A Dual-Career Job Hunt (with limited data)
My partner and I are both planetary/geoscientists—we’re an example of a dual-science-career couple. Evidently there are a lot of us. Recent surveys show that 80 % of partnered women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields within academia (a subset of planetary science, but the only subset where data appears to be available), have an academic partner (and a majority of their partners are also in STEM fields), compared to <40% of their partnered male colleagues. Being part of a science couple has its benefits and its challenges, particularly when it comes time to finding long-term employment. My partner and I feel like we’ve won the academic science lottery- we both have tenure-track positions in the same department. I use the lottery analogy deliberately because we had to take several gambles during our job hunt. We tried to develop a strategy, but it was difficult since there weren’t really any data available.
As scientists, we like data; stories are great for reading at bedtime, but when it comes to making major decisions we tend to collect data, discuss, and then develop a plan based on the data. My partner and I tried to do our research before applying for jobs. Some data was fairly straightforward to find- where had previous PhD graduates from our program ended up (much like the data reported here by Matthew Pritchard), what career path had they followed to get there? Going through the job ads in EOS , GSA Today , AWG , The Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as several list serves, then looking at the institution’s website and talking to colleagues, we got a feel for whether or not we wanted to apply for any given job.
But the question still remained for us, and for many other couples with advanced degrees in the same or similar fields- how should we go about applying for jobs with the best hope of success for both members of our dual-body system? There were anecdotal stories from faculty couples within our department and on the web. There were lots of suggestions of different ways in which a dual career couple could apply for one or more jobs in a department, but we couldn’t find any hard data which would help us decide which methods would be most effective. In the end, we found the lack of data frustrating, but we did the best we could.
We did find plenty of hard data demonstrating that lots of women in science are married to scientists, that women have historically been the “trailing” spouse (but that may be changing), and institutions benefit in the long term from hiring dual career couples. All of these studies helped us have some serious discussions about our individual professional goals and our goals as a couple—what was our best case scenario, what were we willing to compromise on, what were we unwilling to give up? These family discussions were just as important to our job-hunt as the applications we were about to submit. And boy did we submit a lot of applications- not enough to be statistically meaningful, but here’s the data anyway; it’s a start. I hope that other dual-career job seekers will expand the data set in the comments.
First some terminology- we used a range of different strategies to apply for academic jobs:
Traditional Strategy: We studied the job ad and institution, decided which of the two of us was the best fit for the position, and that person applied for the job. We did not mention our spouse in the cover letter (18 applications).
Dual Traditional Strategy: We both applied for an advertised job. We did not mention our spouse in the cover letter, but we share components of our last names so we assumed the search committee would infer a connection (6 applications).
Multiple Positions Strategy: In the years we were applying for jobs, there were a few institutions that had multiple positions open. These seemed promising, so we individually applied for the positions and mentioned our spouse’s application in our cover letters (8 applications).
Split Position Strategy: We submitted a joint application to split or share a single position (2 applications).
Combined we applied to 3 undergraduate only institutions, 5 programs that had a MS program, but not PhD program, and 18 universities that awarded PhDs.
Partner A Traditional : 8 applications, 4 short-lists (letters requested), 1 interview
Partner B Traditional : 10 applications, 4 short lists, 2 interviews
Dual traditional : 6 applications, 1 short list, 0 interviews
Multiple positions : 8 applications, 8 short lists (!), 4 interviews
Split Position: 2 applications, 0 short lists, 0 interviews
TOTAL: 34 applications, 17 short lists (thank you letter-writers!), 7 interviews
If we hadn’t mentioned our spouse in the cover letter, we usually told the search committee we had a spouse who was also a scientist when they called to invite us to interview. The reaction was mixed in the two cases where we waited and told them during the interview. In one case, all the candidates had a partner also looking for a position. This institution asked us to propose one or more solutions following the interview, but we didn’t get a job offer. In the other case, the reaction was not positive. Although one of us got a job offer, there was no possibility of a position for the other person.
Based on our experience, we had the best outcomes (interviews and potential jobs for both partners) when we applied to larger PhD granting institutions. This may be a result of several factors including increased awareness of dual-career issues at larger institutions due to initiatives like NSF’s ADVANCE program, more flexibility in hiring at larger institutions, and/or we were a better fit for more research-focused departments. We also had better outcomes when we used the “Partner A or B traditional” approach or applied for multiple positions in the same department. Those institutions that advertised multiple positions in a given year seemed to be very interested in pursuing dual-career couples. The Dual Traditional approach was not effective in our situation–we’ll never really know why, but perhaps the search committees didn’t know how to deal with us because we didn’t directly address the situation in our cover letter? Perhaps there was an unconscious bias against our applications since there were two of us applying for the same job, or maybe we just weren’t a good fit at those institutions. In the end, it was one of our “Partner B traditional” applications that yielded two tenure track jobs at the same institution after they interviewed the other partner for the open position as well.
I know of several other couples in planetary and geoscience that have won their version of the employment lottery, so I’m optimistic that the odds are not as long as they used to be. If you and your partner are both happily employed in STEM fields, care to share your data? Do you have experience looking for two jobs outside of academia? How about finding jobs at different institutions in the same geographic area? I hope this post and comments from other dual-career job seekers will provide data and insights for current and future couples seeking two careers in geo- and planetary science.