Was It a Mistake to Apply as a Couple?

April 22, 2004

Editor's Note: With the death of Mary Morris Heiberger, the Career Talk column will be written by a rotating group of columnists, including Heiberger's long-time co-author, Julia Miller Vick. This month's column is by Mary Dillon Johnson, director of career services at Yale University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Question: My husband and I are graduate students in the same department, and we went on the job market this year as a couple applying to share a tenure-track position. We got one convention interview that did not lead to a campus visit, and no other expressions of interest. Did we do something wrong in the way that we applied or is it a mistake to apply together for one job?

Answer: I have heard several stories lately about academic couples in the same field applying for a single position. I would like to deal with the practical as well as strategic aspects of your question and take a crack at larger considerations as well. Above all, I want to be sure that frustration with the competitive academic market is not leading you, and other graduate students, to offer yourselves up cheaply -- two for the price of one -- when that doesn't meet your needs.

Cover Letters

In applying jointly for a single position, make clear in your cover letter what you are proposing and why. Yours probably won't be the first such letter that the search committee has received, but they're not a dime a dozen, either.

One possibility is for each of you to write a separate letter with a common (or nearly so) introductory section where you state directly that you and your spouse (or partner) are applying to share the announced position; you state your degree and field and your spouse's, and note that your spouse will detail his or her research and teaching experience in a separate letter.

Then tell a simple story about why you are proposing this arrangement. I suggest you be as straightforward as possible -- if the institution is in a small city or town, acknowledge that you both want a professional attachment and involvement with a department, but because you are in the same field, it is quite unlikely that two tenure-track openings will be available. Point out that by job sharing, you can each contribute to the department and still have time for publication, consulting (if appropriate), and/or raising your family.

The benefits of such an arrangement to the institution may seem obvious, but it's not so obvious that you should omit a statement about it, so spell out some of the advantages. Then continue your letter in the usual fashion, summarizing your research and teaching.

Another approach is to write a single letter from the two of you. That has the advantage of being more compact, but the disadvantage of being a bit odd to read. Instead of one of you speaking for yourself in the first person and mentioning your spouse in the third person, you would use the third person for both of you. Again, I suggest explaining at the outset the nature of your application and noting that you will use the third person throughout in order to represent the two of you as equal applicants.

Joint Interviews

Let's say your letter works, and the committee invites you for an interview. Is there any special preparation you should do for a dual interview?

Be sure to practice together. Arrange a mock interview where a friend or a faculty member meets with you jointly to ask you the standard questions. That will give you practice deciding who answers what and how you might comment on something your spouse says without seeming critical. You want to speak as equals and to develop a comfortable "patter" that makes the interviewer feel that you work compatibly together.

You may even find that you enjoy the interview experience a lot more with a partner present. One graduate student told me that she and her partner liked being interviewed as an academic couple. One of them was always able to respond well to a question, and one could listen and have time to think while the other spoke. She also thought the combination of two views and two voices made for a more interesting interview for the employer.

Is It a Mistake to apply as a Couple?

It would be simpler for everyone if only one of you were applying for the position. But that's not the case.

In talking to provosts and deans at a number of institutions, I learned that liberal-arts colleges in small cities or towns are willing to consider applications such as yours. Indeed, some welcome them.

Len Clark, provost and academic dean at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., told me that since the 1970s, Earlham has actively encouraged shared positions. Such flexibility gives the college access to candidates who might not otherwise apply because of the lack of career opportunities for one half of the couple. At Earlham, a couple typically shares a full-time position and a salary; both get full health insurance and a full measure of professional development and travel money. I have also heard of colleges that allow couples to share one and a half positions, or one and a third.

Institutions that welcome academic couples have worked out many of the technical problems inherent in the arrangement, like separate tenure decisions, contingency planning for divorce, and proportional allotment of service points. And many details need to be worked out on a case-by-case basis. Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., has an online guide for faculty members with an excellent section on shared appointments that spells out some of the advantages and dangers.

You are less likely to get a favorable response to job sharing from large state universities or colleges that are part of statewide systems because those institutions tend to be more rule-bound and therefore less able to adapt policies and procedures to individual cases. Yet even as I say that I can cite an exception. In the early 1980s, Teresa and Gerald Audesirk applied together for single openings in their field. Several institutions wouldn't even consider them, but the University of Colorado at Denver hired them, offering them each a half-time, tenure-track position. That allowed them to be evaluated separately for pay raises, promotion, and tenure.

The more important question is whether it is a mistake for you -- as individuals and as a couple -- to consider sharing a job. When I read your question my first reaction was to say, Don't do it. Don't sell yourselves short. I called the American Association of University Professors to see if it had a policy against job sharing, but it doesn't, according to John Curtis, the AAUP's director of research. Incidentally, none of the administrators or faculty members I talked to have noticed an increase in joint applications lately.

A couple I know at a liberal-arts college in the South are currently waiting for the department's decision about their application to share a tenure-track position. Some faculty members have raised the objection that the couple would have an unfair tenure advantage since each partner would have only a half-time teaching load. The couple is ambivalent, too. Right now the husband has a tenure-track job at the college, and the wife has a temporary appointment. They both want to be engaged professionally, but one doesn't want to work at the expense of the other. Their other options are to be separated or to try to find jobs elsewhere. The college does not have the resources to create a full tenure-track position in the same field in the same department for the wife.

The main advantage of a shared tenure-track position for them would be equal professional attachment in a place they like. What's more, tenure bestows full departmental status whether you are half time or full time, and down the line, it could possibly lead to opportunities for an additional paid role at the institution, such as a half-time administrative post.

A significant advantage of job sharing is time. What you lose in money, you gain in time to use as you want. The Knox College faculty guide offers the following advice: "The most difficult part of a shared appointment is protecting the other half of your life. Value your time! It's easy to become consumed by the job."

The Audesirks, at the University of Colorado at Denver, have found professional and financial success by choosing to donate their extra time to their research -- thus attracting a steady stream of federal grants -- and to writing and updating a popular textbook, about to go into its seventh edition. You might choose to use your extra time for your family or to write a novel.

As long as graduate students continue to fall in love with each other, happy academic couples will have added complications and problems in their job searches. Maybe you can't always get what you want, as the Rolling Stones advised us long ago, but be sure you get what you need.

Mary Dillon Johnson, who has a Ph.D. in English from the University of California at Berkeley, is director of graduate-career services at Yale University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.