Navigating the “Two-Body Problem”: Strategies on Approaching the Job Market with an Academic Spouse

Going on the academic job market with a spouse who is also an academic? You are not alone; studies show that a little over one third of academics have academic spouses (about the same number as those who have spouses who work outside of academia). Before either of you goes on the market, there are a few questions you should ask yourselves to help you decide how to coordinate searches, what your dealbreakers are, and what you would be willing to compromise on (for now, if not forever) when either of you receives an offer. Once one of you has an offer in hand, you may still have a long road ahead, but a few words of advice will help you find a path to a satisfying career for both of you.

Questions to Ask Yourselves Before Going on the Market

  1. Do both of you want to or have to work (for wages)?
    When answering this question, consider what kind of support the spouse not working for wages might need in order to keep up their academic profile, and whether they could reasonably expect to get that support from the hiring institution or from grant-giving foundations.
  2. Are you willing to live separately?
    If yes, for how long and how far apart are you willing to be?
  3. Do either of your PhDs (and in most situations you must both have PhDs if you wish to negotiate a spousal hire) easily qualify you for jobs outside of academia?
    If one or both of you could work outside of academia, are you willing to or would you like to?
  4. What kinds of positions within academia are either of you willing to pursue?
    Do you both want the traditional tenure-track position or are either of you willing to or eager to have a different kind of position? For example, other options may include a purely research or purely teaching position or an administrative position at a campus center. Considering these options may open up more opportunities for you during the job search and these possibilities may provide more room to negotiate for a spousal hire once an offer is made. 
  5. Are there any other ways that either of you could broaden your search within academia?
    For some academics, their research and teaching interests would allow them to seek positions in interdisciplinary as well as discipline-specific departments. Considering such options could again broaden one’s possibilities on the market and during spousal hire negotiations.

While there are no right or wrong answers to these questions, having a conversation about them will help you decide how to approach the academic job market and how coordinated your efforts as a couple need to be. For instance, if you are unwilling to live separately, then you may want to use job search tools that allow you to search for dual career options within a region. You may also decide it is best for both of you to apply for all possible jobs that you qualify for and plan to negotiate for a spousal hire. 

Worthwhile Attitudes to Hone When Going on the Job Market

Regardless of your approach to the search, you will likely need to have patience, be flexible, and have a generous dose of self-worth. While all of these attitudes are ideal for anyone going on the academic job market, they are especially useful for academic couples.

Have patience. From the first calls for applications to first rounds of interviews, to campus visits, to having an offer in hand, the process of obtaining that first academic job can take months (if not years), so having patience behooves any academic applicant. For academic couples, patience is even more necessary because the first time you are on the job market is unlikely to result in your optimal situation as a couple. While you may land in a position that you can make do with for a few years, one or both of you may hope to make a change eventually. This may mean moving closer to one another, changing jobs at your current institution, or negotiating for your spouse to be hired later

Be flexible. Reflecting on your answers to the questions above, cast as wide of a net as makes sense for you, and realize you may be able to tweak a less-than-ideal situation later if you have the right leverage. While you will want to be realistic about what kinds of positions you are willing to accept, you will also need to choose your priorities as an academic couple. For instance, if you are unwilling to live separately, you will need to be flexible in some other way—it is unlikely that both you and your spouse will land your dream jobs within easy commuting distance of one another on your first time on the job market. So you will need to think about what will be satisfactory, at least for the time being.

Have (and sustain) self-worth. Unfortunately, anyone who is a spousal hire will likely face negative biases and perhaps even discrimination at some point; there is a vocal minority within academia that ardently opposes the hiring of academic spouses. Luckily, if you are a spousal hire, there must be people in your department and college who support you; otherwise, you would not have a job. Find those people and others who will appreciate your worth, and build a community of mutual encouragement. Still, as a spousal hire, you will need a generous dose of self-worth because you just might have a colleague or two who will see you as less competent than everyone else in your department despite all evidence to the contrary.

On Negotiating a Spousal Hire

If you are negotiating for a spousal hire, at least one of you has received an offer. Congratulations! Your success in negotiating a spousal hire will depend on some factors outside of your control including the university’s policy on spousal hires and the receptivity to spousal hires on the part of the search committee, the head(s) of the pertinent department(s), the dean(s), the provost, and faculty within the department(s). Although there has been a push for institutions to develop guidelines to support dual-career couples and studies reveal the advantages of accommodating partner hires, the recommended guidelines leave a lot of wiggle room and negotiations may still seem hodgepodge. 

Some things to keep in mind during negotiations:

  1. Asking for a spousal hire is the big ask of the negotiation. You may be able to tweak some of the other terms of the contract during negotiations, but do not plan on requesting any major changes.
  2. Having a counteroffer may provide leverage. A counteroffer for whichever of you will be a spousal hire has the added benefit of showing that person’s value as an academic. If a spouse is not hired initially, receiving a counteroffer at a later time may be a way to reopen negotiations.
  3. The spouse being hired second will likely be invited for a campus visit and interview before any offer is made.

Final Thoughts

Remember, there is no single path that academic spouses follow. Some live separately for their entire careers; others take turns working in academia; some independently find academic jobs close to one another or at the same university; others negotiate for a spousal hire; some seek out careers in alt-ac; many others do none of these things or do a mixture of them at different points in their careers. With the current state of the job market, it will be as important as ever for all academic job seekers to try to be patient, be flexible, and have a generous dose of self-worth. You and your spouse may end up on a path you had not previously anticipated, but remember, whatever path you are on, you are unlikely to be alone. Ask around and you are sure to find colleagues with similar experiences as you. Good luck!


Featured image: Vector illustration of different family people with children, couples, friends in the flat style by virinaflora.

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