Until academic careers do us part


During those years, both applied to faculty openings across the world, scouting for an opportunity to live in the same place, but none of them panned out. “There was a temptation many times to just give in and give up” on one of their jobs so that they could live together, Michaelides says. “But we stuck to it, pulled back, and said, ‘Let’s be patient.’”

That approach finally paid off about a year ago, when Singer secured a faculty position at Cardiff University, just 70 kilometers—about a 1 hour drive—from Bristol. And in the end, the couple feels that their effort was worth the reward. Their 10 years of struggle finally had a perfect ending: jobs they love and the joy of raising their child together. 

The challenges that Michaelides and Singer faced as a dual-career couple are not unique to academia. But they are aggravated among academics because of the limited positions available, notes Laurence Clement, program director for academic career development at the University of California, San Francisco. Michaelides and Singer’s story is just one example of how these situations can play out and how couples can cope. The ideal approach, Clement says, is “absolutely unique to every institution and every couple.” 

Together against all odds 

For some couples, such as Sam and Katy Williams, both postdocs studying conservation biology in South Africa, living apart isn’t an option. The couple met 15 years ago while studying primates in the Indonesian rainforest, where Sam was working on his master’s thesis and Katy was collecting data for her bachelor’s project. They lived apart for a few years while Sam was a Ph.D. student, but they realized that they did not want that in the long run. Ever since, their approach to job opportunities is “we come as a pack—is there something we can do to make it work?” Sam says.

Given the limited funding and job opportunities in their field, they’ve had to make some difficult compromises. For 5 years, they both worked for the salary of one, literally paying a price to live in the same place. It was the lesser of two evils, Sam says. “I don’t think that this would work for everyone, nor is it necessarily a sustainable solution to this issue, but in our case it’s not something that we regret.” 

Currently, they are affiliated with universities approximately 400 kilometers away from each other—Sam at the University of Venda in Thohoyandou and Katy at the University of Mpumalanga in Mbombela. But their universities allow them to work remotely. They live midway between the two universities so that each can make occasional trips to their institution when needed. It’s not perfect. Setting up interdepartmental collaborations, troubleshooting problems, and dealing with university bureaucracy is difficult from afar. And, Sam adds, “there are no lab or department drinks when the lab is hundreds of kilometers away.” But the trade-off—freedom, quality of life, and being able to raise their 2-year-old son together—is worth it. 

As they look forward, the couple knows that prioritizing living together may mean that they have to compromise on their career options. But they are prepared for it. If one of them secures an excellent opportunity, the other could “go freelance” by teaching online courses, Sam says. 

Their specific priorities, and the accompanying compromises, may not work for everyone. But their overall approach highlights how, by going into any situation with clarity about your priorities and deal breakers, you can create a solution that works for you. 

Negotiating dual hires

For academic couples who are committed to living in the same place and pursuing faculty careers, asking for a dual hire—when one person receives an offer and then negotiates a position at the same university for their partner—can be a good option. But it must be approached carefully, and it is far from a sure thing. 

One challenge is choosing the right time to mention that one’s partner is also looking for an academic job. In a best-case scenario, mentioning it early in the interview process gives the hiring committee extra time to find a position for the partner. But knowledge of the “partner burden” can also introduce a risk of bias against the candidate. 

Michaelides and Singer suspect that they may have experienced this bias themselves. Their general strategy was to never mention the spouse until one person got an offer. But in one case, when Singer was interviewing for a job at a university in Canada, the committee chair’s questions over dinner about Singer’s wife’s line of work forced Singer to disclose that the couple was ultimately looking for a dual hire. Singer was not offered the position. 

For same-sex couples, the situation can be even more difficult. Same-sex academic couples appear to be less successful at securing dual-hire positions than heterosexual couples, according to a 2008 report published by the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Given the possibility of additional discrimination if a candidate requests a dual hire for a same-sex partner, these couples tend to focus their searches around locations that are more likely to be inclusive, which limits their options even further, Clement says. 

Navigating dual hiring situations can also be particularly challenging for women, regardless of their partner’s gender, as the Clayman report highlights. The top reason that women refused offers from nonlocal universities was the lack of an appropriate offer for their academic partners, the survey responses from approximately 9000 academics working at 13 U.S. research universities reveal. This in turn contributes to the low proportion of female faculty members, particularly increasing gender disparity in fields such as physics, where women are already underrepresented. A recent qualitative study also revealed that the relationship status of women, but not men, and consequent assumptions regarding whether the partner is “movable,” influenced hiring decisions for junior faculty positions at a large R1 university in the United States. The situation in Europe is no better. A 2007 study that analyzed the gender disparity in the recipients of the Long-Term Fellowships and Young Investigator Programme from 1996 onward found that women tended to place their own careers secondary to those of their partners, moving more often to support their partners’ careers rather than their own. 

Their efforts are paying off. Many universities—including Harvard University, the University of Rhode Island, the University of Cincinnati, and the University of California (UC), Berkeley—now declare their dual-career assistance programs on their websites. For instance, UC Berkeley’s hiring program guidelines state that the university “recognizes that addressing the needs of dual career couples is an essential part of recruiting and retaining the highest quality ladder-rank faculty,” signaling a set spousal hire policy for applicants. “Now universities do partner hires just to be competitive,” Schiebinger says. Some R1 institutions also allocate funding for spousal hires, taking the pressure off of individual departments to solve the problem, Clement adds.

Even in the absence of fully supportive policies, academic couples can take steps to take charge of their own futures. Securing funding is one way to expand their employment options. And no matter what, being well prepared is of utmost importance, Clement says. “Make sure you plan your path, think about backup options, think about what are your deal breakers,” she advises. The Academic Career Readiness Assessment tool, which Clement helped develop, may help faculty job seekers think through some of these questions.

Lastly, for couples who land in unfavorable situations, Michaelides advises dealing with the situation on a day-by-day basis. “It’s important not to get stuck in the mindset that this will continue for the rest of your life. Things can change quickly in academia.”

This piece has been corrected to clarify Clement’s comments about same-sex couples seeking dual hires.

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