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The two-body problem isn’t funny

By Margaret Harris

Some time ago, University of Nebraska biochemist Steve Caplan received an e-mail from someone who wanted to work in his lab. The e-mail’s beginning (“Dear sir”) was not encouraging, and it was all downhill from there – a morass of meaningless buzzwords and and vague suggestions that the writer wanted to “gain an opportunity to experience a dynamic, rigorous and systemic training”.

The writers of such e-mails don’t get jobs, but they do get a starring role in Caplan’s essay “How not to get a lab job: what your approach says about you”, which is available on the LabLit website. Most of the essay’s examples are hilarious, and Caplan’s “translations” of them are great.

Except for the third example. It’s not so amusing. And to anyone with the “two-body problem” of looking for jobs as one-half of a scientific couple, Caplan’s “translation” won’t seem funny at all. Here’s the job request:

Hi Dr Caplan,
My name is Dr XXX. I am research associate (assistant professor) at the University of Anywhere in the Department of Radiation and Cellular Oncology. As my husband Dr YYY moved in Omaha, I am also looking for a research position at your institute. Here I have attached a cover letter and my CV for your consideration.

Now here is Caplan’s “translation” of Dr XXX’s e-mail:

“My husband’s job is the important one – he is the “real” scientist. I just need to find a job doing anything – doesn’t matter what – somewhere near my husband. I’m not necessarily interested in what you do, but saw your advertisement…”

For good measure, this translation is accompanied by a cartoon drawn by Caplan’s 12-year-old daughter, in which a frilly-dressed woman declares “It’s my husband’s job that’s important, I’m just holding onto his tail!” while tied on a long leash to a bespectacled male scientist. Niiiice.

But let’s go back to the original message and Caplan’s “translation”. Dr YYY found a job, and Dr XXX, his wife, is now looking for employment in the same town, in a field that is (somewhat) related to her previous experience. How does this make her not a “real” scientist? Why does it imply she’s not interested in the work? And if she really just needed to find a job doing anything, then why was she e-mailing Caplan and not the local McDonald’s?

I’ll concede that Dr XXX’s e-mail does not shout “hire me!” It’s short on specifics (such as how her experience would fit into Caplan’s group), and the way it’s worded suggests that she wants the job for reasons other than the pure intellectual joy of working for Caplan. It’s definitely a bad idea to mention that, even if it’s true.

But most of us do consider “external” factors when we look for jobs. Maybe we want to work somewhere with good weather. Maybe we want to be near a spouse. Either way, these things matter, and although Dr XXX was unwise to draw attention to them, at least she was honest. What’s more, there are thousands of Drs YYY and XXX out there, and many of them will, at some point, have to settle for less-good career opportunities if they want to stay together. The alternative is a long commute or – in too many cases – divorce.

And that’s not a problem that deserves to be lumped in with lazy spelling.

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  1. You know, the same translation applies to many business and even personal situations, like: “I will be in your area tomorrow and would like to visit.” I know that won’t make the recipient feel important to you!
    I learned that and many useful things when I took a Sales Management course after joining an Instrument company in their Marketing Dept. It was a valuable experience, covering subjects not in Math or Physics curricula.
    Interpersonal relationships are really important in every field, especially when seeking a new job.

  2. Hamish Johnston

    I think what is most disturbing about this tale is the assumption that the woman must be the inferior researcher.
    It is possible, for example, that both were looking for work and agreed that if one got a good job offer they would move to that place — and the other would follow and do their best to find work.
    Perhaps XXX was the better scientist but didn’t luck-out with the first job offer? This was compounded by the fact that Omaha ain’t Boston or San Francisco, so research opportunities are limited.

  3. Dear Margaret,
    I definitely agree that the 2-body problem is a serious one. I also agree that perhaps this instance differs somewhat from the other letters. At the same time, as somewhat who defines himself as a male feminist and has dealt personally with a 2-body issue, the noteworthy point of the letter, translation and cartoon was to illustrate, with some irony, that this is Not the way to impress a potential employer- because that is how it will appear- a spouse who is only interested in a jon because of location.
    If there had been a valid attempt to explain why the job would be a fit at all (rather than ONLY proximity to spouse)- the letter would have been fine.
    As for “funny”- in truth, all of the letters can also be viewed as sad, with lost opportunities due to poor understanding of the system and bad mentorship.

  4. Kea

    This is one of the most serious forms of discrimination against women in physics: that women who are determined to be average and well behaved get the jobs, while the talented women are thrown out after graduation. The best person should get the job.

  5. Here I have attached a cover letter and my CV for your consideration.

    So did the cover letter not include how the applicant’s experience could be valuable in Caplan’s group? Maybe it covered other points as well.

  6. Alfred Bhulai

    I would have hired Dr. XXX if I had a vacancy and no better application. I find it refreshing and would certainly appreciate being told up front what the score is: boundary values bring open ended equations nearer to solution. One way or the other, I would be able to make a decision.


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