Friday, May 21, 2010

Spousal Hiring In and Out of Academia

The past few days, there has been lots of discussion of spousal hires, apparently prompted by an article in Chronicle of Higher Ed. There is an interesting split--those with TT jobs (with and without academic spouses) seem to be in favor of it, while those still trying for TT positions are vehemently opposed. I've seen spousal hires, both inside and outside academia (research heavy schools only), and I am generally in favor (with caveats). The whole thing seems to me to be part of the problem of disillusion on the part of some that academia is not a "pure meritocracy", whatever that would look like.

Maybe this is a drinking the Kool-Aid kind of thing, but having been involved in 3 searches in 2 departments this year, I can say that my understanding of how searches work is exponentially higher than it was while I was searching myself. Now that I have seen how it all works, I understand much more about how and why things happen the way they do, which makes me less of a conspiracy theorist. And after all, help with finding a spouse a job, up to and including spousal hires is a standard recruiting tool in many industries.

In my experience, most spousal hires are eminently qualified for the TT--no department I know of wants to hire an incompetent person, no matter how much of the salary the Dean will kick in. Addition by subtraction is a painful reality most in the working world have faced, and they have no desire to volunteer for such a scenario. Furthermore, at the research heavy universities I am familiar with, the spouse's position is a new line and does not prevent new hires through more traditional search process. Given that once someone is over the line in quality for a TT position, it is mostly right place/right time that gets them a position, I don't really oppose spousal hires in this type of situation, and I see how it can be really beneficial to a University that can't afford to shell out 6 or 7 figure startups every few years to fill one position.

I am strongly opposed to the type of spousal hire described by Dr. Crazy:
So, for example, let's say that we made Candidate A an offer. Candidate A, whether male or female, had a spouse who is an academic. (Note that I say spouse here. This is crucial. We are not talking about partners - we are talking about legally married people.) Historically, if we really wanted the candidate, the chair might agree to "find something" for the spouse, and that "something" would be something off the tenure track. Then, once some time passed, a hiring line would open up in the department. An ad would be written to fit the trailing spouse, as long as the couple had played nicely and sucked up to the right people. And then, under the auspices of an open search, the trailing spouse would be hired into a tenure-track position, regardless of the coverage needs of the department and regardless of the quality of other candidates being interviewed for the position.

"Fake" searches are a HUGE waste of everyone's time. If a department wants to hire someone (a spouse or inside candidate), they should just get on with it and not try to pretend there is a search, unless the spouse/inside candidate is on the same footing at the other candidates.

I was more interested in Dr. Crazy's comments about spousal hires being "1 for the price of 2" rather than "2 for the price of 1". In my experience, spousal hires are just as collegial as anyone else. After a few years, it is usually impossible to figure out who was the leading spouse and who was the trailing spouse, assuming they started at the same level. In my department, there is a married couple with kids, but they, like all TT parents are expected to contribute to service outside work hours (along with everyone else), though most people understand that they need some advance notice to arrange childcare. In the department as a whole, there are slackers (of course, like with anything else), but the level of slackerness seems independent of family status.

At my old National Lab there were a few spouses who worked together. That was a lot messier, since there was more of a hierarchy, and the potential for political minefields was HUGE. Sometimes things looked really fishy from the outside (though I can't have known details) about one spouse having an impact on the annual reviews of people who worked under the other spouse due to personality conflicts or perceived offenses. The situation was far dodgier than anything I have seen in academia, where the semi-flat structure ameliorates some of this problem, given that the problem of improper career boosting or killing based on spousal input would exist independently of whether the couple worked at the same University.

It is good to have this type of discussion in the open, especially since many scientists marry other scientists or engineers, and have career conflicts due to location issues.

UPDATED: Fixed URL and formatting.

1 comment:

geekmommyprof said...

Nice post, thank you!