My question in about the general situation in the US universities related to the two body problem.

My impression from what I have heard is that most of American universities are located in small university towns where there are very few other job places. So for spouses of university employees there are not many options to find a job.

My question is whether my understanding is correct. Is it typical that spouses cannot find jobs?

At the moment I cannot ask a more specific question about concrete place. By it is important for me to know what is going on in general.

ADDED. My spouse works in chemistry. But in industry rather than academia.

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    This is a really broad question. Does the spouse work as a writer? A major league ball player? A librarian? A bond trader? An IT specialist? The difficulties, benefits and possible solutions vary tremendously. Can you narrow this down a bit? Commented Oct 17, 2020 at 20:19
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    Your understanding is not correct, mainly because the US is a country of 330 million people. Any attempt to capture what life is like in “most universities”, “most cities”, whether it is “typical that spouses cannot find jobs” etc by generalizing from a few anecdotes on some Internet forum is going to be extremely misleading and do more harm than good. Now, if you were to focus on a specific university and/or include additional details about the yourself and your spouse, there’s a chance you might be able to learn something helpful.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Oct 17, 2020 at 20:30
  • So don't apply to small liberal arts colleges in small towns. There are hundreds of larger institutions in large towns, or institutions in large towns with many other institutions around. Many many many options.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Oct 17, 2020 at 21:19
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    I had to read a lot of the content here before I understood this question because I'm used to "the two body problem" being a problem of orbital mechanics and have never heard of this other use. Commented Oct 18, 2020 at 5:39
  • I am not sure this is limited to America: there are many universities in Europe and Asia, too, which are located in small towns or far from the city centers. On the other hand, junior university salaries are modest in most countries, so you often cannot really afford to live in big cities. The two body problem, as I see, is much more about the scarceness and rigidness of academic job market: if a couple both works at academia, there is a little chance that two jobs comes out in the neighborhood that would fit the career phase, the level of institute, research topic etc the same time.
    – Greg
    Commented Oct 18, 2020 at 7:14

2 Answers 2


Your perception of the situation seems to me fairly accurate, but there are some critical details:

Yes, in a small college town, if your partner is not an academic (ok, there's a significant separate issue of "spousal hires"... addressed in a moment...), and does not want to be involved with pizza, there are limited opportunities. Obviously. And your department, and the university, cannot really do much to change this.

Happily, in recent years, the "issue" of academics being partnered with academics (unlike the "simpler" days of yore when wives just followed their academic husbands ... wherever...), is being much better acknowledged and addressed, at least intermittently, by some universities. It is my perception that there is still a tendency to stigmatize "spousal hires", but, also, given the realities (!?), this attitude is less and less acceptable.

Yes, I do think any sort of equity for partners (among many other equity issues) will involve major changes in pretensions... The pandemic has jarred things loose in some ways, which may be good, but it has also diminished resources, which tends to make people pull back and be stingy ... I don't know what will happen.

But it does not quite make sense to plan our lives on the most cynical premises, since then the optimum might be just to exit as soon as possible. In contrast, I think some gambles, even though definitely not "sure things", are worth making.

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    I faux-cynically remark that the down-vote is from someone who thinks I'm too negative? Too positive? Um, ... :) Commented Oct 17, 2020 at 20:44
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    Perhaps the downvote is due to "ingenerous" and "Im contrast"?? Commented Oct 17, 2020 at 21:18
  • @DaveLRenfro, heh, yes, there is such a demographic... :) Repaired... :) Commented Oct 17, 2020 at 21:28
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    @paulgarrett, I think SE answers should be neither "negative" nor "positive"; they should be factual and backed with sources. It is true that Academia.SE does not really strive to maintain this standard; it would be a much better forum if it did.
    – Kostya_I
    Commented Oct 18, 2020 at 8:19

I'm not sure this is really an answer, but a bit of perspective. While it is true that "most colleges (at least) in the US are in small towns" that is because there are a lot of small colleges; more than six thousand degree granting institutions overall. And even some of the universities in small towns are very large with large departments and likely some non-academic positions open. So the situation isn't as dire as it might seem.

Also, many large urban centers from coast to coast have a lot of colleges and universities within a 10-20 mile radius. New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and on and on. "Small" is relative also. Champaign-Urbana is "small" by NYC standards but big enough for most purposes.

If a couple are in the same (sub) field it is harder, of course. But some places also recognize the issue and will accommodate a couple if one of them is especially desired. This can result in its own problems, of course, if one person gains tenure and the other not.

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    Champaign-Urbana is "small" by NYC standards but big enough for most purposes — Well... that really depends on your purposes. UIUC has a robust dual-career hiring program, which is great if your spouse is another academic, but they're mostly helpless otherwise. The university is the largest employer within 50 miles by a significant margin. (I live in Urbana; my wife also works at the university.)
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 17, 2020 at 19:46
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    I've heard from two separate professors they had to leave UIUC because there was nothing for their partner (+ homophobia). Obviously anecdotes aren't data; but when your partner is highly specialized too, anything smaller than the biggest cities gets challenging too. Maybe with more remote work it will be easier for partners. Commented Oct 17, 2020 at 21:54

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