down applicants: “We don’t hire couples”, “you have to be really good if you are over 35” (as if you are allowed to be just okay if you are younger), “We are not hiring in your area” etc. Intellectual laziness and an inability to take responsibility for your decisions (and passing the buck upwards to the ‘system’) is widespread. However, a real prejudice against hiring couples is present, runs deep, and is still there. Quite often, this prejudice it is well-meaning but nevertheless misplaced. So, the logjam has not broken by any means, except to agree with Mostly Rational that the newer places exhibit greater sense and flexibility (BTW, couples sometimes prefer to work in different locations and may not always have the flexibility to do so). In terms, of strategy, I agree that each case and context is special. However, it is our institutional attitude (which means each of our roles as faculty members, department chairs and so on) that needs we to change. When a couple applies, and each person is above the bar we set, we should jump at the opportunity and try to get both to join. If one of the couple works in a domain outside our remit, we should work hard to see if we can direct them to other opportunities in the city or create new ones within our own environment. In a battle to attract the best and keep them, as distinct from choosing the best from those who happen to swing by and will join despite all odds, every bit counts: It is institutional self-interest to view the two-body problem as not.

  28. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    Vijay - When a couple applies, and each person is above the bar we set, we should jump at the opportunity and try to get both to join.

    I have no direct knowledge, but from the large number of such cases I see at the IISERs(*), it seems that they do in fact do that. Which makes sense since they are trying to recruit high-quality faculty and would not be interested in turning down good recruits on bogus grounds. The older institutions are changing too, but more slowly. Leadership at the top is important. But maybe if there are enough new institutes and they persist in their new ways, the old places won't matter anymore...

    To you and other senior scientists reading this: if you got a faculty application from someone (especially a woman, but perhaps a man too), and you already knew that this person's spouse had received an attractive job offer in your city and your applicant was trying to solve a two-body problem, would that influence your view of the application positively / negatively / not at all?

    (*) clarification: in many of these cases, they are in different departments, though the same institute

  29. Vijay said...

    Hi Rahul
    In response your comment: Yes, the new places, hopefully will shake up the old, or else the old may well become irrelevant. The rise of the new, especially the IISER’s ( I am sort of familiar with) is stunning.
    About your question to me: As an institution we would take every application seriously. A spouse already with a position in town will certainly not tempt us to take the applicant for granted and make a sub-optimal offer or have an impact negatively in any way. While, similarly, I do not see the likelihood of a gratuitous positive response in hiring, I think we will and do try hard to be helpful in any such situation as we hope other institutions will be. This, at the least, is to enhance the academic ambience in our environment. In other words, even if we do not offer a position ( faculty, facility management, other opportunities in science, admin) to the applicant, we will usually work to try to see if we can offer an environment where the person can reorganize and hit the job-market again. Sometimes, especially when people have a substantial gap in their employment or want to change directions, this helps. In short, while institutionally keeping correctness and a self-imposed bar or hiring decision-making, it is possible, though it requires time and effort, to interact at the community level on these issues both personally and as institutions. Hope this helps!

  30. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    Vijay - thanks for the response! Gratuitous positive responses should, of course, be avoided as much as gratuitous negative responses. But, as human beings, it is difficult to remain completely impartial. For example, faced with two comparably good candidates, one of whom would solve a personal two-body problem by joining, maybe it is tempting to take that candidate -- (a) to help out, and (b) because that candidate is more likely to take up your offer. Should we avoid temptation to make hiring decisions on such grounds, or encourage it as long as the candidate is definitely "good enough"? (Many institutions, of course, may be able to take both candidates. But many may not, or may not want to.) Just thinking aloud here -- I'd be interested in opinions from Neelima, Abi himself, and others. I'm sure these are issues that arise all over the world...

  31. Nappinnai NC said...

    Prof Giri says 'Chairman of the Dept/Director of the Institute don't want to give bad news to the candidate and say other things instead of giving the technical reasons as an honest reason for not hiring'. This is a general rule. It doesn't apply to those coming from top 10 schools in the world that have produced many Nobel Laureates! How many Nobel Laureates IISc has produced so far?

    In the example I quoted, the couple come from top school that has produced greatest of the great minds. So, chairman/director giving technical reason as the reason for not hiring the candidate or couple can't work at the same place is highly ridiculous and unprofessional. Anyways IISc lost a cool, friendly, wonderful academician and i'm sure his wife was very good in her field. When a couple(from top school)apply, the institute should consider it as a blessing and hire them at any cost.

    There has to be general & special cases. It all depends on the audacity & leadership of the Director/Chairman when to apply this and not to lose a great candidate. Politics is everywhere incl. institutes like Princeton. In the academic circle, David Bohm's(whose book on QM is considered as the Bible) story is tragic. He had to leave US because of Oppie's mindless act by passing some wrong information about Bohm to FBI. Bohm wrote a letter to Einstein offering an alternative version to the crazy Copenhagen Interpretation. Einstein was very much impressed reading Bohm's letter and wanted to bring him to the Institute for Advanced Study. Einstein had only one option: either freedom of speech to talk whatever he wants without Princeton meddling with it or administrative powers to bring whoever he wants to the Institute but not both. Einstein chose the first option. Einstein used to send postcards to his friends with address Einstein @ Concentration camp,Princeton !!! Every institute needs a Pauli(the Consciousness)to criticize itself and others honestly without any bias/prejudice. I am never ever tired of quoting Godel whose main aim was to find logical flaws/loopholes in any system, be it US Constitution or Mathematics.

  32. Neelima said...

    This is in response to Rahul's question, and of course this is my personal response. If the candidate is above the bar and has a spouse who has an offer in the same city, I think institutions would
    do well to help out. It helps everyone, and most of all the institutes,
    as we know.