Drs. Eliot and Estella Atekwana

University of Missouri-Rolla, Rolla, MO

Most of the information on this page is from an interview conducted by Carol Ormand on March 24, 2006.

Estella and Eliot Atekwana are professors in the Department of Geological Sciences and Engineering at the University of Missouri-Rolla. UM-R is the smallest of four campuses in the University of Missouri system, with about 5,000 students, and is considered Missouri's premiere technological university. Estella earned her PhD from Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Nova Scotia; Eliot earned his from Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo, MI. Both have since become pioneers in the emerging field of biogeophysics. (By training, Eliot is a geochemist and Estella is a geophysicist.) As they've begun their careers, they have both put their family first, despite the pressures of living apart for many years. The first several years, before they could get two academic positions at one institution, were particularly difficult. Finally together, their research productivity has soared, making them a very attractive, scholarly commodity. They've been offered an endowed chair (for Estella) and a tenured associate professorship (for Eliot) at Oklahoma State, which they've accepted, beginning in the fall of 2006.


The job search: no spousal hires

Estella and Eliot's road to success has been a difficult one. As Estella was finishing her PhD, she accepted a position at Western Michigan University. With their first child still an infant, Eliot left the PhD program at the University of Maryland to move to Michigan, so that the family could stay together. As Eliot was completing his degree at WMU, they realized their dual career problem. They began to explore several possibilities of careers at WMU, and were led to understand that WMU would try to hire Eliot, in some academic capacity, when he finished his degree.


However, shortly before Eliot finished his PhD, the dean of the School of Science left and everything changed for the Atekwanas. Even though there was a position open in the geology department, some members of the upper administration objected to hiring the spouse of a current faculty member in the same department. Eliot and Estella explored alternative solutions, such as creating a position for Eliot in a related department, or a research position funded by soft money. None of these solutions worked out.

By this time, Estella and Eliot had three children. While they very much wanted to stay together, they realized that they would be unable to do so in Kalamazoo, so Eliot took a position at Central Michigan University, a few hours' drive away. One semester later, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis offered Eliot a faculty position, including start-up funds. For the next two and a half years, Eliot came "home" from Indianapolis on weekends, and Estella raised their three children on her own during the week.

Next it was Estella's turn to move, when the University of Missouri-Rolla offered her a position. She went to Rolla with a (verbal, not written) promise that the university would explore the possibility of creating a position for Eliot. However, the possibilities that were eventually suggested for Eliot included teaching as an adjunct, seeking employment with the Department of Natural Resources or United States Geological Survey with local offices in Rolla, or working for a consulting company. For obvious reasons, Eliot was unwilling to give up his tenure-track position at IUPUI for such an offer, so they continued to live apart. Their luck was about to change, though.


Success changes everything

Within one three-month period, Estella found out that she and her collaborators had been awarded grants from the Department of Energy ($1.2 million), National Science Foundation, and American Chemical Society-Petroleum Research Fund. At about this time, IUPUI offered Estella a faculty position. Not wanting to lose Estella, UM-R offered Eliot a position, too. While this certainly made their lives easier (once they settled on being at Rolla together), both Eliot and Estella point out that they'd rather be sought out for who they are, not for whose spouse they are. However, now that they have been able to live and work together for a few years, they are both quite successful, and are being recruited as a pair of valuable scientists. For the time being, Oklahoma State has made them a very good offer, so that's where they're heading next.



Lessons learned and strategies for success

When they realized that Kalamazoo was not going to pan out, Estella and Eliot asked themselves, "How can we position ourselves to get two positions in one place?" At this point, they started planning for the long term, more than for the short term. It has taken Eliot and Estella many years to get where they are now. They've made many sacrifices along the way; when Eliot left IUPUI, he was just about to go up for tenure. He gave that up, basing his decision on what was best for the family. And he did so in spite of pressure from some of his colleagues, who told him to pursue his own career.


One of the things that has made Estella and Eliot so successful is that they have found a way to do research that is mutually beneficial. In order to do that, each of them had to become intimately familiar with the other's work. They talk about their work with each other all the time, brainstorm together, and write proposals together. This interaction has lead to some very interesting interdisciplinary research, research that pushes at the boundaries of geophysics, geochemistry, and biology. This is what makes them such a hot item, now, and gives them leverage in the job negotiation process.

Tenure, promotion, and similar decisions are made on the basis of perceptions. Eliot and Estella have discovered that they needed to be aware of this, and proactively manage their careers so that each of them gets the credit they deserve. Otherwise, they say, people will make assumptions, and not always correctly. For example, if their work is published in a geophysics journal, people may assume that Estella did the bulk of the work, even if Eliot is the first author.


Advice for dual career couples

  • Plan for the long term, more than for the short term:
    • Only accept a job that will enhance your marketability in the end.
    • Spend time in research, to increase your productivity.
    • Build strength by doing the best science that you can. Find your niche.
    • Promote yourself/yourselves.
  • Collaborate, if it's possible. Two minds are better than one. It will allow you to spend lots of time together, and you will feed off of each other's energy.
  • Maintain a separate line of research, particularly if you are a "trailing spouse." Otherwise, it is easy for people outside of your field to attribute a disproportionate amount of credit for publications and other scholarly activity to the "leading spouse," making your record appear to be less impressive than it should be. (People within your field will be better equipped to evaluate each individual's contribution, although it will still be somewhat open to interpretation.)
  • In academia, the rewards are for teaching and for scholarship. Set your sights on these, and IGNORE THE POLITICS.