How We Fixed Our Dual-Career Problem

Brady Smith and Chandani Patel, both Ph.D.s, were in the same field, shared the same dissertation committee and wound up applying to most of the same jobs. They share their advice for how they have made their dual careers work.

August 17, 2017
 
 
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The two of us met when we were in graduate school. Two Ph.D. students falling in love and getting married is hardly unusual, despite the career troubles it can bring. But our situation posed some especially difficult problems.

We were in the same field, shared the same dissertation committee and wound up applying to most of the same jobs. Five years later, we’re still married, living together, raising a baby and a dog, and working in jobs that we both really enjoy.

How did we solve our two-body problem? Obviously, a lot of what follows is particular to our situation, and the positive way that things have worked out for us is due in no small part to simple luck. We share our story, however, in the hope that people in our situation might benefit from it and better consider their own. Here’s the approach we took.

We were honest about what we wanted. We both know dual-career couples who have made it work. Some endure long commutes or even lengthy periods of separation. Others have been lucky enough to find two positions at the same institution, especially in situations where careers are split between the humanities and the sciences.

But from the start, we knew that getting married meant that at least one of us would not wind up a tenure-track professor of English. In part, that acknowledgment came from the dire state of the academic job market. Statistically, only one of us would ever get an offer, and the likelihood that one offer would turn into two was astronomically low.

But the decision to prioritize staying together came from a sense that our marriage would not do well if we were living apart. It’s not that we were worried about infidelity or falling out of touch. It’s just that, in our case, we figured that our lives worked best when they worked together. We also knew that we wanted a child one day, and neither of us thought that voluntary single parenting sounded like a great idea.

Other couples in our situation may come to a different decision, especially if kids are not in the picture. The point is not that we made a better decision than other dual-career couples. It’s that we were open about what we wanted from the beginning, we set our goals together and we stayed committed to the decision that we made.

We got as much work experience as we could. The most important reason that graduate students enroll in Ph.D. programs in the humanities -- or at least the most important reason why Ph.D. programs in the humanities still exist -- is to get a job as college faculty in one’s chosen field. Anyone who bothers to enroll in a Ph.D. program should do the best they can to excel. But you should realize that getting a Ph.D. -- and being a part of a university community for five years or more -- comes with myriad opportunities to gain professional experience that will benefit you regardless of what you go on to do.

We both worked on our exams and our dissertations as hard as we could, and we each graduated in about six and a half years, which is relatively quick by the standards of literature departments. But those six and a half years were not all spent hunched over in the library typing out draft after draft of the dissertation or revising chapters into articles. In addition to our scholarly preparation, we took on jobs here and there that helped us make a bit more money and gain valuable transferable skills.

One of us, Brady, spent four years helping to run a series of interdisciplinary faculty-development seminars, a job in which he used the skills in writing and editing that he’d honed as a graduate student and through which he also gained important experience working as part of a team, developing marketing and communications materials, and dealing with the details of running a program with a budget that ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The other, Chandani, took a contract position at our teaching center that turned into a salaried part-time job running programming for graduate students, which then turned into a full-time position after she finished her Ph.D.

And a few years ago, we both became live-in residential staff members with the Office of College Housing at our university, where we got free room and board in return for managing an undergraduate community of around 100 students within our housing system. All along, we were still writing and interviewing for tenure-track jobs, but our hopes and dreams were not all caught up in the tenure track. While we worked toward the jobs for which our degrees prepared us, we also tried to lay the foundations for our lives beyond.

We considered our careers as just one part of our lives. People in the academy seem to be talking more and more about work-life balance, but not many seem to know what it really means. Sure, some institutions have begun offering paternal leave when babies are born, and others are trying to schedule more events during the day so that faculty members with young children can see them every so often. But the fact remains that, especially in the humanities, for young and aspiring academics, it’s awfully hard to feel like you can take time off.

In part, this may have to do with the fact that, for many of us, academe is not a job but a vocation -- a pursuit to which one devotes oneself not just from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day but also for the whole of one’s life. Perhaps more pointedly, however, the sense that one can never not be working also comes from the ever higher standards to which job candidates and junior faculty are held.

While some scholars just a generation or two ago got jobs on the basis of promising dissertations, and tenure on the strength of a few articles, now a polished dissertation and a published article is the bare minimum in a great deal of searches. A published book at a top press is the low bar for tenure at a lot of places, and at some institutions, you now have to have two. Not everyone has to produce this much scholarship, but at institutions where the publication demands are lower, the teaching and service demands are often extremely high.

Maybe some people can deal with all this pressure to work while maintaining balanced and healthy lives, but the longer we were in academe -- and the longer we were on the academic job market -- the more it seemed like the scholarly life was no longer the life for us. We love writing and teaching, but we also love running and hiking and travel and nights out on the town.

When we were students, those things were easy enough to do but often hard to enjoy. Academe at some point started to strangle the rest of what we enjoyed about life, obscuring what really made us happy. For Brady, it also started to make it really hard to sleep. We knew what we wanted: satisfying and reasonably remunerative careers that would still let us enjoy the things that led us to enjoy being together. And we made our choices accordingly.

We left academe. All in all, it became clear as we grew in our marriage and careers that the choice we made to marry was a choice to leave academe. Even when Chandani was offered a tenure-track job at a flagship public research institution in an attractive town in the South, the answer was pretty clear: thanks, but no, thanks. It wasn’t fully the life she wanted, and Brady would have had no opportunities there. He was on the market for four exhausting years -- all told, he had upward of 30 preliminary interviews and six campus visits and never managed an offer.

People kept telling us that, given Brady’s publications and track record, he would find a position sooner or later. But where would he find it? And what kind of job would it be? And at what cost? He could have kept going and published even more and gotten an advance contract for his book, but even if it worked, it felt like he’d be bound to a career that seemed to offer a startlingly diminished life. By then, Chandani was well into a career in teaching and learning, and Brady knew that while the academic life was increasingly exhausting, he really did enjoy teaching. He revised his CV into a résumé and asked teacher friends for help writing cover letters to independent schools. He applied to eight jobs and got an offer from the eighth one, in a major city right near where Chandani’s family lives, in the span of a little more than two weeks. Chandani found a job in the same city just a few weeks later.

What Do You Want?

To reiterate, our story is not every couple’s story. We’ve done a lot things right by the standards of graduate school: we published, we completed our degrees in a timely fashion, we prepared ourselves for careers inside and outside the academy. We also got very lucky. We were late additions to our college housing staff, the result of an unexpected promotion in the ranks. Chandani graduated right around the time our teaching center was expanding and hoping to develop new programs. And Brady unknowingly applied to an independent school that had designed its writing curriculum around part of our university’s own.

Our point is not that everyone should make the choices we did, nor that anyone still struggling with this difficult situation has done anything wrong. But in a field in which one’s career choices can seem overdetermined from the beginning, it’s important to remember that your choices are your own -- and there are more possibilities for fulfilling lives than most dissertation advisers imagine.

We decided from the beginning that fulfilling lives meant being with each other and made our decisions from there. Though the academic job market can make even the most fortunate of candidates feel hopeless and helpless, our advice to other couples who may be in our situation is to decide what your priorities are together and to create options that meet those commitments as best you can.

Bio

Chandani Patel served as assistant director at the Chicago Center for Teaching at the University of Chicago and will be assistant director of graduate programs and services at Columbia University's Center for Teaching and Learning starting in October. Brady Smith teaches at Avenues: The World School in New York City.

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