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Getting dual career academics off to a good start (essay)

Dual-Career Academics: The Right Start
July 27, 2012

Dual-career hires are ever more common in academe.  At my own university, for example, about two-thirds of all tenure-stream hires involve assisting a partner with finding local employment.  In some cases, the partner is also offered a tenure-stream position either at the same time or a few years later.  As a dean, I have been involved in many dual-career hires (of the first partner, the second partner, or both), so I am familiar with the logistics of arranging for a second tenure-stream position.

At the same time, I am also a member of a dual-career academic couple and have compared experiences, over the years, with many friends and colleagues, at a variety of institutions and at different levels of seniority, about their experiences as dual-career academics.

Gaining a tenure-stream position for the second partner can never be taken for granted.  Some institutions tend to offer only temporary positions, for example, and others may not offer any assistance at all in cases involving a same-sex couple or unmarried partners.

Even when the second partner is offered a tenure-stream position, the pattern that emerges is unexpectedly complex.  In many ways, the first partner hired has an experience comparable to that of someone hired without having a partner employed at the institution.  The second partner’s experience can be quite different, however, and may not be nearly as positive. 

This may initially seem surprising: after all, a tenure-stream job for the second partner avoids the obvious pitfalls of temporary positions (lower status, less compensation, higher workload, fewer benefits, no clear path for advancement) and potentially offers long-term security for both members of the couple.  Nonetheless, the situation of the second partner to be hired in a tenure-stream position can include some unique challenges that are best addressed up front.

In this article, I discuss issues that the second partner, the department leader and other faculty may encounter as the second partner begins a tenure-stream position and suggest measures they can all take to promote a successful start.

Negotiation

The first step in beginning a new position comes in the negotiation period between receiving and accepting the job offer.  The candidate and an administrator discuss the nature of the position (e.g., salary, rank, teaching responsibilities, research expectations, service obligations) and compile a list of resources that will be provided to ease the candidate’s transition to the new institution (e.g., teaching release, office or lab space, start-up funds, teaching assistants, research assistants or technicians, administrative and IT support). 

For a typical hire (including the first partner of a dual-career couple), the negotiation proceeds as if the candidate and administrator are jointly assembling a tower of blocks on a tabletop.  The blocks represent the various resources and position details being negotiated; the existence of the position is the tabletop upon which the tower is built.  The height or volume of the tower conveys the investment the university is making in the long-term professional success of the candidate.

When the second partner undergoes such a negotiation (whether weeks or years later), much is the same.  But if the position was created to accommodate the second partner because of the institution’s desire to hire or retain the first partner, there is one crucial difference that both sides should bear in mind:  the existence of the second position does not constitute an independent tabletop; rather, it forms a pedestal on which the tower sits.  The tabletop is still effectively the first partner’s position – the advertised job that existed before either partner was formally a candidate at all.

As a second partner, you can use this metaphor to assess the magnitude of the institution’s commitment to your career.  It may be tempting to ignore the pedestal, in which case the tower may seem smaller than you had hoped.  But if your position was created especially for this situation, ignoring that fact would understate the offer.  While you should not settle for an offer that cannot support the start of a successful faculty career, you should appreciate that negotiation involves compromise and that you have already gained a key point, namely the position itself.

If you are an administrator, use the metaphor to check your negotiating stance.  The tower’s purpose is to ensure the long-term success of this new faculty member.  If the tower is insufficient to the task, the investment in building it will be wasted.  Examine the tower both with its pedestal, to assess whether the total is affordable and without, to assess whether the start-up resources are sufficient to help initiate a tenure-stream career.  In doing so, bear in mind that while the pedestal represents a long-term commitment of a salary and faculty line, most of the tower may involve only short-term funds or in-kind resources that are somewhat easier to find.

Encountering Assumptions

None of us likes to think that bias, even of the unconscious variety, exists in our departments or may affect our careers.  But it is essential for a newly hired second partner, their department chair and other faculty to be aware that second partners commonly encounter negative assumptions about their competence from the time they arrive. 

A typical hire is something that a department has prepared for at length and according to a familiar rhythm: asking to search, reading folders and conducting multiple campus interviews.  By the time an offer is tendered, department members have had numerous opportunities to review the new hire’s credentials, hear the person give a talk, and even speak one-on-one.   In contrast, a partner’s hire is often conducted more rapidly and with fewer opportunities for interaction with department members. 

In consequence, when the second partner starts his or her job, there may be fewer members of the department than usual who are aware that the hire has happened, let alone who are aware of academic interests they may have in common. 

Moreover, in the words of Carl Sagan, people often forget that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”  When lacking information, we tend to unconsciously fill the gaps with assumptions.  In this case, the usual assumption is that the second partner must not be as qualified as a typical hire (including the first partner).  This  echoes the unwarranted suspicions commonly held about the competence of anyone belonging to a group that is underrepresented in a department, based on personal characteristics such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.   

Even when members of an opposite-sex couple are hired into units where their gender, race, and ethnicity place them in the majority, gender-related assumptions often surface.  If the first partner is a man and the second partner is a woman, some people perceive the second partner’s behavior as conforming to gender role expectations by apparently subordinating her career to his.  They may assume that the second partner’s professional life will also follow “feminine” stereotypes: that she will be less dedicated to her career than her male partner and less interested in research than her male colleagues.  If the first partner is a woman and the second partner is a man, people may see his behavior as defying expectations, conclude that his professional life will also be gender nonconforming, and apply the same “feminine” stereotypes to him.  

If the second partner is also a member of an underrepresented group within the department, it becomes even more likely that he or she will encounter negative assumptions about competence or fit.

Entering the department

Given that department members may know less (and assume more) about the second partner, what steps can be taken to start off the new person on the best possible footing?  The individual, the department chair and the faculty can each make important contributions.

The Second Partner

The second partner should actively and professionally make his or her accomplishments visible so that people will replace any unconscious assumptions about lower qualifications with data about excellent accomplishments.

If you are a second partner, make an extra effort to get to know your new colleagues as individuals. Scour the departmental website to identify potential collaborators and arrange to meet them.  Before the meeting, e-mail the person a copy of your C.V. with publications or accomplishments that suggest overlapping interests highlighted.  During the meeting, ask the other person about his or her work and explore possibilities for collaboration on teaching or research.  Then ask for advice about who else you should meet.

At the same time, engage with your new department as an entity.  Ask about departmental traditions and culture, attend speaker series and social events, and seek out opportunities where your expertise will be helpful.  All of this does call for extra effort on your part – but the potential payoff in visibility and connections is enormous.

Additionally, find colleagues in your department or elsewhere who can provide supportive, constructive feedback about your work.  The first years of a faculty appointment are challenging for anyone and it is especially important to maintain perspective on your abilities and progress if you do encounter bias.

The Chair

The department chair has a very direct stake in the success of the second partner.  On the one hand, unit productivity is likely measured “per tenure-stream faculty member” so every person’s accomplishments count.  On the other hand, facilitating a successful partner hire indicates that a unit (and its leader) can see past easy assumptions and handle challenging situations. 

What can you do as chair to facilitate the new person’s success?  Most action items are the same as for any newcomer: introduce him to faculty who can help him learn the ropes and be productive in a new environment.  If she has interdisciplinary interests, ask other department heads or center directors to suggest valuable contacts in their units.  Tell him that he should feel free to bring you questions – and answer promptly if he does.   Ask her to come meet with you after a few months to let you know how things are going.

A less obvious action item is to set a clear public example from the start by always referring to this person as an individual and by name.  Praise her for her own merits.  Show that you value his accomplishments.  This is especially important when both partners are appointed in the same department.  If you, as chair, continually refer to a faculty member as “so-and-so’s partner” or link every mention of that person’s name to the unit’s desire to retain the first partner, it directly undermines the second partner’s professional credibility.

The Faculty

The departmental faculty members have a large role to play in the successful launch of the second partner’s career at the new institution.  They also have a professional stake in the outcome: if this person is doing well by local metrics (e.g., teaching well, getting grants, publishing papers) the department benefits; if his or her productivity stalls, the department’s reputation will suffer.

What can you do as a faculty member?  Reach out to the. newcomer and make her feel welcome.  Ask to see his C.V. and send him a copy of yours with accomplishments of potentially mutual interest highlighted.  Take her to coffee a few times and answer questions about campus life.  Help him start off in the classroom by walking him through the course management system, sharing syllabuses, discussing the curriculum, and introducing him to the librarian or educational technologist. Help her as a scholar by telling her about special research facilities, archives, or collections on campus, by giving a tour of your lab and asking to see hers, or introducing her to the purchasing and institutional review board procedures.  Tell him what you wish someone had taken the time to tell you. 

In a similar vein, help others in the department get to know the newcomer.   Introduce him to colleagues who have common interests or are simply likely to be welcoming.  Bring her along to brown-bag lunches or coffee breaks to integrate her into departmental social traditions.  Sit with him at faculty meetings or colloquiums and engage him in conversation with others sitting nearby.

Above all, do your best to forget that this person is a “second partner.”  Think of him or her purely as a new colleague with unique accomplishments and skills that can improve the department.   Your taking this approach will encourage others to do likewise and help this new hire flourish.

Bio

Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of Lyman Briggs College and professor of physics and astronomy at Michigan State University.

 

 

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