Whose Career Should Be No. 2?

July 16, 1999

Question: Classic dual-career crisis. My Ph. D. husband ("George") finished two years ago and got a job in another state. I stayed behind, finished my degree, and restricted my job search to the area where George lives. And now — hurrah — it looks like I'll be offered a job at "Teachers State," only an hour's commute away.

The problem: My mentor and other faculty supporters ("The Big Guys") don't approve of the job, because of its high teaching load and few chances for research. My mentor wants to call Teachers State and demand a lighter teaching load for me, while the other Big Guys nag me to "negotiate" for research time. They insist that if I don't focus on a research career, I'll have wasted my education and the time and effort of people who've fostered my development.

But in my interview, Teachers State gave me the strong message that teaching is a priority with them. Besides, I feel burned out on research.

Meanwhile, and worst of all, I know the Big Guys have been privately badmouthing us: "If George did better work, Jessica wouldn't be so tied down and held back." That may or may not be true, but it's no one else's business, and we're willing to live with our choices. We do not feel the need to take this type of advice from people whose marriages have been destroyed with the help of academia.

What should I do about all this?

Answer: Ms. Mentor envisions you ducking and covering while your mentor, all the other Big Guys, new and old schools, hiring and funding committees, and far-off husband all throw dishes, scream insults and threats, and battle for ownership of Jessica's career.

So. What do you really want?

Ms. Mentor wonders if you've been able to hear your own voice through the din. She marvels that you've plowed, head down, through the dissertation, and she is not surprised that you're "burned out on research." After a dissertation, who isn't?

Still, your situation reminds her of Lillian, who gave up her law practice so that her Charley could flit about from one medical specialty to another ("This is what I'm really meant to do," he kept saying, until the day he ran off with a nurse).

Ms. Mentor remembers others, too:

  • The psychologist, Katherine, who was on the brink of a new, high-status promotion when her husband insisted that they have children, now.
  • The expert on whaling lore, Dora, whose first mate could not bear to live in the Northeast.
  • The linguist, Toni, who followed her only job offer to the Southwest — while her partner in Michigan, feeling neglected, could not resist an affair with an undergraduate.
  • The political scientist, Jane, whose husband in Connecticut refused to relay phone messages — so that she never got the interview call for the job she hungered for, in California.

Ms. Mentor, in short, does not see "supportive husband" anywhere in your letter. She suspects that you've written to her because you're being shoved down a traditional wifey path that already makes you twitch and shudder a bit.

Even Ms. Mentor, before she achieved the grand status she now enjoys, was nudged toward the "mommy track." She was expected to nurture students, not to challenge them. She was presumed to be a devoted teacher at heart, not an independent researcher.

Of course, in those ancient times, it was very convenient — for men — if women willingly dropped off the fast track and played the university versions of mommy, nurse, and cook.

But even today, that expectation is not dead.

As Ms. Mentor sees again and again in her mail, too many Big Guys still ignore or abandon married female graduate students. "Well, I know she won't take risks or accomplish much on her own," said one lab director.

And so Ms. Mentor is surprised and delighted that your Big Guys are pushing you not to surrender your ambitions. They do not want you to become yet another trailing spouse, a captive to your husband's career. (To read about deflected women, Ms. Mentor recommends Nadya Aisenberg and Mona Harrington's Women of Academe: Outsiders in the Sacred Grove, especially the chapter called "Life and the Life of the Mind").

Certainly there is a bit of ego in your Big Guys ("we want her to be like us"), but they are also honoring your achievements and bright prospects. They want you to be a star — not a dutiful wife to a man who, it seems, does not measure up to you.

Should you choose being with George over finding the best job for your talents?

Ms. Mentor concedes that many academic marriages do fail. So do half of all American marriages. The average marriage lasts just seven years — just long enough to get tenure, or to wonder, "What might I have done?" or (if the marriage does not last) "Look what I gave up for you."

Unlike most human relationships, tenure is forever.

What to do? For now, Ms. Mentor advises you to accept the Teachers State job, and orders the Big Guys not to pressure your new bosses. Everyone needs to boost you out of the nest, and it is much easier to get a job once you already have one.

And then, next year — apply for the best jobs, wherever they are. Do so especially if you're drowning under your teaching load, or if you and George grate on each other. Some reunited couples do find they miss their old solitude, their intense-but-short romantic weekends, and their fridges always filled with their own favorite goodies.

Ms. Mentor knows that you will make the best life choice if you do not prematurely clip your wings. If your ideal job materializes, she hopes that George will be eager to fly with you. Everyone hates to see a man without a job, and rare is the university that won't find something good for him to do.

Many men with tenured, happy wives have been successful consultants, union organizers, legal advocates, and even politicians (former Senator Bill Bradley's wife is a professor of Russian). A man who takes on such causes as disability rights, health care, or gun control will be listened to — much more than a woman will, because men are more readily accepted as experts and figures of authority.

But if George is not willing to be part of the recipe, Ms. Mentor entreats you not to settle for half a loaf. What may seem like an adequate meal now can easily, over the years, turn into an embittering intellectual and professional starvation.

In real life, we all have to butter our own pumpernickels.

Question: I've been offered a temporary job in Paris. Should I hesitate about taking it?

Answer: No.

Sage Readers: Silly ones! You thought that you could escape homework in July — but Ms. Mentor, ever the stern taskmistress, has an assignment for you. Now is the time to write those long-overdue letters of thanks and adulation to past teachers and mentors. Too often, the people who change our lives with wisdom, sympathy, and encouragement go unrewarded. Don't be an ingrate.

As for those lucky souls now anguishing over temporary job offers, Ms. Mentor orders you to seize them, especially the most prestigious ones. A stint of teaching at Harvard or Oxford — how could it hurt?

Ms. Mentor, meanwhile, is wisely using her July to reread all the heartfelt communiques of the last year, for future columns and tomes. She encourages readers to consult her first volume (listed below), and invites back-to-school anecdotes and vivid cautionary tales for her August offering.


Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English Department at Louisiana State University. Her Chronicle address is