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Some questions to ponder

October 25, 2008
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Last night, I discussing job-hunting with my long-time long-distance significant other (s.o.) – and he mentioned that some of his job applications are to jobs outside North America (a bit of a surprise to me). It occurred to me – as it has more than once since I took my current job – that we’d never really had the “talk”.

The talk?

You know, the one where you sit down with each other and honestly discuss your career options – particularly, the compromises you might not be willing to make if the other person gets a job offer s/he wants to accept. (I’m going to assume, for the sake of simplicity, that the people involved are in postdoc positions, ready to hit the permanent job market – let’s face it, many of us end up in postdocs before getting something more permanent.)

So – with that thought in mind – here are the questions I wished we had discussed before hitting the job market….

  1. What is your dream job? Be as specific or as vague as you like – including job type, salary, and/or region if those factors are important to you.
  2. What other jobs would you be happy with? If they’re not your first choice, would you be happy in a soft-money position or a teaching post with a high course load, for example?
  3. More importantly, what jobs would you not be happy in? Would you be unhappy in a soft-money position or a teaching post with a high course load? Would you hate living in a particular area (or outside one)?
  4. What jobs might you be willing to take short-term, but not long-term? Financially speaking, are you in a position to adjunct teach for a few years? Are you willing to work in industry or the government while remaining on the job market? Do you want to continue as a postdoc – possibly outside your favorite speciality?
  5. What options outside of academia/research do you have? Is science journalism an option for you? Government service? Working in a science museum/planetarium? Do you have skills such as telescope experience or computer programming that might give you additional job options?
  6. Are you willing to live apart for a while, or have a long commute so you can live together? Like it or not, this is a probable scenario – worth considering what options you could live with.
  7. Children? Is a family part of your current/future plans? Do any of your answers above change once you have a child to consider?
  8. What are the least important factors to you when considering what job to apply for (or accept)? The factors that you would be most willing to compromise on, that is.

This is the point where you each could sit down and compare your lists – and discuss them. Particularly the “I wouldn’t be happy” list – if you really feel that a job outside of JPL would make you unhappy, does your s.o. have compatible options? If you insist that a tenure-track job at an R1 university is the only job you’ll accept, where does that put you if your s.o. gets a good job offer first (spousal hires aren’t always possible, and they’re often non-tenured positions)? If a more permanent research or academic job offer doesn’t come your way, what are your backup plans when your current position ends?

From your answers, you be able to come to an understanding of where you each stand in terms of career aspirations, as well as a good idea of where each of you are willing to compromise – and where you are not.

Will your answers change over time? Probably. Will your feelings change once an actual job offer is on the table? Also very likely. But the time to find out what each of you is thinking is before there is pressure to accept or decline a job offer – especially if one or both of you are finding it difficult to compromise.

The important thing is to be happy, not to wonder if you made the wrong choice in haste once the job offer was made.

For those out there who’ve made the compromises – or had compromises made for your career by your spouse or partner – what other advice can you share about making these decisions?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 1, 2008 9:27 am

    Great post! You bring up a great point about geographic preference. Some people are longing to return to an area or climate they know (California, the Northeast, the mountains, France), while others would rather not be anywhere near those places. It helps to kind of understand this before becoming frustrated that your S.O. won’t consider city after city. He/she may not even understand that he has a preference until you ask.

    The other thing that I’ll bring up is change. Change happens. It’s nice to have options in or near your city of choice in case a) something goes wrong, b) something at the dream job changes, or c) one partner wants to look somewhere else. It’s not necessary, but it helps.

    There are all kinds of secondary questions that pop up if the answer is yes, you guys do want children. Like, does the area you’re considering have good schools? Sidewalks? Paternity and maternity leave, and/or day care for infants? Have you thought about how you’ll handle the extra time commitment that children bring, as a couple? How does that mesh with your commitment to Job X?

    The two body problem is a difficult one to solve, but, (as Marc Sher wrote in a follow-up essay to the original 1990 study) it can also be an opportunity.

  2. Susan K permalink
    October 31, 2008 11:00 am

    The other important issue, of course, is timing. The one who “finishes” first has a huge – something. Advantage? How can first out of the gate turn down a good job when the second isn’t even looking yet? Will the first be willing to give up that job (harder and harder in this economy) just because the second now has an offer somewhere else? Does first need to compromise maybe before second has even fully formulated answers to those very good questions?

  3. geochem-mom permalink
    October 27, 2008 12:25 pm

    This is great advice- have the conversation BEFORE the applications start to go out, then again when the calls for interviews come in from specific institutions (you may be more or less flexible in your minimum requirements given the location or institution).

    My partner and I followed this scenario and it worked out well. When we met with the department chair or search committee and they asked the fateful question” Is there anything else we should know?” we knew what the boundaries were for our spouse and could effectively lobby for a second position. If you’re hazy about what the acceptable limits are its much more difficult to negotiate!

  4. October 25, 2008 9:19 pm

    Fantastic post! I think a lot of couples forget or avoid these discussions until there’s a job offer or two on the table already.

    My DH and I are lucky (in a way) in that he wants to be in industry once he’s done his post-doc, and I am open to many options (i.e. I don’t care much about going into academia). This makes it a bit easier, since neither of us wants something super specific. So, we have decided that we’ll move to a location where he can get a job and has opportunities to move up, but also has a few options for me (be that a college, university, science center, etc.).

    Before we were married, he was finishing up his PhD and the question of him either staying here to do a post-doc or going elsewhere naturally came up. I let him know that I would prefer him to stay here (since there were many options for him), but it was ultimately his decision. He decided to stay here, because he didn’t want to do the long distance thing.

    Anyway, luckily it wasn’t a big struggle between us – it just WAS, and I’m grateful for that! I’ve had other relationships where it wasn’t that easy, and obviously it didn’t work out. It’s unfortunate that so many couples are in that situation though, and I think your list of questions is an excellent place to start!

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