A Successful Spousal Hire (A Guest Post)

This reader got in touch after reading my Vitae column about spousal hires. She wanted to share her experience, which mostly followed my advice but deviated in one important respect. It was so illuminating that I asked her to write it up to put on the blog as a guest post on this perennially important and stressful topic. Here it is. Thank you, reader!

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Hi Karen,

 

Your spousal hire column has excellent advice, and (mostly) reflected my experiences when hired a few years ago into my current position. The only exception is that I deviated from the “when to disclose” advice, but only because of very special circumstances, which I will elaborate more on toward the end.

 

To start with the ending, my spouse and I both have TT positions at the same institution (Assistant Professor level). We are in different fields (biology/psychology), although it did help that they are within the same college (Liberal Arts & Sciences) at most schools. The initial negotiation was a VAP for him, with written (email) promise of a tenure-track line pending satisfactory first year performance. They kept their promise and placed him on TT the following year with paperwork.

 

This happened due to a mix of strategy and stars aligning. Here were the main points for us:

 

Strategy:

 

  • We both published our asses off in grad school.

  • I only taught part time during his postdoc (required in his field to make sure he was market ready) one year after I graduated so I could publish my ass off more.

  • We targeted large metropolitan areas with lots of universities (we tried not to geographically limit ourselves)

  • We had a long discussion about each of our ‘ideal’ jobs (R1/R2/SLAC/Temporary Research vs. Teaching Position) and the range of ‘acceptability’ around those jobs. Then we made a pact: Whoever did not get the ‘ideal job’ retained “veto/time to move on power” on going back on the market eventually, and got to quit the ‘acceptable’ job to publish more to get out if it was intolerable.

  • We knew that people get hired straight out of the gates in my field (many ABD), so I had the upper hand on a few hiring factors: a finished PhD, double pub rate of typical new hires, and additional teaching experience in service courses (stats/research methods). So, he applied to more jobs than me, with the knowledge that I might be the “gift” spouse that depts. would be happy to take on. Ironically, I ended up being the lead hire that worked out!

  • We both went on the market assuming it would be a practice year to “try things out” from the dual hire standpoint. We did not expect it would work the first time! That allowed us to take some risks.

  • We both prepped our application/job talk materials meticulously and made sure to ask for lots of feedback from advisors/supervisors/colleagues; we knew there was no room for presentation error. Like you suggested, all of our application materials were completely independent and did not refer to a spousal issue.

  • We both interview well and can walk the line on professional/relaxed interactions that seem natural during the site visit “down time” (which is really always “on” time!); I know this is partly personality, but it’s a practiced skill as well. We knew there was no room for interpersonal error either!

 

Stars Aligning:

 

  • We both got multiple job offers…in the same week (I had three, he had three). In fact, we got three in the same day (I had two, he had one)! This gave us incredible leverage, especially given all the schools were comparable institutions.

  • My my top choice school (current employer) lost the other top two candidates before I interviewed because the candidates accepted jobs at other institutions. Thus, they brought two more candidates farther down on the list to take their place in the interview.

  • My spouse’s anticipated department had a lot of retirements over the past few years, and one particular upcoming retirement was exactly in his research area.

  • My dept chair and spouse’s dept chair are genuinely nice people (and good chairs!). There was a lot of trust and goodwill there (not based on past interaction, but they became acquainted through this experience).

  • There have also been multiple, successful faculty dual career hires at my institution before (and within our departments) over the past twenty years or so, so no one seemed inherently skeptical about it (contrary to spousal hire drama reported elsewhere). After we were hired, I know of at least three more spousal hires were made after us across the university (though only one dual TT).

 

This was the only institution that I disclosed before the job offer, but I want to emphasize that this was due to very special circumstances. For some fortuitous reason, both the search chair and department chair were open about me being the top candidate (separately). During my talk with the chair, at the end of the interview, he basically asked what they could do to guarantee I’d come there. After going through startup/salary/lab negotiation issues, I mentioned that my spouse was interviewing at a school later that week elsewhere in the metropolitan area (about an hour away). I positioned it as a selling point that it made my choice to come there more likely, but a spousal hire within the institution would make it a given due to the convenience. The chair asked more about my spouse’s discipline and publication record, then asked me to send my spouse’s CV with the startup request list.

 

The gamble paid off: by the time I got the official offer, they were already putting things in motion for the spousal hire. We had a few conversations over the phone (my spouse also had phone conversations with the biology chair), and then they put the promise in writing over email. Given that I was firm about having a contract for the spouse (but those take a lot of time/approvals), they even had the dean contact me (by phone and email!) to assure me that arrangements were made for the spouse, with specifics about salary, so I’d sign my contract. Everything went very well and they were very communicative/helpful through the entire process.

 

Neither me nor my spouse mentioned dual-hire arrangements until after offers at other sites, and they really struggled to get things together on time after their offer in comparison to the other institutions. Out of our six offers, about half seriously tried to make something work, with the other three either saying it wasn’t an option. I think it would’ve happened at one institution, and we also had two different offers in the same city already (university for me, non-university research institute for him), but this was our first choice based on location/university type.

 

The spousal hire arrangements went so smoothly that I also got my (a) full request for startup (about twice the usual rate in my area!), (b) request for salary increase based on salary surveys in my area, and (c) additional course release my first year. Moving expenses and lab space were already included in the offer. So…amazing outcomes all around! We are both loving both our departments (and university), and my spouse has been welcomed warmly into his department. Most importantly, we have been able to become truly embedded in the university by attending athletic and social events with our child instead of having long commutes; that’s really the most a priceless part of the dual hire startup package!

 

By the way, I also love all your other columns and believe it has truly made me a better colleague, researcher, and advisor/mentor to my graduate students. Thank you!

Karen

About Karen

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

Comments

A Successful Spousal Hire (A Guest Post) — 13 Comments

  1. I had a very similar experience. My husband and I also pursued the “be awesome” (as we called it) strategy (to varying degrees of success in publishing), applied broadly, and then got very lucky with 2 tt offers our first year on the market. So many stars had to align — there was also a retiring prof in his sub-field and wonderful chairs in both depts (under the same dean) who respected and trusted one another. My husband was warmly accepted by his dept. and we’re both very happy at the new U. Like you, we also disclosed to the spousal situation before the final offer was printed (although my husband did not have an interview in town–so it was more strongly worded, i.e. “My top priority in choosing a position will be a tenure-track position for my partner”). I had strong signals from my dept. that I was the top choice and that the chair could be trusted. So I did tell her during our last meeting, which allowed her to get things moving before the official offer came in. I was also able to negotiate a small amount above what they offered, but they made me a really good offer and I used most of my time/leverage on the spousal hire. We had 1 other U that likely could have made it work (I had an offer; they were interviewing him), but the school was more resource-poor so the packages wouldn’t have been comparable (thus I had little leverage on salary or start-up costs). Anyhow, just wanted to chime in to say Dr. Karen’s advice and the what’s here is spot-on. Go on the market the same year, apply broadly, be awesome, communicate with your partner about expectations and decision-making protocols, and try to get lucky (and come up with sanity-saving “Plan B’s” in case it doesn’t work out)!

  2. Just realized my language about the spousal hire is *almost* a direct plagiarism of Karen’s advice on what to say. Ha. Clearly I’ve internalized your messages! :)

  3. Thanks for these posts. I have one question: Most successful spousal hires that I have heard about involve two people from different departments. Who foots the bill for a same-department spousal hire? Two thirds from the department and one third from the school? Does this make such hires basically impossible for junior faculty?

    • I’m half of a dual TT hire in the same science department . In our case, the department chair “mortgaged” part of an existing, filled line, so that they could hire both of us as TT. The way I understand the situation, they basically promised to use the next open line (retirement) for the second position, once the funds became available. In the meantime, the provost and dean partially covered the cost of the extra line, with the rest paid by the department from funds that were available due to other faculty having partial administrative responsibilities (and therefore partial funding from the college or provost) . We did not have much negotiation power over salary, but we did get decent start-up packages and excellent space. So, it is possible, but the department has to put forth extra administrative effort and money. I think a supportive Chair is key.

  4. My head is spinning based on these successive posts. One post is on the crumbling university system (get out before it eats you alive) and the next post explains that when the stars align you, too, can win the t-t lottery with a spousal hire bonus. This blog is at its best when it explains how the university functions — what it prioritizes and how you can enter it based on those priorities (even if the Professor does not endorse those priorities personally).

    • You’re not the first to point out the seeming contradiction at the heart of my subject position. It is indeed a weird subject position. I’m planning to write on it at length here on the blog and in the book I am working on. For now, in brief—I have two goals. One is to help those who are deeply invested in the tenure track job search by sharing the knowledge I have of the search process and its larger professional context. They are looking for tt jobs and I can help them to compete for the small number that still exist. The second goal is to shine a public light on the disappearance of these jobs through the process of adjunctification, and the ways that the resulting catastrophically bad job market is mystified or denied in our standard modes of graduate training. I know that these look contradictory, but to me they are not. They are actually two essential parts of the intervention I seek to make to “tell the truth” about the academic job market as best I can: the market is horrific and disappearing because of adjunctification, but there are still some jobs left and if you still want to try for them, I’ll share what I know to help you. This weird skritchy place is the only one that feels right to me.

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  6. Can you define “published our asses off” or “double the pub rate”? Just curious in terms of my own ambitions to publish a lot, but also because my field (health science profession) has a reluctance to benchmark the number of pubs. required/desired.

    • Sure! I had 15 articles in press or accepted (spouse had 12). Most other top candidates on the market at the time (people I know had on-site interviews; we talk at conferences) had a range of 3 to 7*. There’s a lot of other factors of play of course than pure number; if you have less pubs, they need to be mostly at top-tier journals or you need evidence of some successful grant activity.

      *I should caveat that these positions are at an institution with a Ph.D. program.

      • Hello, and thanks for the very inspirational and informative post. It is nice to hear a good story amidst all the horror films!

        I wonder if you can comment a bit more on that crucial meeting you had with the chair pre-offer, towards the end of your visit. My spouse and I are getting ready to go out to campus interviews, and are in the same department, but heading to interviews in very different locations. We agree that it’s probably best to mention each other at some point during these visits, but want to do it as an implicit negotiation tactic: i.e. my spouse is being seen by others, and is wanted by others… in order for you to get me you’ll need ot want him. (but of course more subtly). Any tips on how you phrased things during this crucial bit of your conversations?

        Thanks again.

        • Congratulations on both of you getting interviews! I think a really critical part of negotiations is to show that you both are “in demand”, which gives the impression that they could lose out if another institution makes it work before they do. The specific way I phrased things was that their institution was my first choice and that I really wanted to come there (which was completely true). I was very specific as to how I though it compared to other places where I’d interviewed and why I thought it would be the best fit. However, being able to accept the position could be dependent on if my spouse received an offer from the nearby institution. So, if they were able to offer him a position, we would be a definite yes. I suppose it’s hard to describe, but I just felt really comfortable in that situation with being completely transparent because I got a clear “I’m on your side” vibe from the chair. I did not get that at all places, so I avoided discussing the topic until after the offer elsewhere.

          I also completely admit that most of this process has to do with luck (right place, right people, right time)—strategy alone won’t do it. Hope that information helps and thank you for reading! I wish you both the best in your search!

  7. This particular account seems to suggest that disclosing early worked out in the couple’s favor. I know this contradicts other advice on this site, but under what circumstances might be acceptable to disclose before one gets an offer?

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