Difficult Decisions: Commuting for the Academic Career
by Margaret W. Sallee - 2019
Background/Context: As the academic job market becomes more competitive, some faculty find it necessary to move away from their partners in order to secure a position, thus leading them to become part of a commuting couple. Despite their presence in the academy, little research exists on how commuting shapes academics’ personal and professional lives.
Purpose: The purpose of the study was to understand the experiences of faculty members who are members of commuting couples. The study used Ryan and Deci’s self-determination theory—which suggests that three basic needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness must be met to facilitate well-being—to explore why some commuters thrive in the arrangement more than others.
Participants: Interviews were conducted with 36 participants who were part of academic commuting couples; participants were 31 academics and five nonacademic spouses. The sample included diversity based on gender, race/ethnicity, sexuality, and parental status.
Research Design: This comparative case study contrasted the experiences of those who were satisfied in commuting couples with those who were not. Data were collected via semistructured interviews and analysis of artifacts submitted by participants that helped capture their experiences in a commuting couple. Data were analyzed with both concept- and data-driven codes that emerged from the literature/theory and the data, respectively.
Findings: Participants who attained autonomy, competence, and relatedness in personal and professional domains were more accepting of commuting than those who did not. Nearly all commuters appreciated the autonomy that separation from their partners brought in terms of allowing them to work more; however, the unhappy commuters were more likely to feel that they did not make the choice to commute, but were forced into it by the job market. Similarly, most participants discussed valuing their careers as academics (competence), which led unhappy commuters to struggle with whether to leave the field. Finally, participants discussed a lack of connection with colleagues (relatedness) across the sample. Unhappy commuters were more likely to report struggling with their separation from their partners as a result of commuting.
Recommendations: Given the competitiveness of the job market, more academics may find themselves in commuting couples. Findings suggest that there are ways that institutions can help this population, including scheduling meetings and other obligations at times that would help facilitate their relatedness with colleagues.
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