Sometimes I think that universities are finally finding better ways to deal with academic couples, and then I see or hear something that shows that any progress in the last decade or two might have been transient or random. I know that there are financial realities regarding 1 vs. 2 faculty positions, but I think that an institution that figures out how to solve this "problem" will end up with a high quality, diverse, and content faculty, and therefore in the long run it makes sense to deal with this issue in a more systematic way, involving high levels of administration. But then, I think the same about universities/colleges that figure out how to offer high quality daycare for faculty, staff, and students, and there doesn't seem to be a huge rush to fix that problem either.
The situation with which I am most familiar is when both members of a couple are in the same field and would be hired by the same department. This is challenging, but for a university (rather than a small college) it may be less challenging than the situation in which the members of a couple are in different departments or other units of a university.
Anyway, my husband-to-be and I met in graduate school. By the time I defended my Ph.D. (about a year before he finished his PhD) and had an offer of a postdoc at another university, we sort of knew we might/maybe/perhaps would get married, but hadn't quite decided. We never even considered my not leaving to do the postdoc. Partway through my first postdoc year, I decided to seek another position for the following year rather than stay in the postdoc longer. I was enjoying the research, but the level of harassment by technical staff, one senior male professor (not my supervisor), and even some male graduate students, was unacceptably high and was interfering with my ability to do my work. I had several choices for my next position, including a tenure-track position at a small college. I decided not to take the tenure-track position because I knew that my partner would never want to be in such a small place with limited research facilities. We had agreed that if we didn't get the job of our dreams right away, we'd try for jobs at places where we could both reasonably exist and that were 'good enough to leave' (i.e., not dead ends, careerwise). We were both sure that this college would have been a dead end in terms of further opportunities for both of us.
I accepted instead a visiting professor position at a different small college -- a bigger name school than the other one and one that was quite similar to the one I'd been to as an undergraduate. I had long thought that I would most like to be at a small liberal arts college, since I had loved my undergraduate school and I have a strong interest in integrating science with liberal arts. People thought I was crazy to turn down a tenure-track position for a visiting position, but it worked out in the end, and the teaching experience turned out to be important in my later efforts to get another job.
I remember this as a stressful time because my husband-to-be had several choices of postdoc positions, including one that was geographically very close to the college where I'd be for the next year. He decided to take a position that was geographically distant (as in east coast-west coast distant) because it was the best place for his research. By this time, we'd decided only two things: (1) we were going to get married soon, and (2) we would pursue our careers in separate places for a while, making career decisions based on our individual research interests and goals, with the hopes that we'd eventually have options that allowed us to be together. If one of us got a great job and the other didn't, we'd deal with that if we had to.
During my year as a visiting professor, I learned many useful things; here's another list: (1) visiting professors/adjuncts are not treated well in general (huge teaching load, not a lot of respect from colleagues or administrators), (2) I was good at both teaching and research, and enjoyed both immensely, and (3) I did not want to be at a small liberal arts college. The last point came as a particular surprise to me.
Jobs were very scare in my field by this point, but one came up that was perfect for my research interests and was at a university with an excellent reputation for both research and teaching. I really wanted that job. At a conference that fall, I had a pre-interview with the department chair to see if they were interested in encouraging my full application for the position. I remember arriving for the interview just as the previous candidate, a prominent young man in my field, was leaving his interview. He not only shook hands with the department chair, but also gave the chair a sort of friendly pat on the shoulder -- I can't describe it exactly, but it looked natural and like something confident guys do together, and my heart sank because I couldn't do things like that. I had a rather awkward conversation with the chair, who was a rather awkward sort of person (but very nice), and left feeling disconsolate. Nevertheless, I was encouraged to apply for the job, so I did.
I was invited to interview. I was very happy and excited about that, but knew also that the other candidates were formidable and personable and I didn't feel too optimistic. I wondered if I was just an affirmative action interview. By this time, I was married and my husband was still a postdoc on the other side of the country. The interview was both great and terrifying. During the interview, I felt that it was going well. I had many discussions and conversations that were very interesting and friendly, but the issue of my husband kept popping up in illegal and unsettling ways. Faculty candidates are not supposed to be asked about their spouses/partners during interviews, but it always comes up. I didn't even know how they all knew about my husband -- we had only been married a few months, and I didn't know anyone personally at the place I was interviewing. But they knew. This place also had a lousy record of hiring and tenuring women, and the last two assistant professors had recently been denied tenure, so I kept telling myself that I was crazy to want to have a job at that place. But I did want to have a job at that place. I had no idea how I'd done in the interview because it had been such a mixed experience -- lots of positive interactions, lots of people telling me that it was only 1 job and there was no chance for my husband to get a position (I hadn't even asked.. it was just an interview).
The phone call from the chair offering me the job stands out in my mind as one of the all-time most thrilling moments of my life. That might sound pathetic, but it was amazing.
But of course there was only one position, and they weren't willing to do anything for my husband other than give him an office, adjunct status, and occasional teaching. He decided to stay in his postdoc longer, and we would continue commuting from coast to coast. We did that for 3 more years, all the while progressing in our careers individually. We spent summers together, other vacations, and a few other extended times (my husband taught a class one semester at my university, I had a semester research leave), and acquired lots of frequent flyer miles. We talked on the phone several times a day - sometimes 5-6 times/day - and we emailed constantly, and somehow it was a pretty good life.
We were both applying for jobs. I absolutely loved my job, but knew I had to look for other opportunities as long as my husband didn't have a tenure-track position. We both got interviews, and were always asked about our spouse. After I'd been in my tenure-track position for 3 years, a large university offered both my husband and me tenure-track positions. The two offers came about in large part because the provost of the university got involved and created a second position. The deal was that we would share 1.5 positions for at least the first year, and eventually would each have a full position. Once we had these offers, my university magically came up with a tenure-track offer for my husband. I was very torn -- I was doing well where I was, it was a nice place to live, and I was not worried about tenure. At the new place, I didn't know if I'd like it, and the tenure bar was higher, along with the pressure to get more and bigger grants. And we were going to have a baby that winter.
After a lot of agonizing indecision, we decided to move and make a fresh start at the other university, which was going to build a lab for my husband and which had excellent facilities in place for my research. It was a painful decision. I stayed another year at my 'old' university, finishing teaching commitments, and our child was born that year.
It was challenging showing up at a new place with an infant, but after a difficult year, we both knew we'd made the right decision. And after a year of sharing 1.5 positions, we were both upped to 100%, and after 2 years, I got tenure. Happy Ending.
7 months ago