Career Talk: What to Do About the 'Two-Body Problem'

October 16, 1998

Question: Do you have any advice on dealing with the so-called two-body problem? My husband and I both have Ph.D's in mathematics and would both like to find permanent positions teaching at the college level. Currently, I am a post-doc at the University of X and he is working in industry. We are preparing to apply for jobs for fall of 1999. However, the market is so tight that our getting positions at the same school seems impossible. Even positions in the same city seem unlikely.

How should we present ourselves to potential employers? It seems that mentioning our situation in a cover letter has the potential to make us seem like more trouble than we're worth. This must be getting more common. Any help you can give would be greatly appreciated.

Mary: This really is a challenging situation and you'll find disagreement about how to handle it.

Julie: You are right that it is getting more common, but it still requires very careful planning. You need to talk to each other before you apply for jobs -- or at least before you interview -- and decide what is acceptable.

Whether you present yourselves as half a couple from the start, people may eventually learn that that you are. You two need to be clear on the "what ifs" before you're asked.

Mary: We can't stress this enough. A couple can hope that each person will be offered a great job in the same city. However, if each applies vigorously all over the country, there's a good chance that there will be a lot of geographic distance between the best offers for each. What you should avoid is leaving everything to fate and setting yourselves up for a last-minute "sacrifice" by one person that ends up being a cause of long-run resentment.

Julie: Start off by answering these questions (you might each want to write down your answers on your own, then discuss them together):

  • If you are in very similar fields, will you both apply for the same jobs?
  • How are you going to feel if you end up competing against each other?
  • How far apart from each other are you willing to live?
  • What will you do if you receive jobs on opposite sides of the country?
  • If you are willing to live apart consider whether you can afford to maintain two households, including rent, utilities -- particularly phone bills -- and furniture?

Mary: And obviously there are many more questions. I'll just add one more I think is essential. If it's a priority for both of you to live in the same location, and you have, or plan to have, children, consider this: If one adheres to the traditional pattern in which one partner both "follows" the other's job and takes time off work for child-rearing, there's a strong chance that, several years down the road, the partner whose career has been placed "first" will have a higher-paying and more prestigious position. If that were to happen, would that be acceptable to you?

Julie: Draw on your personal network to find people who are part of dual-career academic couples and ask them about they arrived at their decision and how things are working out for them now.

Read articles. The Chronicle has run several during the last few years. (See "Transitory Lives in Academe: Separation and Solitude" and "More Couples in Academe Make Career Sacrifices to Be Together, One such couple is keeping an interesting on-line monthly diary now.

See if the career-services office at your institution or your professional association offers any programs on dual career academic job searches. Several do.

Mary: When you've done the best you can to come up with an overall strategy (each person applies nationally and commuting is a considered an option; both people agree to go to the city where one person gets the best job, etc.), tell everyone who will give you a reference what your plans are and ask them to explain this if asked.

This is particularly important if you're both in the same field. Clearly employers should not be asking references about candidates' personal situations and how these will affect their willingness to take a job. But most certainly this does occur, so prepare your references.

Julie: Usually it's not a good idea to advertise your situation in your letter of application. Rather, proceed with your search as if you are a single entity so that you can be judged on your own candidacy. However, if you're applying for the same job and your vitas make it obvious that you're a couple, for instance by having the same last names, addresses, and phone numbers, you should probably discuss the issue in the letter.

Either let the committee know that neither of you wants the other's candidacy to interfere with full consideration or, if it interests you and you can afford it, raise the issue of job sharing. Job sharing, however, is usually a long shot.

Mary: In the more common case, where only one of you is applying to a department, the hiring committee's need to know about your status depends entirely on whether you will only take the job if your partner finds one in the same city. If you are both willing to commute, avoid bringing a partner's situation into the discussion until after receiving a job offer. If the topic comes up earlier, stress that you will commute and you each are looking for the best individual fit.

If you truly won't take the job unless your partner gets one in the same city, you should probably make this known before accepting a campus visit and definitely before getting to the point of a job offer. Otherwise you risk having the hiring department feel you've concealed important and relevant information from them, hardly a good beginning in a new position.

Julie: If your job acceptance is contingent on opportunities for your partner and the employer realizes that during the hiring process, you may be pleasantly surprised by the attention given to helping your partner obtain a good position, particularly if you're an extremely strong candidate. Increasingly, hiring institutions are making efforts to accommodate dual-career situations.

Mary: Not only do you want to get a job that provides a living experience that works for you, but institutions also want to hire faculty members who will be happy and likely to stay in their positions.

Julie: I know it feels as if you are sailing in uncharted waters. The key -- if there is one -- is to communicate and to be confident about your approach to decision making. That's the one thing you have some control of in all of this.