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Dual Career Scientific Couples: Relocating Both of You

It was probably luck, but I was happy to claim the pat on the back for identifying the perfect candidate for a position at XYZ Technologies (not the real company name). After an intensive search in which we had uncovered more than a dozen candidate profiles that almost fit, I ran into a fellow from a lab I knew in an elevator at the Experimental Biology meeting. I mentioned my search briefly, gave the fellow my card, and started to walk out. With my back still toward him, I heard him say "You ought to talk with Susan Smith, she's looking." I hadn't even had a chance to let my eyes connect with this fellow to thank him when the elevator doors closed.

Soon enough, I had a productive telephone meeting with Susan, and we were off to a good start. She had a refreshing, open attitude about moving into industry and had in fact already been pursuing interviews on her own. I liked her technical skills and could tell by her demeanor that she would quickly rise to a lab manager level. Her people skills seemed first-rate.

Susan was very familiar with XYZ and knew enough about them to say that although the job would require relocating, she was very interested. I set up an initial interview for her with the firm's hiring manager, which went well by telephone and led to a face-to-face interview later that month.

An Interview Goes South

Although I realized at the time we set up the interview that Susan's husband was also a scientist, I didn't have a sense of doom and gloom. Often, two-party relocations are a much tougher proposition for a headhunter, because there is a strong pull by one of these parties against relocating. Susan's husband, on the other hand, seemed entirely supportive of his spouse's career interests. Although he would have the headache of the relocation and a job search for himself to contend with, he referred to this opportunity as "Susan's turn for a career decision." I believed at the time that I had made an excellent match.

However, upon debriefing my client company after the interview, I was surprised to learn that the firm wanted to pursue a different candidate. The new candidate was a scientist whom I thought had good potential but would have to be brought up to speed on a technical niche in which Susan was already accomplished.

"We felt that recruiting Susan would have been a complicated process," the hiring manager had indicated. "Although everyone here really liked her and agreed that she would have fit our position nicely, we felt that the issues she will face on a relocation could impact her happiness here. This position is absolutely crucial to the success of our project. We can't afford to fill it now and then fill it again in 6 months." It was a done deal; at that moment, I realized that Susan's personal life had impacted her negatively.

Here's how she had handled that on her interview day:

When asked about "issues involved for you in a relocation," Susan described her husband's science career and his need to relocate to the same location with a job. Instead of keeping the two issues separate (her employment and her husband's employment), she spoke of her husband's career in great detail--including his inability to move for financial reasons until a job was located in the new area.

How Two Science Careers Affect Employers

It certainly isn't true that all scientist-scientist combinations get shot down in this manner. Some go on to make these moves very successfully. Although the couple may find that there is an additional few months of stress involved in the relocation, both scientists can sometimes land on their feet. This is occasionally in the same company--proving that there is a potential positive outcome in this scenario.

"We have no problem hiring married scientists and in fact have a number of couples where both scientists are in our employ," reports a human resources manager at a San Francisco biotech firm. "But that is where we can incorporate them both because their science fits what we do. We don't have a corporate policy about this area--it just depends on the situation. On the other hand, if there are two scientists and one of them is out of our field, we'll try to put our resources to work to assist that person in finding work. Once again, nothing formal, but we do all we can to help a relocating spouse or significant other."

Although this may be true of some of the better companies, many of them still have difficulty relocating and hiring a couple. Here are some of the issues involved for these employers:

  • Companies often find that the scientist who wishes to relocate a spouse or significant other expects that the company will have a job for that person, known as a "two-fer" deal. In my example above, Susan made the mistake of allowing her discussion with the hiring manager to go in this direction, albeit unintentionally, instead of divorcing the two subjects. She should have made it clear that her husband's employment situation was not in any way related to her ability to accept an offer from XYZ.

  • Many couples decide that the way to make the move is to initially leave one party--the one who will be looking for a job in the new area--back in the old hometown. Although it sounds great to be able to keep that second income, long-distance job searches conducted by the spouse "back at the ranch" usually take a considerable amount of time. Employers find that months later, the newly hired scientist is still conducting a long-distance relationship. This stress will add to the rigors of adapting to a new job and a new environment, and it is the rare person who can handle this for more than 6 or 8 months. Human resource managers are aware that phone calls from a headhunter with a job offer in the old hometown can lead to a resignation from a newly hired employee--along with the loss of approximately $50,000 invested in hiring and training.

Recommendations for Dual Science Career Couples

  • When interviewing, it is not a good idea to present your situation as a "package deal." The more emphasis you put on your partner's options, the less likely that you will receive an offer.

  • Certain topics in an interview are taboo for legal reasons. Know what these are in advance, and try to avoid getting caught up in them during your interview. Many of these inappropriate questions involve the effects of going to work on your personal life.

  • In the employer's eyes, your ability to accept a job offer and start employment should be in no way related to another person's career. But if the reality is different, develop a strategy in advance and know how to answer questions about your possible relocation.

  • Find other two-career couples in the location you are considering and learn how they pulled off the move. It is likely that you will learn a lot about the process by talking with people who have been through it themselves.

Doing good science is exciting, and having someone who can share that excitement in your life can be wonderfully enriching. Just remember that the best way to plan a job search in this situation is by using good strategic planning and common sense.

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