The two-body problem… in psychology anyway.

Posted by on Sunday, December 1, 2013 in Notes from the DGS.

The two-body problem… in psychology… at places like Vanderbilt… recently…

At a recent professional development session with the grad students and postdocs in the psychology department here at Vanderbilt, the issue that seemed to generate the most interest was the two-body problem. One interesting thing about our discussion was that there was some diversity of opinion about how to deal with it during the job search process, and so to follow up on this, I’ve sketched out a range of ways of dealing with the two-body problem (we’re primarily talking about the interview stage of an academic job search here) that might be tailored based on specific conditions and your own preferences.

So, you’ve applied for a bunch of jobs and are lucky enough to have gotten an interview or two. And you’ve got a spouse to think about. Should you tell your potential employer about this person? What could they do if you did tell them? Maybe you should tell them – if so, when do you bring this up? The answer to most of these questions is … it depends.

Before getting into the subtleties of the issue, one thing is clear, and you should know this both when you are interviewing and when you are on the other side of the interview process (this is not in the distant future even for new PhD students who can benefit enormously by attending job talks and meetings with job candidates). The thing is, employers are *really* not supposed to ask you about your spouse during the interview – its against the law, and people who are clueless about this open the university up to a lawsuit. This goes for everyone involved in the interview process, and neither faculty nor grad student hosts should ask about the candidate’s spouse (and I’d avoid the whole topic of their family and kids) unless the interviewee brings it up and asks specific questions.

That said, many universities really do want to help with two-body problems, because landing a couple can often be a two-for-one situation in which new faculty are likely to be happy and stick around. So, the idea that candidates can bring up their spouse is where things get interesting, and there are differences in opinion about the wisdom of doing this. On one side is the “tell ‘em nothing” approach. I have known successful candidates who do this, and there’s good reason to – you want your employer to make the decision to hire you on your own merits and you don’t want them to not offer you the job because of some attribution they make about the hassle your family situation will cause.

In fact, one candidate I know accidentally referred to her spouse by name during the interview and then immediately covered her tracks by claiming she was talking about her dog. She got the job and it became a funny story we told. However, this approach risks irritating your employer if they offer you the job and then you surprise them with a major family-based constraint that had not been on their radar. At some level you are within your rights, but especially in the academic job market, the department offering you the job is risking losing other candidates while they work with you, and so its probably good advice to suggest that you handle this situation with tact and avoid sounding like you are making big demands (and this is a situation where an irritated search committee may not do nearly as much to help you with your two body problem as one that is completely excited about recruiting you). You can say how enthusiastic you are about the job and will be working really hard with your spouse to see if this can work out, and oh, by the way, if you have any suggestions about where a deep-sea microbiologist might find work in Microchestertonville you’d love to hear about it…

This example clearly brings up some issues. There are probably situations where it is to your benefit to bring up your spouse before you get an offer, and there are probably situations where your two-body problem (and/or your approach to it) will make it almost pointless to apply somewhere.

Here’s an example of a situation where you might want to bring your two-body situation up right away. What if the university or department has two faculty positions that might fit you and your spouse? This is not completely uncommon, and search committees often have some latitude about the areas of interest they are looking for. So, you might consider mentioning your spouse right away in your application letter. I’ve seen it done and seen it work out. If there are two search committees for two jobs, and one of you is high on one committee’s list while the other is in the running but not right at the tip-top of the other committee’s list, the two committees may put their heads together and realize that they have a shot at completing two searches in one fell swoop – everyone likes saving the work, and pretty much everyone likes the idea of grabbing two new faculty members who will likely be glad to get a two-body solution. They’ll be happy that you will be happy, and at many universities they will see if they can interview both of you and ultimately ignore the fact that one of you might have been a “close second” choice.

Of course, there are a million shades of grey between the “tell ‘em nothing” approach and the “tell them right away” approach. As the above examples suggest, one factor that should be important defining your approach is your perception of the degree to which the department can, or is willing to, help you. This depends on the attitude of the department, the degree to which they have openings, and, of course, your spouse’s career interests. If, for example, you think there is nothing that the department can do to help because your spouse is a musician and just wants to gig around town, then it doesn’t much matter what you say and you can feel free to discuss them during the interview (although I would not bother with this in your application letter). In such a case, if you let drop the implication that they don’t need to do anything to help you, I suppose that might be strategically useful to you.

It can be important to consider the fact that there are many situations where the university might be able to help you out, and can do so more effectively the sooner they know about your spouse. For example, if your spouse is interested in some kind of administrative position (or, possibly in enrolling in a grad program at the university – this has been the case several times around here recently), there is often a lot a university, especially a big one, can do to help them find something. In such situations you might open this discussion relatively early on, before you actually get an offer (but, I’d say, not before the actual interview).  In most departments this will result in a networking effort once they decide they want to make you an offer, and if they think that there is a good chance your spouse can find something, their knowledge of him/her should not lessen your chances of getting an offer. Of course, you’ve got to trust them on that, and, unfortunately, this might not be wise at some places. On the other hand, would you really want a job where they’ll discount you because of a reasonable discussion about your spouse? Maybe the risk of not getting an offer outweighs the risk of working for jerks who won’t be understanding about your spouse or any other personal/family issues you encounter.

On the other other hand, maybe you don’t want to give them the choice of evaluating you unfairly and want it to be up to you to accept the offer based on what you can glean about the place. Maybe the search committee is run by old farts who don’t get that the world is changing and who will be gone in a few years anyway, leaving the department in the capable and fair hands of the next generation. This might reasonably lead you to hold off on talking about your spouse, and it’s also why laws exist that protect you from an unfair grilling about your family.

Ultimately, you want to be fair to yourself, your potential employer and even to the community of your colleagues who are also looking for jobs (for example, if you dither forever on a job that you really were not going to take, you may mess with someone else’s job search).

So, these are some basics, and there are a million complicating factors. What are they? If you email me some hypotheticals or post a comment, I’ll post some possible answers and strategies.

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