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Careers for the Two of You

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When Howard Hughes Medical Institute put out word that it was looking for people to move to its new Janelia Farm research campus in Virginia, Sean Eddy jumped at the offer — but only if there was a spot for his wife, computational biologist Elena Rivas. “I declared my interest in being recruited away from where I was. But then, of course, comes with the condition my wife is also a scientist so we would need to find something [for her],” Eddy says.

Both Eddy and Rivas went through HHMI’s vetting process, Eddy for a group leader position and Rivas as an independent fellow. “We had two job offers in hand when we signed on the dotted line,” Eddy says.

Such a pain-free outcome might not be the norm, but dual-scientific career couples are becoming more commonplace. Eighty percent of faculty members have spouses or partners also in the workforce, and more than a third of those have a spouse or partner also in academia. Dual-academic couples have unique challenges, but also have unique solutions to being a two-career couple. Some universities actively help applicants’ spouses or partners find a job, either at that same university or somewhere nearby. The downside is that if no positions are available, one person’s career might slide — or the people might find themselves in the dreaded commuter relationship.

The elusive goal for many dual academic career couples is landing two tenure-track positions at the same (hopefully prestigious) university. But Paul Morrison, a core lab director at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, advises against banking on getting two of those positions. “It becomes harder to land those two specific tenure-track [jobs] focused on two very specific pieces of research and, as it often happens, you can’t find those two in the same city. One person has to take a backseat,” he warns.

Morrison thinks he and his wife Sue Lovett, a professor of biology at Brandeis University, have a good arrangement. Lovett is a specialist; she studies genetic recombination in E. coli and yeast. If she were to get an offer elsewhere, Morrison could follow. “I’m more of a generalist. I would be pretty optimistic that I could get a job in that city pretty easily, if not even in the same department, because of what I do,” he says.

Some places help …

For Eddy and Rivas, their path was smooth in part because HHMI works to accommodate spouses and partners. HHMI says it welcomes applications from couples, and it helps lab heads’ spouses or partners look for employment, either at Janelia Farm or nearby. “Hughes has done a really good job of encouraging two-scientist couples to work here,” Eddy says.

Other institutions such as the University of Wisconsin, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Notre Dame , among many others, woo their academics by helping their spouse or partner to relocate as well. Notre Dame has a program to help new hires’ spouses find employment, and at Wisconsin and Minnesota, the policies expand to include life partners.

Eddy and Rivas might have found a great gig, but that didn’t come without some doubts — was Rivas one of those so-called “trailing spouses” along for the ride? “[Hughes] bent over backwards to say, ‘No, that’s not how Hughes operates. Jobs are considered straight up,’” says Eddy. Now that he’s firmly ensconced at Janelia Farm, he’s seen the job search from the other side. “We’ll help as much as we can, but we’re not going to make an offer just because there’s going to be a personal problem for the couple,” he says.

… And others don’t

Other institutions are more wary. For example, Rice University has a policy against nepotism, saying that employing family members can be problematic as it “can create a conflict of interest, an appearance of favoritism, and increased potential for a hostile work environment.”

To avoid running into one another at department meetings, couples can sometimes find positions at different institutions in the same city or within a reasonable commute, as Morrison and Lovett did. When Lovett began her search for a tenure-track position, Morrison had just started at Dana-Farber — so she looked in the Boston area. “She was lucky enough to get a good offer from Brandeis,” Morrison says. “All we did is move from Watertown to buy a house in Wayland.”

Not everyone will have the good fortune of Eddy and Rivas, or Morrison and Lovett, but there are other options for couples to avoid living in separate cities. Some institutions will consider shared or split positions where a couple jointly holds a position and divvies up the responsibilities. Critics, however, say that the institution gets away with paying one salary for two professors.

In the end, Eddy advises to be candid with the search committee about your situation. “My experience has been that the search committees will bend over backwards to make a two-body problem work — and that they can also be really helpful,” he says.

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