The two-body academic job search

James Davis
May 1, 2020 · 9 min read

My wife Kirsten Davis and I just finished up a two-person academic job search. We were successful!

The (Professors and) Doctors Davis

This essay shares our experiences solving the dreaded “two-body problem”. I hope that it helps another couple in the future.

One note before we begin: My wife studies Engineering Education, and I study Computer Science. The job market in 2020 was pretty good for both of these fields, with a “large” number of openings relative to applicants. This afforded us some luxuries that may not be available to couples in other disciplines.

The two-body problem

My wife Kirsten Davis and I were both interested in tenure-track jobs.

As good scientists, first we laid out our constraints, then we found potential jobs, filed applications, and finally went through the interview and negotiation processes.

Many aspects of our searches were similar to a one-person search, which others (e.g. Wes Weimer and friends) have written about at length. I’ll try to highlight the differences we encountered.

Planning ahead

Your chances of finding dual positions are higher if you apply in the same season, rather than having one of you try to get a job at a single institution the year after the other one had accepted a position there. By applying in the same season, more institutions can satisfy your search. If you apply in separate seasons, you limit yourself geographically (i.e. near where your partner works!) for the other half.

With this in mind, two years ahead of time, my wife and I aligned our graduation dates to the same semester. My wife could have graduated the previous year, so she decided to acquire an extra Master’s degree and took a few more classes to wait for me.

Constraints

Every job search has constraints — climate, geography, money, type of job, etc. Here are the factors we considered.

  • Job types: This is perhaps the most critical decision if you and your partner are working on a two-body problem. We were both interested in tenure-track positions, preferably at research-intensive institutions. We decided that this was a requirement for her, but that I would be open to teaching positions or jobs in industry.
  • Same school? We considered limiting our search only to the same institution (this would make family life easier, e.g. one academic calendar, one benefits plan). But we decided that this was not a strict requirement for us, and that we would first try for ANY pair of geo-located jobs before worrying about whether they were at the same institution.
  • Same place? Some couples are willing to live apart if they receive tenure-track job offers from institutions in different places. We decided that we were not willing to do this. Since I am happier in a wider range of job types than my wife is, we decided that if she got an offer she liked then she would be able to accept it, regardless of whether I had one.
  • Climate: My wife and I are from the northern USA and we love the four seasons and snow. We decided this was a critical constraint, and we chose to apply only to institutions where it snows.
  • City size: We also grew up and went to school in towns (< 50K residents). We really enjoy the small-town lifestyle. We decided that this was not a critical constraint, and applied to institutions in a mix of towns and cities.
  • Nearnesss to family: We decided that living near family was valuable but not critical. But we didn’t want to end up too far from our ancestral homes (see next constraint).
  • Country: We decided that we were open to moving to another nearby country if we could find a good set of job options there. This decision allowed us to apply to institutions in Canada as well (still not too far from family).

I think it was helpful to talk through these constraints together before we submitted job applications. Setting our expectations appropriately for the potential outcomes of the job search was really helpful when it came time to make our decisions. It’s hard to think logically under pressure (e.g. when you have an attractive offer with a deadline), and we found it helpful to have talked through these possibilities far ahead of time. This is, I suppose, yet another realization of the adage that “Communication is key to a healthy relationship.”

As I noted at the beginning, some of our decisions in these constraints were tied to the relatively large number of available positions — and institutions with potential positions for both of us! — in our respective fields. If you or your partner work in specialized fields, you may wish to apply more widely. In this case, think carefully about which constraints are truly critical for you and your partner.

Finding openings

We decided to pursue two tenure-track positions first. Depending on the outcome, I might have considered looking for industry jobs nearby. But since industry positions have a faster turnaround time, we deferred this question until later.

We looked for jobs via:

  • Job clearinghouses like InsideHigherEd and HigherEdJobs. Both offer automated search agents, which we found helpful.
  • Word-of-mouth through well-informed figures in our fields, e.g. networking at conferences
  • Direct visits to websites — some institutions only advertise a job by posting it on their website.

My wife’s field (Engineering Education), has fewer openings than mine (Computer Science). So right at the beginning, we were able to reduce the number of possible geographic locations to around 10. She applied to those institutions, and I applied to them as well as to nearby institutions.

She submitted 8 applications, and I submitted 15. We felt that this was a reasonable number, since we were able to tailor our application packages carefully to each position. (Some people apply to 50+ openings, but the experience of my graduating PhD cohort was that 10–20 tailored applications still yielded several job offers per person. This is perhaps a luxury of working in fields that are growth areas for universities.)

Interviews and offers

We were both fairly successful at obtaining first and second-round interviews and offers. Of course, to improve each other’s chances, we wanted to make sure the institution knew that it would be easier to accept an offer if both partners had a position.

Search committees usually give room for you to bring up your partner’s job search, typically at the end of the phone interview (“Is there anything we should know about that might keep you from accepting a job here?”) or during a meeting with the search chair or the department chair during an on-site interview.

In our experience, the sooner we notified them, the better!

  • Several chairs and deans were grateful about how early in the process we notified them, because this gave them plenty of time to work on a solution. This was true at institutions large and small.
  • Several chairs and deans also recalled times when candidates had not told them until after an offer had been issued to one partner, and said that those were much harder to resolve. This may be because one department can lend support to your partner’s application — but only if they know about it early enough that the partner’s position isn’t already filled.

However, the “sooner is better” approach might vary from discipline to discipline. As I noted above, we are both in STEM fields, and the experience may be different in different disciplines. If you’re unsure, ask your department chair for advice.

At any rate, universities are used to dealing with two-body problems. Tons of professors are married to each other. You won’t shock the committee by telling them about it, and I don’t think it will torpedo your application.

In some cases, after one of us was offered a position, the institution was able to short-list the other one for the position they applied to. In effect, the partner was able to “jump the line”.

In other cases, one of us was offered a position but the institution could not come up with a satisfactory offer for the other.

Even if you or your partner can “jump the line” through a dual-career position, a department will only hire a TT faculty if they think they are a good fit for the position. Each partner should look like the kind of person that their department typically hires into TT roles. Don’t be discouraged by terms like “leading partner” and “trailing partner” — if you get a TT job offer, you earned it.

The situation is a bit different if you are open to a non-TT position. For administrative/support positions, my impression was that unusual applicants might be considered in order to satisfy a department’s TT job search. This probably varies by institution.

In the end

We ended up with multiple solutions to our two-body problem, which was fantastic. Since we had constrained our initial search pretty carefully, we knew that we would be happy to accept any two-body-satisfying offers we received. We were delighted to have any solution, and having multiple solutions made choosing pretty tricky.

Misc. advice

So this wraps up my two-body-specific experience.

I also want to add some general advice about the job search.

If you receive an invitation to interview, either over the phone or on-site…CONGRATULATIONS! The search committee looked at 100+ applications and you’re in the top 5–20%. That’s an amazing achievement.

Now they’d like to interview you. In my opinion, the department wants to know if you are:

  • Ready: Do you sound like you are nearly a professor? Are you an independent thinker? Can you communicate effectively? Can you collaborate with others in the department (or even throughout the broader institution)?
  • Thoughtful: Have you been thoughtful in your future plans for research and teaching?
  • Interested in them: Do you know their curriculum, philosophy, and research specialties? Are you excited about working there or is it just your back-up option?
  • Collegial: Do you seem like the kind of person they want to spend 30 years going to faculty meetings with, co-teaching classes with, and co-authoring grants with?

But here’s something they don’t want to know: They are NOT checking if your scholarly work is legitimate. You are not an impostor — they are interviewing you, therefore you are qualified. Remember, they only interview the most promising candidates from a pool of 100+ applicants. They used your CV to check your scholarly qualifications, and now they want to know more about you and your vision.

Virtual on-site interviews

During the 2019–2020 job season, COVID-19 caused many institutions to explore virtual interviews. They may remain common in the 2020–2021 season for health reasons, and if institutions think they work well then they may continue to use them in the future.

In some ways virtual interviews were similar to on-sites, and in others they were worse.

The one-on-one meetings with faculty were fairly similar either in person or virtually. These are conversations, not office tours, so they didn’t feel too different.

  • The “job talk”: I found the experience of giving a job talk quite different when done virtually. I enjoy teaching and lecturing, and typically try to (a) engage my audience, and (b) read their faces to gauge interest level. I did intersperse Google Forms into my talk to have rudimentary engagement, but the audience was un-readable. This is made complicated by the inconsistency in folks’s Internet; sometimes the meeting software can’t handle tons of video feeds, and other times your Internet or their Internet will become unstable and affect the talk quality.
  • No meals with faculty: Most on-sites involve multiple meals with current faculty. These are a great time to get a sense of the culture of the department. None of my virtual on-sites attempted to replicate these remotely, nor am I sure it would be possible.
  • No facilities tour: It’s harder to see yourself as a faculty member if you cannot visualize the offices, the buildings, and the campus. Also, facilities tours often prompt me to ask lots of questions about equipment, space for students, etc. I had to follow up on many of these questions after the interview.

Based on my experience, I hope that institutions do not adopt virtual on-sites as a standard practice. The financial savings are paltry compared to the overall cost of the hiring process and the start-up package for new faculty, and I think there are serious downsides from the candidate’s perspective. If I had the choice between two equally compelling offers on paper, and had enjoyed a physical on-site at one of them, that might be a deciding factor.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Join The Startup’s +788K followers.

Sign up for Top 10 Stories

By The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Subscribe to receive The Startup's top 10 most read stories — delivered straight into your inbox, once a week. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +788K followers.

James Davis

Written by

I am a professor in ECE@Purdue. I hold a PhD in computer science from Virginia Tech. I try to summarize my research findings in practitioner-friendly ways.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +788K followers.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store