Home > Academic Job Market > The Media Studies Job Market, 7: Searching as an Academic Couple

The Media Studies Job Market, 7: Searching as an Academic Couple

September 5th, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

Mrs. Extratextuals is an Assistant Professor at Wisconsin too, in another department. She finished her Ph.D. in 2009, and so in 2008 we were both on the market. The Miracle of Miracles occurred and we both got interviews at the respective top programs in our fields (okay, so some would argue the rankings, but best for each of us), followed by us both getting the jobs. While perhaps the Stonemasons were behind it all, to the best of my and her knowledge, she was not a partner hire. But we’d prepared for it a long time, asked endless people about it, and I’ve seen partner hires occur, meaning I still feel able to talk about the process. More after the fold …

At the same time, though, whereas many other parts of this series were written from the joint experience of being on a committee and having looked for jobs, this one’s almost completely from the latter perspective, without much inside knowledge, since I’ve never handled partner hires administratively. That also means that the peculiarities of my and my wife’s situation (straight, diff. depts but same faculty, no kids, me further ahead than her, etc.) means that any reader should discount appropriately for their own situation. And it’s written solely for academic couples; I don’t know the deal for non-academic couples.

(Oh, by the way, if you’ve wondered why I’m dedicating so much time to writing these entries, and what’s in it for me, the answer is in part the Miracle of Miracles. Mrs. Extratextuals and I both worked our living asses off for many years for that miracle to even be possible, but we’re also aware that supreme luck was required. We’ve drawn deeply from academic karma, and now feel forever as though we owe it something in return. Consider these posts a small offering)

So, first, some biographical background. Mrs. Extratextuals (sorry for the name, but I’d rather preserve her privacy somewhat) and I met as grad students in London. Then she got a job at an NGO in New York, following her Masters, while I needed to finish my Ph.D. So we spent a year with me going to New York whenever possible. Then I finished up and got my first job, as a Lecturer at University of California, Berkeley. That got me to the States, but it overshot her. Ooops. So, two years of me going to New York all the time. Jet Blue loved me. Then I got the Assistant Prof gig at Fordham, which got me to New York. Yay, right? Except she then started her Ph.D. … at Penn. At least it was now her turn to commute, and so she spent half the week in New York, half in a tiny room in Philly, living with some very cool Settlers of Catan-loving vegan anarchists. Until her coursework was done, and then we finally got to live together for real. I mention this to underline that though we experienced the Miracle of Miracles, we paid our dues. You too will need to pay your dues.

Indeed, if you are one half of an academic couple, I’d counsel you to learn these rules:

  1. Thou shalt realize that living apart or compromising your hopes is going to happen
  2. Thou shalt know where one another stands
  3. Thou shalt work thine living ass off

With more detail, let’s start with the first rule. I’ve known very few academic couples who’ve been together the whole time. Any who have, they either met at their current university, or one of them agreed to be an adjunct or part-timer. Don’t think you’ll be the exception. Instead, plan for it. Early on, refer often to rule (3), which we’ll come back to. But also talk about it. Sure, Mrs. Extratextuals and I might’ve talked about it too much, but at least we knew where one another stood, and we didn’t pretend it wasn’t happening.

If you don’t know where your partner stands, you’re in trouble, personally and professionally. Work out what your dreams and hopes are, and what those of your partner are with regards work and life. Maybe one of you isn’t really as much into academia as the other one, and doesn’t really care about life as an adjunct or without tenure. Maybe you both love it as much as each other. Maybe one of you has specific institutional needs, or geographic needs, or social ones, that the other doesn’t, which will make it hard for one of you to compromise on certain scores. Mrs. Extratextuals does heavily grant-funded research, which meant an R1 job was virtually required if she wanted her data to be her own. By contrast, I can do my work almost anywhere. So we knew, going into our search, that taking a non-R1 job would hurt her big time, but me not so much. I had niggling concerns about living in non-cosmopolitan America, since I’m not American, so we knew that mattered. Work out what’s truly important for you as a couple and for you as individuals.

And think ahead. When I went to Berkeley, it was as a lecturer in a program, not a department, so there was no possibility of a tenure-track conversion. I knew my time there was limited, which in turn meant that we knew I’d keep trying to get to New York, and Mrs. Extratextuals would consider Ph.D. programs that triangulated (including Berkeley, where there was a great program for her). Planning was very important.

We also knew, though, that our best chance of being together in the long term was for me to publish up a storm, and for her to go to a kick-ass Ph.D. program and be a phenom (which, proud Mr. Extratextuals that I am, I should note that she did. She had full ride offers from every program to which she applied. Let’s be clear on one thing: she’s the smart one). See, neither of us wanted to compromise too much, and neither of us wanted to ask the other one to do so, which left us with rule (3). The more you work, and the more that you turn your depression or nerves into raw smarts and hardwork, the better your chances become. And here’s a little tip: long distance relationships can actually make hard work easier (if you don’t have kids; if you do, it might prove a living nightmare for one half of the pair of you). When you’re not together, you have carte blanche to stay up late working, to work on weekends, to turn into a work machine. You will need to sacrifice if you want a job together, and weekends and evenings were my sacrifice.

See, as an academic couple, your hopes for being together and both employed rest on one of three options: either you get jobs at different universities that are in the same city or region, or one of you sucks it up and takes an adjunct or lecturer position, perhaps with the hope of advancing one day, or a department wants one of you enough to fight to get a partner hire for the other one, who in turn seals the deal. All three situations are made much, much easier by you both being as good as you can be. In the latter, for instance, it’s not just good enough for Partner A to be a hot-shot; Partner B has to be good enough for the university to play ball and give them a job. And in general, your chances of getting a job are always better when you’re better. So put down that fifth beer, get your ass home, and read.

(Please note: sometimes [often?] this is not enough. I don’t mean to imply that hard work will set you free in all cases. Be prepared for suckiness, in other words, but don’t think that luck alone will conquer the suckiness. Herculean labor is required)

Okay, enough lifestyle counseling for me. Let’s discuss mechanics.

First off, if you’re an ABD, I hate to tell you, but your chances of demanding a partner hire for your significant other are next to nil. See, you’re simply not accomplished enough yet to demand a university go to the effort. Instead, both of you should refer to rule (3) and invest in the future.

When the time comes, you want and need a situation in which the department really wants you. Most of all, though, the Chair must want you. It’s the Chair who is going to be arguing for the hire and be your advocate, so when you have your campus visit, make sure you play real nice with him or her. The problem is that most people agree that it’s perilous to mention your desire for a partner hire while at the campus visit. Why? Because you immediately label yourself as someone who will be harder to hire, and thus you hurt your case. Note that it may be very hard to avoid such discussions. Nobody is meant to ask you about your marital status, but truth be told, a lot of people will. Some will do so knowingly and in contravention of university policies, but many will do so very well-meaningly. They’re trying to get to know you as a person, and asking nice questions about your partner can be a part of that. They might also simply want to present the case for why you should come, and so they hope to spring into reaction by telling you where your kids can go to school, how easy it will be for your partner to find work, etc.

(Interlude: This process is way harder for women. I was rarely asked about Mrs. Extratextuals. And even if I brought her up, I think a lot of people simply assumed that my wife would follow me. That assumption makes life very hard for heterosexual female candidates, since departments may assume you’ll follow your husband, and thus it matters more to them what he does and how possible it is to get him work too. It’s a sexist world, even when the individuals don’t realize they’re being sexist. How to deal with such questions? It’s hard. You can say they’re not allowed to ask, but that makes you seem standoffish, and unless you feel like a lawsuit, you’ll be left without a job. You can dodge, but that might make you seem cold and removed. You can be very honest, but that might be a problem. Neither Mrs. Extratextuals nor I worked out an easy answer, except not to be a woman in a patriarchal society, but I invite other readers to offer answers.)

So, you likely bide your time until you get the offer. Then what happens? You need to be clear that a partner hire is required, and you need to be very honest and open with your Chair. They’re your proxy in this battle, and so they need clear guidance. Don’t be too scared that they’ll go away, not get what you want, and simply revoke their offer to you. If they can’t get what you want, they’ll come back to you … unless they’re a complete douche. Have an open discussion about all the depts or programs in which your partner could work, especially if their work is interdisciplinary. Make sure your partner’s CV and materials are ready to deliver.

I’ve heard of more places offering partner hires these days. Tenure-track hires are hard, and non-tenure-track ones more common. But a lot of universities realize, first, that the best way to get a good person is to give them a partner hire; second, that smart people tend to fall for smart people, and thus hiring partners isn’t the “trash receptacle” that some imagine it to be; and third, that a happy couple with two good jobs is way less likely to go roaming for another job down the line. If a partner hire goes especially well, both individuals tend to arrive happy with the world, and in love with the university that hired them both, and they can thus make great citizens of the university. Also, be aware that some departments welcome partner hires; they’re not the nasty lepers that some make them out to be. Why? Because a partner hire is nearly always a hire you weren’t going to get anyways. Most departments spend a lot of energy fighting for more hires, and especially these days, those fights often fail. So if a university opens up the coffers to get you a partner hire, it’s likely that a department is getting a “free” hire. (Of course, they may feel that hire is mortgaged against an otherwise future hire, so some resent it. I don’t want to lie about the realities here). Finally, if your partner followed rule (3), who knows, maybe they’re a massive blessing in disguise?

Your Chair’s job will be to find a department that could house your partner, convince that department’s Chair to give you a look, and they’ll usually then offer funds from your department’s budget to bring your partner out. They may also pay part of the eventual salary. If it works, and if the Dean gets on board, who knows – you might be happily together in one place.

The other situation is to get the job, get your partner some form of adjunct or lecturer or VAP work, and then hope to make the position better for your partner in the future. In all honesty, I know of more cases where this didn’t happen (see Jason Mittell’s comments on the “inside” hire post for more soul-destroying details), but I do know some situations where it has occurred. In the latter, it’s usually because the dept wants the partner with the better job to stay, and is scared they’re going to leave. It may require a competing offer to seal the deal, in other words.

Whatever your situation, I wish you luck. And go read Jonathan Sterne’s piece about the same issue.

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  1. Colin Tait
    September 6th, 2010 at 14:52 | #1

    Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks again for doing this. You’ve somehow humanized the nameless, faceless institutional bureaucracy, which does not seem to be an easy task.

    In looking at your “interlude” I didn’t notice you planning to say anything about international scholars working in America. I wondered, given your experiences, if you would mind adding a chapter 10 1/2? Alternatively, you could just respond to this post, if that’s any easier.

  2. Jonathan Gray
    September 7th, 2010 at 21:10 | #2

    Colin, I’m a little hesitant to say too much, since a lot changes depending on where one’s from, and where on did one’s Ph.D. If you have direct questions, though, fire away and I promise to answer

  3. September 11th, 2010 at 22:09 | #3

    Btw, the AAUP recently release this on the issue:

  4. September 12th, 2010 at 08:45 | #4

    Hey Jonathan,

    I’ve been slowly working through your series and enjoying it since Jason Mittell pointed it out to me. I’m glad to see others writing on academic couples. There’s one thing in your piece I’d finesse, though. Having been on both sides of the academic couple thing–as a member of one, and as a chair dealing with them in hiring situations (and having talked with other chairs about this topic), I have found that the chair does not have as much control as you say. It is true that a chair can sink the possibility pretty easily in the same way that a chair has a lot of power to screw things up for people. But an interested or motivated chair cannot do anything without the support of the department. That said, the chair also needs to be a grownup, which–let’s face it–is a big variable.

    I also don’t counsel people to go into less-than-tenure-track jobs at a school with the expectation that they will turn into full tenure-track positions. Yes, that happens sometimes, but not nearly as often as people are given the hope that it will.

    Anyway, nicely done!

  5. Jonathan Gray
    September 12th, 2010 at 10:12 | #5

    Thanks for this, Other Jonathan. Both excellent points. Indeed, to be clear, my point re: chairs was meant to be that they’re the ones who have to make it happen if the dept votes for you (I thoroughly agree that they’re no magic bullet if the dept as a whole isn’t behind the hire. Indeed, they’re usually meant to remain somewhat impartial during the decision making, thereby being less useful in actually deciding that you’ll get the offer), and since I know of situations where the chair doesn’t agree with the dept and thus executes its will very half-heartedly (as you say, not all are adults!), it’s important to have made a good impression on the chair so that if the dept directs him or her to fight for your partner hire, they’re an eager fighter.

    Your second piece of advice certainly echoes what I’ve seen. Kristina and Jason covered the reasons why very well in previous posts’ comments.

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