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New country, new identity for partners of academics

Following a partner to a new country as a spouse is tough. Yet it can also be an opportunity: for the spouse, and for the Danish company that hires them, say two university consultants who help the partners of international academics in Copenhagen

They are the spouses – the wives, partners, husbands, boyfriends, and girlfriends – of the international professors and academics who get jobs at the University of Copenhagen.

‘spouse’, ‘Dual career’. What do the words mean?

A spouse is a wife or husband, but in this context is defined more broadly to include partners, boyfriends or girlfriends. In a university context it means a person who is accompanying a foreign researcher working at a university, whether married or not.

A dual career couple is a couple where both partners pursue a career and aim to have paid employment.

A 2012 survey of doctoral and postdoctoral students in Europe indicates that between 40 and 60 per cent of researchers who move abroad do so with a partner.

The International Dual Career Network Copenhagen (IDCN) estimates that there are 10,000 unemployed spouses in the Copenhagen region.

Their own backgrounds range from associate professors in their own right, to engineers, technicians, and hairdressers. They are – indeed should be – attractive to Danish employers: as the partners of talented and successful people with international careers, they are most often highly talented and successful themselves. To top this, they bring a unique set of international skills that Danes will be hard pressed to match.

But when a spouse follows a partner to Copenhagen, they have often had to say goodbye to their own social and professional network, and to give up their own jobs and network of friends. This means they have to jumpstart a new career in a completely new environment.

Danes say they are flexible because they moved from Jutland to Copenhagen. But our dual career spouses have moved here from a different country, some from a different continent. Some of them speak five languages.

Consultant Mary K. Kobia

This is where Mary K. Kobia and Mark de Vos, two consultants in the International Staff Mobility (ISM) unit of the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), come in. At one-on-one meetings and in larger group events, they help the partners of academics find their feet in Denmark. And through a wider network of Copenhagen businesses called the International Dual Career Network (IDCN) [See box below], they help companies, and spouses, find each other.

Just before the Coronavirus pandemic had locked down Copenhagen, and brought the world to a standstill, Mary K. Kobia and Mark de Vos had invited me up to their office on the sixth floor of the International House in Copenhagen. Down below, trees shimmered as a February gust funneled out of the busy boulevard and emptied into the park.

READ ALSO: Second time in Copenhagen after hardship and compromise

Employers should be scrambling for dual career spouses. And they do – but only when they get the chance to see what highly qualified, experienced people they are, according to Mary K. Kobia and Mark de Vos. Indeed, there can be something about people in this group that makes them uniquely hireable, relative to natives.

As Mary K. Kobia puts it:

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:

‘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
Difficult conversation coming up for long distance couple

»Danes say they are flexible because they moved from Jutland to Copenhagen. But our dual career spouses have moved here from a different country, some from a different continent. Some of them speak five languages. Of course they can pick up the Danish language!«

Reinventing yourself

The two consultants’ jobs are about bridging the gap between spouses’ unique international experiences, and the needs of Danish employers. And over the years, they have helped hundreds of partners to UCPH employees make the transition and settle down in Denmark.

On the surface it is all about matching spouses’ skills with workplaces. But this often entails a level of self-searching on the part of the spouse that goes much, much deeper than just finding a job in a new city.

»Coming to another country can set off new questions, a new look at your life situation, everything. It makes you ask yourself the big questions: ‘Did I really make this choice?’ Who I am I, and what do I really want to do with my life?« explains Mary K. Kobia.

READ ALSO: Of 26 spouses, only two were men. He was one of them

Her colleague Mark de Vos elaborates on her point.

»When people relocate, when you first come to Denmark, you are exposed. You are forced to confront yourself:  Is this what I want to do? People suddenly have the time to reflect. It changes your perspective on who you are. It forces you to reinvent yourself,« he says.

The move to Copenhagen may have come right after a couple has been forced to choose which partner’s career will lead, and which will follow. A conversation, long-term decision, and sacrifice, that often boils down to the question ‘whose job is more important?’ 

Coming to another country can set off new questions, a new look at your life situation, everything. It makes you ask yourself the big questions: ‘Did I really make this choice?’ Who I am I, and what do I really want to do with my life?
Consultant Mary K. Kobia

Denmark is known for being one of the countries in Europe with the highest living expenses. It is therefore crucial that both partners work.

»But what happens after a few months with no job?« Mark de Vos, elaborates. »You may already be paying a high rent, as in Denmark most households have two salaries. And the money issues mean that you and your partner cannot travel back home so easily. Sometimes it can come as a surprise that you now really need to work for money, as your career choices up until this point in your life had been purely based on your own interests,« he says.

International Dual Career Network Copenhagen

The business regional network International Dual Career Network Copenhagen (IDCN) includes some of the largest companies in Denmark.

Harvard Business Review has featured IDCN here: Talent Management and the Dual-Career Couple.

Others, according to Mark de Vos, especially if they are the partners of academics who have relocated several times, may have unconsciously taken on the role of ’professional spouses’.

READ ALSO: Career abroad, or family: That was the question

»Sometimes, when they talk to us, they come to realize: ‘I have been three years here, and two years here. I have put myself in the spouse role’.«

Some, according to Mary K. Kobia, may come to the realization that they were not actually happy with their previous career track.

»People find out things in this situation, that they did not realize before. Maybe they followed their partner here, and they buy in to Denmark as a country to live in, but then suddenly realize that ‘I didn’t even like the job that I had.’«

Mary K. Kobia and Mark de Vos use the expressions ‘Plan A’ and ‘Plan D’ in their explanation to me, and in the more than 300 one-on-one consulting sessions they do with spouses every year in their offices at the International House Copenhagen.

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Plan A is the plan you have when you first come here. It is often a continuation of the trajectory that your career had before you moved with your partner. Plan D, on the other hand, is what you end up pursuing after your other options – plan A, B and C – don’t work out. The point is that Plan D can be what you really want, deep down. Or, failing that, something that you at least end up finding more fulfilling.

It might be the nurse who cannot get authorization because of the lack of Danish language skills, that ends up doing medical writing. What may seem like a step down or a step sideways, can be an opportunity to redefine yourself. Mark de Vos uses the example of a spouse, an associate professor back at home, who comes to Denmark:

»At the consultation she says, I also want to work doing piano lessons. Because the situation is different now I can pursue whatever I want. It is an opportunity for her, rather than a loss,« he explains.

Growth mindset

At present, 65 per cent of the spouses in the Dual Career network at UCPH that Mark de Vos and Mary K. Kobia work with are women. In previous years, women have been even more predominant, with 90 per cent women in 2017 

The numbers reflect that there are more men coming from abroad and taking up positions as academics in Copenhagen and bringing their partners with them. But the fact that women voluntarily come to Denmark as a partner to an academic, and seek the opportunities that come from the dual career network at UCPH, is worthy of praise, according to Mary K. Kobia.

READ ALSO: Careers split apart, but marriage held

Maybe they followed their partner here, and they buy in to Denmark as a country to live in, but then suddenly realize that ‘I didn’t even like the job that I had.’

Consultant Mark de Vos

»Women are often, in my mind, more adventurous. They say to themselves: I will work it out. Men, on the other hand, are often only willing to come if they have a job already. Maybe women’s identities are more flexible and not solely related to their jobs.«

Searching for a job, and starting from scratch in another country is a frame of mind. As Mary K. Kobia puts it. »Do you have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset?«

Coming to a foreign country, and not surrounded by your past, it is easier to create a new narrative around yourself. And the two consultants actively encourage spouses to forge this new narrative.

»A lot of men are good at this. They do something that you in Danish could call ‘lyve-og-prale’ – ‘lie-and-brag’ in one word. I encourage everybody to do that!« Mary K. Kobia laughs. »Hey, companies do it themselves in their employer branding.  They are, for example, quite good at boasting about the career and personal development opportunities and personal benefits at their workplaces.«

A network that is not the partner’s network

Dual career at UCPH

At UCPH, 1.3 staff, (measured in full time equivalents – FTEs) work on dual career and integrations services for spouses. The so-called Dual Career Spouse Network.

More than 600 registered active partners are part of the programme which is free of charge and offered to international scientific staff, from PhD students upwards.

65 per cent are women.

The dual career services is offered by ISM, a unit at UCPH that supports scientists and their partners with integration matters like residence permit, housing childcare and school, tax and pension, banking and insurance, and health and medical care.

For partners in general, in business or in academia, who do persevere through the harried times of a dual career, there is light at the end of the tunnel. According to a McKinsey study of dual career couples, if they find jobs that offer flexibility and support to power through the ‘rush hour’ years of relocation and young children, they are likely to come out successful and happy on the other side — and to remain loyal to their employers.

Academics moving to Copenhagen typically start off with only a network among their academic colleagues. This can be trying for the partners who moved with them, as this, already limited, group can be the only network that partners have access to.

»The function that we fulfill here at ISM is to give people an outlet, a network that is not connected to their partner’s network. And people tell us it is wonderful. To have a place to go that is not connected to their partners’ colleagues. They say it is fantastic to have a place to go where the focus is on ‘me’ and not on my academic partner’s place of work,« Mark de Vos says.

A lot of men are good at this. They do something that you in Danish could call ‘lyve-og-prale’ – ‘lie-and-brag’ in one word. I encourage everybody to do that!

Consultant Mary K. Kobia

»I believe that our biggest mission with our extensive dual career program is to continue providing support and inspiration, and try to create excitement and energy around the spouses’ job search. We can see these services have a profound impact in terms of attracting and retaining international talent to Denmark,« Mark de Vos adds.

Unlike many other universities, according to Mark de Vos and Mary K. Kobia, the University of Copenhagen has real dual career services, not just something that the university brags about with airbrushed happy photos on a website.

READ ALSO: Difficult conversation coming up for long distance couple

This is fulfilling for them as consultants. And it works for the spouses, according to Mary K. Kobia:

»We meet people in their lowest of lows, but also in their highest of highs. It is in this journey we get to see the most beautiful transformations and changes when a spouse suddenly gets a job or starts volunteering, networking and building meaningful relationships and connections socially and professionally.«

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