The two body problem reconsidered (or what I learned while being a #fifoacademic)

Australia is a big country. You can fit almost the whole of the UK into Victoria, one of our smallest states. Maybe that’s why the folks at ANU didn’t blink when I told them I wanted to commute the 512km between Canberra and Melbourne for a year while Thesiswhisperer Jnr finished primary school. They provided me with a bach pad on campus during the week and worked with me to establish a routine.

In Australia the ‘Fly-in Fly-out (FIFO) worker is surprisingly common. Most of them, like my step brother, work in the mining industry, but a surprising number of people in academia are forced to commute. The most common reason is the notorious ‘two body problem’ which The Slate describes as:

… an inelegant term for the difficulty that couples have in finding good jobs for both people that are geographically close enough that they can continue to live together. Given the shortage of full-time academic jobs, couples are frequently put in a position where they have to choose between serious underemployment for one of them and living separately.

Screen Shot 2013-10-16 at 5.38.32 PMA couple of weeks ago my colleagues over at the Research Whisperer published a post from Kati Mack which discussed some of the practical problems the need for ‘hyper mobility’ amongst academics can produce (including whether or not you should own a pet). There’s so much that can be said about these lived aspects, the problems caused by a constant transplanting of the self – and the  living separately from your partner and family. So I want to focus here on living well while suffering the 2 body problem.

I’m coming to the end of my year as a FIFO academic now and a question from @Siobhan_ODwyer about how to manage working across multiple campuses made me think that some of the stuff I’ve learned might be useful for that situation too.

During the year I’ve talked to quite a few people about what they did while they commuted and it seems to me that we can learn a lot from each other’s stories about how to cope with the myriad logistical, practical and emotional aspects of this experience. Naysa Bafren has wrtitten a blog post and I thought I could add another. So here are four things I’ve learned while being a ‘hypermobile’ academic, complete with apps, ideas and tips for those who are experiencing the Big Commute now, or contemplating it in the future.

1. The airport is another country – learn its ways

When I started the Big Commute I picked an airline (Qantas) and stuck with it, even if it was more expensive. The Qantas lounge provides me with free wifi, food, clean toilets and a place to park my bottom on a chair for up to 5 hours a week. Membership has its privileges of course, and Qantas sent me with a smart card to swipe in at the gate and smart tags for my bags, which means I don’t have to interact with a single human on the way through the airport if I don’t want to, thus avoiding queues.

Here’s some other things I have learned while haunting airports and planes this year, in no particular order:

The best time to fly anywhere is between 12:15 and 3:30 in the afternoon. At all over times the airport is a nightmare hellhole of tired children, confused tourists and rude business travellors intent on walking right through you.

Always book an aisle seat – clouds are actually kind of boring after the first 10 times. Take off your coat before entering a plane (makes organising yourself at your seat much quicker). Pick up stuff flight attendants drop because they might give you an extra chocolate bar as a reward (another way to get extra chocolate is to refuse lunch – I’m not sure why).

Plane coffee is exceedingly vile.

Planes make weird noises all the time. Some of these noises convince you that a wing has just fallen off or an engine is about to explode (it probably won’t). That slight ‘elevator feeling’ you get part way through take off sometimes does not mean you are about to crash, it’s just the plane levelling off a bit. Turbulence is best faced stoically by repeating under your breath ‘just potholes in the sky, la la la!’ and imagining yourself in your favourite happy place (for me it’s a Waitrose supermarket, not sure why).

Don’t lie to yourself that you will finish that paper on the plane, or read that dull, but worthy book because you have nothing else to do. You will probably end up reading the inflight magazine. Unaccompanied children always sit in the back last row and airline attendants have told me that they just love to ‘sugar them up’ (use this information as you will).

Never strike up a conversation with anyone until just before you are about to land – unless they are carrying something really interesting, such as conservative political party propaganda (long story). You can get through a surprising number of emails on your phone while waiting for luggage to reach the terminal.

2. Your phone is your best travelling companion

I have the following apps in my phone, bunched in a group called ‘out and about’ for easy access:

  • Lost on campus (and iANU for funding people’s offices)
  • Qantas frequent flyer app for checking flight details
  • Google maps, for obvious reasons
  • Flightaware so I can see where all my planes are at
  • Skybusapp for buying tickets to the airport
  • Kindle for portable reading on the move
  • Weather
  • Alarm clock
  • Sleep pillow (brilliant for the inevitable anxiety related insomnia)

Enter the flight numbers and booking reference in the phone calendar entry at the time you book them. This saves hunting frantically for paperwork or emails at the gate. Oh – and don’t list your desk phone in the university directory unless you want to be fiddling endlessly with voice mail. Better still read this great post by Joyce Seitzinger and don’t list it at all.

3. Buy multiples of (almost) everything

I have a small apartment on campus and my aim was to do a ‘handbag commute’ each week. Despite this I found I was struggling up to Canberra and back every week with a canvas shopping bag stuffed with extraneous ‘stuff’ – books, cosmetics and extraordinary (yet strangely inadequate) collection of i-thing cords. My Thesiswhisperer got sick of watching this and took me to a department store to pick out a hard shell, lightweight carry on bag. Although I initially staggered about clutching my chest at the price of this item, now I LOVE it.

While a good bag helps, so does buying multiples of everything, especially cosmetics. Same goes for technology. I now have three of every power cord I need (one for each office and a ‘traveller’). The only exception to this rule is shoes – you can live with less of them than you think. @GoonerDr recommended keeping textbooks in each office and buying ebook copies of same if possible (a very good idea). As Zaana put it in one of her #fifoacademic tweets: “that moment of realising you have an overdue library book & you are in one state & the book is in the other.”

4. You will learn new things (not of all them good).

While doing the commute, partly to amuse myself and my followers, and partly out of sociological curiosity, I recorded my impressions of the experience in a series of tweets, all with the hashtag #fifoacademic. As I hoped, so others joined in and you can read a selection of them on Twitter, but here is a list of things I noticed, again in no particular order:

  • The only food that is reliably in my fridge when I do not have a child to feed is cashew nuts or chocolate with cashew nuts in it.
  • I can be very organised.
  • I can be remarkably and dangerously disorganised.
  • All these years Mr Thesiswhisperer has been doing much more housework than I thought he did. I am the weak link and Creator of Clutter just like he has been telling me.
  • I love my husband and son even more than I thought I did. The pain of being absent so much cannot be soothed away, no matter how much chocolate with cashew nuts in it you eat.
  • My mother in law is a saint (thanks Barb)
  • My neighbour is a total legend (thanks Heather)
  • With social media, much of the interaction with my friends and family is pretty much as it was.  Which probably means I should visit them more.
  • Most problems can be solved with a phonecall and a credit card. The rest can be solved with deep breathing.

Well that’s it. I could say more, but I need to stop because this is the longest post I have ever written. In summary, The Big Commute is really difficult, but everything gets easier with time and practice. The first two weeks I thought I was going to die and cried a lot. The overwhelmed feeling passed quickly and I even found some measure of enjoyment in it. I might even miss it a bit when it ends.

I hope some of the above helps for your logistical and other commuting problems. As usual, I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments – I’m sure I haven’t included all there is to say and share about this topic!

Related posts on the whisperer

How to have an office in your handbag

On home and place

Other links

Academia’s confounding 2 body problem (The Slate)

‘Solving’ the two body problem (Tenure she Wrote)

Controlling your information streams – don’t call me maybe? (Catspyjamas)

#fifoacademics (Naysa Bafren)

43 thoughts on “The two body problem reconsidered (or what I learned while being a #fifoacademic)

  1. Susan says:

    My husband is also a regular commuter, although not of the academic kind. He has discovered that major hotels will store a bag for him. He doesn’t have an apartment, but when he arrives at his hotel (he says in the same one in every city) they have his bag in his room ready for him. In that bag is fresh underwear, clean shirt, various cables and other bits and pieces that he no longer has to remember to park and carry. Who knew they did that?

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      I will do a lot more stuff on campus, including night and weekend workshops for candidates. I’ve turned down a lot of international and domestic gigs this year because I was struggling to cope. I’ll probably do more of those next year mnow that Mr Thesis Whispererr and TW Jnr have learned to cope so well without me 🙂

  2. Flick14 says:

    Multiples is definitely they key to success! As a fifo PhD candidate (going cross Tasman none the less), I found keeping basic clothing (who knew underwear took up so much space?!) and toiletries, along with a decent collection of non-perishable foods (UHT milk was my friend) to greet me on my late night arrival in my Aussie residence made life just a little bit easier! Oh and of course Skype makes everything better =)

  3. RM says:

    I did my PhD as a FIFO – Brisbane/Melbourne commuting as regularly as once a month by the end. I found that establishing a nice away from home routine which included early morning exercise (the weather is better in Brisbane for that!) knowing all the good coffee spots (yes they can be found in Brisbane) and a pre-planned social activity with fellow phd students all helped to make the time away from home less gruelling. Im looking forward to my next Brisbane trip which all going well will be for graduation!!

  4. Ph says:

    I’m a fifo PhD-er as well, also doing the Canberra/Melbourne trip. I now have a large collection of dresses and shirts that don’t require ironing – perfect for stuffing into the cabin luggage. I have also discovered the joys of the 8hour train trip between the two cities. As a student it’s waaaaaaay cheaper than flying, plus there’s more room to move around and i’ve found that i can get through those boring journal articles and newly borrowed library books much better than on a flight. No turbulence 🙂

  5. Judy Redman says:

    The other thing you need to know about your local airports is whether they are prone to fog issues and if so, at what times of the year and what times of the day. There is nothing quite so frustrating as sitting in an airport for hours whilst waiting for the fog to lift and missing the appointment that you thought you would make with hours to spare.

  6. Judy Redman says:

    Oh, and if you have to change planes en route, *definitely* stay with the one airline or partnership. That way, if you miss your connection because the first flight is delayed, it is the airline’s problem, not yours, to reschedule your flight and sort out getting any checkin baggage to your destination. Murphy’s law states that the time you decide you need to travel with checkin baggage is the time your first flight will be delayed to the point where you eitehr miss your connection or just make it, but the checkin baggage doesn’t.

  7. Madeline says:

    I’ve been travelling a lot for work this year (roughly two weeks out of four), and definitely agree with the “buy multiples of everything” advice. Never again will I have to buy an emergency toothbrush at my destination.

    However, the thing that’s saved my life the most is Automatically scans my gmail inbox for booking emails (flights, hotels, car hire…) and automagically turns it into a neatly formatted itinerary that’s available online and on a nifty app. Never have to frantically search for an email or scrap of paper again. And you can even sync it automatically with your outlook calendar! Greatest thing ever invented.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      I should have used this – my sister has been showing me it for ages but only just installed it this week! You’re totally right, it should be in my list of apps. Thanks for telling us 🙂

  8. maelorin says:

    I have struggled with the *opposite* problem.

    Being unable to travel due to a combination of low income and no access to funding. Travel, even once a year, would have opened up options for collaborations, for face-to-face discussions, and to present my work-in-progress for comment and critique.

    I am writing in a vacuum, with better access to Foreign sources than Australian ones. I am working on the second iteration of the third version of my thesis without supervision or institution (don’t fall between cracks!).

    With so much academic work pushed into casual contracts, it is hard enough to get ‘into’ academia, without the two body problem. We are in the situation where my partner is between high school teaching contracts, and I can’t get anything like regular work without a PhD now. (I could try to get back into lawyering or IT, but both are no easier to get back into now).

    I am trying to finish without feeling like my decision to do this has put us in this precarious financial position – there is no guarantee anyone will accept what I’m writing for any degree, let alone a PhD…

    • M-H says:

      If you are doing a PhD in order to get into academic position without a supervisor to champion you or an institution to manage your candidature, your chances of gaining an academic position would be very low. They aren’t very high for anyone at the moment, even people who have well-known supervisors and who attend prestigious institutions. But before that, how will you submit your thesis? How will the examination be arranged? I am intrigued by your claim to have neither institution or supervisor! ☺

      • maelorin says:

        I had a candidature, at a uni, with a supervisor. Right now, not so much. (Not being allowed to travel kinda screws up case studies, as does dismissing one that’s nearly complete.)

  9. Stephanie Krishnan says:

    I do a Singapore/Sydney PhD commute as my research is regional Asia-Pacific and I’m currently in da-da land (data collection). Not as frequently as every week, but often enough to agree with most of the points here. Definitely going to check out #fifoacademic!! I did find that sometimes sitting still and reading nothing during take-off made me think (how often do we just do nothing?), and I would get a brain-wave about something, or make a connection between some literature and another. As the ‘no electronic devices’ rule is still in force, it’s handy to keep pen and paper handy, or you spend 20 minutes trying to hold on to that thought (harder than it sounds depending on your level of tiredness). 🙂
    Double up on all cables, and Dropbox is my friend! Also, logmein free edition in case I left the most recent version of a file on my computer at home (and left it one the desktop, as I occasionally do).

  10. veganfrequentflyer says:

    I’m also a FIFO worker so to speak. My work as an ECR at university has me out of the country about 6 months of the year doing fieldwork, and when I am at “home”, I’m working insane hours and am hardly around anyway. Always at meetings and conferences.

    I’ve had multiple relationship breakdowns over this. Nobody wants to deal with the fact I’m not around half the time, and when I am I work insane hours. Makes for a lonely existence sometimes, but it is what it is. I did the long distance thing (Australia-USA) for about 4 years, but that ended this year when we decided that it had gone on long enough, and I wasn’t able to find a job where my partner was, and he wasn’t able to find a job where I am.

    I think if you’re in the relationship before you get into academia, your partner at least knows what they’re in for. It’s harder to try and get a relationship off the ground from scratch when you never see each other though.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      You are so right. I have been married for around 16 years. The relationship has weathered this year pretty well. It’s made us appreciate each other more I think. But I would hate to try to establish one under these conditions. Super hard. Hope it improves for you.

  11. Phil says:

    Aisle?! Are you crazy?… Window seat & an hour’s extra sleep for me thanks!
    (also works on suburban trains… ; )

  12. Klara says:

    Thank you so much for this last line: “The first two weeks I thought I was going to die and cried a lot. The overwhelmed feeling passed quickly and I even found some measure of enjoyment in it. ”

    I’m in the middle of moving to the UK, while my better half is staying in Germany. He actually came with me for a few days and went back to Germany a few hours ago… I felt really sad when he left, but I’m going to stick to that line I quoted. I know everything will feel better soon. Thanks for pointing that out again!

  13. Matthias says:

    thanks for these personal insights Ingwer, so good to read. Around the time you left RMIT, I also did and went back to Germany where I got a professorship – unfortunately not where my partner works but about 3h train ride away from that. So I guess since than I am the German train-related version of an Australian FIFO worker.
    And I so much agree on your “Buy 2 so you at least have 1” theorem – a lesson that took about a year but that is finally accepted. And it’s not only two of a kind but twins that keep me happy: the same docking connects the same monitor to my laptop both at home and at work and the same headset is recognized by my system without getting all mixed up…
    There is another thing one might learn and this is a totally new view on what we like to call work-life-balance. At least I learnt to not only get used to bring so much distance between my working environment and my family but actually quite enjoy being able to put in more hours while I am away but save the weekends for myself (or at least for those parts of the work, I am not considering as work anyway…). Don’t get me wrong not being around when your son scores on his school soccer tournament sucks, being on the phone to hear your daughter had a bike accident and not being able to be around hurts like mad, and you have to find a way to deal with this kind of things, but knowing what a weekend can mean without bringing all of your academic backpack with you helps a lot, many times!

    • M-H says:

      It’s not only academics who do this, as Inger says at the beginning. It’s not at all uncommon these days. It’s more to do with people doing more specialised work these days, I think, than academic identities. The position that Inger has at ANU ewouldn’t have existed ten years ago, and still doesn’t exist in some institutions.

      • worriedteacher says:

        But don’t we invest something of ourselves in these situations? HE is wonderful and I feel blessed to work in it. But our institutions are corporations (with lots of wonderful people in them), driven by seeking competitive advantage, and where the currency is often status acquired through grant capture and academic publications. They become avaricious. So, I am just saying – lets be careful. Be mindful of what we actually value and seek to be authentic.

        • Thesis Whisperer says:

          For many, moving has nothing to do with status – it’s almost impossible to get a job at all if you don’t. But I agree on the negative effects of some of these ‘carrots’ – it’s led to teaching being undervalued in many cases.

  14. Rebecca says:

    Great article. I’m doing the commute thing within North America. My husband was transferred to the San Fran Bay Area (Silicon Valley) while I still had a year of data collection in my PhD. I’m in Ottawa Canada, so it isn’t exactly a weekly commute (about 7 hours fly time – with a connection in the middle). One huge tip for Canadian/American travellers is to get a NEXUS pass. This has done an incredible job to speed up security clearance at the airports (no more taking out laptops or removing shoes), and gives priority at all security clearance and customs lines in the US and Canada (regardless of what country I’m entering from – including international travel). I too have found UHT milk to be a great trick .. I buy small boxes and have them in each place so I don’t have to worry about my morning coffee the first day I arrive. Because I usually spend 2-3 weeks in each place, it means any food left in Ottawa goes bad before I return … eating has become a challenge!

  15. postgradpanda says:

    For 16 months over 2010/2011 I lived between Sydney and Melbourne, as a result of my partner starting a new job in Sydney while I remained in Melbourne to oversee a few domestic things such as house sales and providing some stability for our still-living-at-home daughter (who was in her final year of uni and preparing for her wedding).
    It all went very well, to the point that I was a little anxious about losing the luxury of getting out of things due to being in the other city (‘Gee, sorry, I wish I could but I’ll be in Melbourne/Sydney that day’). However, one very big word of caution – reunifying from two bodies back to one takes some preparation and more adjustment than you would imagine. For us, this was crystallized in what became known in our relationship folklore as ‘the paper towel conversation’. He had set up the Sydney kitchen in a way that suited him, while I had learned from real estate agents the delight of ‘de-cluttering’. He would leave the paper towel on the bench. I would put it away. He would put it back. He does most of the cooking, but I do most of the tidying, so we reached an impasse. Eventually, we realized that this was not about tidyness and the location of objects, it was a question of Whose Kitchen (House, Life) Is This Anyway. He had lived there for 16 months basically doing his own thing and I had been, to all intents and purposes, a visitor. He had similarly ‘fitted in’ with my routines when he was in Melbourne. Happily, we were able to negotiate a workable solution, but it took a textbook case of Clear and Respectful Communication for that to happen. My advice: unless 2-body life is expected to be permanent, start planning for reunification before you even commence living the life of a FIFO.

  16. robyn74 says:

    With the risk of sounding like Bob Katter, at least the roads down south are good. Spare a thought for us regional and remote people. I was warned about the difficult drive I would have to take between Adelaide and Renmark during my fieldwork but found it a dual carriageway, twee shops selling olives and no road trains. Try going between Townsville and Cairns during the wet, you need a packed eskie, tent and a sense of humour as there may be multiple road closures. Townsville and Mt Isa, well another adventure of a lifetime for some, but a regular commute for others. And I have a student who comes into town from a small western city for supervision and shopping and heads home the next day. I’m sorry but commuting between Melbourne and Sydney; Sydney and Canberra…piece of piss! I’m sure readers in NT and WA have even better stories.

  17. Business school academic says:

    I loved these stories. My partner has been SISO (sail in sail out) and FIFO for 30 years and I have been an academic working on 3 campuses in another state, frequent interstate travel and then conferences etc. half a world away. From an academic perspective, my entire life is saved in Dropbox. There is nothing as annoying as not being able to find the one paper/ lecture slides that you want because it is at home or somewhere entirely
    different. Two lots of everything is a given. Toiletries that sometimes travel but are always ready to pack at short notice. I can also recommend syncing everything including partners, children’s and my calendars and things like bill payments. We have a rule, put everything in your calendar so we know who is feeding the dog.

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