Tuesday, September 16, 2008


By popular demand, my probably-not-very-useful further thoughts on the issue of needing two academic positions at the same or neighboring institutions; i.e., the infamous twobodyproblem:

As I have written before, although I have experience with the twobodyproblem, this is an issue about which I do not have a strong opinion in terms of What You Should Do if you are in this situation. Everyone’s situation is different – every couple is different, every career path is different. There’s no one useful set of rules to follow to make sure that the problem is solved for everyone.

In addition, my own experiences may not be very relevant because every institution deals with this situation differently. I think that many institutions are becoming more proactive about finding solutions, including having specific protocols for how the cost of an 'extra' faculty position would be distributed among the department, college, and university (in the case of a large institution that has this type of administrative structure).

To answer some specific questions I have been asked about this topic:

If one of you already has a tenure-track position, should you look for a different position pre-tenure?

Yes. One of the most efficient ways to solve the twobodyproblem is to get an offer from another place. I was told by my first university that there was absolutely no way they could hire my husband.. until I got another offer, at which time a tenure-track position for my husband magically appeared.

Is it better to wait for tenure?

No, don't wait. You are more portable as an Assistant Professor. You may have more opportunities to move at the junior level.

How do you approach other universities? Do you explain your situation?

You can if you want, but you don't have to, even if your situation is widely known in your field. I applied for other tenure-track positions when I already had one, and I did not mention my husband in my application. Most people in my field knew about my situation anyway, and I got asked about it at every interview, as did my husband at his interviews.

When asked, I first made it clear that I was sincerely interested in the position for which I was being interviewed, and then said that I wanted to be considered based on my own merits, despite my twobodyproblem. We didn't try to negotiate two positions until we had offers, and this worked well for us, but again, other scenarios might work just as well.

You are not being dishonest if you don't mention your personal situation when applying for a job.

Do we have a better chance of getting two jobs if we live apart for a while?

I don't know. Again, every situation is so different, I can't answer this question for anyone but myself. If living apart is feasible, albeit difficult, perhaps try it for a while but agree on some sort of plan/time-frame for living in the same place at some specified time in the future, or at least agree to reevaluate the situation at some specific time.

In my case, I am convinced that my husband and I would not have ended up with two tenure-track positions in the same place if we had not lived apart for a few years. It was easier for University #2 to hire us both because we both had good records of being independent scientists with publications, grants, and (in my case) teaching experience, but we were still fairly junior. We were both hired as Assistant Professors, although I got some years of credit for my first job and came up for tenure soon after arriving at University #2.

Some couples end up living apart until they retire. I would not have done this, but fortunately we never had to face the choice of being a professor or living together.

Will I have a better chance of having an academic job and a family if I marry another scientist or should I marry someone in the art history department?

Some people think that the biggest challenge is if both members of the couple are in the same or similar fields. Different-field couples have the advantage of there being a chance that a large university will have two openings that might fit each person’s expertise, but academic couples in different fields also have serious challenges. In the case of same-field couples, university administrative structures can more easily handle the situation; e.g., if a single Dean is responsible for making decisions about faculty lines and budgets, it might be easier to make a second hire than in the case of different-field couples. That is, a science department will likely have no influence whatsoever on the hiring situation in the English department, and vice versa.

I am just musing. I don't think the level of difficulty in getting two academic jobs in the same vs. different fields would or should affect someone's decision about whether to marry a physicist or an art historian, although physicists are cuter.


Anonymous said...

Setting aside, of course, the absurdity of choosing a spouse based on their academic department, one other point about the hypothetical scientist-art historian coupling is that different fields can have completely incongruent faculty-search schedules. Some fields conduct most of their interviews at their big annual meetings, some bring in one candidate per week to talk in a regularly-scheduled seminar.

A physicist-historian couple I knew of were both good candidates for jobs in their respective fields, but the historian ended up getting a job offer and had to either accept it or turn it down before the physicist heard back. In the end, they chose to accept the history job and let the physicist take his chances, on both the academic and non-academic job markets.

Kim said...

The same department vs different department question might have different answers for a research university vs a small college. (A four-person department might have more trouble finding a new position for a spouse than a larger department would. And the institutional structure tends to be flatter - the same dean might be in charge of hires in physics and art history.) My previous SLAC had a lot of difficulties with the twobodyproblem (and lost some great people as a result), but seemed to do a better job with people in very different departments.

Anonymous said...

"the absurdity of choosing a spouse based on their academic department"

Indeed -- I suspect that's more of a hypothetical, not "should I marry the art historian or the physicist who seem like they'd both make pretty good husbands" but, will the person with the art historian or the physicist husband be able to navigate this pathway more easily.

I think, as FSP starts her post with, that there are things you can do that can help you navigate these ups and downs, but there are no sure solutions. So, in the end, the choice is always what is more important to you. For example, the living apart question -- living apart might help, if your alternative is to give up your position and weaken your career record. But, it might not. So, you have to check whether you're happy now, in addition to planning for future happiness.

What I'd like to see in answering this question, as well as on the question of children, is more stories, both case histories, and statistics, of people who successfully navigated the path. I think we end up hearing more about who didn't successfully navigate (one of the things that used to bug me about the chronicles chronicles of job searches is how frequently they ended in a position for the man, and the woman deciding to take something else). I want to hear about the (fewer) people who managed to make it work for them.

Anonymous said...

I'll delurk to add my two cents worth in response to the commenter who wanted success stories. My husband and I landed two tenure track jobs (in the social sciences - same department) at the same institution. We lived apart for a year, I did the full-time non-tenure track bit for a couple of years (at the institution where he was hired in a tenure track line but ONLY because he finished first as he had started first). When I finished and we applied for positions (we only applied at places that had 2 openings), we sent a joint cover letter explaining our situation. Luckily, a colleague in our current department also had a two-body problem and helped overcome any objections to hiring both of us that emerged (pretty impressive given that I was also 7 months pregnant when I flew out for my on campus interview!). I think this (being upfront about our problem) only serves to reinforce FSP's point that every situation is unique.

Anonymous said...

I know a case where the wife was hired tenure-track in a humanities field, the husband was the spousal hire as an adjunct in a science field; he does computational stuff. After a while the husband attracted an NSF grant (he's quite good and the position was such that he could apply for grants. And, given that he does computational stuff, he didn't need a lab in order to do science while being an adjunct). At that point he pushed and was able to convert his position to tenure-track. Currently the wife has tenure and the husband is up for tenure (in my department) and I think he's likely to get it. So, that's a success story, but it took some patience and persistence on the husband's part.

Candid Engineer said...

I don't think I've ever seen the words 'physicist' and 'cute' in the same sentence before. I'm going to have to start looking around a little harder.

Anonymous said...

My experience with this situation is that this works in large institutions but not in small ones. I am administration in a small cc and my spouse cannot find work in town. We had to settle for spouse driving over an hour one-way to find a job.

We get lots of "but you'd be a great hire" and "wow, I'd love to offer you a position", but so far out of 6 positions - not even an interview.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing about this (and answering my request, which it’s sad to see is so popular). I’m starting my fourth year in a tenure-track position, and I always thought there was nothing I could do before tenure. You and others coincide that I should be looking at positions elsewhere now, so that’s exactly what I’ll be doing in the next couple of months. We’ll see how it goes!
Thanks a million for sharing your wisdom with the public.

Christine said...

Thanks for this post, at least to help me feel I/we am/are not alone in the two body problem. My husband isn't in the academy, but still has a specialized job, so it's a concern for down the road.