To Be Continued

June 27, 2007

Our first year on the job market together has ended without resolution, but at least my husband "Tom" and I have learned what not to do.

Having spent 18 months on opposite coasts, we decided early in our search that we were committed to living together in one household, and both interested in academic careers. So although we are in completely different fields (he's an engineer, and I'm a geoscientist), applying for jobs became a joint effort.

So what have we learned not to do? Tom has learned not to apply to universities that focus heavily on engineering because they are usually dead ends for me. (An engineering-intensive institution tends to have a geoscience department that focuses on oil drilling and earthquakes, neither of which is my specialty.) Meanwhile, I have learned to avoid applying for positions at teaching-oriented colleges because they generally don't employ many engineers.

Those lessons have meant that our search has been more selective than we expected, since our initial strategy was to apply everywhere and see what happened. Our new strategy: research university or bust. But it has to be one with an engineering school for him and the right kind of geoscience department for me. That limits us, yes, but at least if either of us gets an interview, we will know there is potential and that we're not wasting anyone's time.

There is a wealth of advice for dual-career academic couples on what to say about your spouse or partner during a job interview. The advice ranges from being open about it in your cover letter to removing your wedding ring and pretending to be single. I set a course somewhere in the middle. Before our interviews, we tried to find out how the departments had dealt with spousal hiring in the past in the hope that we might recruit allies who could provide help or moral support later, should an offer arrive.

From my husband's job search, we have learned not to expect an outpouring of help for a spouse from departments, even those that offered him a job. He turned down a tenure-track offer at a top university this past spring because the university couldn't find a spot for me, and there were no job opportunities in the surrounding area for me either.

We have had some people tell us that, as early-career scientists, we don't have a right to push for a spousal hire; that it's a luxury that belongs only to established scholars. But it seems to me that when a university offers you a job and finds a suitable position for your spouse, it is gaining two happy, dedicated people who feel indebted to their academic community -- as opposed to hiring one depressed (because her spouse is elsewhere) faculty member who is looking to jump ship as soon as possible.

This year, I applied for eight positions at research universities of varying sizes and statures. Of those, I had a pair of interviews in two very different departments. The first was at a small but growing department that had historically focused on teaching and was now pushing more into research. The second was at a large, research-intensive department that was hiring faculty members for a new universitywide, multidepartment initiative.

The run-up to each interview was similar. I prepared my job talk, reviewed interview questions, and went shopping for fashionable yet comfortable shoes. And, most important, I considered whether to broach the delicate subject of a job for my husband.

During my first interview, I got the clear impression that the department was in transition. Among its tenured members were a number of older men who asked me a narrow suite of research questions. Its untenured members, most of them women, had wider interests.

The department was on the move and I liked the direction. However, I saw clear indicators that the destination was still some way off. The faculty members were all swamped with large teaching loads, and the graduate students seemed disinterested. Not one of them showed up to our scheduled meeting.

Raising the subject of job options for my husband felt awkward. I never heard a word during the interview about family life from anyone, including the young women, which surprised me. I decided to be open about my situation with the department chairman, with whom I felt a strong connection. He told me that spousal hires weren't uncommon at the university, although he had no experience with them. Roughly translated, I think that meant that he had heard a rumor of one once. Still, I was hopeful.

Despite some encouraging words, we've learned during our search not to expect everyone to be on our side. Some people think spousal hires are simply unfair -- that for my husband to negotiate a job for me as part of his offer would be like me sneaking in an academic side door in order to avoid the long queue of worthy applicants waiting out front.

I would trade, in a second, that potential "advantage" for the ability to apply anywhere without worrying about my husband's career. But I see the ethical dilemma and it bothers me, too.

That's why we were so excited about my second interview, which offered a rare opportunity for Tom and I to be hired as a dual-career couple. Two weeks before my interview, Tom interviewed for a position in the university's engineering department.

It was a chance for us to each make it on our own merits. Of course I was a nervous wreck leading up to my interview. Added to that was the pressure of trying not to be viewed as an idiot at one of the top research departments in the country. I was so anxious before that interview that I actually lost sleep.

But maybe insecurity can give you an edge. Maybe my week of obsessing over my talk and compulsively searching the university's Web site paid off. Several people said they enjoyed my job talk, and I was never stumped for an answer. Oh, and my shoes? Fabulous.

The great thing about the department was that its members were open, collegial, and encouraging. Every senior faculty member gave me some sort of advice on how to negotiate the perilous hiring and early-career waters. Even more encouraging, the department had recently hired the partner of one of its untenured faculty members, because, as one senior professor put it, "He's great, and we don't lose her." Was this heaven?

In the end, I didn't get the job at the first university. I think my research interests just weren't the best fit with the department's. And sadly, we didn't make the cut in heaven, either. Thankfully, we both have at least another year of grant support in postdoc purgatory, and we plan to widen our search in the fall to include federal agencies and nongovernmental organizations (for me) and national labs (for him).

The past year has been an encouraging start to our job search, despite how it ended. People with whom I have discussed my two-body problem have been sympathetic and supportive, and I still feel confident that with enough effort we'll be able to pull it off. At the very least, we've learned not to give up trying.

Rebecca Manderlay is the pseudonym of a new Ph.D. in geological sciences who is working as a research associate at an Ivy League research university. She has been chronicling her search in 2007-8 for a tenure-track job.