The Perfect Offer

August 03, 2005

When a professor and graduate student fall in love, everyone knows what lies ahead.

At various points over the past six years, my partner, Jason, a tenured professor of philosophy, wanted to talk about the looming job search, to make plans, to plot strategy. As a doctoral student in English, I always tabled the discussion. We would get there, of course, but always eventually.

In the meantime, we had plenty of short-term hoops to pass through. There were courses to be taught, papers to be written, conferences to be attended, and all the business of daily life to keep us occupied.

And so perhaps it is not surprising that Jason, the cautious long-term planner, was better prepared for the market than I was.

But then senior searches are unlike junior searches, where committees assess the prospects of mostly untested novice scholars. A junior candidate's dossier allows a hiring committee considerable room for interpretation; a senior candidate's CV speaks more unambiguously.

In Jason's case, 10 years of professional choices -- research projects undertaken or avoided, courses taught or not -- have stamped him with an all-too-legible scholarly identity. As I was applying to the 40 (give or take) positions for which I might conceivably make a case for myself, he was applying for the five or six that seemed to fit his well-established profile.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of senior searches is the possibility of bypassing the unspeakable traumas of the annual convention meat markets. Santa had barely unloaded his sack when I was packing for my trip to Philadelphia, where I spent two days crouched in my hotel room, hiding from the job zombies at the Modern Language Association meeting.

Jason, meanwhile, was at home with his family, enjoying an extended Christmas holiday and looking forward to a campus interview that had already been arranged for him.

He soon began to have second thoughts about going to the interview. Classes were back in session, my own search had come to a disappointing end, and he just wasn't sure that this was really the right move at the right time. But when it's 10 below and snowing, one can hardly turn down a weekend of sun and palm trees.

And so he repressed both his doubts about the job and his fear of flying and kept his appointment with the search committee at Southeastern State Research U. To his surprise, his visit revealed that the professional identity he had been creating for himself was a perfect fit for the department's own vision for its future. Jason is primarily a historian of philosophy, and his present department, though a congenial and appreciative home, is no longer especially interested in the history of philosophy.

The department at Southeastern State, by contrast, has embraced the history of philosophy as its core mission. The enthusiastic reaction to Jason's job talk suggested that he would be welcomed as an indispensable contributor to this vibrant and growing department.

In short, it looked like a perfect fit.

As the first of four campus visitors, Jason had a bit of a wait. For nearly a month, since it was the only prospect we had, the job was the topic of many a dinner conversation. Was this really the right move for Jason? Would there be a job for me? Would it be better to wait another year and try our luck again? And how would this all work with the yearlong research fellowship that Jason had recently been awarded?

In February the offer came, but that one bit of certainty did not resolve any of our questions, though it did invest them with a new sense of urgency. Our final decision really rested on whether there would be a job for me on the campus. Fortunately, the university had an aggressive spousal-hiring policy in place, though it wasn't clear whether that policy applied to same-sex couples.

While we waited for a call from the university's English department, we passed the time by constructing hypothetical scenarios. What would be the minimum offer we could consider? What would be an offer so good that we could not consider turning it down? Daring to dream big, we identified a generous salary and agreed that if I were offered a tenure-track job at that salary, we would certainly take it.

And then the offer came: A tenure-track job at exactly the salary we had decided was too good to turn down. The decision, it seemed, had been made for us. Finally, all the stars were in alignment.

As Christians we thought this had to be a sign from God. As Republicans we were naturally excited about the money (especially since we would be moving to a red-state paradise where there is no state income tax). And as gay men we thought of all the fabulous things we could buy to furnish our new house.

It was no less than the perfect solution to our two-body problem, exactly the thing we had dreamed (but didn't believe) we would find when we started our search back in October. So why on earth were we hesitating? What was keeping us from packing our bags, selling our house, and moving to meet new challenges in an exciting, faraway city?

As a matter of fact, that is exactly why we hesitated. We're sedentary people devoted to our creature comforts. We dislike change; we fear adventure. We're quite comfortable where we are. Jason loves his job and has excellent colleagues. Our characteristic inertia counterbalanced our enthusiasm for the amazing opportunity we had been given.

We began to invent problems: Were those rumors about the university's troubled English department true? Could we overlook the heart-stopping ugliness of the campus? Were we prepared to trade tornadoes for hurricanes?

Technically, we were ready to go. But we didn't feel ready. We were genuinely surprised by our own reluctance to take these jobs. When we should have been eagerly signing our new contracts we were second-guessing ourselves and unaccountably looking for ways to stay right where we were.

Although the head of Jason's department clearly thought there was no chance we would turn down two such unbelievable job offers, we were serious about finding some way to delay our move for a few years. We knew there was no way our present employer could match the offer from Southeastern State. Tenure-track jobs don't come out of nowhere, and the don't-hire-your-own principle is strong.

But we thought that a promise of two or three years of adjunct work for me would enable us to stay put for a while, at least. It was at that point that we learned the crucial difference between recruitment and retention.

The philosophers at Southeastern State were very interested in securing Jason for their department. To entice him, they offered him a generous raise above his current salary, accommodated his research fellowship, and even hosted a cocktail gathering and dinner party for the two of us when we went down for a weekend real-estate tour.

When Jason made it clear that he would not even consider the move without a job for me, the philosophers at the university urged their colleagues in the English department to take a look at my CV. Within a month I was invited to campus for an interview, where I was treated not as a pro forma spousal hire but as a welcome addition to the department.

Besides the head of the English department and members of the executive committee, I was greeted by three of Jason's prospective colleagues, who took time out of their busy end-of-semester schedules and trekked halfway across campus just to introduce themselves to the partner of the guy they wanted to hire.

Contrast that with the meager effort put forth by Midwest U. to retain Jason. The problem was not with Jason's colleagues, who clearly would have liked him to stay, but with the administration. His dean never offered him a raise, never assured him of supplemental money for the year of his research leave, and could only arrange for one year of adjunct work for me.

Jason is not the kind of academic superstar whose loss would be devastating to the faculty, but he has been an active member of his department, a respected scholar in his field, and an award-winning teacher. We had hoped that a major research university would be more committed to keeping its best faculty members, even if that meant employing -- at an adjunct's starvation wages -- a home-grown Ph.D. with publications, awards, and research fellowships of his own.

All of this was going on as members of Jason's department were actively recruiting for a new position. Under directions from the dean they had undertaken a search for a person who could improve the "gender diversity" of the faculty. The college dedicated special money to create the position, and Jason's department soon found someone it was interested in hiring.

But she came with a husband -- an academic, too -- and, like Jason and me, they were unwilling to move unless there were jobs for both of them.

At the very same time that Midwest U. was reluctant to commit to hiring me as an adjunct for several years (in a department that routinely employs a small army of adjuncts), and thereby retain a valued member of its academic community, it was quite eager to create an extra tenure-track line as a way of recruiting someone new.

It is not surprising that recruitment gets so much more energy than retention. New faculty members are inevitably more exciting than existing ones, and most people don't share our horror of the new and untested. If Midwest U. had made any effort to join our conspiracy of skittishness, we might well have stayed put.

Now that we've very sensibly accepted Southeastern State's offers, we can see that turning them down would have been a big mistake. Jason's new department is an excellent fit, and I have that tenure-track, research-oriented job with a 2-2 load that everyone dreams of. We are moving to a city that offers sun, palm trees, great restaurants, and lots of music and theater. It's hard to imagine a happier solution to our two-body problem.

Graham Bennett is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. candidate in English and Jason Lindsey is the pen name of a tenured professor in philosophy at a public research university in the Midwest. They are chronicling their joint search for academic appointments this year.