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I currently hold a TT position at school A. My spouse's job (not in academia) is at a 4 hours commute from school A. We underestimated the hassle it would bring when I accepted the position at School A. Now, there is an opening at school B which is very close to my spouse's workplace. Since the 4 hour commute is not sustainable, I want to apply to school B. Both schools are in the same state school system (if that matters).

There are two things that I'm concerned about.

  1. I don't want school B to think I'm unreliable. I want to settle into one position for a lifetime. How do I convey it in my application? Do I write it in my cover letter? If so, any example would be really appreciated.
  2. I don't want my current school (A) to find out that I'm applying for positions (That's why I did not ask my current colleagues for a reference letter.) Again, should I mention in the cover letter to keep it confidential? How should I say it so that it doesn't convey the wrong message?

Overall, any tips in this situation would be helpful; especially from fellow academics who have experienced it personally or have seen someone else handle it gracefully and cautiously. Thank you.

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  • I think you'll find a lot helpful here with this search: academia.stackexchange.com/search?q=Two+body+problem
    – Bryan Krause
    Jun 10 '21 at 22:45
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    @BryanKrause my spouse is not in academia. Would it still be considered two body problem? Sorry if that's a trivial question. Jun 10 '21 at 22:59
  • For the confidentiality question: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/122702/…
    – Dawn
    Jun 11 '21 at 3:22
  • @Inquisitive I think a lot of it still applies. The stuff that doesn't apply depends more on your spouse already having a job probably rather than whether that job is in academia or not.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jun 11 '21 at 4:58
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    Also, it might be important to consider how close you are to achieving tenure. It might be easier to move from a tenured position than a TT one.
    – Buffy
    Jun 11 '21 at 14:23
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I'd think that a sober presentation of your situation, especially your desire for a sustainable, long-term situation, would explain to people that you're not "flighty" or "unreliable".

True, there still do exist academics who seem to believe that infinite self-sacrifice is the baseline. You might try to assess whether your desired school's people manifest that sort of craziness. And, truly, that'd not be a positive about other features, but, yeah, maybe that's subordinate to spending several hours a day in traffic.

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For most two-body problems, the advice is to not mention the issue in the cover letter as the hiring committee might feel an extra burden if they were to hire you. For your situation specifically, there is no extra obligation on the school because your spouse does not work in academia. In this case, I don't think there's any disadvantage to mentioning your two-body problem to the hiring committee. It explains why you want to move without making you seem "flighty" and makes you seem more likely to take the job if offered one. (Hiring a candidate who is applying as a backup school increases the risk of a failed search.)

Moving for a spouse is a perfectly understandable reason to move. It sounds like it's too late, but you could probably find some faculty at your current institution to write reference letters if you explained your reason for moving.

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  • I did not spend much time on campus before the pandemic hit, so I could not form such a close bond with any of my colleagues that I could explain to them and expect them to understand and keep it confidential. I like them and (I hope) they like me but I haven't shared it with any of them. Jun 11 '21 at 19:24
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This is hard to answer since the outcome depends on people we don't know. But, my advice would be to not mention the two-body issue unless asked. There are two reasons.

First, is that you want to project that your interest in the new place is strictly professional and that you really want to build a career there - all other issues aside. The message is "I want you."

Second, is that you don't want to be thought of as someone who doesn't need to be courted and enticed or someone who is an easy backup if no one else accepts the offer. The message is "You want me."

In different circumstances I'd suggest that you leverage current colleagues to help you switch, but you seem to have already ruled that out.

As a backup, you can always jointly consider places with a lot of opportunities for both of you or regions with a shorter commute. I live about an hour or so (by bus) from my previous university and it was no burden since I could make those hours productive with things that needed to be done anyway. An hour, with public transportation, can cover a pretty wide area with lots of universities as well as other institutions.

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  • Reason 1 also works the other way around: It could be seen as positive that hiring the candidate will not create a new 2-body problem that the department needs to take care of - "I want you, and that won't create massive friction in my life that eventually might me reconsider my choices". Reason 2 could indeed be a risk, but will depend on the weight of the CV -- this risk would be reduced if one is a particularly strong candidate anyways. Jun 11 '21 at 22:38

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