I recently received a question from a postdoc through Benchfly.com, which I think most dual-career couples face at some point in their lives. Lydia (not her real name) had been a postdoc for three years when her husband received a job offer in another city. At that point, Lydia had no first author papers although she was planning on publishing one in the coming year. Lydia was now faced with a difficult choice: cope with a long-distance marriage or leave her post-doc without publishing.
The specific details of Lydia's situation (how far her husband will be, how frequently they can visit, how long it would take her to finish her paper, and her own career plans) will eventually determine her decision, but this is a situation that almost all dual-career couples face. In academia, where the job market is becoming increasingly competitive, many couples have nearly given up the idea of getting positions in the same university or even city. One female professor, who received an offer from a university of Maryland, was happy that her husband got a faculty position in Virginia. At least they were in neighboring states.
While professionals in industry also face this dilemma, it is more common in academia because there are so few positions. Should couples apply as "unit" to a university, and only accept if both of them will be hired? There are different opinions regarding when one should bring up the job situation of their spouse during the interview process. In general, the consensus is that your first priority should be to demonstrate that you are the most qualified person for the position. Some candidates will discuss the situations of their spouses at the end of the interview or at the next round of interviews. (See references at the end of this blog for real stories.) Since positions are so competitive, many couples who are now in academia also applied to industry positions in the same geographical area.
One pattern I noted in the articles is that if the "trailing spouse" was also hired into the same department, he or she was sometimes treated with less respect. Other professors in the department felt that having spouses could create a conflict of interest and disrupt the academic direction of the department. It sounds like the spouse who was hired second needs to work extra hard to establish him or herself. This is less likely to occur if the spouse is in a different department, or if the applicants are still post-docs or graduate students. One student I spoke with noted that she was accepted to a very well-known graduate school, and they asked whether she had a "significant other issue." She replied that her boyfriend was already a student in another university (in a different field), and they offered to call the department at their school and inquire whether he could transfer.
Couples who end up in the same university or geographical location usually decide before they even apply to jobs that they want to stay together. They look for jobs together and consider commuting time a major factor in their decisions. Sometimes one of them needs to make a "sacrifice" (I put it in quotes because in the end they do not feel like it was a sacrifice) and take an industrial or other alternative career path. See the articles below for stories about how some couples coped with this situation.
Wishing you the best,
Dora Farkas, PhD, Founder, PhDNet