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When during the application process should a candidate say that their spouse is also looking for a job?

The issue of academic spouses who want to find employment close enough to live together is colloquially called the "two body problem", and it is a perpetual challenge for job applicants.

The italicized question came up in a recent comment thread on this site, and I realized there is no post on Academia.SE about it. So I am making one.

I have seen many answers to the question, which usually fall between two extremes:

  1. Don't mention your spouse in any way until you have a job offer, then bring up the question of a job for your spouse. Sometimes the advice even recommends taking off wedding rings during interviews.

  2. Mention the spouse immediately in your application cover letter.

Each has its advantages and disadvantages, certainly, depending on the specific circumstances of the applicant and school being applied to.

Because many people, like me, have a perspective limited by their own life experience and the schools they have worked at, I expect that there should be many different answers to the question, expressing different perspectives. I think that collection of answers would provide an extremely useful resource for job applicants.

In the thread I linked, another user left a comment:

... I'd particularly be interested in seeing answers supported by data, as there seem to be a wide range of opinions, each supported by apparently convincing logical reasons and/or anecdotes.

I don't want to limit answers here to ones based on data, but answers that do include broad data would be particularly welcome.

This kind of question has also been asked on MathOverflow.

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I'd mention it during an on-campus interview.

In my department, we don't factor "the two-body problem" into an initial evaluation (i.e., do we bring someone for an on-campus interview). So it's up to you about mentioning it in a cover letter or not. I don't think I have ever read that in a cover letter in chemistry, though.

During an on-campus interview, sometimes it comes up, and sometimes it does not. Keep in mind that usually, the department cannot ask. We prefer if it comes up, so that we can work on solving the problem at the same time we make an offer.

When we decide about who gets an offer, the two-body problem doesn't factor into the decision at all.

Why? Well, for one, we want the best person we can get. For another, almost all of our candidates have a two-body problem of some sort. Sometimes, it's another academic job. In other cases, the spouse is a doctor, or a lawyer, or another scientist or ...

Suffice to say, once we make an offer, we're trying to do the best to get the candidate to come, and that includes making sure a significant other would be happy here.

I'll be honest. We're much happier if we know there's a two-body problem (of any type) before we make the offer (i.e. during the on-campus interview), so that we can start working on finding another position. As I said, we want you to come. Sometimes, we don't find out until after we extend the offer, but that just makes our job more difficult because we have much less time.

  • 2
    I'm not sure about hard data. We can probably estimate the % of interviewed candidates that have significant others. My best guess is >75%. – Geoff Hutchison Nov 27 '14 at 16:59
  • If you have two equally ranked candidates -- one who is a singleton and one who is a two-bodyer, wouldn't the knowledge of the latter influence your decision? I find it hard to imagine that it wouldn't. – RoboKaren Feb 13 '15 at 4:05
  • @RoboKaren It's never come up in our discussions honestly. I'm not actually sure how it would work. On the one hand, it's tricky to handle a two-body situation. On the other hand, we've done pretty well, and that obviously gives you a leg up in getting a candidate to come and to stay. – Geoff Hutchison Feb 13 '15 at 4:31
  • I can see both arguments going back and forth in discussion. Honestly, in many searches now, that situation hasn't happened, either because there is some level of difference between candidates, and because so many candidates have a significant other. – Geoff Hutchison Feb 13 '15 at 4:33
8

If your partner is looking for a job in some non academic field, then the university might be able to help out by giving you information about employment opportunities for the area and even offering the services of a career counselor, but it's unlikely that the university can do anything directly to ensure that your partner gets a job.

So I'll assume that you are talking about a situation in which your partner is looking for an academic position or perhaps you're in a situation where you and your partner would like to share a single position.

Many universities have spousal hiring policies that lay out what the university is willing to do in these situations. The most generous of these policies provide money to help create a position for the trailing spouse in the same academic department or in another academic department. This can be a huge win for that other department if the position wasn't otherwise going to exist. Thus there is some incentive to hire in this situation. Other policies are much more vague and aren't much more than an assurance that the spouse will be considered for some kind of employment. You should check to see if the university has such a policy and decide for yourself whether the policy is flexible enough to deal with your situation.

If there is no spousal hiring policy then this may be because the university simply isn't interested in hiring couples or it may be because these situations are handled on a case by case basis.

My advice is that if you would be unwilling to accept a position unless your spouse is hired then I would reveal the information early in the process whether or not the university has a policy. It's true that you might be passed over because of this, but if neither party is willing to give this up, there's no point in playing the game. If the university is willing to deal with this, then they'll have plenty of time to respond by e.g. interviewing the spouse. On the other hand, if you wait until after an offer has been made to you, then you'll either be told "no", or the process of negotiating the spousal hire will start late and take a long time to complete.

If you would be willing (or might be willing only if you have no other offers) to take a position without your spouse being hired, then you might withhold this information until an on-campus interview or even until you've received an offer. This eliminates the risk that you'll be passed over because of your interest in a spousal hire. Realize that when you do finally reveal the information and ask to negotiate a spousal hire you'll be asking for a lot, and it's likely that the university will take a tough position in negotiating all aspect of your hiring. In many cases there will be other qualified applicants for the position, so it's pretty easy for the university to just say "no" and tell you to take their offer or leave it on the table.

6

I've been at both a small-liberal arts as well as a research I university. I would not mention it at either at any stage until an offer. The reason for this is this: provosts usually only give departments one slot at a time -- asking for a spousal hire requires getting an additional slot from the provost -- i.e., a lot of lobbying work and justification for the position. In order to commit to this, we have to be 100% sure that you are the person we want (and that we or another department wants your spouse) in order to make that effort.

We really won't know that we want to make that effort until after we've met you for the on-campus visit. Often a candidate just 'clicks' and we are then fully committed to getting them whatever they need to be happy on campus. But until then, the top ranked candidates are just sheets of paper and the knowledge that resources for additional faculty slots are very tight may be enough to push you off the bottom of the short-list. This is of course unfair and discriminatory, which is why it's illegal (in the USA) for us as the hiring body to ask you whether or not you have a spouse.

The one case where I would mention it is if you and your spouse are applying to the university at the same time in different departments/searches or at a different ranked search. In that case, there's really no hiding it and it's not necessarily a zero sum game. In addition, small liberal arts colleges know that their flexibility with spouses (and general higher quality of family life) is a selling point to married couples, so you may have more flexibility with them.

Nota bene: The same goes for any other requests you might have -- for example, that you'd want a teaching release the first year, that you have a disability, that you will need maternity leave, or that you won't touch a salary less than US$150,000, etc. etc. Make all these requests after you've been made the offer. Especially in the case of protected categories (pregnancy/disability), they cannot withdraw the offer without exposing themselves legally.

tl;dr: Don't mention you have a spouse until the department has committed to you as the top candidate and is willing to go to bat for the additional resources that will make you a happy scholar.

  • I can't speak for all academic positions, but some schools (including mine) have explicit programs from the Provost's office to handle salary and startup expenses for a spouse. That is, resources are created to help land two-academic couples. – Geoff Hutchison Feb 13 '15 at 4:37

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