In a perfect world, both partners in an academic couple would be equally desirable to the university where they wanted to work. But of course, in the real world, one partner is "the catch" and the other is usually "the trailing spouse." The latter is given a job as part of the employment package to land the catch.
In my case, my husband was the catch.
Where my husband, a Ph.D. in one of the hard sciences, went straight through from college to graduate school and beyond, my career path has meandered. I got a master's degree and worked as a professional, but I cut back my work to part time and even stayed at home awhile after our two children were born. By the time I was in my late 30s, my husband had become a huge success in his field.
We had enough money, a nice house, great kids, but I found myself restless and wondering what to do with the rest of my life. At 39, I returned to graduate school for a Ph.D. in the social sciences, which took me just more than four years to complete. I loved graduate school and managed to gain some valuable teaching and research experience.
With my Ph.D. in hand, I soon faced the fact that in our geographical area there were slim possibilities for me to obtain a tenure-track position in my field. For a while, I concentrated on getting reacquainted with my kids, working on publishing pieces of my dissertation, and teaching a course every semester as an adjunct.
By my second year out of graduate school, after a couple of "near-miss" job interviews, I began to have more seriously mixed feelings about my part-time work. Without a tenure-track appointment and an official affiliation with a university, my prospects for conducting further research or landing grants would be extremely limited.
As the next job-hunting season dawned, now my third since obtaining my Ph.D., my husband decided he was ready for a career change. Someone in his field at Elite Research University in another state heard he might be on the market and immediately started to recruit my husband. I asked my husband to apply to a couple of other places so we'd both be able to get good academic positions.
To make a long story short, I ended up with six conference interviews, four campus interviews, and three offers, two of them on the tenure track. But the location of my two tenure-track offers did not coincide with the places where my husband got good offers and most wanted to work.
In a perfect world it would have been my turn, but in the real world, my husband makes a lot more money than I do, and his career has come first for so long it's become habit. So we ended up at Elite Research University, which made me a "trailing spouse" offer. I would be an instructor in my field, have a research-center affiliation, my own office, a parking permit, a full-time salary, and even some start-up money. But I would not be on the tenure track.
It was mid-April a year ago when we agreed to this arrangement. I reasoned that it was the best option to keep my family together and I hoped that a tenure-track opening might come along.
Well, our first academic year at Elite Research is over and it's been a bumpy ride. Very early in the year, a tenure-track position was posted in my department with some very specific qualifications that I didn't really meet; I applied for it anyway, and was quickly turned down.
In an interview before I was hired, the powers that be in my department had said that tenure-track jobs would open up and that I would have a good chance at getting one. But only one job was posted for the next year and I was shut out.
I was told to be patient. I was told that perhaps next year, or the year after, something would come up. I was reminded that no one had "promised" me a tenure-track position. I was reminded about the excellence of Elite Research and how picky it is when it comes to hiring for tenure-track jobs.
I began to mightily regret my decision to come here.
From October until January, I taught my classes, worked on my research, and stewed. In January came another blow: I accidentally learned that my department was not actually paying my salary. The money for my contract comes from my husband's department.
Basically, it's as if I am a fringe benefit for him. Call me sensitive, but to me, that devalues my work. I was especially upset that the arrangement had not been disclosed to us before we accepted the offers.
Meanwhile, my husband's official tenure appointment came through after we'd been here six months and a glowing news release announced his hire. I felt genuinely happy for him but wistful at the same time.
It irks me that I'm in this position of having to scratch at the tenure-track door while he walked right through. It irks me that because I'm not on tenure track I don't qualify for some plum research fellowships. It irks me that I may never know if I could make it on my own, and I may not get the chance. It especially irks me that my marriage has become entwined with all of this.
Over the winter, I applied for all the possible tenure-track positions within a 150-mile radius. I secured several conference interviews and two campus interviews, but, as Simon & Garfunkel once sang, I got no offers. By March, I even considered applying for a couple of positions that would have required a plane ride to get to work.
In the end, we decided I shouldn't undertake that kind of long-distance commute when our kids are still fairly dependent on parental supervision. It would be pretty difficult for all of us if I were gone every week. So I'll be staying at Elite Research U. for another year.
If there is a message here, it is that anyone in a similar position should think hard before signing on to a "trailing spouse" arrangement. Consider your deepest wishes and your priorities. Will you end up feeling cheated or mistreated if the offer you accept isn't what you really wanted? Will you feel self-conscious around your new colleagues and wonder whether they doubt your qualifications or commitment? Will you harbor anger at your spouse?
Consider the motives of the hiring institution and, particularly, your hiring department. As a trailing spouse, will the department offer you less money and fewer promotional opportunities because it views you as someone with limited options? Does the department really want you, or is it just bowing to outside pressure?
Or, more subtly, does the department want you on one level -- to teach certain courses, perhaps -- but on another level, will hesitate to really invest in you because it doesn't want to set a precedent of giving up its autonomy? I feel that my colleagues could have fought to get me a tenure-track position but they have chosen not to, for a variety of reasons.
In hindsight, I should have stood my ground during the job search and insisted that we move where I was offered a tenure-track position. We should have undertaken a more systematic, broader job search and not assumed things would "work out." But that would have required me to be firm with my husband as well as with myself about putting my career dreams on an equal footing with his.
If I sound bitter, I should hasten to mention the up side. There are some excellent students here, I have a nice office, and good colleagues. I like living with my family and not having a long commute. I have an official affiliation, and when I go to the yearly national conferences I can wear the words "Elite Research University" on my name badge.
As I look ahead, I am determined to make the best of things, enjoy my work and my not insubstantial perks, publish a lot, and, I hope, get some lucrative grants. I can only hope that eventually either I'll achieve my dream of being in a tenure-track position or our university will begin to look a little silly for holding me back.