The Two Body Problem
The Two-Body Problem: when a couple in a long term relationship seeks to manage two academic careers at once.
The North American university system developed at a time when most professors were male. If they had wives, the wives looked after them, cared for them, and in some important cases, helped them write their books. If they had long-term male partners, they either stayed in the closet or faced tremendous discrimination on the job.
My parents, for instance, were both well-educated New York Jews who found themselves in Master’s-level programs at Washington University in St. Louis in the 1950s. After a few years off, my dad went on to finish his PhD and my mom worked to support him. She tells me this was a conscious decision on their part, since he had much more potential earning power after the doctorate. She told me she had professors who berated the women in their MA courses, saying essentially “you’re going to wind up barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen anyway, so why should I spend any energy on you now?”
In the intervening years, the second wave of feminism brought growing numbers of women professors into the academy. Today, women outnumber men in many doctoral programs across the university.
And it turns out that a significant portion of academic women are married to academic men. Add to that increasing “outness” of same-sex couples, and suddenly there is a surfeit of academic couples looking for employment that won’t force them to live apart for long periods of time and that won’t force one member to basically give up on his or her career aspirations.
The problem is that many schools still act like their professors are still those “men with wives who type their manuscripts.” Others have begun to develop partner-hire policies, though these tend to change like wind direction. There’s also surprisingly little good information about academic couples on the internet. When my parnter and I were going through this, we had a big support network and several other couples who mentored us. Here are a few things we learned.
What follows is strictly my opinion and comes without warrantee of any kind. I am not interested in a debate on the merits of hiring academic couples — I am 100% for it and this page is written for couples who want jobs together.
Take this with a grain of salt, but here’s how I think it works. I refer to “partner #1” and “partner #2” arbitrarily. I prefer “partner” to “spouse” because same-sex couples can’t marry in the United States, and because long-term couples shouldn’t be required to marry if they don’t want to.
The usual winning scenario:
Most of the time, an academic couple who successfully lands two satisfying jobs together does so at once. This means that one partner is the “lead partner” and the other is the “trailing” partner. IE, partner #1 applies for a job, gets the offer, and then an offer is extended to partner #2 after an interview and some internal negotiations (more on that below). Alternatively, if partner #1 is already employed somewhere, partner #1’s current institution may get serious about hiring partner #2 as part of a counteroffer.
By the way, this is also a winning scenario for the institution that gets the couple. Smart people tend to pair up with smart people. Moreover, the department that hires partner #2 often gets a “free” or “partially free” line from the provost, which in this day and age is hard to come by. Couples are also less mobile than individual faculty members, which means the odds of retention are better (though not guaranteed by any means).
A rarer winning scenario:
Two partners go on the market together and land two jobs in the same town at different schools. This is more difficult because of the way the job market works. Let’s say partner #1 lands a job in a big city. In order for it to work, partner #2 would need to have a job offer in the same area before partner #1’s offer expires. But search committees are often on vastly different schedules. One school will interview in November and the other in March. Nevertheless, this does happen occasionally and it’s wonderful when it does.
A compromise scenario:
Partner #1 has or lands a job in a Good Place (however you want to define that). Partner #2 limits his or her jobsearch geographically to places within commuting distance of the Good Place. Most of the time, this means that Partner #2 is going to have to make some career compromises, either by working at a school that does not match his or her career aspirations or in a position that doesn’t fit his or her expertise (or does not carry the possibility of tenure). If other aspects of your life in the Good Place are Really Good, then it’s worthwhile. But if partner #2 is miserable and resentful, then it’s not such a good thing.
Partner #1 lands a good job in one place, partner #2 lands a good job in another place. They see each other on long weekends and over breaks from school. This really works for some people who like a good deal of independence, and who really want to separate their work lives and personal lives. It has significant downsides, though, since it makes at least one partner less present in the local community (a major issue at some smaller schools).
If you’re like me and pair up to actually be with the other person, this scenario would be acceptable only as a (very) temporary solution.
The career change
One member switches careers. In a tight job market, this may be necessary after a certain number of years of unsuccessful searching. It’s a totally acceptable outcome if the couple is comfortable with it and it leads to a happy life. If the person who switches careers is unhappy or resentful, it is totally unacceptable. It also may limit the academic’s career aspirations, because you can’t really ask someone to change careers so you can stay in one place, and then change careers again so you can move to a better job for your career. Of course, if partner #2 takes up a portable career, this is not a problem.
Some couples value their careers more than their relationships, and can finally decide that it’s not going to work out. Ms. Mentor frequently suggests to academic women that they prioritize career over relationships. As a sentimental person, I’m less comfortable with that as a blanket suggestion, but it is an outcome and deserves a place in this list.
Institutional policies are constantly evolving. You should do your best to educate yourself. Here are some example scenarios and things to know about:
The “Provostial Hire”. The most common scenario is some variable of McGill’s, which has the clumsy name of the “provostial hire” — though other schools call them “spousal hire” policies, which is an equally problematic name since couples shouldn’t have to be married to qualify. A department identifies someone they want to hire who is partnered to another academic. The hiring department covers a third of the cost of the partner, the provost’s office covers a third, and the 2nd partner’s department covers a third. All of this is negotiated in practice, of course. A variation would be that the 1st partner’s department pays for the 2nd partner’s position initially, but that the 2nd partner’s department gradually assumes financial responsibility for his or her position until tenure, at which time the 2nd partner’s department takes over full responsibility.
The mortgage. Many universities are moving to “fixed complement” scenarios for faculty, which means that a given unit will have a certain number of faculty “lines” assigned to them. To get more faculty, the dean or provost has to take a “line” from somewhere else. This is a scenario of artificial scarcity and largely a corrupt and neoliberal strategy to devolve from higher administration to lower administration (and it is more often than not used as an excuse not to do something and circumvented when a dean is motivated), Nevertheless, if such a scenario exists, often departments can “mortgage” a line to hire someone with the understanding that the next person who leaves or retires will not be replaced. Essentially, the trailing partner is the replacement for someone who has not yet left.
The national search. Smart schools interview the trailing partner and figure out what to do within weeks of deciding to make an offer to the 1st partner. Other schools may set up sham year-long searches where a job description is written for the trailing partner but a series of candidates are interviewed as in a regular search. In the interim, the trailing partner usually is offered a visiting faculty position. This can work but it is needlessly complicated and offers the couple no assurance that it will work out in the end.
The dual hire. Very rarely, an institution will advertise two positions, one in each partner’s area of expertise, and do the hires at times close enough together that the couple can decide together. In this scenario, no negotiation is necessary.
My plan of action is for couples looking for two jobs at the same school, because if you do all of this, you’ll also be well prepared for other scenarios should they appear.
1. You need a plan of action.
You and your partner are going to need to talk about this issue frequently. Often, one partner is “senior” to the other. The time to start looking for two jobs together is when the “junior” partner has finished or is about to finish his or her dissertation. By “about to,” I mean really close — like with one chapter left. It would be best, however, if both members of the couple had a PhD in hand.
You will need to talk about your goals and priorities. Once you’ve settled on a plan, keep it close to your chest for now. Is being together most important? Is having two “good jobs”? How long and under what conditions would you be willing to be apart? What’s the best-case scenario, and what’s your plan for dealing with other scenarios? Revisit this often — at least once a year in the summer before the job market season starts.
2. Even if you one of you is happily employed, you will both probably need to go on the market. It may take a few years.
3. The “coming out” question, part 1
If one of you is happily employed as a professor somewhere, once the process starts, it’s a good idea to let your chair and/or dean know that you are going to look for two jobs together. You will want to do this perhaps a little early. For instance, if you know in March that you are going on the market the following fall, by all means schedule a meeting with your chair. Explain that you’d like to stay and you’re happy there, but that you and your partner both need good jobs. If the chair is smart, he or she will get right to work on this (and/or have the foresight to plan for this scenario). If the chair is not smart (or is smart and wants to get rid of you), he or she may sit on it until such time as you (or even both of you) receive an offer somewhere else. At which point, it is likely that you won’t be staying at your current institution.
4. The “coming out” question, part 2
Do you mention that you are in a couple in an application letter? On an interview? Opinion differs. Our mentors on this matter strongly advised us to “stay in the closet” during the interview process. I use the closet metaphor because it’s a bit like the issues that queer academics face at this stage. We were told not to wear wedding rings to interviews or talk about our home lives. Which lead to some wacky awkwardness. For instance, at an interview at a school in a remote place, a well-meaning faculty member explained how it works if you’re a single guy in such a remote place. For a good 15-20 minutes. It was actually very sweet of him, but I couldn’t say anything to dissuade him. Because I was new to the game and didn’t feel confident revealing that I was part of a couple, I smiled and nodded.
The reason for this level of caution is that even though hiring committees aren’t allowed to take matters like marital status into account when they make hiring decision, they sometimes will. So what they don’t know won’t hurt you. On the other hand, some people will be hurt if you didn’t confide in them during the interview. It’s a catch-22 and there’s no one right way to navigate the issue.
In point of fact, the chair who hired us at McGill knew all about our situation (through backchannels), and that knowledge probably helped him recruit us. So in the end, that advice probably didn’t apply to us.
You’ll have to make your own decisions about this, but my general sense is that it’s a matter to handle with great care. Word will get around even if you do nothing, so you never know exactly who knows what. At the minimum, I would not mention it prior to a campus interview. The latest you should bring it up would be when the department is making you the job offer. It should be your first item of negotiation.
5. Get into position to get lucky
A lot of partner hiring is situational. Is there some budgetary flexibility that year? Are the relevant departments in the good graces of the administration? Are the chairs, deans and provosts motivated? Is there some kind of partner hire practice or policy that makes sense? Are both partners good enough fits with their respective departments? All of these questions will determine whether you even have a shot at a dual hire at an institution.
But once you have that shot, you need to make the most of it. Both of you need to interview well. Both of you ought to have well-developed primary and secondary areas of expertise (a diversified portfolio — and remember that you can’t fake the funk).
You should be polished public speakers and your interview skills should be sharp. If you are an introvert, get a coach long before you need one and practice.
It is a job market truism that publication increases mobility. Even if you both want teaching jobs, some publications will help a lot. If you want jobs at research schools, you should both be prolific authors in your chosen fields (relative to career stage, of course, and quality is more important than quantity) and if you’re in a science or “hard” social science, you should be able to show you can get grant money.
Since I am an extrovert, I hit a lot of conferences and met a lot of people in case one of them might later be interested in hiring me. I’m not sure how much any of that helped in the couple hire saga, and we did run up some debt that we later had to pay off since it meant going way over my conference budget each year. But the networking certainly was good for me in other ways, and since networking essentially means making friends, I have no regrets.
6. You need a support network
Make friends with other academic couples, especially couples who are senior to you. They will be good sources for advice and consolation. You will need lots of both.
1. Don’t believe the hype
Colleagues who know nothing about academic couples will come up with all sorts of possible scenarios, but you should weigh them against what I’ve written above. The whole “we’re in a big city so I’m sure your partner will find something” sounds nice, but what they’re actually telling you is “it’s not our problem.” Sure, there are a lot schools in New York, Montreal, or plenty of other big cities. But see above.
Note that the person may be clueless and well-meaning. Ditto for the equally clueless colleague who sees a job listing in an area unrelated to your partner’s area of expertise and suggests that she or he apply for it. Example: your partner is a postcolonial theorist and the colleague notes an opening for someone to run an executive training center.
2. There’s a fine line between clueless and asinine
Many of the arguments against partner hires follow the logic of anti-Affirmative Action arguments. In a given department, you cannot predict by political ideology or research area who will be supportive and who will be hostile to the idea. But the clueless or hostile (always assume they’re clueless and educable, even if they really are just hostile) may make comments like:
“If there isn’t a national search, your partner just won’t feel right accepting the job.” Which is of course code for “I wouldn’t feel right making the hire.” I know many people hired into academic jobs through nontraditional searches, Target of Opportunities, partner hires, and other mechanisms that don’t require a year-long nationally advertised search. Not one of them hangs their head in shame or fails to speak up at faculty meetings because of how they got their jobs. The assumption behind the “national search” comment is that a national search is the only way to determine if a candidate is qualified. This is patently false: qualified people are routinely hired without national searches (see: full professors at elite schools, for example). National searches also routinely turn up people who don’t make tenure (nb: I don’t mean to suggest that all negative tenure decisions are purely meritocratic, only that some are) or otherwise turn out not to be good colleagues.
“What if you break up?” This question was posed by a department chair to a friend of mine who was married to someone in his field. The department in question had at least two faculty members who had persued legal action against two other faculty members. The idea that an ex-couple can’t work together is insulting to the couple and ignores the fact that many other academics routinely pick decades-long fights over much smaller matters than custody or who got the house.
When people say stuff like this to you, don’t let them get you down, but do challenge them. It’s your responsibility to educate the clueless.
3. It’s a long path. You will doubt yourselves
Because there is no clear path to a couple hire, it may feel like it will never happen — until it happens. I know a case of a couple where both members are huge hotshots in their fields. It took them two years to land something together, and they were both pretty depressed after that first year. I don’t know statistics, but my sense is that the average is something like five years to find an arrangement that works for both people. Anything less is a combination of good preparation and good fortune.
This page is a work in progress. Please email me with suggestions for material to include, helpful links, and so forth.