Monday, December 16, 2013

One Person’s Advice on the Two-Body Problem

By Annika Peter, from the June 2013 Issue of Status: A Report on Women in Astronomy

My husband and I recently found a long-term solution to our two-body problem after seven years of hopscotching through job seasons. When we entered into the job season last year with the goal of permanence in mind, I asked many faculty people for advice on how to approach the job search as a couple. The advice was all over the place. From this experience, I gleaned that there is no established protocol for solving the two-body problem; each couple's set of circumstances makes each search and solution look a little different. And actually, this is one of the lessons I would like to impart to you — there is no one, straightforward, established path to a two-body solution.

Nevertheless, there were a few bits of advice that we found extremely useful and appeared to be pretty generally applicable, and there were some things we learned along the way. The focus of this advice is on academic solutions at the faculty/staff level. However, a lot of this advice is applicable at a postdoc level, or at the faculty level even if you are looking for only one job, not two!
  • Have a goal in mind, and go in with an idea of what solutions you both would find acceptable: Is living under one roof most important to the two of you? Do you both want tenure-track jobs? If so, at what kind of institution? Do you both want staff science jobs? Do you want to be at the same institution? Do you absolutely not want to be at the same institution? How far away are you willing to live from your office? In what parts of the world would you consider living? It's good to know what you want, and what you are willing to compromise on, before launching into job season. Keep in mind that the more flexible you are, the more likely you are to find a solution. On the other hand, you should know what you will not compromise on.
  • Be a good candidate: Do excellent research, give a lot of talks at a bunch of institutions, and be a delightful colleague. Do the work it takes to get glowing letters of recommendation from well-respected senior people at a variety of institutions. There are a lot of things in the job- search process that you have no control over, but you do have control over how good a candidate you are. However, note that being a good candidate is a necessary but not sufficient condition for landing a permanent job.
  • Be proactive: Finding a single permanent job is hard. Finding two co-located permanent jobs is much harder. While it is never a good idea to wait until the last year of your second postdoc to look for a permanent job, it is an especially bad idea to do it if you do have a two-body problem. My advice is, as soon as you feel like you and your partner might have a shot on the job market, start looking around aggressively for jobs. Scour job listings on the APS and AAS job sites and apply for a lot of jobs. Call up colleagues at institutions that are interesting to you and find out what their near-term hiring plans are.
  • Network like crazy: Give talks, go to conferences, chat with lots of people at any institution you go to. Not only is this good to do for your own research — travel lets you meet many awesome new people and generate lots of exciting new ideas — but you will need the visibility to get a job. When hiring committees are looking through hundreds of applications to fill one position, it's much easier for candidates to rise above the noise if they and their work are known to committee members. And it is critical that someone on the hiring committee really wants to hire you and is willing to do battle with the other committee members to get you onto the short list.
  • If you have a partner in an unrelated field looking for a permanent job, keep this information to yourself until you have an offer. As distasteful as needing to hide anything as obvious and important as a partner may be, revealing anything to a hiring committee that would make their job more complicated before you have an offer in hand is likely to decrease the chance of your getting that offer. You might still not achieve the desired solution even after one of you has an offer (often, but not always, because of institutional financial considerations), but avoid shooting yourself in the foot before that foot is through the door [1].
  • On the other hand, if you are in similar enough fields that everyone knows you come as a pair, you may find that you need to advertise yourself as such: You might find your case in my situation, where you and your partner work in related fields and anyone seriously interested in hiring one of you knows about the other. In this case, you can try marketing yourselves together. This approach worked well for my husband and me, but we didn't really have a choice about it. (Anecdote: I applied for a faculty position at an institute before my husband had submitted his application. Within 12 hours of my hitting the “submit” button, my husband got a call from the head of the search committee that started with “So, I see your wife applied for a job here...”) It also worked well because my husband was considered a senior hire, and this opened doors because of ...
  • The hidden secret in academia — the senior faculty black market: One thing I did not fully appreciate before the last job season is that the total number of faculty positions filled can be larger than the number of faculty positions advertised because universities are constantly looking to poach excellent faculty from each other. If either you or your partner already has a faculty job, you will likely be dipping your toes into this market. This is where your past networking can really help you, and where dropping a few rumors to gossipy people that you may be “looking around” can open up interesting opportunities.
  • Give a close look at universities that are friendly to couples. Some universities realize that friendliness toward academic couples may allow them to hire faculty with stronger credentials than they otherwise would. If you and your partner would be in the same department, look for ones that are looking to expand (and hence, have a lot of “free energy” in their faculty searches) or that are anticipating a lot of retirements. Location far from a major metropolitan area may be another motivation. Some of these places look at the “two-body problem” as a “two-body opportunity” (phrase credit: Tim Tait). Anecdotally, the Midwest has a number of couple-friendly institutions. My former postdoc institution, UC Irvine, has some nice incentives for two-body hires in different departments.
I hope this advice will help increase the effectiveness of your job search(es) and minimize the energy you dissipate in the process.

[1] Editors' note: Advice on when to reveal the existence of a partner varies widely. A careful discussion of this issue can be found here “Negotiating for two.”