Questions for Dual-Career Couples

April 10, 2008

Question: My husband and I will finish our postdocs at about the same time. We are both planning to seek faculty positions, at least initially. Do you have any advice?

Question: I am finishing my Ph.D. and planning to go on the academic job market. It's been a long haul, but I'm almost there. One of the good things in my life is I've been in a committed relationship for three years now and my partner wants to move with me. Will it be hard for us to both find jobs?

Question: My wife, a minister, doesn't want to move. Most of her family lives within 50 miles of us. None of them understand that I need to do a national search; I can't just go to the employment office of the local university and apply for a faculty job. Please help.

Julie: It's important to recognize that both members of a dual-career couple must communicate effectively before, during, and after a job search. Together, you must devise a search strategy that supports both of your personal and professional goals, and answers employers' questions honestly and clearly. You are not the first dual-career couple to go on the academic job market; colleges and universities are well aware that a candidate may have a partner who is job hunting, too. Sometimes a department that is serious about hiring you will do what it can to assist your partner.

Jenny: If you're both Ph.D.'s pursuing academic careers, you'll need to consider two key questions: Will you both go on the job market at the same time? And will you go only to the same geographic location as your partner? Think first in terms of what is right for the two of you -- not in terms of what you think an employer wants to hear.

Julie: Those two questions are closely tied. Sometimes people slow down their research or writing so they can finish at the same time as their partner. Other times, couples decide that they can tolerate being separated, especially if it's only for a limited time. The two of you should have a frank discussion about what each of you is willing to accept in terms of location and length of separation. If you agree that you are willing to be separated, think hard about the following issues:

  • Finances: Can you afford to maintain two residences, and pay travel expenses, such as airplane or train tickets, gas, or car-rental fees?

  • Logistics: Frequent travel can be exhausting. How will you decide who will do the traveling, and when? Can you arrange your teaching schedules to facilitate your travel?

  • Social concerns: If you are living apart, each of you will need to be comfortable with spending significant periods of time alone, and building a social life in a community where most people will not know you as a member of a couple.

  • Time: For how long are you willing to be separated? What will you both do in the meantime to put yourselves in a position to move closer to each other?

Jenny: We don't want to sugarcoat this: It can be quite difficult for both members of an academic couple to make career development their top priority, and still maintain the relationship. It is particularly difficult if both are in highly specialized subfields with few openings.

Accepting at least short periods of geographic separation may help to make dual academic careers possible, but separation, in itself, often puts a strain on a relationship. Alternately, commuting may start to look attractive if one member of a couple has a good job but the other is miserable because he or she does not.

Most people make a series of choices over the course of a career. The decisions you make now will reflect your current priorities, which you will re-evaluate as time goes on. Seek the advice and counsel of faculty members you trust who have been in similar situations, such as the couples mentioned in this useful article from gradPSYCH.

Julie: Try to reach a joint decision about where you will search and within which geographic areas you are each free to act independently. If you wait to discuss those issues until you each have a wonderful job offer in far-flung locations, you may find yourselves trying to decide who will give up an offer. Depending on your priorities, the best strategy may be to decide on locations in which you believe you can both find satisfying employment and then concentrate your search on those areas.

Once you've devised a strategy, don't let the details and the "What ifs?" paralyze you. Do your best in interviews, assess institutions and departments carefully, and see what types of offers you receive.

Jenny: Some institutions try to help candidates who are part of dual-career couples by setting up links to job listings at other institutions in their geographic area. In Maine, Bates, Bowdoin, and Colby Colleges link to one another's tenure-track and visiting faculty openings and note that they are located only an hour apart and three hours from Boston. The 12 colleges in the Great Lakes Colleges Association post their position openings together. Many other institutions list or link to faculty (and sometimes staff) positions at nearby colleges and universities on the employment sections of their Web sites.

Julie: When is the right moment in a search to raise the issue of whether an institution can find a position for your spouse or partner? Should you let a department know there are two of you before the interview, during, or afterward, when an offer looks imminent?

You may decide to accept, or reject, an offer independent of the opportunities available there for your partner. If so, there is no particular need to discuss your partner's plans at any point of the negotiation.

More commonly, your partner's career options will be a factor in your decision, and it's hard to know when to raise the issue of a spousal hire. If you ask too early, you may lead the employer to wonder whether you will be willing to accept the job and, in turn, to give less weight to your candidacy. If you ask too late, particularly if you make it clear that you will not take the job unless your partner finds a suitable position, the hiring department may feel as if you've suppressed important information.

Use your own judgment on this issue as you proceed through interviews, and again, seek advice from advisers and colleagues who know your field and may be familiar with the department in question.

The reality is that many new Ph.D.'s looking for their first tenure-track jobs find it difficult to negotiate a spousal hire. It's more likely to be an option when you are more established in your career.

Jenny: For couples in which only one partner is an academic, the situation is a bit different. Nonacademic partners may have a lot of flexibility in terms of their ability to relocate, as in the case of our second reader, or, like our third reader, may be rooted to a place because of the presence of friends and family, or other constraints.

Even if one partner is willing to be the "trailing spouse," it's still important for both to communicate their individual career goals as a first step to coming up with a plan that works for them both. As you send out applications, your nonacademic partner should be identifying possible employers in the area. That way, if you get an interview and are asked about your partner, you will have some idea of what kind of assistance your nonacademic partner may need.

We've also known of couples in which the nonacademic partner gets the opportunity to identify suitable locations, since it's the academic's job search that is causing the move. One science Ph.D. whose wife is a Florida native made a deal with his wife that he could accept any job in the South, but if he were offered a position in a colder climate, she would need to visit the campus before he could accept.

Julie: As our third reader points out, many people outside of academe do not understand that most faculty positions are announced nationally. It is important to communicate that to your partner, family members, and friends -- whatever your discipline.

Scientists need to make sure that their partners understand the nature of a science career and the importance of getting grants. Those in disciplines such as English and history will need to explain the conference-interview process to outsiders. The job search in academe is quite different from that of most employment sectors -- it's worth taking the time to explain the process to those who care about you.

Jenny: We would advise our third reader: Have a frank discussion with your wife, who is undoubtedly rooted in her work and engaged with her congregation. Are there any areas of the country in which she would be willing to relocate? Places that might offer her a particularly exciting opportunity? Would she be willing to consider living apart, even in the short term?

If none of those are options, you could conduct a geographically limited job search. We've certainly seen candidates do that, with varying degrees of success. If you can't find a tenure-track position right away, you could consider doing some adjunct work, staying in your current laboratory as a postdoc, or seeking a one-year visiting position somewhere.

Failing those possibilities, are you willing to consider other career tracks? We've written before on "Devising a Plan B." That might be a good starting point as you begin your search.


Julie: Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director. Vick is co-author of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press), along with the late Mary Morris Heiberger, who was associate director of career services at Penn.