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.


Anonymous said...

As a longtime loyal reader of this blog, this article left me profoundly disappointed. I am a young, female, feminist astronomer and am of the opinion that the very concept of `spousal accommodation' is patriarchal and unfeminist. The idea reinforces the concept that it is socially acceptable for a `trailing spouse', more often than not female, to be offered a position based on their spouse's merits. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but how is offering a position to a person who is, by very definition, less qualified than other applicants on a shortlist, not discrimination? The extra money spent on hiring the spouse does not magically appear out of thin air, this must be at the cost of something else more deserving from the university / departments' budget. Consider this hypothetical scenario: A and B are 2 of 5 shortlisted candidates for a faculty position -- A is ranked first, and B second. A has a spouse C, also in the same field, who is not shortlisted. An offer is made to A, and a corresponding dual-career offer to C. How is offering C a faculty position not discriminatory to B and the other candidates on the shortlist?

P.R.M. said...

The concerns that Anonymous has expressed on 8/6/14 are important and worth pondering. They are exactly the sort that have been, and should be, discussed. I could reinforce or rebut each of the sentences in that comment, depending on my mood. I think some of those concerns were analyzed in the original posting, linked in D.C.'s introductory remarks. Also, elsewhere on this website (in response to a posting by John Johnson) I have related these issues to the "marriage penalty (or benefit)" of US federal tax code: the fundamental conundrum is "more than one desired goal in natural conflict."

Easy for me to say, I know, but I find it helpful to discount zero-sum arguments and hold out for unlimited-abundance optimism. It is my experience in life that most extra money DOES magically appear out of thin air. That's how any business (broadly interpreted) grows - they hire new employees that bring in new skills/ideas/energy and hopefully that translates into new sources of revenue that enables hiring yet more employees.

Almost no hiring is done indiscriminately; ergo discrimination is part of the process. One conundrum is whether to discriminate by hiring always one-at-a-time or to innovate from that status quo, and which of those tactics may be in the best interests of the institution, the people involved, the broader scientific community, etc.


Lee Anne Willson said...

Also responding to Anonymous -

Your point is one that is often made, and it addresses the fundamental difficulty: There is no solution that accommodates all the important factors. These include: Building strong research programs at institutions in a variety of geographical locations (not just big cities). Applying the same standards to all candidates. Selecting the strongest candidates from a list of applicants. Recruiting the strongest candidates to accept a position.

If all candidates always accepted all offers, that is, if there were a neat one-to-one mapping of candidates and offers, then the issue of spousal accommodation would probably never have gained traction, even though the need would still be there from the candidates’ perspectives.

If search committees were omniscient, then the rank-ordering of candidates would always be perfect, and it would be unfair to go to candidate C over candidate B as you note. However, after many years of sitting on search committees I can tell you that generally the top candidates are all strong; they each have different strengths or compatibilities with a particular job; and search committee rankings are not perfect or even one-dimensional. So it is a mistake to think that the final ranking A-B-C-D is truly predictive of who will perform best in a particular situation, and thus, one may have an equal chance of picking winners by selecting A and D instead of A and B. This is particularly true if D is a member of a group for which it is well established that unconscious bias still exists. If A and D are a couple, the odds of success selecting A and D are arguably higher than the odds of success (from the department’s perspective) by choosing A and B. So if a search (or two searches) for two people ends up with both of a couple on the shortlist(s) then the institution has everything to gain by considering the advantages of hiring the pair.

What is essential is that the system for accommodating couples be set up in a way that is transparent and fair. Thus it should include all the following factors for a tenure-track accommodation: (a) there should be a separate resource pool for this, set aside broadly across the institution, and it should be understood by all parties that accommodation positions do not pre-empt future positions in a given department; (b) both members of the couple should either have ended up in the final shortlist of a search (or two searches) or be demonstrably comparable to those who did; (c) if one of the couple is not in an area where the department is currently searching, or if in a different department, he or she should still fit with the relevant department well enough to allow for professional success for the individual and value for the department; and (d) the department(s) need(s) to make sure both feel fully welcomed and appreciated. Just because the institution was searching for a person in the area of expertise of one half of a couple and did not have an active search in the area of the other half does not mean that the other half is unqualified.

It can be a prejudice contrary to fact to assume that the second member of a couple hired is inferior in some way; I can think of quite a few cases where that was demonstrably not the case.

Anonymous said...

Young female feminist chiming in -- P.R.M's response makes all the sense in the world, and I understand the idea of dual-career hiring from a business decision POV (for a little extra money, we get to hire the incredibly talented A and the not too shabby C). The hiring system in itself is far from perfect, for instance, in an ideal world, one would not have to resort to "target of opportunity" hires to recruit underrepresented minorities.

While I absolutely agree that this is a legitimate issue when discussing optimal hiring practices and recruiting the best available talent to a given institution, but the idea that an early career scientist can exploit a loophole in the hiring process as long as they find the "right" partner is patriarchal and somewhat nauseating. I have, unfortunately, encountered more then one young scientist (of both genders) with a superstar partner, content with mediocrity and the security that comes with being a trailing spouse. I don't know what a good resolution to this issue will look like, but it's worth talking about, particularly, the damaging effect it can have with respect to the B's in our field.

My major beef with the idea of dual-career hiring practices, particularly the emphasis on the issue in this blog, is that this is not, and should not, be a "women's" issue. Something is fundamentally flawed with a system where the discussion on dual-career hires is lumped in with issues ranging from unconscious bias to sexual harassment. At the least, can we relegate the discussion of these issues to forums that are not women and minority focused blogs? Having these discussions here, as unintentional as the consequence may be, has an undertone of "Hey women, as much as hiring sucks, you can do okay if you have an appropriately talented spouse", or, "Hey women, you can take your spouse with you so your relationship won't suffer if you're offered a prestigious position" -- neither of which is a good message.

P.R.M. said...

Anonymous's wrote "My major beef ..." and I empathize with that in particular.

On February 19, 2014, in initial negotiations with D.C. as to venue, P.R.M. wrote:

I don't want some people to pigeon hole it as a "women's issue" (whatever that means). (end quote)

D.C. agreed.

Together we decided to post it on CSWA as one potential, interested audience. I think someone linked the original post to the AAS Facebook page or similar. I hope someone else will do that with this follow up post too.

I hope to have more discussions on this topic, especially in person.

Anonymous said...

Yet another young, female, feminist astronomer weighing in: I actually consider this an important women-in-science issue (despite not having a two-body problem myself), because I've witnessed a disproportionate number of talented women colleagues leave the field because of this issue. This leaves me in a less optimal climate where women are more and more underrepresented as I progress through my career.

Anonymous said...

The idea that a short list is an objective ranked list of candidates, each of which is markedly superior to those lower on the list, is an idea that needs to be permanently retired. It might (in good cases) represent a consensus on what candidate, on the basis of the limited information available, best fits the department needs at that time. Often the short list is a compromise among conflicting views of those needs and the evaluations of the candidates themselves. In many cases strong external constraints are imposed (by, for example, the dean), leading a department to have a very different short list than they would have had were they left to their own devices.

My point is that it is silly to assert that upsetting the "objective" ranking of candidates to solve a two-body problem is unfair. Such rankings are often wrong, and as mentioned above in a number of two-body hires the trailing partner is more successful than the initial hire.

Anyone who thinks two-body hires are keeping them from a job needs to think carefully. Comparing the number of dual-scientist couples in grad school or young postdocs (many) to the number in dual faculty jobs (few) should demonstrate in a straightforward manner that someone's partner didn't steal your job, anymore than someone taking up two spots in a parking lot stole your spot. The fundamental reason that you don't have a job is the end of exponential growth in faculty positions and bad luck.