Reprints: The Frustrating Career of the 'Trailing Spouse'


When a department recruits an academic couple, one of the partners is usually the standout. The other is the standby.

The standout scholar is the drawing card, the reason the offer is made in the first place. The partner who tags along is known as the "trailing spouse," the "satellite," the "second income" -- or as some of these professors call themselves, the "albatross."

Few issues in faculty recruiting are more fraught with tension than the hiring of academic couples. They have become commonplace in academe as women have entered graduate school in greater numbers, and as institutions have become more open to hiring gay partners.

But it's tough enough these days to land one tenure-track job, let alone two in the same place. Much more often, one-half of a couple finds a tenure-track position and the other half comes along, hoping something will open up on the same campus. As a result, some scholars spend their careers in a series of dead-end positions, watching as their spouse builds academic credentials, gains respect, and wins tenure. Other tagalongs eventually succeed on their own merits, but it can take them a lot longer.

David W. Owen knows that firsthand. He followed along as his wife, Julia Annas skipped from one tenured post to another in three prestigious philosophy departments. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1979 but is only now up for tenure, at the University of Arizona.

Mr. Owen put his career on hold, working in various part-time posts wherever his wife was recruited. He even spent two years in academic computing at Arizona, where Ms. Annas is now a senior faculty member. The philosophy department there finally offered him a part-time, tenure-track job in 1990.

"She was more productive and famous at an earlier stage," he says of his wife. "What was required in my case was patience, and hoping I'd eventually establish myself as an academic in my own right."

By most standards, academe is quite generous when it comes to helping partners find work in the same place. Compared to corporations, colleges are much more willing to accommodate couples, but that is primarily because they have to. Partners with professional degrees in law and business, for example, can choose from a wide variety of employers, while Ph.D.'s looking for tenure-track jobs have far fewer opportunities.

Academic deans say it is in their interest to help couples because they are likely to stay longer and be more productive than if they have a commuter relationship.

But some people on the campuses resent what they view as the special treatment that partners receive. They believe it is unfair for colleges to circumvent national searches in order to find a spouse a job. And such attitudes affect how couples, especially the trailing spouse, are perceived by their colleagues.

Ph.D.'s who are hired on the coattails of their partner say they are seldom treated as serious scholars. Even when they do snag a tenured or tenure-track job on the same campus as their spouse, many end up second-guessing the offer, wondering whether they got it only because the university wanted to attract -- or keep -- their partner.

Wendy Simonds, who followed her husband to Georgia State University and then spent six years working in temporary posts at Emory University, calls such work "the s--- track." Some of her colleagues at Emory -- where she taught in sociology and women's studies -- "seemed incapable of not mentioning the difference between me and them," she recalls, adding that her last job at Emory was glorified clerical work for the Institute of Liberal Arts. If she hadn't finally landed a tenure-track job in sociology at Georgia State this year, Ms. Simonds says she might have left academe altogether. "I harbored a fantasy of becoming a midwife at one point."

To lure a scholar, deans and department heads sometimes make promises to a spouse that don't pan out. The spouse is told that he or she can start in a non-tenured teaching job, with the opportunity to gain a tenure-track post down the road. Many trailing spouses see that as a hopeful sign. But once a couple is on the campus, such hope often fades.

One young chemist with a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley is beginning to feel that he's been cheated after following his wife to a job at a research university this academic year. The chemist, who did not want his name or the name of his university specified, had high expectations at first. The university gave him a visiting professorship and money to start his research, and officials told him that they expected openings in his field. Two such jobs have, in fact, opened up, and although he's applied, he has not been a leading candidate for either of them.

"After being here for eight months, it's very clear to me that if you get yourself into a visiting-professorship position, they can get an equal amount of work out of you without paying you the money of a tenure-track job or giving you benefits or any real future," he says. He figures he would have been better off staying in his postdoctoral position at the California Institute of Technology, and using that as a base to search for a tenure-track post.

Natania Rosenfeld was hired as a visiting assistant professor by Duke University's English department after her husband was offered a renewable six-year contract in the drama program there in 1994. (Multiyear contracts are typical in drama, because the program does not award tenure.) She remembers the conversation she had with Wallace Jackson, who was then chairman of the English department, after she arrived in 1994. "He said, 'If all goes well, you would be a promising candidate when we advertise for a job in modern British literature.'" Even better, she says, one faculty member in that field was planning to retire soon.

But after her one-year visiting post ended, in 1995, Ms. Rosenfeld did not get another contract, and resorted to teaching as an adjunct at Duke. "Somehow, the bottom fell out," she says. During the couple's third year on the campus, a tenure-track position in English opened, but she was never interviewed. "Nobody there noticed me. I was on the fringes."

The reason Ms. Rosenfeld wasn't considered for a permanent job was that she hadn't published enough, says Mr. Jackson, who is still a professor of English at Duke. "Her work was promising, but she had no book accepted yet for publication," he says. "Because of the paucity of publications, she could not stand the competition of a national search." She has since signed a contract with Princeton University Press for the publication of her dissertation, which is expected to come out next year.

Ms. Rosenfeld, whose own parents were an academic couple, recalls that her father landed a job at Oberlin College in the 1960s, while her mother struggled for years to find equally meaningful work. "I grew up with a sense of how hard that had been for my mother and so much wanting to get what she didn't get. It was awful being a follower, especially as a feminist. I wondered, Am I falling into the very same pattern as my parents?"

The tables have now turned, however, for her and her husband, Neil Blackadder. Last year, she landed a tenure-track job at Knox College, and he followed her there. He is a visiting assistant professor of theater and modern languages at Knox, having taken a two-year leave from Duke. The couple is hopeful that a tenure-track post will open up for him at Knox, although they are aware now of how fickle academe can be.

"It feels a little strange to give up a job at Duke to come here without a tenure-track job," says Mr. Blackadder. "But the most important thing is the aggregate. The two of us should feel collectively comfortable and fulfilled."

What many couples end up feeling is angry. One female mathematician, who was hired by a public university in the West in 1988, is bitter that it took so long for the institution to give her husband a tenure-track post in the hard sciences. Just last year, 10 years after the couple had arrived on the campus, the university made him a tenure-track offer, having passed him up for another some years earlier.

"You don't forget experiences like this," says the mathematician, who did not want to be identified. "It has affected what I think about this university and what my limits are in terms of what I'll do for it."

She and other professors say they can't help but be affected by their partner's career struggles. There is both a sense of responsibility and a certain feeling of guilt.

Wendy Simonds' husband, Randy Malamud, an associate professor of English at Georgia State, says he went out of his way to make sure she had time to write, so that her career would not stagnate during her temporary teaching assignments in sociology and women's studies at Emory. "I always felt that, all other things being equal, I should give her a couple of extra hours where I could," he says. "I had a tenure-track job. It was more important to her career to get scholarship published."

Trying to create two careers on one campus can put a tremendous strain on a relationship. Kristi Lockhart moved to Cornell University with her husband, Frank C. Keil, after she earned her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1980. He had a tenure-track post in psychology; she had a part-time teaching job in the department.

The couple stayed there for 18 years, as Mr. Keil became a prominent professor and secured an endowed chair. Meanwhile, his wife's career languished.

"I ended up two years ago thinking, I'm stuck," says Ms. Lockhart, who felt she was living in her husband's shadow. Because she worked on multiyear contracts without tenure, she had no power, she says. "You're not in a position to influence things. Nobody's wooing you. You're not deciding anybody's tenure, and students aren't interested in working with you, because you can't help them get a job."

This academic year, the couple moved to Yale University. Although once again it was her husband who got the tenured post in psychology and she who followed along with a part-time teaching post, the move was Ms. Lockhart's idea. She wanted to start over, although she is not sure whether the new situation will be any better.

Despite the personal and professional price of being a tagalong, some scholars opt for a job on their spouse's campus anyway, often because they have grown tired of a commuter marriage. Some give up tenure-track and even tenured posts elsewhere for less-desirable positions, so that they can live with their partner.

Jill Allyn Rosser did just that, and she's still wondering if the sacrifice was worth it. She was on the rise, having landed a tenure-track job in English at the University of Michigan in 1992 after receiving her Ph.D. from Penn. But her husband, Mark Halliday, had trouble finding a promising job in Michigan, and the couple decided to move to Ohio University after he got a tenure-track offer from the English department there. That was three years ago. Mr. Halliday is now up for tenure -- and Ms. Rosser is a part-time English professor, sharing her husband's office.

She says she made the change primarily because the couple has a young daughter, and Ms. Rosser wanted to spend time caring for her without also worrying about being the family's primary breadwinner. But many days, she feels conflicted about her choice and what it's meant for her career as a professor and poet. "I have literally dropped out for a few years," she says. "When I consider that I've baked more bread than written poems, a part of me is embarrassed about this."

Still, she has hopes of resuscitating her career. She has just won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which will let her take time off from teaching at Ohio University to write. Her husband, she says, has just come out with a new book, "which makes it even more evident that I've fallen behind here."

Eileen Boris's move to the University of Virginia this academic year has by no means been a career-buster. But she gave up a tenured job in history at Howard University to join her husband, Nelson Lichtenstein, a historian at Virginia. The university created a full professorship for her in women's studies, but without tenure, because women's studies is a program, not a department. Without tenure, Ms. Boris is ineligible to apply for some internal grants and cannot chair dissertation committees.

As part of her job, she edits a semi-annual journal, Iris: A Journal About Women. "It's wonderful," she says, "but it means I haven't gotten to the archives. I have to write a paper for the Organization of American Historians, and when am I going to find time for it? What about the book I'm supposed to be working on?"

Ms. Boris took the position at Virginia because she was sick of eight years of commuting. At least two times a week she traveled from the U.Va. campus to Howard, two and a half hours away in Washington. In Charlottesville, she says, "I don't have to worry about the weather, and I don't have to wake up at 10 of 6 in the morning and not get back until 10 at night."

Some tagalong spouses, on the other hand, have been able to build solid careers on campuses that might otherwise have been out of their reach. Julie A. Roin was practicing law in Washington when she married Saul Levmore, who was then a law professor at the University of Virginia. To keep him on the campus, the university offered Ms. Roin a visiting professorship in 1984. Things went well enough that she eventually earned tenure.

Since she joined academe, Ms. Roin and her husband have been visiting professors together at Harvard, Northwestern, and Yale Universities, and at the University of Michigan. This academic year, they moved to the University of Chicago. Mr. Levmore is clearly the more stellar scholar of the two, but Ms. Roin has never felt like "a second wheel."

"I long ago realized that I'm no star, but I don't feel out of place among the rest of the faculty," she says. "I wouldn't be anyone's first-round draft choice. But I'm certainly respectable."


Copyright (c) 1999 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Posted with permission on Science's Next Wave. This article may not be published, reposted, or redistributed without express permission from The Chronicle. To obtain such permission, please send a message to For subscription information, send a message to

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