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Dual-Career Couples at ESOF

Mikkel Ostergaard/ESOF2014

COPENHAGEN—It’s hard enough to find just one academic position, let alone two. A career session on Sunday at the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) 2014, which was organised by Charikleia Tzanakou, a research fellow at the University of Warwick in England, considered the challenges faced by dual-career couples, in which both partners are highly qualified and pursuing career advancement. The core message that emerged from the session is that the United States and Europe view the issue quite differently, and dual-career couples need to be aware of those differences if they are to navigate the opportunities and pitfalls of whatever national context applies.

In the United States, the difficulties faced by dual-career couples have long been acknowledged. While still controversial, the practice of dual hiring—giving academic positions both to the candidate being directly pursued and to his or her partner—is much more widely accepted in the United States than it is in Europe. A 2008 survey of 13 leading U.S. universities, results of which were presented at ESOF by gender researcher Londa Schiebinger of Stanford University in California, showed that dual hiring rose from 3% of all hiring in the 1970s to 13% in the 2000s.

Be careful who you fall in love with.

—Londa Schiebinger

The rationale for dual-career hiring is that such couples are “a deep pool of talent that universities can’t afford to overlook,” Schiebinger said during the session. She and her co-authors found that 36% of full-time faculty members in top U.S. universities have an academic partner, with 40% of women and 34% of men coupled with another academic. In the United States, “[c]ouples more and more vote with their feet, leaving or not considering universities that don’t support them,” Schiebinger said. In her survey, 88% of the faculty members who were recruited as part of a dual hire said that the primary candidate would have declined the job should his or her partner not have been hired as well.

It’s up to the candidates to raise the issue because it is illegal for U.S. employers to ask about marital status and other aspects of personal life. What’s the best time to raise it? That’s a difficult question because “[i]f there are two equally qualified candidates, and one doesn’t have the partner issue and one does, the one with the partner issue has the extra baggage,” Schiebinger warned. While more than half of dual-career candidates at the assistant professor level raise the two-body problem during the interview, and fewer than a third do so once they have a verbal offer, Schiebinger recommended securing that verbal offer first. But don’t wait until after you’ve accepted the offer, because by then you will have lost all your negotiating power, she added.

Jobseekers can find out in advance how friendly a university is to dual hiring by looking on the university’s website for a dual-career office, Schiebinger said. But, no matter how desirable the first hire is, dual-career couples should never lose sight of the fact that the partner’s quality of scholarship, fit with the department, and academic specialization will be key criteria in determining whether he or she is also recruited, she added.

The situation is different in Europe; indeed, so far, not many universities here are paying much attention to the issue. Only a small number of countries have begun to formally address the needs of dual-career couples, starting in Germany and Switzerland. At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, for example, dual-career advice has been offered to professors since 1999, but only in 2009 did Swiss universities begin to adopt a formal approach to supporting the partners of new recruits, said another session speaker, Alexandra Zingg. Zingg, who was scientific project leader in the TANDEM project at ETH Zurich—which analyzed the basic requirements for implementation of dual-career and integration initiatives around Europe—today is a project leader for academic relations at Swissnex Boston, Consulate of Switzerland in the United States.

The practice of dual hiring is still highly controversial in Switzerland due to concerns about favoritism, Zingg explained to Science Careers in an interview. This stance is shared across many European countries.

Because of those widespread views, many European universities have taken a somewhat different approach to the dual-career problem. Rather than filling or creating a position within the same university, European institutions have focused on helping partners integrate into a new culture and find jobs elsewhere. For example, said mobility consultant Mark de Vos of the University of Copenhagen, the university’s International Staff Mobility (ISM) Dual Career – Spouse Network provides partners with information on living in Denmark; access to social events, classes, and workshops; and individual career counseling and job-interview coaching. Through the network, partners may also contact institutions and companies in the area and arrange volunteer experiences or 6-month-term jobs, partly subsidized by the municipality, as a bridge to further employment. From the university’s perspective, “[w]hen you recruit people it takes a lot of effort and money … [so] then you also want them to stay and to be happy,” and this must be true for both the researcher and their partner, de Vos said. 

No matter what institutions do, the two-body problem remains difficult, and the weight of it falls mainly on the couple. “I tell my graduate students, ‘Be careful who you fall in love with’,” Schiebinger said. Once you’re in a couple, analyze each partner’s ambitions and focus your search on large metropolitan areas where there are lots of different universities, she advised. “You need to be very clear about what you’re aiming for. Are you aiming for a big research university where you need to do a lot of publications, or [are you] looking more for a teaching job? And then you need to strategize as to where both of you can find the kinds of employment they want and then go forward.” Developing a strong network is also important, Zingg added. Above all, you must “try and try and try. Some couples manage,” added de Vos. But for that to happen “you need to be very creative. You need to have drive. You need to be lucky.”

Further Resources:

Resources for Dual-Career Academic Couples in The United States provided by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research

The Dual Career Network Germany

The ISM Dual Career-Spouse Network in Copenhagen

Dual Career Services at the Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands

The European Commission-funded TANDEM project

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