Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

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The Professor Is In: How to Score That Elusive Spousal Hire

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If you had a chance to chat with Karen Kelsky, what job-market questions would you ask? You can find her in January at the Modern Language Association conference—look for her at booth #126—or you can ask her right now by e-mail.

My husband and I are both finishing our Ph.D.’s. What advice do you have for a couple hoping to score the elusive dual couple hire?

When I started collecting questions for this column (and by the way—I need your questions! Send your questions! You can send them right here using the Vitae mailbox!), this was far and away the most common one.

The spousal/couple/dual-career search is, hands down, the most stressful kind of academic job search there is. And I know this viscerally, because I had an ex-husband with a Ph.D. (in a different humanities field, but still), and can still remember the sick feeling in my stomach, the cold sweats late at night, the gut-wrenching anxiety as I contemplated just how in god’s name we were going to get both of us gainfully employed on the tenure track.

Well, as it turned out, we divorced before that task had been completed. But I learned a few things from the experience—and a few more things while I was on the tenure track, watching spousal negotiations in my departments. And then I learned a lot more when I was a department head charged with managing spousal hires both in my own department and as the “receiving department” for the spouses of hires originating elsewhere. And I’ll share those things with you today.

First and foremost, you both have to be done and market-ready. You can’t get your spouse a job if that spouse isn’t actually finished with his Ph.D. and possessed of a kickass CV in his own right. Everything that I write elsewhere about the need for peer-reviewed publications, major grants, national conference activity, and hardcore references, etc. applies here, on steroids. If you want to achieve this unbelievably difficult goal, you both should be rock stars.

You both need to go on the market independently and apply as if you’ve never met. It is impossible to guess which of you will eventually get the offer, so both of you need to go at it, on your own, 100 percent.

In your job letters, do not disclose that you are the spouse of another applicant (if you happen to apply for the same job), or that you have a spousal issue attached to you at all (if you apply in different fields). The critical thing here is that one of you gets an offer, and you’re going to damage the chances of that happening if you disclose the spouse prematurely. I know that some disagree with this, but I stick to it. While discrimination based on personal circumstances is not supposed to happen in searches, the fact is, it does happen, and there are occasionally search committees that will reject a candidate early in the game to avoid the hassle of dealing with a spouse.

What if you’re in the same field and everyone knows that you’re married? Even so, don’t make that fact an element of your application. It isn’t relevant. You are separate and independent people.

If you are in different fields and your spouse is not known, disclose the spouse only after the offer is made.

When you raise the possibility of a tenure-track spousal hire, as with all negotiating points, be courteous but firm. Don’t be diffident, or frame it as a querulous, timid, vague little question: “Do you think there might be a possibility for some type of position for my husband?” Be clear and specific. “My primary goal in negotiating my contract is a tenure-track position for my husband.”

Understand that your only leverage with which to achieve the spousal hire is the hiring department’s desire to have you before you’ve signed the contract. Once you’ve signed the contract, the hiring department will take you completely for granted and that window will be closed. Therefore, you must focus your efforts at time of hiring, prior to signing. Do not, under any circumstances, be easily put off by lesser offers of an adjunct or instructor position, or another other form of temporary employment, which is often accompanied by vague promises to “revisit this at a later date.” It will not be revisited. That is, not until you go back you on the market later and get an outside offer that you then use to force the department’s hand. And that is years in the future, and no fun. Particularly if you have a disgruntled, underemployed spouse at home all that time.

You must get the spousal offer, as with all other negotiating outcomes, in writing. No informal understandings should be accepted. This is not because I assume dishonesty on the part of the negotiating department head, but because it is not unheard of that the department head may suddenly get a new job, or take research leave, or go on medical leave, or be deposed, or die. In those cases, any informal understandings that haven’t been put in writing will evaporate into thin air.

Spousal hires are administrative nightmares. They take a combination of money, goodwill, and savviness in a minimum of three different institutional locations—usually the first hiring department, the dean’s office, and the second, receiving department. Stars truly have to align to make it all work. Spousal hires are often paid for in a three-part system, with the initial hiring department putting in one-third of the spouse’s salary, the dean’s office putting in one-third, and the receiving department putting in the final third.

The receiving department is the great unknown here. The receiving department may take the view that this is a super good deal: a whole line for a third of the cost! Or it may take the view that the spousal hire is an imposition and a risk: “We lose a precious future line in the area we really want, because we accepted this bargain-basement ‘second’ in an area where we weren’t even looking to build.” It’s really impossible to predict. The faculty of the receiving department will have to review the record of the spouse, and vote to approve the hire. This is where the rock-star thing comes into play. Departments are far more willing to play ball when the sort-of-free gift is an obvious catch.

Even where there’s willingness, the head of the receiving department has to be competent enough to keep all the administrative ducks in a row—paperwork reviewed, vote scheduled on a super-short-timeline, negotiations conducted. This is not a given.

Anyway, if you courteously but firmly push for the tenure-track spousal hire over a week or two of back-and-forths with the department, and get a firm no, it isn’t necessarily because they are jerks, or mean. It’s more likely because somewhere in the process, the money or the goodwill or the competence just fell short.

If one of you is in a wealthy field—engineering, business, the physical sciences—then by all means that’s the spouse you want to get the initial offer. Well-to-do departments will have far more cash to spare to pay the pitiful salary scale of a starting humanist.

I learned this the hard way when, as head of an East Asian languages and cultures department, I accepted a literature-Ph.D. spouse of someone in one of the engineering departments. When I sat down to meet with the (very charming) head of that department, and explained the starting salary of an assistant professor in my department, and our usual startup package (think somewhere in the mid-4-figures) ... well, let’s just say I still can clearly recall the mix of incredulity and pity in his eyes. The money for their third of her salary, plus her entire startup, was easily found. I got the impression they had that much just sitting in the cash box in the secretary’s desk.

While you are negotiating, realize that, if you are a junior faculty member, this one thing will trump all or most other aspects of the negotiation. While senior hires are a different story, at the junior, newly-minted Ph.D. level, asking for a tenure-track line for your spouse will exhaust nearly all of the goodwill and resources of your hiring department. So when pushing for this, you should limit your requests on other negotiating points like salary, research leave, moving expenses, etc.

Never forget, though, that if you achieve the coveted spousal hire, you will be, in a sense, rolling in the dough—Two salaries! Two conference travel funds! Two insurance policies! Two retirement accounts!—and also gaining domestic tranquility. In other words, you’ll be coming out way ahead.

Dear Readers: Have a question about the academic job market and/or professionalization? Send it to me! I welcome any and all questions related to the job market, preparing for the job market while in graduate school, coping with the adjunct struggle, and assistant professorhood. Send questions to me at gettenure@gmail.com.

Karen Kelsky is a career consultant who runs the website The Professor Is In. She’s been a tenured professor at two public universities (Oregon and Illinois) and has advised many undergraduate and graduate students, as well as mentored junior faculty. She answers reader questions as a contributor to Vitae.

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