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I have some questions about the process of spousal hires, particularly in US academia.

As I understand it, the system is as follows: when two married academics Ann and Bob enter the job market, they often wish to work in the same place. If a university makes an offer to Ann, the university might also extend an offer to Bob, even if on his own, Bob may not have received an offer for this particular job. Depending on the scenario, Bob may be given a reduced salary; in some cases, if Ann and Bob work in different departments, the department in which Ann works might even subsidize some of/all of Bob's salary.

I am curious as to what Bob's status is in the university long-term, potentially years after this hiring process is over. Essentially, is Bob treated any differently from a regular academic in his position?

  • If Ann's job offer is tenure-track (or already tenured), will Bob's be, as well?
  • Assuming both jobs are tenure-track, will Bob's case for tenure depend at all on Ann's (and vice-versa)?
  • If Ann and Bob get divorced, or Ann leaves for another university, will Bob's job be affected?
  • Is the fact that Bob was a spousal hire in any way visible to the general public, in his official job description or resume? What about unofficially?
  • In a completely unofficial capacity, does being a spousal hire in any way hurt the academic's reputation within the field, in your experience?

EDIT: I'm glad I asked this question and I'm happy to see the discussion in the comments. One big point that has been made is that no university would hire somebody who they consider unqualified for a role; it's not like Bob is obviously underqualified for the job, but rather that there's a massive surplus of completely qualified applicants, so Bob might need the extra edge. My apologies for strengthening misconceptions about spousal hires being weaker/less qualified than their partners.

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    Of those spousal hires I am thinking of, it would be hard to identify them (different last names and/or departments), but if you're scrolling through a directory and see two people with the same last name, one faculty and one lecturer, it's kinda an easy guess. Jun 21 at 16:39
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    Bob's status is whatever the job says it is. "Spousal hire" isn't an official position; it's just an informal description of the scenario that led to Bob being hired.
    – chepner
    Jun 21 at 20:36
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    @AzorAhai-him- I know of five TT spousal hires in my department. (In each case the spouses were equally strong candidates.) I agree that it's much harder to do cross-department. Jun 21 at 21:47
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    I think the real answer to this question is "The answer depends on individual circumstances, but for most couples a spousal hire is not an achievable goal." Jun 21 at 22:11
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    @AnonymousPhysicist I don't see what the spouse's former supervisor has to do with it? Jun 21 at 22:15

5 Answers 5

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Two main points:

a) This is almost entirely up to the specific offer the university makes. There are no official rules. The university decides how badly they want to hire Anne and how generous they have to be towards Bob to make Anne sign the contract.

b) There are practially no work contracts for Bob that are somehow conditional on Anne or his relationship to her. Almost anything in that direction is illegal. Bob just gets a job offer that he may not have gotten otherwise, the actual contract doesn't mention Anne or his relationship to her anywhere.

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The important thing to understand here is that universities will generally not hire someone whom they consider unqualified for the position. So sure, Bob might get hired in this situation when he would not have been offered the job otherwise. But, now that he is hired, a well-run department and university will treat him like any other employee holding the particular position that he holds. At least, that would be the rational thing to do (and the way I have always seen it done) - one can always imagine that in some places people don’t behave very rationally.

Now, to your specific questions:

If Ann's job offer is tenure-track (or already tenured), will Bob's be, as well?

It may or may not be. That depends almost entirely on Bob’s qualifications, and maybe to a very small extent also on Ann’s negotiating power/leverage.

Assuming both jobs are tenure-track, will Bob's case for tenure depend at all on Ann's (and vice-versa)?

Absolutely not.

If Ann and Bob get divorced, or Ann leaves for another university, will Bob's job be affected?

Absolutely not.

Is the fact that Bob was a spousal hire in any way visible to the general public, in his official job description or resume? What about unofficially?

Officially, no. Unofficially, sometimes people may gossip so it’s theoretically possible that word might spread. However, most academics would regard this as irrelevant information and would judge Bob based on his own achievements.

In a completely unofficial capacity, does being a spousal hire in any way hurt the academic's reputation within the field, in your experience?

No. Bob’s reputation will be determined largely by his own achievements. His reputation may get a minor boost from the fact that he has a job at a university that he might not have gotten a job at if it weren’t for the spousal hiring situation. But that will be a small effect that will mostly involve people who aren’t familiar with Bob’s actual work and are judging him based on superficial status indicators.

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The answer is actually the same as any other basis for being hired. Say you got hired because of your research in a trendy field, what is your long term status if the field stops being trendy? Possibly not good, but it depends.

Hiring and long term employment are different. In the first case, you are evaluating a stranger based on indirect evidence, in the second case you are able to draw on your experience of working with them. Once you get hired as "X's spouse", you have the opportunity to use the resources of your position and accrue your own accomplishments. This would secure your long term professional status independently of your spouse. In this case you would not be treated differently.

Conversely, if you've been working for several years and the most interesting fact about your career is still that you're X's spouse, then it's a different story. Obviously your independent status is not great - arguably worse, because now you've had an opportunity and made little use of it. Although just as your spouse was once reason enough to hire you, they may now be reason enough to continue employing you or even promote to a more permanent position.

If Ann's job offer is tenure-track (or already tenured), will Bob's be, as well?

It may or may not. This depends on a combination of how desirable a candidate Ann is, how (un)desirable a candidate Bob is, and how Ann and Bob negotiate the offers. Ann could always ask that Bob's offer be made tenure-track as well (and the hiring committee could always say no).

Assuming both jobs are tenure-track, will Bob's case for tenure depend at all on Ann's (and vice-versa)?

Officially it would not, and for obvious reasons, the committee will probably not say "you did okay but let's see how Ann does, if she fails we'll deny yours too". They could possibly be biased in favor of Bob out of concern that Ann will leave if he is denied tenure, or they may be less likely to approve him before Ann becomes tenured than after. At this point it depends entirely on the personal feelings of individual people on the Ann/Bob situation (and institutional policy, if any).

If Ann and Bob get divorced, or Ann leaves for another university, will Bob's job be affected?

Officially it would not, and I doubt they would fire him "because" he got divorced, but they may fire him and give some other reason. More commonly, I think what would happen is that Bob would continue in his present position. The consequences would be more obvious if Bob attempts to advance (tenure review) or if funding deteriorates and the department must choose who to let go. Then it will come down to what Bob has achieved since being hired.

Is the fact that Bob was a spousal hire in any way visible to the general public, in his official job description or resume? What about unofficially?

I have never heard of any official "spousal hire" title, and I doubt it would be spelled out in the contract, as it would accomplish little besides opening up the institution to various lawsuits.

There may however be rules about relationships between employees in general, so for example Bob is not allowed to be Ann's postdoc, so HR may need to be notified about the marriage (not necessarily about whether the hire was connected with the marriage).

Unofficially, of course the hiring committee is aware of it, and people talk (even when not supposed to). Academics are no exception and have their share of gossips. Besides it's not like it's hard to tell when two people are married.

In a completely unofficial capacity, does being a spousal hire in any way hurt the academic's reputation within the field, in your experience?

I think it's a bit like asking, "if Bob shaved his hair and grew a beard, would it help or hurt his reputation"? Certainly you could imagine ways it would do either - many of them would depend highly on circumstances. But in my experience, academics today rarely consider spouses or beards as significant factors when evaluating someone's career. So I would expect that on the whole, they have very little effect, unless perhaps the person in question blatantly disrespects social norms.

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I know (2nd hand knowledge) of a case at a major US university where Ann was hired into a tenure track position, and Bob got a post doc and a "don't worry" hand-shake agreement that he'd eventually get a more permanent position. Four years later (and a year after their divorce), Ann continues in the TT role and Bob's looking for work.

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    What is this meant to illustrate, other than the well-known fact that “hand-shake agreements” are worth exactly as much as the paper they aren’t written on?
    – Dan Romik
    Jun 21 at 20:02
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    As agreeable an outcome as it may be to honest competitors to the job promised to Bob, it's an outlier. Plus the fact that the original agreement could readily be claimed to be on the basis of a spousal relationship. Post divorce, not only does the spousal situation no longer exist but there are grounds for considering Ann's desire to avoid meeting Bob at work - without of course having him too far from any children they may share. You can't have it both ways if you take a spousal deal. Bob could have applied on his own merits and said nothing about his wife being an existing appointee.
    – Trunk
    Jun 22 at 11:33
  • tl;dr: Ann has poor negotiation skills, Bob is gullyible (if he put any weight to the hand-shake agreement from an US-american university administrator). Please do not forget that US university are among the weirdest for-profit company in the world.
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 23 at 9:58
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"Two-body" issues can become VERY complex. I believe the only one of your questions that has an answer anywhere near straightforward is

Assuming both jobs are tenure-track, will Bob's case for tenure depend at all on Ann's (and vice-versa)?

Unless Bob and Ann's are one another's only collaborators, this certainly shouldn't be the case. Evidence that a tenure decision was based on such issues would be a clear matter for a procedural grievance in any US university (though what filing a grievance means, or what the outcome of that process will be, is not always perfectly clear). If the couple are, in fact, one another's only collaborators, they collectively and individually don't have a very good tenure place for many universities, anyway.

All the other questions are just too specific to whatever the individual case is to answer with any conviction.

I've seen a number of spousal hires, and many, if not most of them, have been successful. My personal observation is that the situation often (but clearly not always) arises when one extremely competitive candidate is identified, and that candidate comes along with another academic (or maybe even just a close collaborator). How the case for a dual hire progresses then grows around how much the university wants that candidate, what's available in terms of slots and resources, and how much all the parties are willing to compromise.

I think the key issue really is how important it is to the couple that both of them thrive academically, and if that is super important to them, they might think twice about accepting a situation where one of them is not likely to thrive -- recognizing, of course, that the better dual offer may or may not exist for them.

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  • Considering how common this academic couple thing has become, it would be interesting to get the perspective of someone who is a spousal hire.
    – Trunk
    Jun 23 at 23:25

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