Thursday, July 27, 2006

What Do You Say?

What do you say when you're at a job interview and an interviewer (faculty member or administrator) brings up your spouse or partner even though they aren't supposed to?

First I should mention that one of my university's deans has said that she believes that universities should be able to ask this question, but from a proactive, positive point of view. That is, she wants to know who will need some creative accommodation for a spouse or partner, so that the university can get started on planning for this in time to make it a part of recruitment, rather than having it be a "secret" until an offer is made, when it may be too late to pull together 2 offers. This administrator is committed to increasing the number of women faculty in science and engineering, and she sees this as one way to do it.

But back to reality, my husband and I have both been asked about each other at every interview we've had, and in some cases, the 2-body situation was specifically cited as the reason why one or the other of us did not get a job offer. Yes, I know we could have caused a fuss about that, but it always seemed futile.

The more relevant question is: what do you say when your interviewer asks you point-blank "What about your husband/wife?" and you have to respond somehow. I've tried to walk the 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. I have had some success deflecting the conversation by deliberately misinterpreting the question as being about the relationship of my husband's research specialization to my own. In other cases, I have simply said "We're both looking for faculty positions and are just trying to get the best job or jobs that we can." My husband has said something similar when asked about me. Very few interviewers have pressed for more information after that first foray into unethical questioning. Maybe they just want to see what you'll do? Maybe they just want to show that they KNOW things about you?

I don't have any foolproof response to suggest, as situations and personalities can vary so much, so the only general advice I would give is to be sincere and professional in giving a brief response and then, smoothly and politely, turn the conversation back to your research and teaching ideas and accomplishments. In theory, if a department is interested in your work, it won't hire a less interesting or less qualified person just because that person doesn't have an academic spouse. In theory.

I can understand that hiring 2 people in one department can be logistically and financially difficult if both require significant startup resources and so on, but here's the stupidest reason I've ever heard for not hiring a couple in one department: the Voting Bloc excuse. I have heard this one so many times, and it amazes me every time. Are they saying that husbands and wives will naturally have the same opinions about everything or that the wife (or husband) will exert influence on the other to vote a certain way, and that this will shift the geopolitical balance of a department dramatically? In my department, "voting blocs", to the extent that they exist, are either generational or by sub-discipline, so I think the voting bloc thing is a myth. Maybe the people who believe in the Voting Bloc myth also would have been against giving women the right to vote nearly a century ago because we would just vote the way our husband's told us to?

I am still amazed and thankful that things worked out for my husband and me to both have great academic jobs in the same place. We have numerous colleagues around the country for whom it has also worked out to be in the same university or city, so we are by no means alone. Thinking back on all these cases, I think it is uncommon for both members of the couple to be hired straight out of a postdoc; more typically, both are professors (but in different places), or one is a professor at a 'good enough to leave' school and the other is a promising postdoc or research scientist. I know of a few cases where both were hired straight out of postdocs, so it can happen.


ScienceWoman said...

My spouse is non-academic so I have just answered that he is in a location-flexible field and is excited about the possibility of moving to ____.

One interviewer asked me whether I had kids. I said "Why do you ask?" He proceeded to tell me how much his family loved the city. But he didn't ask again. To me, this question is much much more troubling.

Anonymous said...

About long distance relationships - I'm a postdoc in an LDR. My bf is non-academic, and could move to be here, but we've chosen for him not to do that - because postdocs are temporary. It's something we faced right out the door of grad school. I imagine it will only continue with the job search; after all, how many people are at the same place, 20 years later?

When will it ever be the Right Time for us to be together?

skookumchick said...

This is probably a bad idea, but has anyone tried just saying "I thought I wasn't supposed to discuss personal issues at an interview?" (This is not a rhetorical question - I'm actually interested.)

I've also heard that the time to bring up potential spousal hiring is when you have an offer in hand (because they aren't allowed to take the offer away after they've made it, unless you break one of their "rules" like not responding within 14 days or something). What do people think?

Anonymous said...

"Are they saying that husbands and wives will naturally have the same opinions about everything or that the wife (or husband) will exert influence on the other to vote a certain way, and that this will shift the geopolitical balance of a department dramatically?"

Whilst I'm sure there are couples who are no more a voting bloc in the department than any two others, this kind of thing does happen.

My department employs a husband and wife. The husband is the department head. Many people around the department say that he was a resonable man and nice, until she got a job at the department too. She gets favours she shouldn't, and you can't treat her as you would any other colleagues because you know it will (or can) get straight back to the department head. It's not so much the "voting bloc" that is the problem (I'm sure I've seen them voting in different ways in meetings) but there is the sense that when you're dealing with one of them, you're dealing with a unit who has twice as much influence.

Anonymous said...

I am a senior administrator who is sympathetic to your dean's view that it is better to know early about possible partner-hire issues, in the hopes that a creative solution can be found. But just because I think it would be better doesn't mean I have a right to ask candidates to reveal information about their personal lives that isn't directly relevant to the search.

We have a pretty good compromise solution on our campus. Our department chairs are asked to schedule time for every candidate with a campus specialist in dual career and family issues, who can provide them with confidential discussions of the university's programs as well as advice about schools and the community. The candidates don't have to attend the meeting, and don't have to disclose anything, but anything they choose to disclose remains confidential and isolated from both the department and dean.

There are times our advisor might suggest to candidates that they consider talking with the dean about an issue or a possible partner accommodation, and may even get into these discussions herself, but she cannot disclose anything without the candidate's approval.

Ms.PhD said...

Anonymous senior administrator's solution is awesome! I want to go there.

Sometimes the need for anonymity on these things annoys me.

I've never heard of the voting bloc argument. Amazing what people manage to come up with as excuses.

The husband in Position of Power and wife (or illicit girlfriend) as Unapproachable Would-Be Peer is familiar, though. Seems to me conflict of interest issues should help prevent these things, but no one ever enforces them.