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While Duncan Ng, in Copenhagen, is willing to go anywhere to pursue a career and a life, his partner Pete in Edinburgh has, so far, preferred to stay put
Moving to another country may be the only option for PhDs and postdocs who want to advance in their own scientific field.
But this can lead to tough decisions and difficult conversations with partners and loved ones. Should we break up? Go for a long-distance relationship? Or should we both move?
The question, and the issue, is also starting to creep up more often in the two years since Duncan Ng, a 27-year-old Malaysian microbiologist, met his partner Pete while they were both at university in Scotland.
Partner to an academic
What is it like being a partner to an international academic that moves to Copenhagen? In a series of articles, the University Post looks at how spouses and couples manage a career with, or without, their global scientist partners
Other articles in this series include:
New country, new identity for partners of academics
‘Second time in Copenhagen after hardship and compromise’
‘Of 26 spouses, only two were men. He was one of them’
Career abroad or family, that was the question
Careers split apart, but marriage held
I had a Skype interview for a PhD position in New Zealand, and Pete and I discussed the fact that if I took this job this would realistically mean we would have to break up.
Duncan Ng moved to Copenhagen to do a PhD at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) and Statens Serum Institut (SSI), while Pete stayed on in Edinburgh. But the question has arisen, just like for so many academic couples before them: What happens now? And what happens when they both finish their degrees? Who should move, and who should stay?
»Not long after we met, I finished my master’s and started to look for a PhD,« Duncan Ng recounts. »I always knew that this was the way the academic job market was, and I had reconciled myself with moving far away if necessary. I had a Skype interview for a PhD position in New Zealand, and Pete and I discussed the fact that if I took this job this would realistically mean we would have to break up. But then I was offered a PhD in Copenhagen. I applied, and I got it. The fact that it would be closer to Pete, certainly steered me towards this decision,« he says.
He urged Pete, who was doing his postdoctoral work in inorganic chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, to look for something within his field in Copenhagen. But Copenhagen is not a scientific hub within his specialty, and Pete has been reluctant to move.
Of course it made me question how much he was committed to the relationship, and it annoyed me that he would not even entertain the idea of moving, but dismissed it entirely.
»And he is right. My skills are probably more transferable at this point,« admits Duncan Ng.
Things came to a head recently when Duncan Ng was in the Netherlands for a month-long research stay.
»I suggested to him that this is a good place for both me and him to do research. I am willing to move, I said. But Pete is British and was reluctant to move outside the UK. Of course it made me question how much he was committed to the relationship, and it annoyed me that he would not even entertain the idea of moving, but dismissed it entirely,« says Duncan Ng.
The conversation made Duncan Ng also realize, however, that academics can have vastly different incentives to make the first relocation to another country.
»He has many friends, academics and non-academics, who are still dating the girl who used to live down the street,« Duncan Ng says. But for Duncan Ng, having already once moved to the UK and then Denmark, a new move would be not such a big thing.
And then there is the factor of him coming from Malaysia, where gay people face legal challenges and discrimination. Duncan Ng will therefore not consider returning to his home country for a career, even though he has returned to visit family, and has even brought Pete back with him to visit.
In most western countries, internationally mobile gay couples face the same challenges that face heterosexual couples with two careers.
»At least there is no pressure to have children,« says Duncan Ng, before adding that apart from that, the stresses, and the dilemmas are the same.
As for now, the two of them have a bit of breathing space before the next decision time.
Duncan Ng has about a year left of his sojourn in Copenhagen, while Pete has a year and a half left in Edinburgh.
»Hopefully we can end up in the same place. He is one step ahead of me, finishing his postdoc, and is unsure whether he wants to stay in academia. As for me, finishing my PhD, the most important thing is that I get to do what I enjoy, and right now it is what I am doing now, research.«