I am a tenure track assistant professor at a liberal arts college. I Iike my job quite a bit, but it is located in an impoverished, rural area. My partner works in the nearest large city, 2.5 hours away. I live there as well; the commute and the 2 nights a week I spend away from home are wearing on me.

This year there is a job at a very similar (on paper) instituion less than an hour from my house and accessible by public transportation. It is the same size, in the same region, serves a similar student population, and the departments are of similar size and composition. Adding a small amount of complication is the fact that my current institution is (slightly) higher ranked. I don't put much stock in such lists, but I could see it rasing eyebrows. If it matters, both institutions are top 30. At the very least, my current administration cares a lot about such things.

To be clear, I am unconcerned about my tenure case; I am an outlier in terms of grant funding and publications, I have solid teaching reviews, and my school has an 80% tenure rate. I also work in a field where transitioning to industry would nearly certainly lead to higher salaries; my field has abundant job opportunities in my city. I don't think getting denied tenure is likely, and if it happened, I would be ok with that.

My question is simply how do I pitch my application, particularly the cover letter? It is hard to come up with a compelling narrative for why I would leave my current job for this one aside from the simple fact that I would love to be closer to home and continue my work in a similar institution. I am not certain if addressing 2 body issues directly is a good idea. My partner is happily employed; they are not looking for work from this school.

Edited to add: I worry that by mentioning my personal issues, the committee will be disfavorably inclined, as @strongbad has indicated below. That is, they get hundreds of applications from qualified people, they do not care about my personal life. However, excluding that detail might make them think there is some difficulty that doesn't appear in my materials.

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    Maybe you want to add why you think explicitly calling out your 2-body problem is a bad idea, because that's not obvious to me. Seems like a better / more relatable reason than most.
    – xLeitix
    Aug 8, 2018 at 1:19
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    You might want to clarify what a 2 body problem is. I have never heard this term.
    – SeriousBri
    Aug 8, 2018 at 12:15
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    @SeriousBri A two-body problem is academic slang for a couple that needs suitable appointments within reasonable commuting distance for both individuals Aug 8, 2018 at 13:24
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    @AzorAhai Sure. I expect anyone who knows the term might use it to describe any couple needing to find jobs within commuting distance of each other. Aug 8, 2018 at 16:05
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    I'd think an urban location over a rural one, plus a raise, would be so obvious as your goals that they would go without saying. And you can just devote your cover letter to the usual about how awesome you are and you think they are. Mentioning their location and how you know it well and think it's great would certainly help any application. Aug 8, 2018 at 20:14

4 Answers 4


I would tell it like it is: You have a two-body problem and a 2.5-hour commute that you need to solve. As soon as you say those words, everyone will understand.

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    I've seen application cover letters in which the applicant states something like this. It's not a particularly positive thing in itself, but it shows a reason why the applicant would be genuinely interested in the position. It certainly won't hurt and might help a little. Aug 8, 2018 at 2:23
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    One potential downside would be if the hiring committee believed that you would insist on them hiring your spouse as well. However, it sounds in this case as though your spouse is happier in their current position. Aug 8, 2018 at 2:25
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    Agreeing with Brian’s first comment. I would not lead with this statement, because it is not a reason to hire you in itself. You should also draw attention to all the other things you like about working at a liberal arts institution and your specific points of interest in the posted position before mentioning your special circumstance.
    – Dawn
    Aug 8, 2018 at 14:04
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    I would never want to hire someone simply because we make their commute easier. In fact, I don't really care that much about personal situations at all when looking at candidates until we begin discussing strategies about making offers.
    – StrongBad
    Aug 8, 2018 at 18:20
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    @StrongBad Well, of course you wouldn't hire them to just make their commute easier. Who said anything about that? But it's a pretty good explanation why talent you'd like to hire for other reasons might be available. Aug 8, 2018 at 19:43

I can't give real advice on this but would point out a couple of things. You don't say how far you are from a tenure decision, but if it is close consider that it would normally be easier to move if you already hold tenure. Moving before tenure could reset the tenure clock back to zero. Getting a job that comes with tenure is rare, but usually comes with a short clock for an already tenured person.

On the other hand, moving after being denied tenure can be much harder. However, some people are denied tenure for strictly financial reasons. When this occurs they are wise to get whatever documentation of positive action by tenure committees and the statement that the only reason was financial.

It is impossible to predict what the academic economy will be for more than a couple of years, so be a bit cautious.

  • It's interesting that you say that it is easier to move once you hold tenure. In previous questions many (other) senior people here have commented that it will be harder to move after tenure because open tenured positions are so rare in the US. FWIW, in Europe it is most definitely easier to move once you received tenure.
    – xLeitix
    Aug 9, 2018 at 12:16
  • @xLeitix, I'm not sure what you mean by "open tenured". I doubt that very many people other than well known superstars can take their tenure with them. You normally need to prove yourself at the new place. But the conditions may be different including both time and expectations. Perhaps the other answers were about moving and being immediately tenured. If you are recruited by the new institution, probably you are offered tenure. Otherwise, I doubt it.
    – Buffy
    Aug 9, 2018 at 12:28
  • Not sure I understand. In Europe it's fairly normal to hire people onto tenured positions if they have already proven themselves elsewhere. Or at least they are given special positions where they, for instance, hold a full professorship which is initially time-limited to 5 years with a lightweight review at the end to convert into a regular position. If a person who is tenured elsewhere is expected to downgrade to an Assistant Professor again I can understand why many people assume that it is hard to move after tenure.
    – xLeitix
    Aug 9, 2018 at 12:55
  • @xLeitix don't conflate tenure with position. The last time I moved, I remained full professor, but had a two year "probationary" period. Tenure was granted at the end of the two years in the usual way after review. The varies from place to place, of course.
    – Buffy
    Aug 9, 2018 at 13:00

I suggest you be very careful about this. On face value, the question you are trying to answer is why do you want to work with/for us and an answer of the commute will be better or the pay/benefits will be better is not going to make the committee want to hire you. Search committees are generally looking for colleagues who want to work there for an academic reason.

Given the schools seem very similar on paper (similar rank, size and student demographics) your current department has probably spent considerable time thinking about what makes your department better then their department. Similarly, their department probably has a sales pitch for students about why they are better. This can probably lead you to a host of reasons to justify your desire to switch that the new department will probably weight considerably. Once you convince them that there are academic reasons, explaining that there are also personal reasons that will make your recruitment very easy and that you are nearly a sure thing and wanting to stay for the long haul, will be icing on the cake.

It is also worth explaining early on that you want to move not because you are worried about tenure, but rather that you have established yourself and they can really see your value.

Once you convince the search committee that there is an academic reason you want to work there (maybe there are some nuances in the curriculum or a different philosphy about teaching/research

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    There's a fair chance that a committee will see right through this. I recommend just going with "my lifestyle will be much better if I work here, and conveniently enough, your department is strong". A wise department might well see the fortunate synergy, and run with it! Aug 8, 2018 at 19:34
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    I agree with your sentiment, but I want to note that these are both undergraduate only institutions. We do not recruit students directly. We really never think about other departments at all, except to chat about best practices in teaching from time to time. Given that I am in STEM, there aren't really any ways in which my department thinks of itself as unique. We are trying to align with the collegewide ideals of inclusion, but those are the same at both schools. I am really at a loss as to how to distinguish the departments from afar. Aug 8, 2018 at 19:43
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    I don't think OP (or anyone else) is suggesting describing his two-body problem as the only reason he's interested in the new position, which is what you seem to be arguing against.
    – JeffE
    Aug 8, 2018 at 21:12
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    @JeffE the titular question says entirely and the body says It is hard to come up with a compelling narrative for why I would leave my current job for this one aside from the simple fact that I would love to be closer to home both of which threw up red flags for me.
    – StrongBad
    Aug 8, 2018 at 22:31
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    @StrongBad There is a difference between "Why do you want to leave your current position?" and "Why are you interested in a new position here?" OP says the former is entirely due to two-body issues, but that doesn't imply that the latter is also.
    – JeffE
    Aug 9, 2018 at 3:08

I think you have to be up front about the reason for wanting to move. But of course it's not why they should hire you. Perhaps you can frame your cover letter as giving this new institution the chance to hire someone (you) who has proved him/herself of great value to a similar institution.

You can say at some point that you are open to any tenure clock reset, but probably not in the first cover letter.

If you know or can find a good referral to someone at the new institution you can talk to you might be able to get a sense of the lay of the land. It need not be someone in authority, or even necessarily in the same department.

If your existing institution knows about your job search a letter from them saying they are really sorry to lose you but understand why you want to move would be a plus in your application.

Small benefit you need not make explicit: the new place can add you to the list of finalists to interview without incurring travel and lodging cost.

I've served on lots of hiring committees. I tend to be sympathetic to problems like yours, and view them as an opportunity to get someone better than we might otherwise attract.

Good luck. Come back here and tell us what happened.

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