The Other Job Search

A dual-career couple in history ignores all the warnings and goes in search of two teaching jobs

Brian Taylor

April 16, 2013

I suppose I haven't been entirely forthcoming in writing for The Chronicle about my first tenure-track job search. In the interest of full disclosure, I should now tell you that this year I've really been involved in two job searches, because I make up one half of a dual-career academic couple.

I met my partner—let's call him Rick Cobden—in our doctoral program in history. As I began my battle with the academic job market this past summer, I felt myself hoping that Rick and I would be lucky enough to be the exception to the rule that both members of freshly minted Ph.D. couples don't find jobs, and especially not in the same region. As it turns out, we are the exception, but the point here is that we almost weren't.

I've hesitated to tell the ending to this story, because it concludes happily, and I don't want to perpetuate anyone's fantasies that it's easy to land a teaching job, let alone one in the same general location as your partner's. I now know just how difficult that is to do, but I also know how easy it was for me to ignore the many warnings about how hard it would be.

During our graduate careers, both Rick and I did what we needed to do to move forward in our history program. Those decisions involved living apart and applying for positions in far different locations.

In telling this story, I don't want to elide the year that Rick spent on the academic market before me; the many months we have lived away from each other for the sake of our careers; the CV-building we've done to make ourselves professionally competitive; or the number of jobs to which we've applied (160 jobs and postdocs for Rick in the past two years, and 67 for me this year). I could tell you about the months we spent in separate regions of the United States for dissertation research, or about the year that I relocated to the East Coast for a writing fellowship while he moved to Australia for a postdoc. We knew going into this year that the market would be difficult.

Looking back on our separate job searches, I think that, in large part, the reason we didn't have to make complicated decisions is that we're childless and relatively young.

I went straight from college to graduate school, so my biological clock isn't ticking loudly enough for me to be worrying about having children. And we aren't married, mostly because we've both watched friends—academics and nonacademics alike—whose marriages have fallen apart. It always seemed irresponsible to promise to live your life with someone when it was unclear whether or not those lives would unfold in the same country.

But in myriad ways, dating a graduate student in my program made the job search easier. I realize that such an assertion goes against a lot of the advice graduate students receive, and I won't argue that dating a fellow student works for everyone. But it worked for us.

Rick, in addition to some close friends, provided the support I needed to treat the job market reasonably. Before we started dating, I used to be one of those graduate students who woke up late and stayed up until 5 or 6 a.m. I took almost no days off, wrote my papers at the last minute, and did the minimum amount of work required for my courses. During our comps year, when we became a serious couple, his mind-set wore off on me. I became a better scholar, one who woke up early in the morning, exercised, and finished the day by dinnertime. He taught me how sticking to that sort of schedule made it acceptable to take spontaneous days off, a luxury that actually increased my productivity. During the year we started dating, I submitted my first article to a journal and got it published.

By the time job season began, I had become the sort of scholar who turned in her applications several days ahead of deadlines. Although I was constantly suffering from midlevel stress, I rarely felt as though I wouldn't get things done in time. And we still managed to enjoy days off together, which made the long hours of preparing job applications more bearable.

We knew how tough the faculty job market would be, not least because Rick went on the market last year. He had applied widely with the assumption that I would try to conduct a more focused search the following year, should he land a position.

He didn't. Despite having four published and forthcoming articles on his CV, a remarkably quick time-to-degree path, a swank postdoc, and several campus visits, he didn't obtain the coveted tenure-track job. Luckily, this past fall he got a one-semester visiting gig in the Northeast, fairly close to where I now live, and then moved in with me for the second half of the year.

The closest he came to getting a job last year was at an institution in England, so in his second search, this year, he focused a lot of his attention on job openings in Britain. At first I was not enthusiastic about that decision, because I didn't think my CV was strong enough to land me a job there. But in keeping with our previous approaches to academe, I reluctantly agreed that he needed to do whatever he could to get hired.

In an odd way, his lack of success on the market last year made it easier to coordinate our mutual searches this time around. We both applied all over the country—and in some cases the world—during the first half of the year, with the idea that if one of us secured a job, the other person would begin to narrow his or her search.

After multiple practice interviews with me and several solo trips to England for its one-day approach to campus interviews—a 15- to 20-minute research presentation followed by a 30-minute meeting with the search committee—Rick finally heard the key question that British search committees ask their chosen candidates: Would he accept the job if it were offered to him?

The day after he returned home, he had a job, and I had to consider the fact that it was time to start taking more seriously my applications to British universities.

Up to this point, we had not shared our job materials with each other, because we had applied for a handful of the same jobs. Once Rick had a job, though, I asked for his advice on drafting my cover letters and CV because he had completed more applications for British positions than any of our colleagues at American institutions.

At the same time, knowing that I might not be lucky enough to land a job abroad, I continued to prepare for my two on-campus interviews in the United States. Just before those interviews, I learned that I'd been shortlisted for a teaching job in England. In contrast to Rick, I wasn't going to need to fly there. My "on-campus visit" would take place via Skype. But I put preparations for that on the back burner while readying for my U.S. interviews.

Once my visits to the two American universities were done, however, and I was rejected by one of them, I began to focus on preparing for an entirely new style of presentation. It would be different both because of the peculiarities of the British hiring process and because of the challenges of interviewing via Skype. With Rick's help, I cut my 35-minute job talk down to 20 minutes. I also prepared to talk about how my scholarship would contribute to the department's very important REF (Research Excellence Framework), Britain's system of assessing research production. In addition, I planned to speak about how I would go after collaborative research grants, and how my teaching drew from my scholarship.

I tried to take the preparations seriously while also steeling myself for failure. I told myself that because British hiring deadlines are shorter, and job ads appear throughout the spring, I could always apply for other positions if this one didn't work out. Still, this particular job was the ideal, both because of the job itself and also because, if I got it, I would be less than three hours away from Rick.

I had tried so hard not to get my hopes up that, when the committee members asked during my interview if I would take the job if they offered it, I told myself that they were asking the same question to all the candidates. I knew it could be a positive sign, but I tried not to make too much of it.

Rick was in the next room later that same day when the call came. English universities are well known for expecting an immediate answer to their initial offer. So Rick was there to hear me accept.

That moment after I hung up the phone felt like the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. I know that the job market is largely a numbers game, and that the odds are against most of us. But communication and hard work did play a role for us, as well as (let's be honest) quite a bit of sheer luck. Without that, this story would have had a far less happy conclusion. 

Eunice Williams is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. candidate in history at a Southern university. She has been chronicling her search for a tenure-track job. Her first five columns in this series were "In Which the Academic Market Looms," "Going Rogue," "In the Thick of It," "Life as a Captive of the Job Market," and "A Job Market Captive Redeemed."