Interview with a Dual Career Couple in research

The structural biologists Dr Silke Wiesner and Dr Remco Sprangers joined the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Developmental Biology in Tübingen in 2008. As Max Planck Research Group Leaders, they are aiming to elucidate protein functions using NMR spectroscopy. Silke’s main research interests lie in the interactions between cell polarity proteins and in the ubiquitination of proteins. Remco’s work focuses on the connection between protein movement and protein function in large protein complexes. In 2009, Silke and Remco were each awarded a Marie Curie International Re-Integration grant by the European Union.
The term “Dual Career Couples” has been coined for couples where both partners pursue an independent career. In this interview, the two scientists talk about what is important to them for developing their careers and how they succeeded in obtaining group leader positions at the same institute.

Both of you are Max Planck Research Group leaders at the MPI for Developmental Biology in Tübingen. Could you please briefly explain how you managed to find two attractive positions in the same location?

I applied for a centrally announced position as a Max Planck Research Group leader. In addition to the MPI in Tübingen, there were two other institutes that might have had access to the NMR equipment that I need for my research and that would have been an alternative. Since NMR magnets are very expensive, there are only a few institutes in Germany where we can do our research.

Silke: In the next round of selection, I also applied for such a group leader position.  It is already difficult to find ONE position, so finding two scientifically suitable positions is a real challenge. After working for five years in Canada as post docs, we wanted to come back to Germany. When we started looking for jobs here, luckily we still had our positions in Toronto for an unlimited period of time. This gave us the freedom to look for appropriate jobs without the pressure of time.

Remco: If our applications at the Max Planck Society had not been successful, we would have kept on looking for other positions. Staying in North America would have been another option. Universities and research institutions over there are more prepared to support Dual Career Couples, making it easier to find jobs for both partners. 

While looking for jobs as group leaders, how important was it that your partner could find an adequate position at the same institute or at least in the same city?

It was a prerequisite to find two positions in the same city or region.

Silke: Two things were important for us. On the one hand we wanted to work in the same city, but on the other hand we also wanted to find two scientifically equivalent positions. Even though it is difficult to find two positions, the scientific record of both partners must be good enough to be awarded positions in the Max Planck Society

Have you ever addressed the issue of your partner also looking for employment during a job interview? If yes, in which way and at what stage of the recruitment process? 

At first I thought about bringing the topic up already in the cover letter for the application, but in the end I decided against it. But I did mention it during the interview. I felt that I had to address the issue, since I could only accept a job offer under the condition that Silke found a position in the same location. 

How did the interviewers react when you brought up this subject?

The overall reaction was rather positive or neutral. My impression was that the interviewers understood the situation and accepted this as a prerequisite. It definitely did not prove to be a disadvantage.

And what happened during your application, Silke?

During the interview, I was directly asked about my family situation. I had the impression that the interviewers were aware that this could be an issue. After telling them that I was looking for a position together with Remco, some even asked how they could have known that we were a couple. However, when applying for a different position previously, my experience was very different; there I was told that the two of us are a “two body problem”.

Remco: It can also be seen as a “two body advantage”.

Silke: I think there are many benefits for an institute that employs a couple: when two scientists are hired, they both bring along their expertise. And especially in the beginning many things are much easier. It saves a lot of time if things can be organized together. What is more, in the day-to-day routine, working with somebody you trust and can rely on for advice is a real advantage. Working here together makes us more productive.

Did you sense any apprehension regarding the employment of a couple?

Nobody explicitly expressed any concern. Of course there is the financial aspect that creating two positions is more expensive for an institute than creating just one. In addition, some people might worry that if a couple argue it can have a negative influence on the whole group. But for two people to get in a fight, it is not necessary for them to be married.

Were there any reservations against you as a couple?

No, none at all here at the institute. In fact, there are quite a few other couples working here.

Silke: My impression is that we are both respected independently as scientists. It is essential that the scientific qualification for the job is right. Nobody wants to be offered a position just because the partner is working at the same institute. Both partners need to be recognized as individual persons and scientists.

Do you have any advice for other “Dual Career Couples”? For example, in the course of the application process, when would be a good time to address the issue of the partner’s job search?

Remco: It is difficult to generalize. Every one must set their own priorities and decide how important it is to them that both partners find a job in the same place. If this has top priority, it is necessary to address this topic during the interview.

Silke: I sense a lot of insecurity among many couples with regard to the best way to handle this subject, and the best time to mention it.

What could be helpful for these couples?

Silke: It might be a good idea to indicate already in the job advertisment that there are possibilities to support the partner in finding a job. Doing so would at least demonstrate an awareness of the problem and make it easier for the applicants to mention the partner’s job search during the interview process.

In addition, the people who decide about the jobs should be aware that it is not necessarily a financial burden to employ a couple.  For example, in my case I have a “Free Floater” position. The financial support is provided directly by the Max Planck Society in Munich and the institute here in Tübingen only has to provide the laboratory space. More information about alternative financing strategies would be desirable. In recent years, a number of opportunities have been created, such as the Minerva Programme of the Max Planck Society, endowment chair positions or DFG programmes. Ideally, these possibilities should also be pointed out and discussed with the applicants.

Have you ever contacted any kind of support office such as a Dual Career Service? Would you have liked to have some sort of official support? If yes, what kind would have been useful?

I have never looked for anything like this.

Silke: If something had been available, I would have gone there and asked for advice

Remco: I think such support offices can be useful, but they need to be more visible and more easily accessible. As it is, I am not sure where to find them and what they are doing..

Do you have any other useful tips for “Dual Career Couples”?

During the application procedure it is important that both the scientists and the research institution are flexible and willing to compromise. For example, I could have made do without part of my allowance or with one PhD position less, if that had meant that Remco could get an equivalent position here. This in turn would require some flexibility on the part of the institute in order to create and distribute positions in such a way.

Interview conducted by Dr Christine Vogler in July 2011.

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