The Logistics of a Dual-Career Search

Brian Taylor

March 14, 2012

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Question: I'm preparing to go on the academic job market next year, and I have a two-body problem. How should my partner and I get started?

Julie: I really dislike the phrase "two-body problem" as the word "problem" casts a negative pall on what is, in fact, a common situation. In a 2008 study conducted by researchers at Stanford University, 35 percent of male faculty members and 40 percent of female ones reported that they were paired with other academics. (See "Dual-Career Academic Couples: What Universities Need to Know.") Colleges and universities expect that many faculty candidates will be part of a couple. In fact, some institutions offer job-search assistance to spouses as a recruiting tool. Instead of a "two-body problem," I refer to your situation as a job search by a dual-career academic couple.

Jenny: At the same time, we understand your concern. There are many logistics to be considered that will require a lot of conversation between you and your partner. Before any job applications are sent out, the two of you need to sit down and speak frankly about what will work for the both of you. Geography is often the first topic that couples broach. Are you willing to consider a wide range of geographic locations, or will you limit your search to urban areas? Is living near family an important factor?

When you are conducting an academic job search, the possibilities can seem wide open, and you can picture yourself almost anywhere. Those who have spent the past several years in urban areas may fantasize about living in a small college town, and vice versa. It's important to make sure, however, that your dreams coincide with your partner's. Where are the places that the two of you would absolutely not want to be? And where are the places where you would both be happy?

Julie: In talking about geography, you will need to broach the difficult topic of living in two different places. While this is not ideal for most couples, we have known many academics in successful partnerships who live in two different places at the beginning of their careers, and even some who have been apart for much longer. Is this something that the two of you would consider? If so, for how long, and how far apart would you be willing to live?

Jenny: There are pluses and minuses to every couple permutation. When both members of a couple are academics and each wants the best possible job, that may mean living apart for a long time—or not. Fortunately, technology makes it easier to be in touch than ever before. I know of couples who, although they live apart, watch the same TV show together, do yoga together, and prepare and eat meals together, thanks to Skype, FaceTime, and other technologies.

Julie: And there are important financial questions to ask: As a couple, can you afford two residences, two cars, travel expenses, and whatever else will be needed for you to work and live separately? It can be worth talking with a financial planner.

Children are another dimension of the topic. If you and your partner are planning to have a family, will it be possible for you to work in two different locations? If you don't have children, do you hope to have them? If so, what is your time frame? How, if at all, will your children affect the range of locations you will consider?

Jenny: If you are both academics, are you going on the job market at the same time? If one of you is ready and the other is completing the Ph.D. or finishing a postdoc, it is still important to ask those questions. As it is, it can take more than a year to land a faculty job.

Julie: It's also necessary to think about issues that are particular to only one of you. Does your partner have an aging parent or a relative in poor health for whom you will have responsibility? Do you have allergies that mean you don't do well in a humid climate? Has one of you moved a lot already and is now looking to "settle," while the other is still open to a series of relocations?

Jenny: Assuming you are both academics, another thing you might want to talk about—and this might be a hard topic to raise—is how committed each of you are to being an academic. It's a long time from the start of a doctoral program to your first shot at the job market, and your goals and priorities may have changed.

In this uncertain academic market, it's important for both of you to have a Plan B. Would you be willing to move down a different career path if that meant your partner could take a dream job? Would your partner be so willing if you landed the dream job? Would you accept a job as a lecturer or an adjunct at a place where your partner landed a tenure-track position? How far are you each willing to compromise? And what is nonnegotiable? We encourage women not to assume that they will be the ones to step away from their academic careers; rather, make sure the discussion goes both ways.

Julie: With all of those questions to resolve, it can feel like subjecting each other to an interrogation. Think of this as an ongoing discussion, rather than as a one-time summit meeting.

In addition to talking with each other, it's a good idea to talk with others who have already been in your shoes. Speak with former postdocs, junior faculty members, and people who were advanced grad students when you started. You can learn from other people's stories about how they handled the dual-career search.

Jenny: Professors in your field can advise you as to what is common practice. For example, many job candidates wonder, "What is the right time to bring up my partner in the job-search process?" In our experience, the answer varies from field to field but, for the most part, is best left until after you've received a job offer. An exception to that may be in the lab-based sciences. If you and your partner are both scientists who would require significant start-up money, the institution might want to know that fairly early in the hiring process. Here's where you would want to get advice from faculty members in your department.

Julie: You and your partner may both be in the arts and sciences, or may be in entirely different parts of the university. It's important for each of you to understand the particulars of training and job hunting in the other's field. Physicians apply for internships and residencies on a schedule, and some do postresidency fellowships. Some architects take their professional exams over a period of many months or even years after completing their master's degree. Take the time to learn the issues surrounding your partner's career possibilities, and together, identify geographic areas that might be a good professional fit for both of you.

Jenny: A department that is interested in you may, or may not, be interested in helping your partner find a job. If your partner is an academic, an institution may be willing to put him or her forward for an adjunct or a lecturer position. If there is a search under way on the campus in your partner's field, an institution that has made an offer to you may give special consideration to your partner. If your partner is not an academic, then an institution may be willing to provide job-search resources to your partner.

Julie: You may be able to learn the friendliness of a campus to academic couples by looking at its Web site. Some universities list resources that are offered to the spouse or partner of a new hire.

You can also read the college or university's faculty handbook because more and more institutions are including information for dual-career job seekers. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, has a Web page on its family-friendly policies, and Bowdoin College offers information on shared appointments. You can find such information in the academic-affairs or faculty-affairs section of an institution's Web site.

Jenny: Some universities and colleges, such as the Five Colleges, in Massachusetts (, or the Five Colleges of Ohio (, advertise academic and nonacademic positions at nearby campuses. In addition, the Higher Education Recruitment Consortium is an organization with regional chapters, each of which has a job database that allows institutions in the same region to advertise openings—both tenure-track and staff positions—together. It is a terrific resource for couples and for anyone looking for a position in higher education, I might add.

Julie: So let's talk about applying. It is important to apply as an individual and not talk about your coupledom in your cover letters. You want a committee to evaluate you on your own merits. That's true even if you are applying at an institution where your partner has already received an offer.

Some applicants wonder if their dual-career status can be discussed by the search committee. The answer is no. Part of the role of search chairs is to help committee members ensure that a candidate's dual-career status is not a topic of discussion in evaluating the applicant.

Jenny: Sometimes people wonder about the etiquette of bringing up their partner in the hiring process. It's fine to raise the issue if you have received an offer and are negotiating aspects of it. If you are in a field where it makes sense to bring this up a little earlier, the search-committee chair is the person who can advise you on what may or may not be possible. If you are already employed by a department, and a position opens up at your institution that would be perfect for your partner, talk to your department chair.

Julie: We would like to leave you with a checklist of questions that you should be sure to discuss with your partner.

  • Who will go on the job market first, or will you both try at the same time?
  • Will you apply nationally or in a few specific locations?
  • Are you willing to live separately? If so, for how long?
  • Is there a "dream job" open in your field right now that would throw other considerations out the window?
  • Are you hoping to stay close to family?
  • If you are in a same-sex partnership, how will that affect your job search and the locations you target?
  • Are you planning to have children? How might that affect your career trajectories?
  • Is one of you willing to consider options other than being a tenure-track faculty member?
  • If you are moving to advance your partner's career, would he or she be willing to do the same for you in the future?

Jenny: These issues are never easy. I am a trailing spouse who moved from Philadelphia, a city I love, to New York, a city where I've never really felt at home. Doing so gave me the chance to challenge myself to move my career forward in a different direction—something I might not have done if I had stayed in Philadelphia. My partner is also trying to broaden his skill set, so that he has a wider range of career options—in case we ever decide to relocate for my career. Keeping an open line of communication about our career aspirations, and frustrations, has helped us to maintain a successful partnership.

Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director of New York University's Office of Faculty Resources. They are the authors of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press). If you have questions for the Career Talk columnists, send them to