Is Your Spouse Hurting Your Career?

June 11, 2007

The politics of dual-career academic couples, and the policies directed toward them, have been dissected and debated at length in these pages. Rarely mentioned, however, is how an academic career can be affected by a husband, wife, or significant other who is not on the professorial track.

Most pairings of professor and nonprofessor work just fine. The partners maintain a division of labor and support that allows both to progress toward their individual and family goals.

But in some "mixed marriages," with no malice or sabotage intended, the nonacademic partner's behavior or ideas can undermine or even cripple the scholar's career -- because of mutual ignorance and mistaken assumptions. And in those cases where the relationship is failing, the academic's work can be but one collateral casualty of a wider war.

First, some context: Examine dissertations published through the 1970s and you will find a high number of acknowledgments "to my wife for typing this manuscript through several editions." These days, although most academics, male and female, do their own typing, dissertations and scholarly books regularly credit "my husband, Juan, who endured this project" or "my partner, Steve, for his tireless support." Come tenure time, the celebration party typically includes a paean to "the real hero who made this possible."

Almost always, the kudos are plausible and sincere. I'm hard pressed to think of more than a few successful academics who achieved their career milestones despite their partners. So clearly, the nonacademic spouse can play many positive roles, from mentor to cheerleader.

In my own case, besides the myriad other ways in which my wife both perceptibly and invisibly contributes to my career, she is an outstanding proofreader, and there is a marked qualitative difference between any document I produce that she has perused and one that missed her examination.

But a substantial minority of mixed partnerships have no such benefits. Why?

One reason could be unacknowledged ignorance about our line of work. Sometimes we forget or don't know how to explain that academe is idiosyncratic. Certainly, you can make comparisons between what happens in faculty meetings and the behaviors and procedures of the boardroom, the manufacturing plant, the law office, the medical clinic, and the cubicle warren.

But getting a Ph.D., producing scholarly research, navigating the tenure track, and laboring toward full professorship and beyond entail many singular mindsets and means of conduct.

Nonacademics, for example, often have a different sense of proper "work" time. In one case, I recall, a young assistant professor was struggling to complete her research agenda. The tenure clock ticked and her frustration grew. In talking to her the problem became clear: She could not get any work done at home and was under pressure not to stay at the office beyond a "normal work day," as her husband put it.

Her children and spouse were not being spiteful but simply assumed that once in the home geospace, she should convert to wife and mother. In turn, she did not want to disappoint their expectations but chafed at the lost hours. Frustration begat resentment which begat lack of focus which begat a floundering career.

Furthermore, academics and nonacademics may have differing views of productivity. A "normal" office worker may define it in terms of money -- a big raise or major sales of a product. By contrast, a highly successful assistant professor in some fields might point to a single journal article for all her efforts in a year.

A colleague told me the story of when he showed his partner his annual report that cited two papers that he had had accepted for publication at top journals. A colleague in the field would have recognized that as impressive. But the partner, a software manager at a big information-technology firm, burst into laughter and said something to the effect of, "You professors get away with murder. If I accomplished that little in a year I would be canned."

Nonacademic spouses can also fail to comprehend the tenure and promotion process. In most businesses, there are multiple variations and gradations of promotion or advancement.

But an academic career involves only two key promotions, the first of which -- tenure -- is literally make or break. If you are denied tenure, you have virtually no chance of getting another position at the same university. Yet I have heard nonacademic spouses tell their partners: "I meet deadlines all the time; tenure is just a bigger one, right?" Or, "Too bad you didn't get tenure. But you can always try again next year."

Office politics is also a source of confusion between mixed couples. Yes, the academic department can be a place of discord, back-stabbing, power plays, and dissimulation, but that doesn't mean that most academics welcome such behaviors or that they can prove beneficial to a career.

One administrator described a well-qualified job candidate who "talked himself out of a job." The candidate blurted out all sorts of downright weird demands and suspicions, raising objections to any request and basically treating the job offer like a hardball business-labor contract negotiation.

The administrator gave up and said, "Maybe you should find another job elsewhere, because we can't make you happy." Then the source of the candidate's tactics emerged: He had been "advised" to be aggressive by his lawyer spouse, who was indeed a specialist in labor negotiations.

While it is obvious than an antagonistic and demeaning spouse can hurt your work, conversely a cheerleader and fierce partisan can undermine your progress toward promotion and tenure as well. There is a line between "being on your side" and being an enabler for your obstinacy and obtuseness.

It doesn't help you if every time you go home to complain about campus politics, your partner reassures you that you are blameless and that "those bastards are out to get you." Many career wounds that academics suffer are self-inflicted; we need someone to love and support us but also to suggest alternative scenarios to the "poor pitiful me" lament. One professor I know tells me that her husband listens patiently to her campus-driven frustrations but then, at some point, asks, "So what was your role in all this?"

Perhaps I have a bias considering the field I am in, but I believe many spousal-induced career problems in academe are rooted in miscommunication.

The spouse is not intentionally sinking your career but simply does not know how best to assist it. Unfortunately, such dysfunctions tend to remain unaddressed because no outsider wants or dares to meddle in a marriage.

But sometimes an intervention is possible. In the case of the young assistant professor mentioned above, for instance, it became clear that the main problem in her her lack of progress toward tenure was her husband, or rather their joint inability to define what her career required to flourish.

He was an office worker who, in the classic formula, believed "you don't bring work home with you" and didn't particularly see the value of her research, assuming it was "just a way to make a living." She, like most academics, was not able to complete work at the office, what with the bustle of students and distractions of minutiae.

I couldn't help myself: I finally cornered the gentlemen in question at a party. I got him talking about his job and eventually asked, "Isn't it funny how different your wife's job is from yours?" I then enumerated all that our work required of us, emphasizing the need for undisturbed hours at home for thinking, reading, and writing and a partner who believes in what we are devoting our lives to study, with an understanding of the particular nature of the sacrifices we need to make and that our loved ones need to accept.

I take very small credit for the assistant professor's subsequent rise in productivity. I think many conversations between the two of them, after that night, were the real sources of a new alignment in mutual expectations and supportiveness.

That's the point: All of us, when we commit to the academic life, need to be candid with our nonacademic life partners and negotiate a reasonable plan that furthers our relationship as well as our careers.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor and associate dean for graduate studies and research at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.