Two Can Make It, Too

April 15, 2004

As a married couple, our quest to find two faculty positions in the same department has seemed to many readers to be a pipe dream -- judging from the comments we've received about our earlier columns.

We are thrilled to report that the pipe dream has become our reality: We have both landed positions as assistant professors of biology at a university in the South.

Our good fortune should not be considered typical, expected, or easily acquired. We got to this point only after a lengthy and worrisome period of submitting applications, waiting (followed by more waiting), interviewing, and taking chances.

His Perspective

Between October 14, 2003, and January 14, 2004, I submitted 17 applications for faculty positions in the Southeast. Ten of those resulted in rejection letters, four in telephone interviews, and six led to on-campus interviews or invitations to interview (some of which I declined).

Most of the universities that were interested in me initially arranged for a phone interview. My first such interview was unnerving, but I quickly grew comfortable with talking long distance to a room full of professorial evaluators. Their questions were generally predictable (e.g., "What qualifications do you have for this job?" and "Why do you want to work here?"), but nonetheless, I prepared concise and articulate answers. Based on those phone calls, the hiring committees narrowed their searches to a few candidates who would be invited to on-campus interviews.

After weeks of waiting, I started receiving invitations for campus interviews. My first one was in January, and I was given a little over a week to prepare for it. On the first day, I presented a seminar that was attended by faculty members from several departments as well as approximately 60 undergraduates. My seminar was filmed (complete with professional-style lighting and a cordless lapel microphone) and broadcast on a local television channel. It certainly paid to have lecture experience and confidence with public speaking.

On the second day I met with the president, the provost, the department head, and most of the faculty members in biology. I felt at ease talking with each of them, and my enthusiasm for the job heightened the longer I was there. My hosts fed me excellent meals, gave me tours of the facilities, and generally treated me like a king. The conditions and expectations of the job suited me quite well, and I loved the charming, rural setting of the campus. Simply put, I was thoroughly impressed.

Within a few days of returning home, the university called to offer me the job. Despite my elation, I coolly negotiated a month to make my decision (the more usual scenario is a couple of weeks). I did this because I had been invited for interviews at other universities, and I also wanted to wait until I knew the results of my wife's job applications.

I then contacted all of the institutions where I had applications under review, notified them of my job offer, and inquired about the status of my applications. Some search committees had not yet reviewed their applications, some informed me that my application was not being considered any further (why couldn't they have notified me of that before?), and some asked me if I would consider interviewing at their university at a later date (which I reluctantly declined with a "bird-in-the-hand" philosophy).

It abruptly dawned on me that academic job candidates who are made offers early on must often make critical decisions before all job searches are completed. To me, that fact rewarded my highly selective approach to the job search. After all, if I was not prepared to accept an early job offer at a given university, then why did I apply there to begin with?

What happened next in my job search is explained in my wife's account.

Her Perspective

Since last fall I have finished data collection for my Ph.D., completed the first draft of my dissertation, set a defense date, taught classes, and supervised undergraduate researchers (including three senior honor's theses). In addition to all of this, I also submitted four applications for academic jobs.

I sent three of those applications to universities where my husband had applied that had advertised multiple faculty positions in biology. We did not point out our relationship on any of our applications -- a decision that we thought was best at the time.

In retrospect, however, we believe that being up front about applying as a married couple is the best approach. My husband got a negative reaction after he was invited for a campus interview at one institution and mentioned that I had applied for a job in the same department.

In early January I had a phone interview at a university where we had both applied. As I waited to hear back, my husband received a call from the same university, inviting him for a campus interview. I anxiously awaited word on whether I would receive a similar invitation.

My next action was risky. I called the head of search committee and explained that I was a candidate for a faculty position there, and that my husband would soon visit to interview for a separate position. I asked for permission to visit the campus during my husband's interview, if only to see the university and its facilities. I braced for a refusal but was pleasantly surprised to receive a very warm welcome. The following day the head of the committee e-mailed me a full schedule that had been arranged for me to meet with several faculty members in the department.

I recognized my visit as a golden opportunity and prepared accordingly. While my husband met with some of the department's faculty members, I met with others. We discussed details of the job I had applied for, my future research plans, and my ideas about teaching. Their open-minded approach to my visit encouraged me. I felt at ease with the professors I met, impressed by the department facilities, and pleased with the job description.

The only bleak moment came when I was informed that other candidates were being interviewed for the position I had applied for. My spirits were crushed, but only briefly. It turned out that there were two other positions available in the department, and that I was qualified for and interested in them, too. In fact, I had mentioned in my application that I wished to be considered for several available openings. Naturally, the department planned to interview other candidates for those positions, too. But I vowed to remain optimistic.

Shortly after his interview, my husband received a job offer and requested a month to make a decision. During that time we waited for events to unfold for me. I was delighted about my husband's success but began to worry about my own progress. I had not heard anything from the other universities where I had applied.

Just a week before the deadline for his decision, I received an invitation for a campus interview at the same university where he had been made an offer. It was now up to me. Having already visited the campus, I felt completely at home during my interview -- a feeling apparently shared by the faculty members. I forged ahead with confidence during my seminar, discussions with professors, and meetings with administrators. Just a day after returning, I, too, had an offer in hand from the department.

I know it's a cliché, but there really are no words to describe how ecstatic we were when the two offers were presented. Realizing that it couldn't get any better than this, my husband and I withdrew our applications from the other universities, and accepted the jobs.

Our Perspective

We received a wide range of e-mail responses to our first two essays about our job search. Some readers were encouraging, but the truth is, most were condescending and caustic. Some readers, put off by our optimism, seemed almost eager to see us fail. Such metaphorical face-slapping was eerily reminiscent of our experience applying jointly to graduate schools, when we were told by certain faculty members that our chances of both getting accepted to a doctoral program in the same department were slim to none.

To all of those skeptics, we say: Call us lucky. Call us charmed. Call us assistant professors.

For those couples out there seeking two faculty positions in the same department, realize that it is a tremendously competitive market. You need very thick skin (and even with that your feelings will undoubtedly still get hurt), the right qualifications, and complete dedication if you hope to prevail.

If you and your partner work in the same academic field, we suggest that you try to develop and promote yourselves as experts in two distinct subdisciplines. Your dream may be difficult to achieve but it's not impossible. Take it from us: We're here, we're dual-academic career, and we're getting used to it.

Tamatha Barbeau, a doctoral candidate in zoology at the University of Florida, and Greg Pryor, a new Ph.D. in zoology, have been chronicling their joint search this year for tenure-track jobs.