The A to Z of Dual-Career Couples

Brian Taylor

July 04, 2011

Much has been written in academe on the topic of dual-career couples, and it remains a major issue for many institutions and people, particularly for women in science, engineering, and math.

My point of view on the subject is that of a full professor in the physical sciences at a large research university. I am also writing as a member of a dual-career couple fortunate to have two faculty positions at the same institution. Whenever I write about this topic on my blog, I am quickly reminded by the comments that some people are hostile to the concept of accommodations being made for academic couples. In the topics below, arranged from A to Z, I have tried to reflect the agony, the ecstasy, and the anger surrounding the issue of dual-career couples in academe.

Advantages. People often focus on the difficulties of being in a dual-career couple, primarily in terms of the challenge of finding two appealing academic jobs in the same place or at neighboring institutions. But for many of us there are also advantages. A major one is the high level of understanding of each other's work.

Bodies (two of them). Studies of married female faculty members show that many women in the physical sciences and math are married to other academics, the majority of them in the same or similar fields. Although the two-body problem may arise when institutions try to hire male faculty members, it more commonly occurs with female candidates. The issue, therefore, has become inextricably linked with that of hiring and retaining women in science, engineering, and math. Some dual-career couples hope for two tenure-track or tenured positions; others want (or are willing to take) one such position, with the other member of the couple accepting a job as an instructor, a support-staff member, or a research scientist with partial or no support (other than a title and a desk). For some couples, the first scenario is ideal, and anything else will cause stress in the relationship. Others are fine with the second scenario. Couples need to discuss this issue thoroughly and figure out what is best for them.

Competition. Say that both members of an academic couple are in the same field, department, or institution. Are the two in competition with each other? If so, how stressful is that? Some women write to me and say that they don't want to "compete" with their partner and that, perhaps, it's best if there is "only one professor in the family." Every couple is different, of course. For some, being in the same department or institution or even on the same career path is stressful and stifling. Others enjoy sharing their professional lives in that way.

Deans. If department heads are uninspired about how, or whether to, create job opportunities for a dual-career couple, deans (or provosts or other administrators) can make things happen. In fact, that was my situation when my current university was trying to figure out whether they could hire both my husband and me: The department didn't think it would work, but administrators at a higher level made it happen. Fortunately, the department head was pleased with the arrangement, so we did not have to worry that one of us was hired against the will of the department. The stumbling blocks in our hiring were related to faculty lines, salary, and start-up costs. Deans can be important even when both hires are in the same department, and are essential when the partners are in separate departments. Some departments are very reluctant to give any sort of position to the spouse of someone being hired in another department, even if the spousal candidate has expertise and talents that could benefit the department, and even if there are economic incentives provided by the institution to support the hire. Perhaps there is no way to overcome such resistance, but university-level administrators should work with reluctant department heads and find constructive solutions.

Economics.. Budget constraints can make hiring a dual-career couple difficult. Likewise, economic woes can follow two partnered academics throughout their career. I have encountered colleagues (and one department head) who thought that dual-career couples should be treated as an economic unit—meaning that if two faculty members in one department are married to each other, that circumstance should be considered in decisions about salary and raises, and their combined salary should be a more significant consideration than either individual salary. In my opinion, a faculty member should be considered on his or her merits—no matter the circumstances of the initial hiring, just as is the case in tenure and promotion.

Fields. Which is more difficult—finding two nearby jobs in the same field or in different fields? The short answer is "yes." A more specific answer is that the difficulty of finding two jobs in one department at the same institution might be offset somewhat by the fact that it may be easier for one administrator to accommodate two partners than it would be to involve multiple departments (see "deans") in the negotiations. The degree of difficulty also relates to the size and resources of the institution, and whether there are other nearby campuses or just one rather isolated college or university.

Gender. Institutions that are serious about increasing the number of female faculty members in underrepresented fields must be willing to find solutions for dual-career couples (see "bodies"). The problem may be particularly severe for institutions in isolated locations with few other job opportunities for academics, or at institutions with limited resources for making multiple hires. I know of one search in which all of the top candidates for a tenure-track position were female scientists married to other scientists. The institution had to decide whether to fail the search and hope for another pool of excellent candidates with less complicated personal lives, or create a second position and hire a spouse as well. They ended up hiring a couple.

Higher Education Recruitment Consortium. National and regional consortia help solve the two-body problem for academics by facilitating dual-career job searches and providing information to help administrators with the institutional challenges of such hires.

Illegal. Many women write to me to complain that they are asked "illegal" questions about their spouses during job interviews for faculty positions. Despite efforts to educate faculty members and administrators about what is permissible to ask about a candidate's personal life, women are commonly asked about their marital status. Or hiring committees seek that information through indirect means. Some women who write to me want to know if they can refuse to answer, or should answer all questions even if they are inappropriate. The trouble is, refusing to answer a question about a spouse or partner is the same as acknowledging having a "two-body problem." So most women just answer the question when asked, even if they worry that their answer will jeopardize their chances at a job offer.

Job-sharing. Some institutions hire both members of a dual-career couple only if they agree to share a job. That may be an attractive option for some, as long as each member of the couple qualifies for benefits (health insurance, retirement, etc.). At some institutions, for example, a half-time position wouldn't qualify you for benefits, but 75 percent of a position would, so the couple might share 1.5 faculty lines instead of just one job. In theory a part-time position comes with reduced teaching and service work, but in reality it may not.

Kids. A few years ago, while visiting another university, I had lunch with some female graduate students and postdocs. All of them said they did not want an academic career, because it was impossible to have children and be a professor, especially if you were married to another academic. They had arrived at that belief because the one female professor in their department was childless. To me that was a dramatic illustration of the importance of role models. Of course it's possible to be in a dual-career academic couple and have kids. In fact, it is more than possible; it can be a very nice life, with opportunities for family adventures.

Long distance. Should two partners live separately for a while if it might increase their chances of getting jobs together later on? I am often asked that question, but it's something each couple has to decide. There is no one right answer. My husband and I lived apart for a few years because we decided that independently pursuing our careers was the best plan for us, and we were fortunate that we eventually ended up living and working in the same place. Partners need to decide: How long is too long to live apart? What will we do if both of us get tenure-track jobs, but nowhere near each other? Will one of us give up the job? How will that be decided? Or will we live apart for longer than we planned until we can both get jobs we want near each other?

Midcareer move (dual-career edition). If you and your spouse are lucky enough to find academic positions near each other, does that mean you can never leave that campus? Not necessarily. When my husband and I have been approached by other institutions seeking to recruit one of us, we are typically told upfront, "And of course we would hire both of you." Being in a dual-career couple may make you less movable, but it doesn't mean you will never have any opportunities to move.

Nepotism. Some people object to the apparent nepotism of dual-career couples, particularly in the same department. However, partners at the same institution, or even in the same department, don't have decision-making roles regarding each other's hiring, salary, or promotion. If one member of a couple is the department chair, the other member of the couple reports directly to a dean or other administrator. Policies are in place to avoid conflicts of interest with dual-career couples.

Offices. There are many nice things about landing two jobs in the same place. There are also continuing challenges (see "economics") and minor annoyances. An example of the latter: Colleagues or students are looking for my spouse but can't find him, so they come to my office and ask where he is. Thus far I have confined my responses to polite answers (typically, "I have no idea"). A few times I have looked under my desk and in a drawer, then announced, "Well, he doesn't seem to be here." I have been tempted to get a leash and hold it up when asked the "Where is your husband?" question and say, "Oh, no! He's off the leash again!" Somehow I have resisted the urge.

Partners. What if you aren't married but have a long-term partner? Can you negotiate a position for your partner, or do you have to be married? I know of a few examples of dual-career couples who were not married but who nevertheless negotiated two positions. But I believe that's still rare. Clearly this is a relevant issue for gay couples. Even though there is no guarantee that married couples won't divorce, some administrators are uncomfortable hiring unmarried partners, because they somehow perceive such relationships to be less stable or more easily abandoned.

Qualified. A concern commonly raised by critics of the general concept of dual-career couples is that only one of the people in the couple is likely to be any good. The other person, critics claim, might not even be qualified for the job that's offered. The issue of what defines "qualified" is tricky, but it is not in the interest of a department or institution to hire an unqualified person, even for the sake of increasing diversity. If the "other" member of the couple is deemed unqualified for a faculty position, institutions are unlikely to offer one, even if it is economically feasible.

Recruitment and retention. When it comes to obtaining an academic position, are there any advantages to being part of a dual-career couple? Some colleagues report that their universities are pleased when a top candidate negotiates for a second position, because that means the candidate is more likely to stay. This phenomenon seems to occur most often at institutions where it can be difficult to attract and retain faculty members owing to such factors as a high cost of living or unappealing (to some) location. Dual-career couples who are successful at separate institutions, but unhappy about having long commutes or only weekends together, may be poached by other institutions. That is not common enough to make it a general feature of the experience of academic couples, but it's nice to know that sometimes being part of a couple can lead to job opportunities.

Sabbaticals. It may be easier for dual-career couples to go away for a sabbatical than it is for couples in different professions—if you can convince administrators to approve your leaves for the same year, and if you can work out the economic issues. Many American institutions pay faculty members 50 percent of their salaries while on sabbatical, so that must be factored into your plans.

Trailing spouses. It is rare that an institution has two equal positions open at the same time and hires both members of a couple on an equal footing. It happens, but it is far more common that there is one faculty position (tenured or tenure track) for one member of the couple, and the other is hired as part of a negotiation. In fact, it is typically assumed that one member of a dual-career couple is the "trailing spouse"—the one the institution hired only because it really wanted the other member. "Trailing spouse" is not a neutral concept: The stigma, even in a tenure-track position, can persist for years, particularly if there is unequal treatment in terms of resources (start-up support, space) and workload (teaching, service). Ideally, with time (and some retirements and new hires), the institutional memory of who was a trailing spouse fades away.

Unfair. As is probably quite clear, I am sympathetic to dual-career couples. Some people, however, are not—especially if two faculty positions are involved. The objection may stem in part from a feeling that one person is somehow circumventing the search process (see entries on the notion of "qualified" and on "trailing spouses"). There is no escaping the fact that when someone is hired, someone else is not, and it can be hard for unsuccessful candidates in a search to set aside disappointment (or anger) if a second position is created for the spouse of the successful candidate. That two people are hired instead of one, however, does not mean that the second hire is unqualified. In all cases that I know of, the "trailing spouse" is interviewed (gives a talk, meets with faculty members, etc.) before a second offer is made.

Voting blocs. One reason that some faculty members are reluctant to hire dual-career couples in the same department, particularly in small programs, is the fear that the couple will form the dreaded Voting Bloc. I am sure there are examples of couples voting the same on some issues in faculty meetings, but I am more likely to vote the same as colleagues in my research field than I am to vote in lock step with my spouse.

When (to bring up your two-body problem), and what (to say). Some administrators have told me that they want to know as soon as possible whether they need to start working on a dual-career hire—even as soon as the interview stage. That might be fine if there is a system that uses the information in a constructive way rather than penalizing candidates for it. Lacking such a system, I think it's better to keep such issues off the table, unless a candidate chooses to mention his or her personal situation. Of course, it is naïve to think that this information is unknown. Many women are asked during an interview about their marital (and parental) status and plans (see "illegal questions"), or this information is acquired through back channels.

What to say? When asked a personal question, it is reasonable to reply, calmly and pleasantly, "I'd rather talk about X," in which X is some topic relevant to research or teaching. Years ago, during my own interviews for faculty positions, I tried to walk a fine line between making it clear that I wasn't going to sit there and discuss my personal life in detail, and not being defensive about it. When asked about my husband, I would say something like, "We're both looking for faculty positions and are just trying to get the best jobs we can." And then I would try to change the subject back to research and teaching.

eXtremelY complicated. Will the two-body problem always be so fraught and complicated, or can colleges create systematic ways to deal with these situations that do not penalize the couples and yet result in hires that make sense for the institution? Even in these economically dire times, I think there are ways that human-resource offices and administrators can focus on the long-term benefits of hiring dual-career couples rather than the short-term economic costs.

Zero. That is the number of times I was not asked about my husband during interviews for a faculty position.

Female Science Professor is the pseudonym of a professor in the physical sciences at a large research university who blogs under that moniker and writes monthly for our Catalyst column. Her blog is