As an academic couple hired to work in the same department, we are often asked: How did we manage such an amazing coup? What is it like to have a spouse for a colleague? The answers are complex, of course, involving healthy doses of luck, persistence, and respect, not to mention occasional frustration.
Our relationship started when we were postdoctoral fellows. Within our fields, we do very different things, but to an outsider our interests probably appear more or less identical: We both study evolutionary biology, using mathematical tools to shed light on evolutionary processes. We both love what we do but believe in the importance of finding a balance between our academic and private lives.
The most important thing that we did during our job search was to develop a clear set of guidelines about what we wanted for our future. We had time and we could continue as postdoctoral fellows for a few years, if need be. We decided that our main priority was to live in the same city, with both of us in positions that allowed us to continue our research. One of us turned down a job when it was clear that there were no possibilities for the other.
At the time, job openings for assistant professors were in short supply, and only one of the universities to which we applied advertised two positions in our field. We decided to be up front. We applied jointly to appropriate jobs, even if only one position was advertised. We sent separate applications but mentioned that we were a couple. Although we wanted two academic positions, we were willing to share at least 1.5 positions.
There were many promising signs, and contacts within the departments to which we applied said that our applications were strong and that joint positions were not impossible. And then--score!!--the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver called us in for interviews. The department considered one of us first, knowing that we were together and seeking more than one position. Soon afterward, they brought the other in for an interview. Our potential colleagues seemed excited about both of us. They offered us 1.5 positions, split equally. The hiring committee also mentioned that it was likely that, down the road, there would be two full positions. The remaining negotiations, for space, salary, and startup, were dealt with independently between each of us and the head of the department. We probably requested less than we would have if we had been hired independently. Psychologically, we felt that we had achieved our major goal in the negotiations: We both had positions. We agreed to the initial salary offers, and our requested start-up funds were immediately accepted. After a brief series of negotiations, we signed on the dotted line.
Half a year later, by the time we arrived, the university had upped our positions to two full faculty slots. This is an example of what we value most about UBC--our colleagues have a sense of what is appropriate, and they make an effort to establish a fair environment. We are indebted to the people who, unbeknownst to us, went to battle on our behalf.
Each job search is unique, but our experience suggests one key recommendation for couples on the academic job market: Communicate with each other and decide ahead of time what you want and what you are willing to settle for. The sorts of issues to think about are: How much longer are you willing to remain postdoctoral fellows? Are you willing to live in different cities? Are you willing to commute to different universities? Do you want to avoid being at the same university? What is the minimum acceptable position for each of you? Is that arrangement fair?
When you discuss these issues, it is important to be realistic. On the one hand, don't short-change yourselves! Remember, you may have the jobs for the rest of your lives, so aim high. On the other hand, recognize the limitations of your case. In many ways, our job search was easier because we were well matched in terms of our work experience and publication records. For many couples, however, one person is further along or stronger academically than the other. In this case, you should decide how and where to compromise. Is it possible for one partner to extend his or her postdoctoral period until both have strong enough CVs to be competitive on the job market? Would you be willing to take turns, making the optimal move for one of you then the other? Are you willing to take positions at a less prestigious university? Or would a combination of tenure-track and non-tenure track jobs be acceptable? These questions can arise early in a job search, and it is important that you are both aware of each other's views.
After arriving at UBC, we settled in rapidly. Our colleagues were very helpful, providing us with reams of information to help our transition from postdocs to professors. Unofficial mentors provided a network of support and advice, a system that we have now formalized within our department.
For us, having a partner who is our closest colleague has been extremely rewarding. We can count on each other for feedback on ideas and for critical evaluations of papers and grants. And it is fun to talk about the puzzles and discoveries in our research. We even have written papers together! What is less fun is bringing home the office politics. We decided to avoid talking shop on the way home--to make it easier to separate work life from home life. At home, we try to limit the shoptalk to the fun stuff, to the science. Attending the same faculty meetings and serving on the same committees has not presented any real problems. Our opinions often differ, but this is true of any two colleagues. An advantage is that we have more background information about each other and we know where the other person is coming from.
Amazingly, we are not the only couple here. Of the 40-some faculty members in our department, 11 have tenure-track partners at UBC, and four of these couples are in our department! One couple formed here, but the rest were hired. Most of the other couples were hired more or less the way we were, at the same time and with much wheeling and dealing to make it happen. Some of the couples, however, obtained jobs independently in different departments at different times. Although UBC does not have an official policy to hire couples, it has facilitated the process in many cases by creating positions and by being more flexible (e.g., by allowing a department to hire in advance for a position that would become open in a few years). In fact, it is widely recognized at UBC that there are many advantages to hiring couples: They can better afford to live in an expensive city like Vancouver; they are less likely to leave a university; and they often strengthen each other's research programs.
Having now served on several hiring committees, we have seen couples use various strategies as they approach the university. Some are up front; others have mentioned their partner during the interview stage; and yet others have had a job offer in hand before broaching the subject. There are pros and cons to each approach [See "Solving the Two-Body Problem" ; Ed.]. Being up front may reduce your chance of getting an interview, if only slightly, because of the hassles everyone knows are involved in hiring two people simultaneously. But, in our experience, the strongest candidates get interviews whether or not they'd come with a partner. Moreover, starting a working relationship on an open, honest basis helps to build trust. And delaying telling a prospective department makes it difficult for the university to explore options, which, in turn, makes it more likely that the candidate would have to decide on an offer before knowing what is available for his or her partner. Unfortunately, there is no optimal solution that works best in every case at every university. If you can, try to find out through the grapevine (ask your professors and any contacts) about the attitude and track record towards hiring couples at the department and university to which you want to apply. Some universities explicitly avoid hiring couples, as backward as that seems.
Seven years later, we both have tenure (obtained in the same year, but evaluated independently) and a 1-year-old son! So our two-body "problem" is now a three-body "problem." Fortunately, UBC and British Columbia have very forward-looking parental leave policies. Sally took a 6-month leave and Mike a 10-week leave, at almost full pay. Our son is now at a daycare center on campus. It isn't easy: Our jobs seem all-consuming, and we're still learning how to juggle all the things that we want to accomplish in our lives. We'll never be able to do everything, but we're happy--and lucky--to be able to do as much as we can.