Dual-body career planning

The ‘dual-body problem’ gets a bad rap in academia. It’s seen as a major difficulty even though virtually all couples with at least one career in academia, and many other fields, have the same basic issue to deal with. This career path requires multiple changes in position, usually at different institutions, and often different geographic locations. It’s hard for anyone to make these career transitions, and made even harder when there is a significant other’s job to take into consideration, no matter the field. Oh how we envy those wise enough to have settled down with a someone who can work from a computer anywhere, and rake in the money to boot!

Anyway, my spouse and I have one of many versions of the dual body problem. We graduated from the same PhD program at the same time, are going on the job market at the same time, and some aspects of our research are fairly similar, meaning we have a lot of overlap in the actual job postings/departments we’re looking at. We are also very picky about where we want to live long-term. There are many “solutions” to similar situations, from the individual to institutional level, but for now, here’s our dual-body approach to applying for jobs.

  1. Who is more needy/picky in their requirements? Will they be happy if they settle for less? Will the other partner? Is one person’s skill set more in demand? In other words, do you have a “trailing spouse” or does it depend on what position is offered to whom? For us, it is my husband who has more specific needs, and may be a more desirable hire since he has grant funding to go with him to his new position. To do the research he wants, he needs to be at a major university with specific facilities and collaborators. I am more flexible in that I’m applying for anything from primarily teaching positions at small liberal arts colleges to more research-focused jobs at R1s, and I would also be interested in other kinds of jobs if things didn’t align perfectly for a traditional academic job.
  2. Restrict/expand searches geographically to match. We’ve done the long-distance thing when we couldn’t get a perfect match for our postdocs. That’s not going to happen again, though you do hear those stories about couples who go the majority of their careers living long distance!
  3. Make exceptions. When I see a job that I’m a perfect fit for, I’ll apply anyway, even if my husband doesn’t have plans/options to apply in that region. At the very least it could be a competitive offer to give me negotiating power; at the most it might sway us both to move for my dream job, or my spouse might discover another match there at a later date. Don’t give up before you’ve exhausted your options!
  4. Strongly consider jobs that advertise multiple positions. I don’t know if it’s the economic recovery or what, but I’m seeing a lot more institutions advertising large hiring sprees this year. Even if they are not ideal in one way or another, this could be the best all-around fit for getting both of us in decent positions.
  5. As with any job search, spread the word! We got wind of two positions opening in a department we both wanted to be in, from a friend who was keeping an ear to the ground for us. We were able to get our applications in despite the short window the post was open because of our friend’s influence, and never would have known about it otherwise.
  6. Prepare for when and how to bring up the dual-body issues with the department (most sources say for this early career stage it should be after an offer has been made) and what to ask the department to do about it. Can they create a position for the spouse? Hire both of us to share a lab/position? Exert influence on another department/institution to consider hiring the spouse? We are choosing not to mention our dual-body issue in our cover letters and will see for each position when it makes sense to broach the subject.
  7. Support each other! Pass along job ads, decide together which jobs to apply for, read each other’s application packages, and be enthusiastic about all promising opportunities that come up without over-analyzing what you would do if

Stay tuned for future posts on interviews, decision making, rejection… and wish us luck! If you have any other experience or advice for the planning/applying stage, please post in the comments!

6 responses so far

  • sel says:

    I dunno about point #6. Because "creating a position for the spouse"....particularly if this is another TT faculty line....is NOT a trivial matter in these financially strapped times. You've got to give the university enough time to look at the spouse's application, interview the spouse, vote on the spouse, find another 500 K or so, find more lab space, and get the offer together. Waiting until after the initial offer to person #1 is made and then saying, "oh, by the way, person #2 will need a position too" is putting the university in an extremely difficult position.

    Don't mention it in the cover letters, but if one of you is chosen for an interview, mention it at some point during the interview visit. (All of you guys out there who have interviewed for faculty positions know full well that some questions you get asked are basically probing for whether a 2 body problem exists. It's illegal for department reps to flat out ask about it, but there are subtle ways to try to get the information.)

    • sweetscience says:

      Good point! For us it depends on the specific job/department. If it was one that Spouse applied for as well, then we'd bring it up at the interview. If not then it would depend on what we know about the department and whether spouse would actually want a TT job there or whether we'd wait and try for something else...

  • B WD says:

    Good luck with this process, and I hope it works out for you! My husband and I are in different fields; but have been navigating this issue for several years on the market, and are hopefully soon going to have our next steps firmed up with a successful spousal hire at an R1 institution, which we believe has received the final funding approvals...!! We luckily both have grant funding (K99 awards); but this has also added additional layers of complexity with regard to timing (we received award >1 apart) and start ups (we both have lots of needs). . . I could go on and on.

    In any case, here is some advice from my experiences.
    1) I would not mention your spouse until after you have received a "verbal" offer, and then I would also advise you to not contact other universities where you have pending applications about receiving an offer until a position for your spouse has been sorted, or vice versa..
    2) I would apply as broadly as possible across the country, and keep spreading the word that you are on the market!

  • pyrope says:

    I agree with Sel - regardless of what you see as your potential path forward at wherever you are interviewing, it is in your best interest to mention a 2-body problem. It's likely that some places will tell you tough luck, but you may find in others that there are more options than you would have initially thought. I am a 'trailing' spouse, and am now tenured in a department that I didn't even realize existed when we were on the job market. Ask your potential chair and hiring committee for help with that legwork, they'll have ideas.

  • It is much easier to find a non-TT position for a two body problem. At ProdigalU, even if everyone agrees that a "trailing spouse" should be offered a TT position, it needs approval way up the chain and can take quite a while to come through. We have done it though. I can think of 2 recent (in the last 5 years) examples. I would mention it at an onsite interview if it looks like it is going well. Springing a two body problem on the chair during discussion of a job offer is unlikely to lead to a TT position. If you do mention it, whether or not we think a candidate will accept our offer is discussed in search committees, so it is important to have some idea of what the non-academic job scene looks like for the "trailing spouse".

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