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Essay on what it's like to be a spousal hire in a faculty job

Spousal Hire Realities

June 4, 2014

As a grad student, I never gave a moment of thought to being a spousal hire. Like so many grad students in top-20 departments, especially pre-recession, I thought that I had somehow earned an offer of a tenure-track position somewhere with a 2-2 courseload because I had been a good student, graduate assistant, and department citizen. I had done everything that I was told to, checking off just about every box on a grad student’s to do list: collaborate with faculty – check, teach – check, present at my disciplinary society meeting – check, publish a sole-authored, peer-reviewed piece – check, win a teaching and/or paper award – check and check, forge network connections – check. I realized at the time that I wasn’t going to be a superstar but, whether it stemmed from naivete or optimism, I was certain that I would get a job – and a good one – on my own merit.

Sure enough, I got a job – and a good one – but I’ll never know if it was on my own merit and I’m not sure it really matters. Regardless of how things really went down, I am married to one of those superstars and, as long as we are in the same department, there are people, including me, who perceive me as a spousal hire.

People have written posts about how to land (and negotiate)  these elusive spousal hires. What I haven’t seen as much discussion of is what comes next. What is life like once you’re lucky enough to get a position with your partner? I can tell you what it was like for me.

  • My partner and I are constantly considered in tandem. She is less productive than he is. He’s the leading spouse, she’s the trailing one. If we want to hire him, we’d have to find a place for her. My partner, on the other hand, as the superstar, benefits from an autonomous professional identity that I seldom experience.
  • I notice inequity. Regardless of whether it is attributable to my position as a spousal hire, many injustices are perceived as directly related to that position. Even though I was hired with a 2-2 load, I taught five days a week my first semester (a T/R class and a M/W/F class). It was supposedly a mix-up by the office staff. Even if it wasn’t intentional, it felt unfair and I assumed that if a department rockstar had suffered a similar mishap, something would have been done to address it.
  • Inequity begets inequality. Although course releases were relatively standard in my department, I didn’t get any (and, yes, I did ask for them). This was just one permutation of The Matthew Effect, helping widen the gap between my productivity and that of my colleagues’.
  • People take me less seriously. Even worse, when people treated me as if I was incompetent, I began to feel incompetent. Although colleagues generally know better, I have found that grad students are particularly attune to status differences and susceptible to status assumptions and expectations.
  • Impostorism sets in. I am plagued with a nagging sense that I am not really worthy of my position. I fear that at some point in the very near future someone will expose me for the fraud that I really am, they will say out loud that I could not have gotten the job without my spouse and that I took the job from someone more qualified. Because there is a negative stereotype associated with partner hires, targets of opportunity, and spousal accommodations something akin to stereotype threat kicks in, perhaps influencing my actual performance. I overprepare and overanalyze to ensure I don’t do anything to live down to the stereotype or to reveal myself as the impostor that I might be.
  • I try to make up for (perceived) inferiority. One of my friends from grad school was also a spousal hire. His response was to absolutely kick ass on research and prove that he might officially be a spousal hire, but that he was at his institution because he wanted to be and deserved to be, not because he had to be. My own response was more damaging – and perhaps gendered. I became the ultimate department (and university) citizen. I taught larger and larger classes. I volunteered for everything that no one else wanted to do. I showed up for every faculty meeting, every advising night, and just about every other department event. This not only negatively affected my productivity, but also affected my self-perception. As my identity became increasingly wrapped up in teaching and service, I felt more and more distanced from my research so didn’t devote as much attention to it. This simply exacerbated any inequity and inequality linked to productivity.
  • Even worse, I bought into that inferiority. For a long time after getting hired, I did the bulk of the household labor. I stayed home when the kid was sick, was on homework duty, planted and weeded the flower beds, shopped, planned meals, and cooked. It didn’t matter that I had the exact same job title as my partner or that our tenure expectations were the same. I convinced myself that he needed the time to work and that my work was less important. Being a spousal hire became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In many ways I had a more balanced life than my partner did, but I was making tenure a more elusive goal.   

So what can you do? How can you avoid the painful letdown that might emerge after the initial excitement of landing a position that allows you to live with your partner?

I wish I had a cure. I wish that I could tell you to just get over it. I wish that I could say that departments could do something by emphasizing that you are a valued member of the faculty, that they do not see you as a spousal hire, but my own department did this and it didn’t work. In fact, the above was my experience even though I had my own offer from my institution. My offer was not contingent on my partner accepting his. It came with no strings attached. From the moment I was called for an interview, the party line was that they wanted me too. Sure, my partner had interviews at most of the top programs in our field that year, but I also had both attributes this university was looking for: teaching experience and accolades and an interesting research program.

Yet simply being part of an academic couple – and with a growing understanding of how the academic world worked – I had a nagging feeling that the party line wasn’t the entire story. That nagging feeling was bad enough. I imagine that it is only worse for people who have full information, whose offers are contingent, who are not just assumed to be the spousal hire, but who have evidence of it.

I think that it is useful to think of being a spousal hire as similar to having another stigmatized identity (although localized, as everyone outside of academe just thinks it’s cool and/or normal that my partner and I work in the same place). Yes, being at the same institution as one’s partner is an undeniable privilege – and many discussions before this one have alluded to just how elusive and extraordinary it is – but it is also time to acknowledge that the experience of it can mirror that of other academics who are members of stigmatized groups. It could potentially help someone land a position, but the self-doubt and other disadvantages that might come with it do little to help them keep it.

As long as we continue to think about leading and trailing spouses, with the latter automatically deemed unqualified, we lose sight of individuals and their merits. I love my department and colleagues, my students, and especially my partner, who made his own sacrifices. I didn’t write this to hurt any of them, but to help others who might suffer after the reality of what it means to be a spousal hire sets in. I guess my advice is to not be your own worst enemy. Trust in yourself, trust in your worth, and show them that if they were smart, they would have hired you regardless.

 

Bio

The author is a social scientist in a tenure-track position at a research university. This piece is adapted from a blog post at Scatterplot.

 

 

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