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Careers Café

2-career households


A reader e-mailed to ask:

I would be interested in seeing issues related to negotiating two academic household careers covered (i.e. negotiating spousal hires, career strategies, how to find a meaningful career where your spouse has gotten a position, etc.)

What this situation really highlights is the fact that whenever you are job hunting there are several factors in play, and not all of them involve the content of the job itself.

You are not the somewhat monastic scholar whose entire life is his intellectual work, undistracted by personal relationships, hobbies, or anything else. You have a full life.

Do you really have to be prepared to go anywhere?

I find it less than useful to advise candidates that they have to be prepared to go anywhere. It assumes that you’d rather risk your marriage, live far from friends and family, perhaps in a place you really don’t like, than do anything other than have an academic career.

It also allows people to believe that if they are really prepared to go anywhere they will get an academic position, something that is not at all guaranteed in the current labour market.

While it is true that you cannot bank on getting an academic job in the location of your choice, you can choose your compromise. Is it more important to have a particular kind of job? Or to live near your partner? Or even to live near other family or friends?

Do you really want any academic job or are there types of institutions that suit you better? Maybe you are prepared to go anywhere for a particular type of job, but do you want to move away from your partner for a job that you really don’t think is right?

This will involve some really difficult conversations with your partner. These conversations will really get to the heart of how important your relationship is to each of you. No one would blame you for being terrified.

Other options

You could limit your search to places where there are several universities within commuting distance of each other. Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Halifax all have several universities, especially if you expand your sense of their boundaries to include places within a two hour drive, or are willing to teach at a CEGEP or a community college.

You could also expand your search beyond academe, as per Liz’s excellent suggestions. You might even find that there are options outside of academe that are a better fit for your skills and interests than a tenure-track position.

Your decision isn’t permanent

You may have made a lifetime commitment to your partner but the nature of your relationship will necessarily change over time. And you don’t have to make a lifetime commitment to an employer, or even a career.

Career planning is never over. You will always need to ensure that you are doing what you need to do to make sure that you can take advantage of opportunities that arise down the road; opportunities that are a better fit for the family life you want then. Or the career priorities you have then, because these will shift, too.

And once you are in a position, performing well, and really making a contribution to an organization, your employer is much more likely to make concessions (on hours, teleworking, or even spousal hiring) to keep you there.

Jo VanEvery is a career coach who specializes in helping academics. Find her at
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  1. Janice Kapty / February 14, 2011 at 15:09

    I am at an exciting stage in my career and yet I am facing an obstacle based on my gender. I am a scientist working towards my PhD. I have been discussing a career in academia with my supervisors. They have great hopes for me and my future career. And yet I am stuck feeling like if I were a man I would not face this obstacle.

    What is this obstacle? I am looking to do a post doctoral fellowship in a lab where I can get experience and advance my career. As a Canadian it is often recommended to get more expertise at a laboratory outside of Canada. This is true for my field of research. I have been encouraged by my mentors to seek a post doctoral position in a top US laboratory (Stanford University or Washington University). But I have a husband who would not be able to work in the United States. He is willing to move anywhere for me but I do not think it is a good idea to move to a country where he cannot work for 1-2 years. It is not good for his career or for our marriage.

    If I was a man this would not be an obstacle because I would have a wife and a wife could have a baby and take care of the kids while I worked. This is the advice I have received from some – it seems to have worked great for them – since they can advance their career and family ambitions. And yet (even though I am not going to have children in the next few years) I am facing the obstacle that as a woman I cannot at the same time advance my career and my family. If I was desperate and had no prospects this would be an easier choice. But I do not wish that on myself (or any other PhD candidate). I think it needs to be pointed out that this model of doing a post doc in another country is placing restrictions on PhD graduates which in my opinion favors men (single or married) and single women.

  2. JoVE / February 14, 2011 at 15:51

    This is a very good point. I am sorry to hear you are facing this difficult decision.

    Although some men would be able to move because their wives would be willing to not work for 1-2 years in order to start a family, others would face the same problem you do. So while this issue probably disproportionately affects women, it is a problem for anyone who is in a 2-career relationship.

    It also affects anyone who cannot or would rather not live and work in the US. I assume that the US has regulations similar to those that pertain here in Canada about hiring non-nationals, adding an extra barrier to your search for such a prestigious post-doctoral position.

    One question to ask yourself is whether this advice is based on assumptions about the type of scientific career you want and if those assumptions are actually true. If you were to decide to take a post-doctoral position in Canada, are you going to be at a disadvantage for tenure-track positions in Canada? Or does this primarily disadvantage you for tenure-track positions at similarly prestigious US universities?

    This is a very difficult decision to face. The fact that you are being encouraged to seek such prestigious post-doctoral positions suggests that your advisors think highly of your work and of your potential. You are not alone in forging new career paths, though. It may be that you will get that outside of Canada experience at a different point in your career.