Have No Illusions: Dual Academic Careers

Brian Taylor

October 26, 2010

I am part of a two-career academic couple. We share the same discipline and are fortunate enough to teach at the same university. From our present midcareer positions—both tenured, both productive scholars, with children in college—it may look like we hold special answers on how to negotiate two careers.

Young academics, not yet finished with their Ph.D.'s, or newly on the job market, have expressed surprise, anger, and deep frustration that it "takes so long" to find a job, and seems next to impossible to find two at one university. They look at us and think it somehow must have been easier two decades ago. But our path is not easily replicated. In retrospect, we were naïve and very lucky.

We began our dual job search by rejecting a bicoastal or commuter relationship. We decided we would both go on the job market, take the best job in the best location, and trust that things would eventually work out for us both.

That first year, several jobs fit my area of expertise, and none specified his. We both applied for many positions. I landed three interviews, two at large universities in locations where it would be difficult to find a second teaching job, and one at a small college with several nearby institutions that could offer him opportunities.

My first job interview, at a large Southern university, resulted in an offer. Meanwhile, I had a second interview at a university in the Midwest that was more appealing because of a lighter teaching load. The Southern university gave me two weeks to decide, just short of the time needed to learn whether the Midwestern university would also make me an offer.

In those days, before contracts were easily sent via e-mail, my adviser cleverly suggested that I buy more time by asking to see the offer in writing. It worked: I received an offer from the Midwestern university in time, and I turned down the Southern one.

With that offer in hand, I interviewed at a third institution, a small college. And the cycle repeated itself: The Midwestern university had given me two weeks to make a decision, just enough time for me to know whether I would be offered the college position. However, on the final day of the deadline, the college chair said it had narrowed the field to two candidates. I was one, but the committee would need another meeting to make its final choice.

The college job was the one I most wanted because it offered the best opportunities for my husband. I asked the Midwestern university for three more days, the chair said no, and I turned down the position.

Three days later, the college chair called to say she had offered the position to the other candidate.

Swallowing my pride, I called the Midwestern university and left a message that if the position was still available, I was interested. The secretary told me it had been offered to a visiting lecturer. I hung up with a sense of relief. I wasn't very enthusiastic about the job or the location. I reassured myself that three interviews and two offers was good, and that I should have no trouble doing well on the market again the next year, maybe at better places. (How did I know there would be no jobs for which I clearly fit the bill for the next three years?)

After a short vacation, I returned to find a message from the Midwestern university. It turned out its president would not approve the offer to the visiting lecturer because he did not fit the job description. The department offered me the position again and, with mixed feelings, I accepted.

That summer we packed a small moving van, towed our old Datsun behind it, and drove to the Midwest. The department chair asked if my partner might be interested in a two-year replacement position at a small college 60 miles away. (Coincidentally, the same visiting lecturer had accepted that replacement position but then dropped it for something else.) My partner eagerly accepted, even though the winter commute was a nightmare, and despite the four-four teaching load that required he prepare brand-new courses on subjects beyond his areas of expertise.

We felt very lucky. Our combined salaries were low, but we felt richer than we had ever been.

Over the next four years, we had two children. My teaching load was reduced in accordance with my research productivity. My partner landed a closer replacement teaching position for a semester, followed by miscellaneous courses here and there. We continued to scan the job ads and to apply for positions in better locations and at better institutions.

We both published our dissertations as books with a prestigious academic press. That fueled our ambition, reassuring us that our hard work would pay off. I felt the pressure as the full-time breadwinner; he did the bulk of the child care and woke up early to work on publications. Our dream of finding two tenure-track jobs was fading, but we told ourselves that our best hope was to publish our way out.

During our fourth year in the Midwest, I landed two interviews, both at better universities in more cosmopolitan areas. I received an offer. My partner was more eager to move than I was. I had become accustomed to the slow pace and low pressure of the Midwestern university. I was over my initial shock at the poor academic skills of the students, and I was well appreciated and productive.

The new university initially offered my partner nothing. When the department chair informed me that no job was available for my partner, I remember saying, "Check with the university press, check with the library—there must be something! At least give us a toehold." He phoned back within an hour and offered my partner a two-year, half-time, visiting position for $20,000 a year.

We also negotiated for a year of research leave without pay. We sold our house at a $10,000 profit, added that amount to two small research grants, and spent the next year overseas doing research and writing for six months in each of our research locations.

The transition to the new university was not without problems. That August, en route to the new city, one of our children had a medical emergency requiring eight hours at the hospital. Our old insurance had expired in July, and even though the new positions began that month, the new insurance did not cover us until September. Luckily our annual income was so low that the hospital waived most of the charges. The doctor's fees were not discounted, and the proceeds from our house, plus more, were used to pay the medical bills.

My partner's salary and some of my pay was spent on part-time day care (three mornings a week plus lunch) for our two preschool-aged children. We took turns looking after the kids so the other could work. My workload was much heavier than before, mostly because I inherited a number of graduate students from my predecessor. Had we not taken the previous year off for research and writing, it would have been difficult to maintain our research productivity.

While we were abroad, our new university listed a tenure-track position for which my partner was marginally qualified. He applied, but early in the process the position was cut because of budget constraints. The following year the position was listed again. By then my partner had shaped some publications to fit the job description. He made it to the long shortlist, but again the position was cut.

By then we both had two books, and he had published in all of the top journals in his field. Still, our hopes for dual tenure-track employment were fading. The next year, his final year in the visiting position, we agreed would be his last season on the academic market. If it didn't work out, he would seriously consider other options.

Our university listed the same tenure-track job again. My partner reapplied and the search progressed. He made it to the shortlist of four candidates. We joked that the job interview had lasted two years.

Knowing I could jeopardize his chances, I bit my tongue at department meetings and accepted more service than I should have. I was not allowed to meet the job candidates or to attend their job talks, but one candidate insisted on meeting me. In my office she demanded to know whether this was a "legitimate search" and whether my husband was, in fact, the "inside candidate."

The long wait for a decision was punctuated by colleagues who avoided eye contact or pretended nothing unusual was going on, while our futures lay in the balance. Ultimately, my partner was offered the job. Had we known over the intervening seven years that it would eventually work out, it would have saved us an inordinate amount of stress and heartache.

In retrospect, we were naïve and unrealistic about the prospect of finding two jobs in one place. Neither of us fully comprehended or admitted to ourselves the increased stress we experienced as a result, Nor did we admit that we envied each other.

I envied his freedom from the pressures of a tenure-track job and the time he could spend with the kids. He envied my tenure-track job and the validation it lent to my career. Neither one of us was comfortable with the asymmetry in our roles or the apparent gender reversal.

At the same time, we were also doggedly persistent, almost to the point of obsession, in our search for jobs and our endless work on publications. My partner's persistence took the form of obsessive writing, carving out ever-earlier morning hours to work before the children woke. His persistence was fueled by a desperate sense that he was suited for only an academic career.

My point is not that dogged persistence and obsessive research productivity eventually pay off. It's that we were incredibly lucky. Would we do it over again if we knew how long it would take and the stress it would entail? I doubt it.

Naomi Granville is the pseudonym of a professor in the social sciences at a university in the East.