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UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 14 | Dec. 5, 2002

The Challenge for Partnered Professors

By Michelle Cook

From Marie and Pierre Curie to Masters and Johnson, some of the world’s greatest research has been done by partners whose professional and personal interests overlap. Yet it can be difficult for academic pairs to find jobs in the same field on one campus.

“I feel sorry for academic couples who are married but who don’t have a job together,” says Philosophy Dept. head Mohan Matthen. “It’s very stressful and difficult to arrange and it puts a strain on their lives.”

Matthen and his wife, Philosophy professor Catherine Wilson, were luckier than most. They were hired as a couple for their current positions, which made their decision to come to UBC in 1999 an easy one.

There are no statistics on the number of couples working together at UBC, but the university encourages spousal appointments as part of its Trek 2000 recruitment goals. Former Science dean Maria Klawe says the faculty has been able to double the number of female professors in the last four years mostly due to hiring couples.

For other partners, the joint job search isn’t as easy. Professors Daniela Boccassini and Carlo Testa say it was a fluke that they found two complementary positions in the Arts Faculty’s Dept. of French, Italian and Hispanic Studies in 1992. Before that the pair lived in California where Testa, a modernist scholar, found work in his field and Boccassini didn’t, then in Edmonton, where Boccassini found work in her field of medieval and Renaissance studies, but Testa didn’t.

“In Edmonton, we learned that institutions in general, once they’ve secured the services of one person, they tend to take the support of the other more or less for granted, so it’s not wise to go into that situation as a couple,” Testa says.

Still, the hiring climate for academic duos has vastly improved over previous decades.

When well-known neuroscientists Patrick and Edith McGeer arrived at UBC in 1954 after working together at Dupont, couples were forbidden to work in the same faculty. While her husband attended medical school, Edith, a trained chemist, began groundbreaking research in the fields of neurochemistry and neuropharmacology as a “volunteer” until the times and university administration changed.

The McGeers, who are now professors emeritii, still work at UBC’s Neurological Sciences lab where they are searching for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. They say they’ve never let hiring policies stop their research.

“We just did our thing,” they say. “We didn’t let it bother us.”

Finding jobs on the same campus may become easier for the next generation of academic couples, but Wilson and Matthen still have their concerns.

“We’ve been noticing a trend in earlier marriages among graduate students. They’re on the job market together and they’re very idealistic about finding a joint placement, but getting a foot in the door as a couple is really tough,” Wilson says. “Marriages often don’t do well in that situation.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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