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A Dual-Career Job Hunt (with limited data)

April 26, 2011

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 EOSGSA TodayAWG , 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.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Parinaz Massoumzadeh, PhD permalink
    July 7, 2011 10:09 am

    Thank you very much for this wonderful essay of your own story with actual methods and result of searching for dual career job – great information.

    Hopefully soon there will be more data like this available.

  2. Matt Pritchard permalink
    May 12, 2011 7:36 pm

    A great essay filled with good advice. There is a lack of good data to use when planning a dual career search strategy.

    For what it is worth, I will relay my own dual career job search experiences, but I am not sure the numeric data will be that useful. The initial and boundary conditions are often very different between couples and job searches. I have anecdotal evidence that job hunting success can depend on the following: Are both members of the couple in the same field (planetary/geoscience), the same subfied (geophysics), or totally different fields (planetary and economics)? Does the department already have expertise in the field of the partner or are they interested in this field of study? Are both members of the couple at the same stage in their career? Do both parties in the couple have equal credentials (institutions of study, number and quality of postdoctoral appointments and publications)? Are the members of the couple applying to wide-open searches (e.g., any area of earth/planetary science) or relatively narrow searches that are focused on a subfield. Sometimes these narrow searches are known to the search committee, but the job ad has been written more broadly and can ensnare unsuspecting applicants.

    We found that there is also a lot of variation in institutional policies or traditions — some places will reject consideration of dual career couples out of hand, with predictable results for the existence of women scientists in those departments. For example, my wife was offered a job in a department 5 years ago that had about 25 male faculty and zero females. Although the department made at least 4 offers to different female scientists at that time, to this day, they still have zero female faculty, in part because they did not offer tenure track positions to the spouses of these women.

    Our initial condition: I graduated one year before my future wife, and we did our job searches independently the first 3 years and as a team in the 4th year. We applied to jobs at about 20 different research universities over the course of 2002-2006. As best as I can remember, we were on about 13 short-lists and had 9 interviews. I know some lucky dual career couples that only had to interview once or twice to be hired somewhere as a team, while others settled for non ideal conditions for 10 to 20 years before finding 2 tenure track positions.

    In our experience, we were much more successful at receiving interviews when applying as individuals than as a team.
    We chose to apply as a team in our 4th year, because we wanted to be up front with institutions that we needed 2 tenure-track positions and we didn’t want to waste anyone’s time. I suspect that we received fewer interviews as a team because not all institutions had 2 positions to offer and those that did thought that the research that my spouse and I do is too similar. We often use the same types of data in our research, but use it to study different problems in different ways. The similarity argument is easier to counter now than it was earlier in our career. For example, we now have a combined 30 successful research proposals under our belts and have only collaborated on 2 of these. While there are many discussions on the web about the relative merits of when to reveal your partner to a search committee, in retrospect, I think we should have continued to apply to jobs individually — at least on the cover letter. It makes me a little uncomfortable to recommend not being completely up front, but the purpose of this letter is to make the short list and get an interview — not to negotiate the final terms of your contract. In the interview, the institution can get to better know one of our research activities and decide whether it is a good match. At that point we could bring up the topic of our spouse and what their research is all about. We could also have a more detailed discussion in person rather than having a committee that is evaluating 100-200 applications try to make sense of what we have written on paper.

    My wife and I currently split a single tenure-track position — we are both officially half-time and are evaluated separately for tenure. Lots of people have emotional reactions to the idea of split-positions — I remember that my first reaction when I learned about these positions as a graduate student was horror. These positions are not for everyone and are not economically viable where the cost of living is high and the pay is low. I came to appreciate these positions through example: There are two other couples in my department that have split positions for 30 years and all have had successful careers. In most things, the university treats us as full time faculty: we have the same office/lab space as other members of the department, we each have a full vote in faculty meetings, we receive full health care benefits, etc. You can compare these split positions to the partial “soft-money” and partial “hard-money” research positions that exist at many of the country’s oceanography institutions. In both you have a guaranteed salary (in exchange for teaching and service for the department) but also have more time to do research than regular full-time faculty. The advantage of a split academic position is flexibility — unlike at an oceanographic institution, there is no downside if you don’t raise your salary in a given year via grants. Another advantage is that there is more time available for family and other activities. We have been promised that we will be offered 2 full-time positions in the future, but we haven’t decided whether we would prefer to remain in the split position.

  3. May 1, 2011 5:22 pm

    This is really great info! Thanks for sharing your approach, and it would be great to see more data like this…

  4. DMD permalink
    April 26, 2011 3:13 pm

    Wow, this is really great information. I wish it had been available when my partner and I were looking for jobs!

    Unfortunately, I have too little data to contribute meaningfully. However, I will say that we were successful, and we chose to disclose the other’s existence during our interviews. We felt this was the most honest, and that if the department was going to decide to NOT offer the position because of this information, it was probably not a place we wanted to be anyway. We prefer forward-thinking institutions, so this seemed the best alternative for us.

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