Husbands as Trailing Academic Partners

Reflecting on my own experience

October 17, 2017

I am a three-time trailing academic husband.  

Three times I’ve followed my spouse, an academic physician and medical school professor, to a new school. Three times I’ve had to figure out how to keep my own academic career going in a town where I arrived with no job.

What I’ve been observing is that my experience as a trailing academic husband is not unusual.  

College towns and university campuses are full of trailing partners. Increasingly, that trailing partner is a husband.

The reality in my family is that my spouse is the smart Kim. She’s the Dr. Kim that you want. It made sense for us to build our household economy around my spouse’s career.  

I’m part of a proud tradition of husbands who married up. Each day we feel lucky that our partner married us. And we feel lucky that we are able to live and work in the same city as our spouse, as we all know many dual-career academic couples who are juggling commuter marriages.

Still, it is not easy being a trailing academic husband. I can’t say whether being a trailing male academic is worse or better than being a trailing female academic.  It is usually a mistake to make any generalizations by gender, and besides I only have my experience to go by.

What I can say is that as a guy, I was never socialized as a boy to follow anyone - much less my future partner. Growing up I had no role models of men who followed anyone else.  In my childhood of the 1970s and 1980s, it was always the dad who had the “big” job.  

Over the last 20 or so years I’ve had to adjust to shaping my career around my partner. Our dual-career academic history has caused us some conflict and some challenges. Mostly, I have trouble letting go of the idea of having to forgo some career options or opportunities.

My spouse, on the other hand, has always been clear that life is all about trade-offs. That it is never possible to have anything perfect, and that everyone does their best to balance and juggle.  

If I had had the sort of career that it made sense for her to follow me, I think she would have done so with less drama than I have caused.

Overall, I feel lucky that I found a career as an alternative academic and online learning person, a career that has enabled me to get wonderful jobs in three separate states. Portability is one reason why I encourage PhD’s to consider alt-ac.

I wonder if our paths would have been easier if there had been more resources, more discussion, and more examples of trailing academic husbands. There are no groups that I know of for trailing academic guys. We don’t have a website or a blog, a newsletter or a Facebook group.  (Or do we, I’m not on Facebook and I don’t much like social media - so I wouldn’t really know). Women have followed husbands for decades (if not centuries). We have a lot to learn.

It is about time that husbands recognize that in perhaps half of all dual-academic careers, that we will be supporting rather than leading, and that is okay.  For those lucky academic couples who are dual-hires and are both able to be recruited to the positions of their dreams, I say mazel tov. For the rest of us, it will increasingly be the case where we are not the prime career person, and we will need to re-define our role to embrace the challenges and joys of making it work where our partner leads.

That all may be true. But it does not make it any easier.  

Are you a trailing academic husband?


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