Question: I am a tenured professor at a state university with an academic spouse who gets hired to teach a course on the campus every semester or two. As in the case of many captive spouses, often he is not well-compensated for his teaching. We have begun to look around for jobs, and I have heard I am on the shortlist for a job at another university where he may have some better options. Its location is also good for my research. I think I have an excellent shot at this position, but it was advertised at the assistant-professor level, and it seems clear the university does not want to bend on salary or rank. I would have to take a large pay cut and put myself through another tenure review a year after being hired.
When should I tell the search committee I have a spouse? Given that the position would mean taking a lesser rank for a year and also a salary cut, the only reason for us to pursue this position would be if there appeared to be a good opportunity for my spouse. Should I tell them right from the start before going on the interview?
Secondly, how often do universities require candidates to go through the tenure process again if they are already associate professors? Can you recommend any important questions to ask or strategies to use to test the waters of an uncharted territory before leaving the security of a tenured appointment?
Mary: This is such a tough situation. The salary cut may be a wash for you as a couple, because you hope that in the new location your spouse would earn more. The rest is harder.
Julie: You might start by taking a personal reading of what you'll do if you are offered the position and it comes without tenure. How desperate are you and your spouse to leave soon? Are you willing to potentially risk taking a job where you might ultimately not get tenure? You need to really think about this. Many people who've gone through the tenure process once aren't willing to subject themselves to it a second time. But in your situation, coming up for tenure in the year after being hired, you could definitely expect the process to be less grueling in that it would have to be based on work you've already done, rather than work you'd be projecting to do over the next several years.
Mary: On the other hand, we recognize that your spouse's career is languishing and you may feel you need to get out soon. How the two of you weigh all of the factors involved in your separate careers and your relationship is the most complex part of the decision. It may also involve some discussion of whether, in the worst-case scenario, one of you is prepared and/or willing to leave the academic track for a career that imposes fewer geographical limitations. Your feelings about these issues will probably change as you move through the search process, so it's important to keep talking. You might even want to bring a third party into some of the discussions between you and your partner to help you maintain an objective perspective on the decision.
Julie: To take your easiest question first, yes, if the only reason you would move is to find a good position for your spouse, it makes sense to let the hiring committee know about that before receiving an offer. However, I wouldn't necessarily bring it up so early that you preclude the possibility of an interview. If you have tenure, you probably haven't had a job interview in awhile, and it would be a good opportunity to hear yourself articulating your current goals and strengths. You didn't say whether you and your spouse would be in the same department. If not, bear in mind that the committee members in the department that would hire you are limited in their power to get a job for him elsewhere. They may be willing to try, but they would probably be unable to offer any guarantees. I'd be inclined to accept the offer of an interview, and when you're asked at the end of your visit if you have any questions, mention your spouse's career.
Mary: The reason I wouldn't bring this up before the interview is that it's unlikely any department would make a commitment regarding a second person before it had made an offer to a first. With luck, the interview will involve an exchange of ideas that is worthwhile for both you and the hiring committee. So why not go, see how you feel about each other, and raise your spouse's situation as one of the factors you'd weigh in making a decision. It really is only one factor, because you probably wouldn't accept the position if, during the interview, you learned something about the department that you considered unacceptable.
Julie: If you interview for positions at the assistant level, some discussion of the possibility of tenure will probably be part of the interview. The hiring committee will want to know why the position at the lower level is attractive to you. How much you reveal about your personal reasons for the move, and at what point you decide to do so, will be up to you. In many cases, whatever you say, the hiring committee will tend to think that something beyond strictly professional considerations is driving the move. For your part, ask about the possibilities of tenure and the timetable for it. However, reserve your most probing questions on this topic until someone offers you a job.
Mary: If you accept a position with the understanding that you will be considered for tenure much earlier than usual, be sure you get it in writing. If possible, get the dean's approval as well. That could be tricky as you don't want to undermine the department chair's authority, but if that person isn't the department chair in a year or two, it's important that someone else with authority was involved in approving this.
Julie: Unfortunately, all you can do is to try to minimize the degree of risk you face of not getting tenure. You might find it helpful to read about the tenure policies of the hiring institution. Many colleges and universities post their faculty handbooks on their Web sites; the tenure procedures are detailed in those handbooks. You can ask about the number of candidates the department has put up for tenure in recent years and how many of them actually won tenure. You can ask how many people in recent years came up for tenure one year after they were hired and how they fared. You can ask about the department's budget prospects for the next few years. You can ask to see the institution's written policy on tenure and timetables. The answers to those questions should help you assess the probabilities, but that's all they can do.
Mary: If you've decided that you will not accept the new job without tenure, then you have nothing to lose by proceeding to the point of an offer, at which time the institution may be sold on attracting you to the department. Then you could let it be known that you would have to decline the job if the position was untenured. Needless to say, this should not be done as a threat but only if it really is the case.
Julie: But perhaps you've learned in the interview process that there is simply no way the institution will hire with tenure. So, let's say you're offered the job and you decide to accept the offer and move. Your spouse finds a terrific position, you do a great job in your new post, and you get tenure. End of story. But what if that doesn't happen? One scenario is you both move for your new position but at least one of you doesn't achieve tenure and needs to seek an alternative. Another scenario is that your spouse decides to stop applying for academic positions and look elsewhere.
Mary: There's no avoiding the fact that your decision in this situation comes with no assured outcomes for either of you. We have to say that, of all the questions people ask us, this is one of the most difficult, because finding two good academic positions in the same place involves so many factors that candidates simply do not control.
Whatever the outcome, stay flexible, and congratulate yourselves on having made the smartest, most thoughtful decision that you could.