When to disclose a second body

Apr 08 2012 Published by under academia, hiring

First, just to be clear. I am not talking about when to disclose where you have buried the second body (@Bam294) or thinking about a physics problem set (@eugeneday) or conjoined twins (@BabyAttachMode). I am talking about when you should disclose that you have a partner that will also need a position when you are searching for a tenure-track job.

The other day I was having a conversation with a colleague about their recent job search. If there is one thing that can really get you worked up, it is when your junior faculty search fails. You put in all that work, spent so much time with interviews, maybe had an uncomfortable (or damn unpleasant) faculty meeting, only to end up not hiring anyone. Now, Dr. Zen claims that folks in his part of the woods don't get irritated when they have a failed search. That is not my experience. We aren't upset at a candidate that decides to go somewhere else. But it is definitely not a happy time when we don't hire someone at the end of a search. Searches can fail for any number of reasons. A common reason,  the person you want to hire has several other offers and goes somewhere else. You can then find yourself chatting with a colleague trying to figure out why the job candidate didn't pick your department. Did they have an offer from Super Prestigious Uni? Did another program spend more on a startup than us? Did their adviser tell your friend that they really wanted to leave near a corn field? This is often just idle speculation, but after you put a lot of work into a search sometimes you just wanna know. You know?

Which brings me (finally) to the point of this post. When I was chatting my colleague, they seemed to think that their search had failed because of a two-body problem. Their top candidate had an offer somewhere else that was able to also provide a nice position for their spouse. Now, I don't really know if my colleague's dept. could have found (or even tried) something for the spouse. What caught my attention was that my colleague expressed the view that they wished candidates would disclose two-body problems up front in the job search process, even in the initial application.

My gut reaction is that this is a horrible idea. But I'm just one person. I went to twitter*:

There was a general consensus that no, you should not disclose this in your application. It is not relevant to your ability to do the job, and it is none of the search committee's business. All it could do would be hurt your chances of getting an interview. Dr. Isis put it bluntly, but this view was shared by many:

But there were a couple of tweeps that raised the same argument that my colleague had:

The argument here is that, if you did disclose your two-body problem, that this would give the department more time to come up with a "solution". The corollary is that if a dept. had no chance of EVER solving a two-body problem that they know that they shouldn't bother interviewing you. Because you would never be able to join their faculty. If you interviewed it would just be a waste of everyone's time. This is bullshit on so many levels. First, as I have argued before, IMO job interviews are almost NEVER a waste of time (for the applicant). There is a lot to be gained from interviews outside of a job offer. Second, I think that it is generally not a great thing when a search committee spends a lot of time thinking about IF a given candidate will choose to join their department. It is true that at some level "recruitability" is going to be something that the committee cares about (see above about not wanting to end up with a failed search). But it is not our job, as a search committee, to decide for someone if they want to take a job on our faculty. There are lots of people that live apart from their spouse. I don't have to, thankfully, but I would be pretty pissed if I wasn't offered a job because this was not an option. Who is the search committee to make this decision for me? DrugMonkey also brought up that another problem with gating on "recruitability" or "fit" can be the exclusion of anyone that is at all "different" (read from bottom to top):

It may be that I have not sat through enough searches, but my limited experience suggests that women are more likely to have a two-body "problem" during a search. I cannot explain this (men get married, too!). I suspect that women are more up-front about the second body.

What would you tell a postdoc that was getting ready to go on the job market with a second-body problem? Would your advice be different for a man vs. woman?

For those of us that have to sit on search committees: what do you think is the best way to handle a two-body problem?



Here is what I would advise my hypothetical postdoc: Bring up the second-body the minute you have an offer, and not a second sooner. At that point, the faculty has decided they REALLY want to hire you. There is incentive to "solve" the "problem". Instead of just avoid it.




*thanks to all the tweeps that jumped into the conversation!

36 responses so far

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    Solving two body problems isn't a search committee problem, because search committees typically don't negotiate with candidates.

    The best solution for the institution to have a clear spousal accommodation policy that they have out in the open, in the handbook of operating procedures. But I've never had the chance to investigate places with such a policy.

    • gerty-z says:

      Zen, of course this is technically true. However, I worry that a search committee that doesn't want a Failed Search might try to avoid situations that would make recruiting a candidate harder. The best solution that you propose would be great, but I have not ever heard of such a situation.

      • MZ says:

        I used to be the Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Equity and Diversity and Zen's suggestion is exactly what I did. I had a brochure on our Career Partners Program that was supposed to be given to all candidates when they interviewed. This makes the whole thing so much simpler because no one is second-guessing anyone else. If a candidate wanted to meet with me (and a lot of them did, not just because of spousal stuff but for all kinds of reasons), I could explain the options without involving the department at that stage.

  • Here is what I would advise my hypothetical postdoc: Bring up the second-body the minute you have an offer, and not a second sooner. At that point, the faculty has decided they REALLY want to hire you. There is incentive to "solve" the "problem". Instead of just avoid it.

    Exactly correct.

  • Pascale says:

    I ended up bringing it up during my first visit for all of my job changes because it was a major limitation. As we are both MDs and my spouse was more clinically oriented, we did not think it would be that hard. But it was. Two of the 3 positions we looked at out of fellowship did not have anything suitable for him. Of course, I was also pregnant at that time with another kid at home, so denying a significant other was impractical.
    The other times (once we me as primary recruit and once with my husband in that position) we were both up front about the other "body." When you are contemplating jumping to another institution because the "grass may be greener" rather than having to find employment (finishing training or position ending) it makes sense to be more up front before anyone on either side of the process gets too far along.
    My advice to scientist trainees would be not to volunteer anything before or at the first visit (although this gets more difficult if one is obviously preggers). If it looks like both you and the institution are agreeable, then tell them that your SO will have to find employment at the "second interview" point in the process.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    So glad that you posted this! It's hard to parse through the complexity of this in 140 characters...

    At my U, some search committee members get irritated when people don't bring up the 2 body problem outright. (Some people see this as not being committed to their fam--I tend to view it as the candidate being rightfully scared shitless about losing a job opp because of full disclosure.) This relates to a lot of what @drugmonkeyblog was saying-in that there is this perception that 'we' can't help a person with a 2 body problem....but I believe 100% that my division's stance on this issue is the exception to the rule.

    HOWEVER, it's important that when you give the advice to not bring up the 2nd body until an offer is given that it comes with an asterisk...if it is CLEAR (ie most people have spouses, pictures of kids in the office, TALK about their families during an interview) that the department in which you are interviewing is fam friendly and don't expect you be a devote nun/monk prior to entry, then it *might* be appropriate to float out that second body....

    We HATE it when a search fails. Particularly if the search fails because of #failedsearchproofing

    • gerty-z says:

      I think, as a candidate, it is impossible to really know how family-friendly a place is from conversations at the interview. How can you distinguish those happy departments like yours from places that are trying to figure out if you are going to be "hard to recruit". That is why I think you should float the second body only when you get notice of an offer.

      • DrLizzyMoore says:

        Very True. Even if you have search committee members get into a kerfuffle about not being disclosed to, there will be an equal (or more) committee members that wouldn't think twice about it....and honestly, if your science kicks ass and your going to be a kick ass colleague, who gives a flying flip about who disclosed what when....

        PLUS, as a search committee member whose worried about #failedsearchproofing, how hard is it to drop a couple of *real-life-in-department-examples* about solutions to previous two body problems, without asking any probing or invasive first interview questions?

  • Namnezia says:

    Don't get me going about failed searches and 2-body problems...

  • DJMH says:

    My PI told me that when he was a postdoc applying for jobs, he was routinely asked point-blank about spousal needs during the first interview, despite the supposed rules against this. So a corollary to gerty-z's question, given that most people seem to think it's best to wait until offer in hand, is: what do you do if you're asked long before that stage?

    • Zen Faulkes says:

      Some people will feel comfortable volunteering the information (e.g., Pascale's case above), then it's not that big a deal.

      If you don't want to give that information, it's much tougher. Maybe you can tease out the rationale for asking: "Why do you ask?" Maybe you can gently remind the questioner that you'd like to talk about the particulars of your job.

      You always get crappy situations when people don't follow rules.

    • drugmonkey says:

      "it is premature to get into 'whatifs' until and unless I have been offered the job, don't you think?"


      oh, and Namnezia, by all means, get going!

      • DJMH says:

        Don't you think that deflecting the question makes it pretty obvious you have a 2-body issue? At which point they know to call up a colleague and figure it out...Not that I think there's a better response, just that it doesn't bode well.

    • gerty-z says:

      I think this is a hard situation. I didn't have to find a position for my partner, so it was easy for me to answer these questions. I have, unfortunately, been in conversations with candidates where someone would ask an inappropriate question like this. If the candidate didn't want to answer, they would find a way to blow it off. There are ways to do this that don't seem evasive and yet provide no info. DM's comment is one way that is effective.

  • [...] Gerty-Z has a post up on the second-body problem in academia. Comments closed on this post, get your butt over there and play. [...]

  • Bashir says:

    I agree with your advice 111%.

  • neurowoman says:

    This is the advice I've always gotten, but I'm not sure it's optimal. I've been on numerous TT job interviews (yet to be offered, probably for reasons unrelated to 2-body problem, but who knows) and every search there were committee members just dying to know the spousal deal, and annoyed they can't ask, asked in a sideways approach, or just outright asked. Or knew already via social connections, then asked informally outside of official interview. (Was quizzed once by the chair's wife while we were sightseeing post-formal-interview.)

    What I'd like to know, is if you know you will need a spousal placement, let's say a real TT and possibly tenured/associate position (say your spouse is more senior than you), doesn't the department need time to figure out how to accomodate that? You're interviewing in March/April, they want to make an offer by end of May, isn't it late to be drumming up what is essentially another line? Is it different if that line has to be in the same or different department or even college? Involves deans, maybe provosts, and department heads unrelated to the search at hand. Time, horse-trading, money shuffling, promises...

    It's very difficult to say during the interview, "none of your business" (which makes me feel really shifty), then turn around post-offer and say "now that I've got you where I want you, please hire my spouse?" I feel like people who offer this advice have never had to live up to it, and say it because in their observation spousal issues might tank a first-pass hiring filter by the search committee.

    I just personally feel more comfortable writing in the original application, here I am, I'm great, I have a spouse, he's great, I'm really really serious, I'll send along his materials, we work on related but complementary stuff (hint: wouldn't it be great to have us both). The one time I did this I was short-listed (but search was canceled by recession).

  • zb says:

    Although you're not allowed to ask about spouses/pregnancy plans/ailing mothers/children/etc, you are allowed to ask whether there is anything that would limit your ability to perform the job. This question can certainly be deflected, but if it were true that you wouldn't take the job unless your spouse was offered one, and that offer would have to come from the university, I think that one might consider disclosing. But, if one of the options out there, however unlikely and vague, is that your spouse wouldn't need an offer (you're willing to move without one, spouse will stay away, you'd divorce your spouse for the job, . . . .), you have no obligation to disclose.

    That's what I say about pregnancies, too. A pregnancy does not have a 100% chance of resulting in any particular outcome. Given that, I don't think you have an obligation to disclose the possibility that you might have a child and take maternity leave, when asked whether, for example, anything would prevent you from meeting a particular deadline. You might want to, but I don't believe you have a moral obligation to.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    When I've been on search committees, not only was it made clear that we were not to ask about significant others, kids & etc. during interviews, but when the committee met to discuss the candidates and some one started to bring up these questions the chair quickly pointed out that these issues were not to be discussed in deciding whether to make an offer.

  • ecologist says:

    In my experience with searches, search committees NEVER make decisions about who gets a job offer. They do have a big (but not complete) influence over who gets invited to interview. And no one on any search committee that I have ever been on would be allowed to talk for even a minute about spousal/partner/family situations as an issue in deciding who to invite. Our job on a search committee is to figure out the best candidates and then do our best to hire one of them. The eventual recommendation about who to offer a position to is made by the whole department, after interviews and lots (lots and lots) of discussion and debate, followed by a decision made by the administration.

    The way I see the issue from an applicant's perspective is this: you certainly have the right to decide, in advance, that there are some factors that are non-negotiable in your situation. Maybe you would not even consider an offer if the department couldn't make available a brand-new GinormousScienceMachine of some sort. If so, you could decide to tell them that up front. But it would be your decision. Same thing with (as in Pascale's case above) a spousal position, if you know in advance that it's a must-have and you want to let that be known.

    But it's your choice. There are also a host of things that you would negotiate after an offer. Salary. Startup funds. Space. How flexible you are about these is completely up to you, and it won't be negotiated with a search committee, but with someone at the department chair or dean level with a strong interest in getting you to accept the offer. It would certainly be appropriate to put spousal employment, with all its possible permutations, into the category of "waiting for an offer to negotiate".

  • Ewan says:

    There was no way that I would have been able to not discuss family stuff without killing my ability to come across as human, so I didn't try. What I *did* do was make sure that I had a couple of potential employment options for my wife scoped out for each place that I could mention (in an enthusiastic way) to convey that it would not be an issue; on the contrary, I was able to spin it as 'well, obviously I am looking at several places but you're one of our top options because of X.' This also benefitted from being completely true :). We chose my TT position at least as much on the basis of a compatible (nonacademic) position for her as on the basis of my job; might have been the same decision anyway but probably not.

  • leigh says:

    this is not only an issue when both bodies are seeking TT positions or when both parties would be looking for jobs at the same employer. i have been asked point-blank about a spouse/significant other on multiple interviews (none for TT positions, but still critical steps influencing my career progression). it's not so bad to gently redirect the conversation on the phone, but in person when your wedding ring is being awkwardly stared at?

    regardless of whether there are negotiations for a possible spousal hire around the corner, it seems people will want to know if your partner will find a job/want to stick around for a while. (it can be an issue, i've experienced it firsthand.) so thinking in general, i have to wonder if this issue is more prevalent in smaller cities with narrower job markets/fewer job prospects for a possible spouse, compared to larger metro areas where there are presumably more and more varied jobs available.

  • GMP says:

    At every interview I was asked at least once about the two-body problem and I said what my husband was looking for. When you are asked, it's actually worse to try to no answer than to answer. Besides, I would not have come to a place where it was not possible for my husband to get a job, and I expected that my university would help get him a job. If you want the university to help with spousal placement, of course you have to let people know. However, I would not put it in the application. That's something that should come up during the interview. Waiting to get an offer is too late, because it takes a long time to work things out for the secondary hire.

    • Namnezia says:

      I agree with GMP. It does help if it is brought up during the interview. We've had cases where the candidate didn't accept the position because they told us about the "other body" way late in the game after the offer was made and it gave us very little time to get another position approved. If they had told us before, they would still have gotten an offer and our chances of finding a position for the spouse would have been greater.
      In my experience, we've never not picked a candidate because of a two-body issue. We just go for the best candidate and try to work it out. Having more lead time helps in this situation.
      During interviews, if I'm out to dinner or lunch with the candidate, I usually start talking about my kids and how a great place to live this is for families, at which point candidates will often divulge their family situation voluntarily.

      • gerty-z says:

        I think that you, as a candidate, may have to make a tough call on this one. In some departments, it may be that disclosing your second body on the interview will help them come up with a good solution. But in other departments, it could be that the second body lowers your "recruitability" (perhaps even subconsciously) when the faculty meets to decide who to recommend for the position. I don't know how a job candidate can know this before the fact. That being said, I think that you should mention the second body as soon as you get the first indication that you are being offered the job. IME, the chair often calls after the decision has been made to let the candidate know that they are the firsts choice, etc. I think that this is the moment to bring up the dual career. But if you are on the interview and feel the good vibes to bring it up earlier, then maybe that can work as well.

  • profguy says:

    Ecologist@130pm, in all searches I have seen in 11 years in two departments, the search committee makes a recommendation to the department on whom to make the offer. The department almost always approves it. The one counter example I have seen was when the search committee was deadlocked and couldn't make a unanimous (or even strong majority) recommendation.

    We have certainly lost candidates to two-body problems, but I am cautiously happy to say that I am not aware of a case in which it was used as a reason not to make someone an offer. At least not junior candidates. With senior people, it can come up early in discussions, and can kill the possibility of those discussions going further (I can think of one case where a very prominent senior scientist we were trying to recruit wanted a faculty position for her husband with many millions of $ in startup attached, not to mention the stuff she wanted for herself... there was just no way we could do it). But that is a different can of worms and, I think, not so wrong.

    I have found that most of the time when I am talking to junior candidates in my office, they end up volunteering the information about their spouse/sig other without my asking. I know not to ask, and never do, but once they bring it up, I figure I am allowed to ask obvious follow-up questions.

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    Being sad about your poor, failed search is an ivory tower problem.

  • Crystaldoc says:

    My husband and I were both applying for junior TT positions in 2005, in different but related fields. We had a toddler and hoped to have a 2nd child, and for us being in the same city and preferably same uni was nonnegotiable. We chose to make no mention of family situation in the application (of course). Husband got 8 interviews and I got 2 initially. We chose to fully disclose 2nd body needs at 1st interviews-- not like "hello nice to meet you my spouse needs a job too" but after the seminar, talking some science, getting good signals that things were going well. At one of his interviews (where I had not initially applied), the dept was small but expanding and looking for multiple hires; although my area was quite a bit outside the field, they indicated that scientific diversity could be a plus for them, and encouraged my husband to encourage me to apply right away. I did, they scheduled a joint 1st interview for me and second for him, things went well, we both got offers, and after a lot of negotiations these were ultimately the positions we accepted. At another of his interviews, again at an institution where there hadn't been any advertised openings in my field, the center director was really impressed with him, enough to shop my CV to the relevant department. It turned out that this department had been gearing up for a search for the following year, but arranged to have me out as an early invite. Things went well and again we both got offers. A similar thing happened at one of my interviews where my husband had not found an appropriate opening to apply for-- the chair of the department really liked me, and knew of another department where a new chair was gearing up for multiple hires. The name of the department did not sound like what my husband does, but it turned out that dept had a special need for some expertise related to what he does. He interviewed, and we both got offers. So we had three institutions to choose between that met our basic criteria, none of which had at the outset had TT positions for both of us. I'm not sure whether the accommodations for our 2 body situation would have worked out so well if we'd waited until later in the process to disclose.

  • Crystaldoc says:

    One more thought - I think that early disclosure probably dropped us in the prioritization of candidates at some of the other institutions -- like the one that suggested to my husband that maybe he could hire me as his lab manager -- but those were situations that we were glad to eliminate from the running because it wouldn't have been a good fit for us. Another strategy might have made more sense if we'd had only one or two interviews lined up.

  • qaz says:

    While there is no question that the right answer is that the issue is not supposed to be broached until the offer is on the table (*), I think it is always useful to remember that YMWV (your mileage will vary). And that you (as an interviewee) have to judge the department you are going to. I know of several cases where two scientists who work in the same field (and were well known to work in the same field) were interviewed as a pair and hired as a pair. In one case, I know the department hired them as two lines with 1.5x startup (instead of 2x), knowing that the department was getting a great deal (and that the offer of two tenure-track lines was going to bring them there). As another example, one of our hires volunteered during the interview that one reason he wanted to live in our illustrious city was because he had family here. Our discussion focused on the fact that he was the best hire for the position (which he unquestionably was - no one else was close), but there was an unspoken undercurrent that we knew if he made him the offer, he'd be very likely to take it.

    * In my time as faculty, on search committees, faculty interviews, discussion of who to hire at faculty meetings, etc, we have always been told not to ask this question. Similarly, I would tell any postdoc or graduate student looking for a job not to bring the issue up until after the offer is made.

  • Dr 27 says:

    At first I was all "whoa, WTF, I know a shit ton of ppl who've disclosed the two body problem." Then I was like, no, no, wait, we're talking about the app, not the interview. Two difference scenarios here.

    When I was in grad school, right before my defense there was panel where a few dual-career couples (name given by our program) shared their experiences applying to jobs, during the interview, etc. Some had started dating in grad school, others as postdocs. It was super valuable. If I remember correctly, a lot of the couples said they did disclose they had a SO, but only during the interview. I also remember talking to one of my committee members one time we were waiting at an airport after a conference and he said that when he applied to pretty southern U (where I went to school), his long time girlfriend was also interested in a position there, and I think she was some sort of physician or something. Long story short, he ends up saying that they did recruit him, but the moment he mentioned his partner, and they learned that she was a big shot in uber-awesome medicine, they appeared to be more excited about bringing her there than him! Now, I get it, it doesn't always happen like that, but there are cases and there are cases.

    I did disclose that hon was in PD city, but only during the interview. Prior to it, during my app, I just disclosed that I knew big-shot-PI at PSU and that through him I learned about my PD's lab and I was looking to relocate to PD town. Then in the interview it came up. I guess it had some part in me getting the position, because the PI knew that my other half was already in town and I had to be there after being apart for 2 years.

  • […] When two for the price of one isn’t an easy sell. The second body problem in academic job searching. […]

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