Lessons of a Dual Hire

Brian Taylor

August 19, 2009

It's been three years since I first wrote about the search my husband, "Tom," and I undertook for long-term positions in academe. Since then, in the pages of The Chronicle, I've seen my own thoughts, dreams, and anxieties reflected time and again: the hope and pride of mailing out applications, the thrill of invitations to interview, the disappointment of not being chosen, the awful feeling of "Why not me?"

But, ultimately, we were chosen. After three years of job searching for me in the geological sciences, and four years for my husband in engineering, we successfully maneuvered this year to find two tenure-track positions at the same university. Here's how it happened.

Last fall started out looking pretty good. I found plenty of teaching jobs advertised on a variety of campuses, and quite a few were interested in my particular skill set. Three departments invited me for interviews right off the bat. The first was for a job at a national laboratory, the other two were faculty positions.

And then the economy crashed.

At first the recession did not appear to affect my career options. In November, the lab interview went well; the timeline to reach a decision was based on federal financing to be appropriated by the Obama administration in late January, which suited me fine.

The second interview, at Western Public U. was a dream come true. Best interview I've ever had. The people were lively, active, and fun. The department was small but heavily weighted toward early-career faculty members. The campus was in an ideal location, and Tom had applied for an opening in the engineering department. I left that interview feeling like I could walk on water—and feeling, honestly, like both the lab and this interview would certainly lead to offers.

So when the department chair for what would have been my third interview telephoned, full of regret and frustration, to call it off because the university had canceled all hires, I felt disappointed but not devastated. It wasn't until a week later, when I got an e-mail message from Western Public U. informing me that it, too, had frozen all hires indefinitely, that things started to look really bad.

After that, interview invitations started dropping like flies. Twice more in the new year, I was invited for interviews only to have them snatched away days before I was scheduled to visit. Several other positions that I had applied for quietly folded or entered the dreaded realm of the "frozen." I ended up with three more interviews in the winter, but none of them felt right, and that feeling was apparently mutual. One silver lining was that I was offered the job at the national lab and was given a long time to make my decision.

In the middle of the winter, with that one security blanket in hand, I waited for my husband's job search to bear fruit. Thankfully, it did. For whatever reason, engineering seemed impervious to the recession, and Tom was in demand. He had multiple university interviews and one at a national lab in the same city as my lab offer. As winter turned to spring, he found himself with two offers, one at East Coast Public U., the other at Midwest Private U. And he was awaiting word on the lab position.

Quickly the eyes of those two universities, or at least of the chairs of their engineering departments, turned to me, and I was once again polishing my CV and my research and teaching statements. It was immediately clear that the engineering chair at Midwest Private U. was ready to do just about anything in his power to get us there. It was also clear that I, perhaps even more than Tom, was a remarkably good fit. The university was in the process of building a large-scale interdisciplinary research-and-teaching program in my field and was hiring a number of senior "bridging" positions. I was the type of bridge the university was looking for, but in junior form.

At the same time, it became equally clear that the engineering chair at East Coast Public U. would try to be helpful but was aiming for a goal that we considered less than optimal (i.e., no tenure-track position for me). East Coast Public U. might do better, he informed us, but only when facing a superior offer from Midwest Private.

So off we went to visit the Midwest campus: great city, lots to do, wonderful people, interview went really well. And the research interests of the few faculty members already participating in the interdisciplinary program fit me like a glove. There was no question that the university was aiming to create a tenure-track position for me.

We flew home, and the next day headed for East Coast Public U. The engineering chair there had found a potential fit for me with a researcher looking for a postdoc for three years. The chair set up an informal interview for me with a department that, on paper, seemed like the right place for me. Again, the people were warm and wonderful. However, the postdoc position was a poor fit, and it was clear that the department could do nothing for me without the administration, which wasn't involved in the conversation. In addition, my particular research just wasn't a great fit for that department.

Shortly afterward, we heard from Midwest Private U. that a tenure-track line had been approved for me by the chancellor and dean, both of whom were enthusiastic in their support for the new interdisciplinary program. However, the faculty members in Department A felt that they already had enough assistant professors representing my subdiscipline, and wanted me to return to interview with Department B. I booked another ticket.

Around the same time, I got a call from the engineering chair at East Coast Public U. The job had fallen through, but, aware of the positive noises from the Midwest institution, he wanted me to come interview again with yet another department. This time, he assured me, the administration was involved in the conversation. However, he wouldn't tell me if a tenure-track job was on the table ("We won't know until you visit"). Somewhat skeptically, I agreed to come.

At that point, a lot happened in rapid succession. I had a good (but not great) interview with Department B at Midwest, and Tom got an offer from the national lab. With two permanent lab offers in the same city, our bargaining power was suddenly elevated. Until then we had declared that a tenure-track position for me was all we would accept. With the lab jobs in hand, our confidently stated bluff became a reality.

Then came disappointing news from Midwest. Despite the administrative backing, neither department would offer me a job. I was too much B for Department A, and too much A for Department B. Interdisciplinary studies can be hugely successful and useful, but without disciplinary buy-in and support, you can't build squat.

So, with that, our first choice evaporated. We started mentally preparing to be career researchers at the two national labs, assuming that there was no way—in this economic climate—that East Coast Public U. could create a position for me given that I didn't have an offer from the Midwest university.

But suddenly, East Coast Public U. came through. First I had a frank and open phone conversation with the chair of the department where I had interviewed. He told me not only that a tenure-track job was being discussed, but also that, assuming the interview went well, he would do everything in his power to make it happen.

And then the interview went really well: another productive, open group of people who supported exactly the type of research and teaching I want to do. Even my crazy seminar idea, which met with wry smiles or raised eyebrows elsewhere, was enthusiastically received. At the end of the day, the department recommended to the dean that I be hired. Within a week I had an offer, and a few days later, we'd negotiated a start-up package.

Tom and I regretfully declined the lab positions, and we are giddily preparing to be assistant professors.

So we achieved the impossible dream in a terrible year. But is it really impossible?

I've met a lot of dual-career academic couples over the years. Many have jobs in different cities, or one partner has tenure and the other is an adjunct in the same town. Still, there are a surprising number of success stories, too.

All of the departments with which I interviewed at Midwest Private and East Coast Public had at least one tenured or tenure-track "trailing" spouse. At first glance, you might not notice them, but they (we) are out there in higher abundance than you might think.

For those academic couples going on the market (again) this fall, all I can advise is: Tell the departments upfront what you want, not the minimum that you'll accept. You might be uncomfortable demanding a tenure-track position for your partner. But they sure as heck aren't going to offer one unless you ask. If you aim low ("A one-year adjunct post would be a good start") that's the most you're going to get.

Once you've accepted a deal that features only one tenure-track job and a second temporary position, all your bargaining power is gone. Your partner will not (repeat: not) be promoted to the tenure track in a year or two, out of the kindness of the fdean's heart.

Be prepared to walk if you can. Two years ago, we turned down tenure-for-him, adjunct-for-me positions. I caught a lot of flak for that, but we were fortunate in that both of us had stable, multiyear postdocs to fall back on.

If you do accept a less-than-ideal position, get ready to go back on the job market again (and again). The more shots you take at the job market, the more likely you are to succeed.

Finally, keep burning incense, or doing the funky chicken dance, or whatever it takes to get the good luck flowing. The stars aligned for us. I hope they shine for you, too.

Rebecca Manderlay is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. in geological sciences who begins her first job as an assistant professor this fall.