When I started looking for a faculty position coming out of my first postdoc in 1995, I knew it would be difficult ... but I never imagined how hard it would be to find a job for myself plus another. I was still basking in the glory of a major discovery made during graduate school, and I was invited for several interviews. None actually landed me a job, though, so I decided to go for a second postdoc to learn some new skills. After a few more interviews the following year, I did get an offer and might have been inclined to accept it, except that I had just started dating the man who is now my husband. I was quite sure I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him, and I decided that waiting a few years until he was ready to look for jobs was a small professional price to pay for perhaps a lifetime of personal happiness. Besides, I had just started what looked to be a cool project in the lab.
As anyone looking for a job knows, a gap in one's CV at this critical stage can be devastating--not only to one's self-esteem, but also to one's career prospects. In my case, the "cool" project of my second postdoc was beset with problems, and my CV now sported a cavernous hole. When my husband was ready to look for jobs, I was not as marketable as I had been before. We sent out applications separately, because we reasoned that it made sense to get the institution excited before bringing up complications. I was not getting invited for interviews, but my husband was invited to several. To accommodate his "trailing spouse," the institutions offered me non-tenure-track positions. Some of the non-tenure-track positions had startup money, whereas others were touted as "opportunities" to work with a faculty mentor until I got a grant funded. From my point of view, the offers were insulting, but in retrospect, I suppose they were quite generous under the circumstances. And I'm sure my self-esteem issues, which were likely to be glaringly visible to anyone with experience interviewing, didn't help the cause.
After 2 more years of interviewing as "the wife" and being offered less-than-desirable arrangements, I was finally offered a position on my own. The hole in my CV was still there, but it was hidden a bit with some recent papers. I couldn't have been happier, but I was again faced with the dilemma of choosing between my career and my husband, since the job was not in the same city as any of my husband's offers. Fortunately, he was of the "incredibly supportive" ilk, and he agreed that I should take the job, while he would keep his postdoctoral position some 300 miles away. He would then focus on looking for a position near me. Any problems I had with living apart were balanced by the elation of finding a great job and having the shroud of my self-doubt lifted. My husband, on the other hand, had only the prospect of our living apart and the weighty responsibility of finding a job near me.
We've now lived apart for half of our married lives. The prospects of a job for my husband at a nearby institution have waxed and waned--the department he was interested in is in turmoil and has decided not to hire anytime soon. In the meantime, we decided that he had to continue to look for other positions, if only to demonstrate his marketability to universities near me, and that we needed to keep our options open in case nothing materialized. He has now been invited to interviews at three Ivy League universities and at MIT and is by all definitions considered hot. Why should it be so hard to find a job in the city of one's choice even if you're among the best?
We figure that if he cannot find a job near me, or if I cannot find a job near a place where he has been offered a position, we will again begin applying, this time together. We remain optimistic, however. My husband's research is going quite well, and this time I should be coming from a position of strength, since I will have demonstrated that I can start a lab, fill it with students and postdocs, and publish on my own.
Our major concern right now is whether we will be able to find jobs together in time to start a family while still in our 30s. My husband has joked (semiseriously) that he would love to stay at home and raise kids. He's also mentioned the thought of dropping out of science entirely and attending graduate school in classics while I work. I read this as a sign that the whole process is wearing him down. He knows that moving my lab is clearly not my preference, although of course I would be willing to do it if necessary.
Because we both have such a passion for our work, and because finding two jobs near each other still seems within reach, we will, for now, wait patiently for it to happen. It may turn out to be at the expense of having a family. But I do think we both agree that over the course of a lifetime, these few years apart will seem like nothing. It doesn't make the process any less painful, but it's the story we tell each other, and it works for now.