A Dual Search Falters

March 16, 2006

My first column began with the arrival of the first job ad of the season, so it is both poetic -- and indicative of this year's job search -- to begin this one with the first rejection letter, which arrived in mid-February.

As has been the case with most rejection letters I've gotten, I was neither expecting it nor surprised to see it: As the weeks and months drag on after submitting an application, I begin to suspect that the department isn't interested but still secretly hold out hope every time the phone rings.

The thin envelopes with university insignias that arrive in my mailbox always extinguish those last rays of hope. Even before I open them, I know what they say: "Thank you for your application. While your credentials are impressive..."

To review, I am an assistant professor in the humanities at a large Midwestern research university. My wife, Regina, is about to earn her Ph.D. in the same discipline, so we've been on the market together, hoping to find two tenure-track positions in the same general area.

It occurs to me that while I have gotten some wonderful advice over the years -- about how to craft cover letters, CV's, and teaching statements; how to design job talks and teaching presentations; what questions to ask, what to wear, and how to behave during interviews; and how to negotiate effectively when an offer is made -- I've gotten no help dealing with the emotional part of the job search.

As a result, when that "perfect" job ad appears, while my brain knows that no matter how well I fit the job description, it's no guarantee of an interview, my heart never learns. I embark on flights of fancy to places I've never visited and have long, satisfying talks with colleagues I've never met. And the depths of dejection that follow are equal to the heights of my fantasies. It can be really overwhelming, especially seeing it not only firsthand, but in your partner's job search as well.

This year was supposed to be filled with rejoicing, not with gloom. Regina had finished her dissertation and just published a lead article in a prominent journal. I had completed my fifth year on the tenure track and my third at a research university; my first book was about to be published. In fact, our search for nearby positions in the same field had begun with unexpected promise.

Our first prospect arrived in October from "Shangri-La University," which not only had a position comparable to my current one, but one that fit Regina's qualifications in a different department as well. (It's an oddity of our particular discipline that, while Regina and I usually fall into the same department, that's not always the case.)

My wife had already applied. I immediately e-mailed the chairman of the search committee, expressing my interest, but explaining that I was only looking to move if Regina could also secure a position there. To my delight, I received a response not only from him but also from the department chairman, who explained that he had had previous discussions about the possibility of hiring a dual-career couple with the head of the department where Regina had applied.

A couple of weeks later, I got an e-mail message asking me to send in my application prior to the deadline because other committee members wanted to review it.

About that same time, I got an unexpected message from a senior professor who serves as one of my recommenders and had tried to recruit me before. He had recently moved to a new university, and wondered whether my wife and I wanted him to see if he could find a way of accommodating us there.

Maybe this was what the job search was supposed to be like for people like me who are "getting senior," as a friend of mine put it. Just send out a few feelers, and sit back and wait for the fish to jump into the boat.

As the semester ended, we entered the holiday season without word from Shangri-La, but my outlook remained sunny. I chalked up the silence to the time of year, and confidently awaited a call. When we went on vacation for five days, we even left our rarely used mobile-phone number on the answering machine so as not to miss the call. But it never came.

As December faded to January, the trickle of job ads that the fall had brought froze up like a northern lake in winter. Regina began to worry, while I became distant, fearing deep down that the smallest negative thought would jinx our chances. Something would work out, I insisted. It had to.

Then the long-feared rejection letter arrived from Shangri-La. After bringing the mail in, I waited several minutes before telling Regina, knowing how she would react. Finally, I gathered my courage and walked into the kitchen where she was washing the afternoon dishes.

"The rejection came from Shangri-La," I said as I opened the refrigerator, trying to sound casual.

Regina looked at me, then immediately turned away with a stern, sad look in her eyes.

"It's not the end of the world," I protested, a little too loudly. "It's too early to give up. We need to be patient."

"It was our best shot," she insisted. "Our only shot, really."

"We don't know that!" I snapped and, thankfully, walked out of the room without picking any more of an argument.

A few days later, Regina got word that Far Away State University wanted to interview her on campus. While we're excited about the opportunity, we're both apprehensive, too, as we find ourselves entering into that difficult and emotionally disruptive realm of trading our dreams off against each other's:

  • If Regina gets an offer from Far Away, will we put off starting a family? We agree that we can only put off that decision for a few more years at the most, although I tend to think we can push it back further than Regina does.

  • If she does take the job, how will we get back together?

  • I've given serious consideration to resigning and taking anything that Far Away will give me, even though I'm close to tenure where I am. I often tell myself that, while I enjoy my present position and have had some success, it was never my dream, while an academic job has always been Regina's dream. So how do we balance dreams against salaries against academic prestige? And how do I ensure that my willingness to resign won't simply lead to resentment on my part and a strain on our marriage?

Recently, as I was brooding over those questions and complaining bitterly about the way universities treat dual-career couples -- at least in my own head -- I happened to confide my worries to a friend who is not in academe. His wife is a doctoral student, and he works in the film industry. Right now they live apart, but she's planning to move back in with him to write her dissertation, after which she wants a position at a small liberal-arts college, which is unlikely to be in a town where my friend can find work. Soon enough, one of them will be forced to make a choice between family and career.

I've also gotten numerous messages of support from academics in similar predicaments, mostly from people who guessed my identity from my previous column, despite my cleverly fashioned disguise.

It does help a little to know that our problems aren't unique. It helps a little to know that others have made things work, have found creative solutions that have allowed them to have fulfilling careers and personal lives. It helps even just to get together with people to complain about everything.

But, in the end, it helps only a little, and the dream of everything working out as we want gets harder and harder to cling to as the ground starts to thaw and our chances begin melting away.

T.J. Boxem is the pseudonym of an assistant professor in the humanities at a large research university in the Midwest. He will be chronicling his and his wife's search for tenure-track jobs in the same city.