A Couple of Worries

February 04, 2004

Every few weeks, it seems, we hear about another professional couple who have successfully obtained two academic positions, either on the same campus or, at least, in the same region. Why does that prospect seem so remote from where we are standing?

As we mentioned in our first column, we are a married couple seeking dual academic careers within the same field (zoology) and, if possible, within the same department.

Our daily Internet search for job openings in academe has become as automatic as making the morning coffee. Since we began our search in late August, we have read hundreds of advertisements for faculty openings in biology or zoology. On a single day in October, for example, there were 2,214 faculty openings advertised in The Chronicle. Of these, 1,044 were in science and technology fields, and 154 in biology.

Although that number sounded promising, when we considered our qualifications and our geographical preferences, we could apply for only a handful of the openings. And none of them were offering multiple positions. Our goal to become a faculty couple within the next year gets a little dimmer each time we scour the ads. However, over many repeats of the same conversation, we have agreed to remain optimistic until proven otherwise.

His Perspective

Since completing my Ph.D. last August, I have been working as an adjunct professor in the same department where I earned my degree. I've embraced my adjunct teaching position and been nominated for two teaching awards; those nominations should add some heft to my CV. I focus much of my time and effort on teaching, and spend the rest of my time submitting manuscripts (from my doctoral research) for publication, applying for academic jobs, and preparing for a research project.

By November, I had applied for only five faculty positions. While that will undoubtedly seem unrealistic and foolish to seasoned academic job searchers, my highly selective approach was strategic. I decided to apply first for those jobs with the earliest application deadlines and the ones I found most appealing in the context of job descriptions, opportunities for my wife, and geographical location. In December, I began applying for a wider range of jobs, pulling out those advertisements that I had filed away to return to later.

I have submitted several applications to departments that were advertising only one available faculty opening in zoology. Before applying, I contacted the search committees to get a feel for whether opportunities might be available for my wife to teach as an adjunct.

Within a week of submitting one application, I had received a rejection letter. That application was for a job at a research-oriented university and, based on my modest grantsmanship record, I suspected I would not be the most competitive applicant for the job. At least I wasn't kept in suspense.

To date, one of my applications has passed an "initial screening." In that application packet, rather than enclosing letters of recommendation, I submitted the names of several professional references, as requested in the ad. This seems to be a considerate approach taken by some universities to reduce the total number of letters that have to be written in support of an applicant who is applying for many jobs. I was elated when the search committee chairman contacted me to have my references send in their letters.

I am starting to realize that finding my way to an academic career is like navigating through the streets of a busy city: There are sudden stops, directional decisions, and too-infrequent green lights. I can only hope that the green lights that do appear will lead to more open roads.

Her Perspective

For months, I've been juggling the competing demands of finishing my doctorate and applying for academic jobs. Finally, an end is in sight -- at least when it comes to earning my degree. In the most recent meeting of my Ph.D. committee, I was cleared to defend my dissertation this spring. What a relief. It looks now like I will finish in time to find a job and relocate for the fall. I have also begun to submit manuscripts from my dissertation research. The light at the end of this tunnel is becoming brighter and beckons me on.

So far, I have mailed out only a handful of job applications. All of the advertisements say that a Ph.D. is required, and many indicate that postdoctoral research experience is preferred. Although completion of my doctoral program is imminent, I have had to send out my applications as an A.B.D. This is obviously a disadvantage because I must convince a search committee that I am as good a candidate or better than the best applicants who already have their Ph.D.'s in hand.

Our Perspective

We have found only two departments that have advertised more than one opening in zoology or biology. We applied for separate positions at those universities -- positions that we are qualified for and very excited about. Of all of our applications, we are most eagerly waiting to hear back about the status of those.

The academic job search consumes a great part of both of our lives, both during the work day and during our repetitive nightly conversations. We are plagued by the same old worries, and the same old questions. What will we do if only one of us is offered a job? Or if we each get an offer, but at widely separated universities? Or worse yet, if neither of us succeeds in our first academic job search?

To be sure, the waiting period is torturous, and the personal investment is costly for both of us. But we are confident that it will all be worth the effort, when some day we look back at these tribulations.

Tamatha Barbeau, a doctoral candidate in zoology at the University of Florida, and Greg Pryor, a new Ph.D. in zoology, are chronicling their joint search this year for tenure-track jobs.