Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Report from the (First of Many?) AAS Dinner to Discuss Dual Career Couples

Today's guest post is by P. R. McCullough, M. Meixner (Space Telescope Science Institute), J. L. Christiansen (NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at Caltech), and L. A. Willson (Iowa State University).  Earlier this year, Dr. McCullough wrote a blog proposing AAS Dinners to Discuss Dual-Career Couples. Well, the first such dinner was held this summer, and here is what happened! 

The first dual-career couple dinner took place at a Thai restaurant on Monday Jun 2, 2014 during the Boston AAS.  We five persons were two astronomer+astronomer pairs and a female half of a couple (astronomer+academic scientist). We happened to span the range from newly-hired Asst. Profs, to mid-career, to near retirement.  The conversation ranged over a number of issues relevant to 2-career couples.  What follows incorporates most of the key points raised.

Factors making it hard for 2-career couples:
  1. Permanent (tenured or tenure track) positions represent a huge commitment on the part of the institution, particularly after mandatory retirement ceased to apply to such positions, tying them up for decades.
  2. Institutions and departments like to focus hiring on specific areas of opportunity or immediate needs to complement ongoing programs. 
  3. Most academic positions are stand-alone positions.  While universities are increasingly developing spousal accommodation policies, these run into a number of issues, ranging from the view that the second member of a couple must necessarily be less well qualified, to the reluctance of host departments (same or different from that of the first-hired) to risk using up a potential open hire position, to resistance to hiring without a full open search for every position.  
  4. Careers often begin with a sequence of post-doc positions, so a couple may face several 2-person hiring events before settling into permanent positions. 
  5. When there are more post-doctoral positions available than faculty positions, people spend a long time building a career in astronomy that may not be a life-long career.  Individuals who move into related careers earlier may be more satisfied with this change than people who go through a number of postdoctoral positions and then leave the field. 
Strategies for universities:
  1. Make advertisements as general as possible.  (The University of Michigan had excellent success with broad advertising.)
  2. Advertise two or more positions at a time.  This could be done in a couple of ways:  (a) saving up positions until 2 or more are open; (b) mortgaging future positions with multiple hires; or (c) advertising several positions but only filling a subset if the extras are not needed in a particular year.  (The point of this is to encourage couples to apply; otherwise they may assume that it is impossible for both to get jobs.)
  3. Have some positions in reserve for open competition / second positions.  These could be held at any level, from department to college to university to state or national competition.  They could be positions advertised every year as "Prestige professorship in any area of STEM".   
  4. Have attractive non-faculty options available for spousal hires.  An indefinitely renewable position with comparable salary and benefits to faculty and a negotiable balance of research, teaching and service could be as attractive as a second tenure-track position in some cases.
  5. Offer salaries high enough that one salary suffices for a couple.  (This one is tricky:  This was the norm before 1980 or so, and as a result, there were a lot of minimally employed or unemployed spouses.  While that might solve the economic issues of the couple, it does not meet the career aspirations of most academic scientists and often does not allow the unpaid individual to pursue support through grants.  Also, it is hard to construct such a system such that everyone sees it as fair:  One will view it as fair only if the double salary goes to a dual-career-couple both of whom are working in the same department sharing a double-job, others only if everyone gets the same high salary. )
  6. Consider alternatives to tenure, such as a 25-year contract at the time of promotion to Associate Professor.  (If the mean age at tenure is 40 then this runs to 65.)  At the expiration of the 25-year-contract an opportunity for a series of 5-year renewals might be the norm.  (The idea here is to encourage turnover of positions.  This might need to be paired with more generous emeritus policies at some institutions - allowing retired faculty to retain offices, students, grants etc. in order to make the retired state more attractive.) 
National-scale solutions:
  1. Changes in the pattern of academic life such as reducing the postdoc/faculty ratio or changing/eliminating the tenure system would need to be national or international in scope. 
  2. Provide some portable support for scientists, similar to some of the NASA post-doc positions, but without age restriction and with salaries comparable to tenure-track positions.  
Strategies for individuals:
  1. Don't assume that an institution can't provide two openings if they begin by offering one - instead, assume it can until there is evidence to the contrary.  
  2. Consider a broader range of institutions, geographic locations, or types of jobs.
  3. Apply to a broader range of positions than just those that appear an ideal fit.  
  4. Ask people about opportunities well in advance of going on the job market.  
  5. Talk to people about how they solved their 2-body problems.

All three couples represented at the dinner felt very lucky to have found two jobs together.  While their routes to having achieved this circumstance differed due to both evolving hiring patterns over time and individual differences, all three felt that luck had been a major factor in their success.  Thus there may have been a strong selection bias in who went to the dinner.