Friday, September 16, 2011

The two-body problem

When I was offered my job last spring, the chair told me that the University had a spousal hiring program, and encouraged me to utilize it, if needed. (I didn't need -- my spouse is not an academic, and has a work-at-home career). At a party recently, someone in the dept mentioned that spousal hiring used to be a really big issue for the department and the University. (This makes sense -- there are few other places nearby where a spouse could get any job, let alone an academic job.) As I get to know my colleagues, I see that there are quite a few couples in the dept, so the likelihood is that there has been a lot of spousal hiring over the years. Which has made me think about the practice.

A little over a third of academics are married to other academics (I don't know if legally unmarried same-sex couples are included in that figure) according to this interesting defense of spousal hires over at the Chronicle. Those couples, just like everyone else, chose their professions, chose whom they married, etc. But if you spend your early adulthood on a university campus pursuing a PhD, chances are good the people you're going to meet and fall in love with will also be academics.

It is also the case that we don't live in a world of single-income families for the most part. Couples have dual careers. Requiring that one half of a dual career couple sacrifice his or her career so the other can get a job doesn't seem like a good way to encourage your new hire to stay put. Likewise, forcing couples and families to live apart, or endure very long commutes, would not encourage your new hire to fully engage with and be a part of the department, college or university community. (I have friends for whom this is a significant issue -- including a couple in philosophy now living thousands of miles apart.) So, spousal hires would seem like a useful tool for faculty recruitment and retention. And since any spouse hired for a TT position would still have to meet the requirements of tenure, the qualifications of the "trailing spouse" puts reasonable constraints on spousal hiring. (Obviously there must be spousal hiring concerns with nonacademic spouses as well.)

As someone fresh off the job market, I know how hard it is to get a TT job, and how scarce those jobs are. I can't help but feel a little resentful of the possibility that someone got a job through some form of spousal "cronyism." But I'm not convinced that spousal hiring is really unfair, or that it has ever disadvantaged me, or that it's bad for academia. The comments to the Chronicle essay, OTOH, are pretty overwhelmingly negative, filled with resentment and invective. They seem largely founded on the belief that a spousal hire takes a job away from some other, more deserving person. Or that trailing spouses are all drunks and scoundrels. There's a less heated and more nuanced discussion here.

One issue that comes up a lot on discussion boards (like here, here and here) is how to approach the issue of spousal hiring if you are a job applicant. Few job ads say anything about spousal hires. Undoubtedly, some schools and departments are more open to them than others. (If I had to guess, I would guess philosophy departments are less open than others. But it's a guess.) With some institutions experiencing severe budgetary restraints, they are probably not even possible in many cases. So, the current economic and job climate in academe (and in general) makes spousal hiring a more urgent problem for job seekers and hiring departments alike, while at the same time, it (perhaps) becomes less likely. (If anyone knows of any recent numbers on spousal hires, I'd like to know about them.)

From a job seeker's perspective, it strikes me that the right time for this issue to be raised is when an offer is made. I can't see a reason for a job applicant to show his or her hand at the application stage, or even at the interview stage. As a job applicant, I didn't apply for jobs in locations that were unacceptable to me and my family. I didn't apply for jobs in places where I wouldn't want to raise my kid. If I was hoping for a job where a spouse could also find meaningful work and make a decent living, that would have put further limits on the jobs I applied for. But it doesn't strike me that it's on me (or my spouse, who may also be on the market) to disclose upfront that I'm looking for a spousal accommodation. The risk for hiring departments at schools that do not or cannot accommodate spousal hires is that they'll make an offer that's turned down. But that's always a risk for them, right? Candidates can turn down jobs (or so the legends say) for any number of reasons.

As the job season is upon us, I'm interested to know what the Smokers think or have experienced, and if you're part of an academic couple, how you're dealing with the two-body problem as a job applicant.



Anonymous said...

I recall the two-body problem being an issue regarding a proposed senior hire where I went to grad school. A senior philosopher was to be offered a full professorship, but that person's spouse (who was tenured or close to tenure at their home institution) was not going to be offered an associate professorship with tenure, but instead would be made an assistant professor and asked to jump through the hoops of tenure again. The deal, as you may expect, fell through, and they went elsewhere, which was a major loss for my program.

Anonymous said...

I am part of an academic couple, but my partner is in another field and not yet ready to go on the market. So, I guess we are dealing by me trying to get tenure and my partner trying to look for work in the area when it comes time. There are several nearby institutions that will perhaps have openings over the next several years... and although I'm not aware of anything at my institution opening up in my partner's field, I suppose that is always a possibility. Part of the reason why I took my current position is the chance for academic opportunities nearby for my partner.

Anonymous said...

I am one year out of grad school, and will likely be the trailing spouse next year at a university in a small, rural Midwest town. In our case, the position is being created just for me. I think that probably many of the positions for which spouses are hired are like this. If my spouse were not hired, that position would not exist. So it doesn't make sense for someone to bitch about the trailing spouse taking a job away from someone else more qualified, since there would be no such position without the original person being hired.

onehalf said...

I think that it's extremely important that schools have some sort of plan for how to accommodate (deserving) academic spouses, for several reasons.

(1) There are--as you note--an increasing number of dual academic couples. In the absence of some sort of accommodations it would be virtually impossible for these philosophers to have careers. This is obviously bad for those philosophers effected, and it's also bad for departments when it comes to highly desirable candidates in such relationships(e.g. Louise Antony and Joe Levine, Susanna Schellenberg and Jonathan Schaffer, Tamar Szabo Gendler and Zoltan Gendler Szabo, Jill North and Ted Sider ... and all their younger counterparts).

(2) This is also an important issue for philosophy more broadly and in particular for women in philosophy. Being a very male-dominated discipline, a far larger portion of people facing the two-body problem are women. This alone means that if one member of a couple has to forgo a career, women are going to be disproportionately effected. Combine this with the fact that women (for whatever reasons: social, child-related, whatever) are more likely to be the one to give up their career and follow their spouse. The result of not accommodating (deserving) spouses is really bad for women and gender-equality in the profession.

I think everyone can agree that departments should not hire people who are unqualified. But given that departments are self-interested, I suspect that this very rarely happens, even in departments with formal spousal hiring policies. The department would need to perceive it to be in their interest to hire Superstar Mary and her partner Shitty Shmoe over hiring Runner-Up-Superstar Bill.

Despite the fact that an increasing number of departments are becoming (at least somewhat) sensitive to the two-body problem, it is still *much* harder to be in a two-body situation than on the job market individually...especially with tight budgets and hiring freezes. The thought that because there are occasions on which a job is created for a spouse, academic couples are somehow getting an unfair advantage is just crazy given all of the extra disadvantages that these couples face. Spousal hiring is a way of mitigating the damages...damages that aren't suffered by individuals on the market.

Anyway, on the point of when to tell departments about your two-body situation: There are differing schools of thought. If you tell them too early (in the application, at the APA), they might just not look at you. Two-body situations are a pain, they create extra bureaucratic problems for departments, the time it takes to work out those problems might mean that they'll lose their second choice candidate, and even if you would be their top choice candidate, you're probably not that much more awesome than their second choice. On the other hand, if you wait too long (e.g. until you get an offer) you may not leave them enough time to arrange a solution to the two-body problem. That takes time to arrange with deans and provosts. And if they can't work it out quickly enough, they'll have lost all their other top candidates. It's hard to know what to do. My current plan is to bring it up once I get a fly-out. In some situations it might be good to do sooner, e.g. if you both get APA interviews independently at the same place.

Prof. Kate said...

Although there is no data I know of on couple-hires, I imagine the data would show disproportionate concern for heterosexual arrangements.

wv: disycho

Anonymous said...

A few points

1. Spousal hiring is a crucial issue. Universities have to find ways to accommodate academic couples since not doing so creates an unstable position: a family separated is always looking for a way to solve that problem. Administrators know this in principle and at least profess to wanting to solve the problem

2. Unfortunately, universities tend to be reactive rather than proactive. So, they often solve situations only when their hand is forced, e.g. one of the members of the couple receives a job offer elsewhere that solves their two-body problem and thus threatens to leave. Often it’s a little too late then.

3. On the job market, I agree that there is usually no point in bringing this up in your application or even at the APA interview stage. But I am inclined to think that it is appropriate at the campus visit stage. If the department is interested in hiring you then they will need some lead time to try to work out something for your spouse. They will ultimately want to move quickly once offers are made, and this is obviously facilitated if they can put together the best package for you. Telling them about your spouse or partner when the offer is made to you seems to me too late in the game. My own feeling, being on some discussions for hiring, is that it was good for the department to know this before hand to be able to try to accommodate. In general, information about a significant other was never a negative against the candidate thought of course, it presents the department a challenge. In my old department, my sense was that if the candidate was attractive, the next step was how best to solve their problem, if we could, not who the next candidate was. I would be surprised if this wasn’t generally the case. But more experienced hands should weigh in (I agree with one-half).

I am a spousal hire. Prior to my current position, I had a great job at an excellent department that I loved with great colleagues, but it meant many days away from my family. My department as a whole was incredibly supportive of the challenges I faced on this score, but there was little they could do on their own to solve my problem. In the end, a proactive department head at my spouse’s institution figured out a way to cobble a position that provided a very attractive opportunity for me, not least of which was solving my two-body problem. My home department tried to work something out, but their hands were tied by deliberations from another department who decided not to offer my spouse a job, which I though was crazy because if there is a star in my family, it’s not me.

The crucial thing for my sanity and family: a supportive department during the hard separation and a proactive administrator to solve the problem in the end.

Anonymous said...

At the first institution I worked at, we were in the rural midwest in a not especially desirable location. There were a lot of spousal hires (in most cases, I recall, they were in different disciplines) in my hiring cohort. At that time, the University was very good about telling the potential spouse hiring department that this was an "extra" position, if they chose to hire the spouse. This of course made it more likely that the spousal hiring department would say yes.

So in many cases new positions were created. But: in order for this situation to work, the University admin needs a good track record of following through on this and ensuring that the spousal hiring department wasn't losing their next retirement or hiring replacement down the road.

This particular University did (at that time) have such a track record. It was a self-conscious effort to make up for their less than desirable location.

But my sense was that this is pretty unusual.

At my current University, if a department makes a spousal hire, the spousal hiring department will often have to commit to giving up their next retirement position, etc. This makes spousal hiring trickier. It still happens, but less often than at my previous institution.

I'd be interested in knowing which of these situations is more common.

As far as when to tell the hiring department about a potential spousal hire - that's tricky. You should ask around about that. The advice I was given was to wait until an offer is made, but as another commentator mentions, this can really drag things out, and doesn't give the University much time to consider the other candidate.

But I worry that if you let them know sooner, it will count against you (I suppose in some cases it could count in favour, too).

Anonymous said...

My department was saddled with a spousal hire, and then saddled another department with one of our own. In the first case, one department wanted to hire a rising star, and he would only take the job if my department hired his wife. She filled a field we didn't have, so there was no conflict with any of our existing faculty. Two years later, we hired someone who insisted on a job for her spouse in another department. That department was happy for the extra body. So this isn't exactly what you describe, because in neither case was the spousal hire used to fill an existing search.

The problem we all found was that, in both cases, the spouse was a terrible fit. So much so in one case that the spousal hire quit the job, and is now pursuing another career. The problem in this case, in both cases, is that the departments didn't have the chance to properly evaluate the spousal hires, nor did the spousal hires have a chance to really get to know the departments.

I don't know how all such cases work (and I'm sure practices vary), but one potential problem with spousal hires is that the department and candidate may not have the chance to see if they really are a good fit. Making sure the person is qualified for the job is only part of it, and a full consideration as part of a full competitive search helps both make sure it's a good fit for both parties.

Anonymous said...

My partner (then a fresh Ph.D. in a different discipline) was vetted by his future department as a spousal hire when I was up for a tenured job in philosophy. The verdict of one faculty member was a decidedly tepid, "He can't do any harm." He has ended up out-publishing most of his colleagues, winning a teaching award, and being entrusted with serious administrative responsibilities even before tenure. Nobody even remembers that he was a spousal hire. So sometimes it does work out.

Anonymous said...

It's probably worth mentioning that not all hires of spouses are spousal hires, if the latter term means "someone who is hired only because a department wants to hire their more academically-desirable partner".

Also, following up onehalf's comment—female academics are rather more likely to marry someone of the same or higher educational attainment/academic status than are male academics.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading through the comments on the various spousal hire posts listed here and am somewhat relieved to learn that I was wrong to think I didn't have a job because of the poor economy, lack of funding for the humanities, intense competition or (God forbid) my own weaknesses as a philosopher. No, it turns out I don't have a job because other people's deadbeat spouses have taken them all. Well, at least now there's a clear evil-doer to blame.

I've yet to see one convincing, well argued comment against a carefully monitored, case-by-case basis spousal hiring policy. I have seen a lot of angry people (some of whom have anecdotal evidence against spousal hires) who seem to think that in a perfectly just world they would already hold the top position in their field. I think most of us have been in departments where there is that one idiot guy we can't get rid of because his wife is a superstar. It hasn't been enough to convince me that the practice of spousal hiring as a whole is a bad idea.

For what it's worth I have neither a job nor a spouse at present, though someday I would like to have both.

Anonymous said...

As Prof. Kate notes, colleges and universities more frequently accommodate heterosexual couples, so there are probably lots of issues regarding same-sex couples that are not very visible.

I also would like to make another note: as usual, its very difficult to generalize from some people's experiences to what is or should be the case at all schools. Aside from the fact that the plural of anecdote is not data, it is also true that universities and colleges are situated differently when it comes to administrative/management strategy, budget, geography, attitude towards same-sex partnership, and state-mandated policies (for state-funded institutions), among other things. Because each of these things varies wildly from place to place, each department is likely to handle an instance of the two-body problem differently.

imprecise said...

I have heard from multiple sources at multiple universities, and it is also my personal experience from sitting on hiring committees, that it is better to wait to talk about spousal hiring until you have an offer. You are right to worry that it is a hassle to put together a spousal hire, and that's why you don't want to raise the specter before you have an offer in hand. These things almost always fall through (for junior faculty, senior faculty fare better), and if a department thinks you won't come if the spousal hire falls through, they're likely not going to waste the effort hiring you in the first place. I would suggest pressing anyone who gives you contrary advice for evidence as to why their advice is correct. While it may be the case that some spousal hires fell through because there was not enough time, far, far more have fallen through just because the dean didn't want to spend the money, a department didn't want to devote the line, etc. etc. And don't trust universities that have written policies friendly to spousal hires. I have a friend who got a job at such an institution -- his partner was at an excellent research I, and the partner still wasn't given anything. Finally, if you do get a promise of a spousal hire (esp. non-TT) please make sure to get it in writing before you sign a contract. I've also seen universities renege on promises they've made in this respect...

Anonymous said...

I studied in a department where half of the department was partnered to one another, although only one couple was a spousal hire. It seemed to work well in this particular department, although spouses attempted to separate themselves by serving on different committees, worked in different areas. etc. I don't think it's an accident that the department, as a whole, was pretty stable.

I have a related but different concern: as a graduate student who will soon be going on the market with a non-academic spouse, if I am so lucky as to get an offer, is there standard practice in terms of what help might be offered to a relocating spouse? Most people I know to ask either have an academic spouse or have a spouse who can work from home; my spouse can't do that. Is there anything schools or departments can offer in terms of advice, introductions to the local market, etc, or is that something just not done? This may be too far off-topic--if so, just ignore this.

Anonymous said...

Re what Prof. Kate said about such hiring mostly benefiting heterosexual couples: I wanted to point out that in terms of health insurance, the possibility of a spousal hire is in one sense even more important for same-sex couples than heterosexual couples. A shocking number of colleges/universities still do not offer health benefits to same-sex partners/spouses of employees (or biological children of one's same-sex partner/spouse if one's parenthood of them is not legally recognized).

In my case, for the past few years something like 1/3 to 1/2 of all the jobs in my area of philosophy are at schools which do not offer these benefits. Taking such a position (assuming it was not in one of the few areas of the country where my wife could keep her current job) would mean her leaving not just her job but also losing her health insurance coverage. The need for her to find another job immediately would be extremely pressing as she takes thousands of dollars worth of medication monthly and almost certainly wouldn't be insurable in a non-employer based plan. (This would be complicated by the fact that we are planning to have children very soon and might prefer to arrange part-time work/time off from working to be a SAHP for her for a bit were I to start a tenure track position when we have an infant.) Given the economy being as it is currently, it is scary to think about my putting her in such a position where she'll not only have to leave a job she loves, but will also have to give up her health insurance and live with the possibility of having no health insurance should she not be able to find a job after cobra runs out (assuming, of course, that we could afford cobra in such a situation!). Luckily for us, she is not an academic and has a very useful degree so she would likely be able to get a job in most of the country. Still, with the unemployment rate as it is, I constantly wonder whether it could ever be worth the risk for us to trade her job with DP benefits for a job for me without DP benefits with the hope that she will find something.

Good friends of ours have been horribly unlucky in this way. Both academics, one took a position at a public university in a conservative state (hence no DP benefits). She tried to negotiate something like a spousal hire, but the best the university did was guarantee her wife an adjunct position for 1 year. This position, of course, did not include health insurance and wife cannot get anything but other adjunct positions with no health insurance at community colleges nearby. As of last year, they were paying a huge amount of money for a health insurance plan that specifically excluded coverage for the wife's health conditions. They are both currently looking for jobs elsewhere hoping that at least one of them can find a position that will provide insurance to the other.

Anonymous said...

The worst is when it is a faux search, the position is wired for a spouse of a current faculty member and we all waste our time appling for, interviewing for and maybe doing a flyout to the campus when the prospect of getting the job is perfectly hopeless.

Anonymous said...


I feel your pain. I'm essentially in the same situation and it's just shameful that there isn't a universal health care system. We're doubly at the mercy of the market and a terrible corporate government.

imprecise said...

Anon 1:02 -- it's worth asking your university. Mine will make some effort at making contacts on behalf of non-academic spouses. I'm not sure how helpful or successful these are, but it does happen.

Anonymous said...

Departments should not even consider dual academic couples. This is a nomadic profession and you should have thought of that before you decided you could have it all. In an industry where the majority of qualified people can't even find a crappy job, it takes a lot of nerve to demand that special accomodations be made to give someone a job just because you signed a contract to live together until you get sick of each other. There is nothing more disgusting and insulting than having to deal with a subtastic professor who you know only got their job because they married someone brilliant.

Anonymous said...

departments should not even consider hiring non-single people. it's a monkish profession and you should have thought of that before you decided that you could have companionship/sex/a family. in an industry where the majority of qualified people can't even find a crappy job, it takes a lot of nerve to demand that you should have a job at all to feed and house and shelter your own disgusting body, much less that you should drag some other body around with you, to feed and house and shelter, just because you signed a contract to live together until you get sick of each other.

zombie said...

This issue came up at a departmental meeting this week on the topic of searches. The dean was absolutely in favor of spousal hires, because they promote diversity and faculty retention. The dean also noted that part of required diversity training for SC members is understanding legal prohibitions in hiring. It is not legal for anyone on an SC to ask a candidate if they are married or have children. The dean also noted, with regret, that state law here does not permit "partner accommodation" for non-marrieds.

Anonymous said...

i'll admit to watching this discussion. i'm a spousal hire (in a department other than the one in which my wife works), and have had a pleasant experience. but the need for spousal hires seems to be so patently obvious that anecdotal support from my own case is unnecessary.

i will say this, however. when my wife was interviewing at another institution the dean *himself* asked her if she was married, whether she had kids, and what her spouse does professionally. she did not get the job. of the universities where she interviewed (i think it was three or four in all), this is the only one that penciled in a meeting with the dean. and these were virtually the only questions the dean asked before the discussion fell flat and the meeting was adjourned.

Felicia Nimue Ackerman said...

Anonymous says, “If my spouse were not hired, that position would not exist. So it doesn't make sense for someone to bitch about the trailing spouse taking a job away from someone else more qualified, since there would be no such position without the original person being hired.” This claim overlooks the fact that the funds that care used to create a job for a trailing spouse could have been used for a position that would be filled on merit, not marriage.

Of course, spousal hiring is unfair. It’s the spiffy, pc version of the “old boy” system where hiring is done on connections.

Here are links to two poems about spousal hiring: