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Thinking About Dual Academic Jobs as a Single Academic Career

Are you also one-half of a dual-career academic couple? How do you do it?

April 15, 2018
 
 

I’m one half of a dual academic couple. My partner is an associate professor. I’m an alternative academic.

We have two separate academic jobs at the same institution. But in my mind, we have one academic career.

For partnered academics, is thinking about a dual-academic career as a single challenge to be mastered a helpful framing?

Would we make different decisions, and evaluate our paths differently, if we think about our professional choices and options and limitations through the lens of career duality?

Academics, both traditional and alternative, spend lots of time and energy thinking about our careers. Are academics more career focussed than other professionals is a question to which I don’t have an answer. What do you think?

Maybe I think about careers more because I trained as a sociologist. Or perhaps everyone think about careers. I don’t know.

One hypothesis is that academics are highly career focused because we need to be.  The academic labor market is not good. It is bad. Bad, bad, bad.  At least for most of us.

How is the academic labor market bad? Let me count the ways. (And you can add others).

Problem 1 - The Academic Labor Market is Winner-Take-Most Game: An increasingly few academics are able to find fairly compensated and secure employment in the disciplines in which they trained. Many more must navigate insecure or part-time employment, or pivot into academic jobs (many quite rewarding) outside of traditional faculty roles.

Problem 2 - The Mismatch Between PhD Supply and Demand: Everyone who starts a Ph.D. knows that the odds of landing a tenure track job in a workable location are daunting. An academic path in many disciplines requires a seemingly endless string of postdoc and non-tenure track positions. This is not to say that getting a PhD is a bad idea.  It is just a bad idea - in many disciplines - if one wants to be a tenure track professor.

Problem 3 - Dual Academic Careers Are Particularly Brutal: Navigating the academic labor market is tough enough. Imagine (you might not have to imagine) figuring this all out as a couple.  Many of us meet our partners in grad school. I did. The struggles to build a dual-academic career are not top of mind when one is falling in love.

Given these  3 problems, does re-framing the dual-academic career as a single career help? For me it does.

If it is impossible (or at least exceedingly difficult) for both partners to succeed equally in academia, then maybe we should accept that this impossibility is more structural than personal.

Can we think of each success that one partner has in their academic career as a dual success?

Dual academic couples spend lots of time talking with each other about our careers. We are each other’s best advocate. We are empathetic listeners and and reliable sounding boards. We take the workplace sleights and professional setback of our partners more personally than they usually do.

On the other side of that, any career success that my wife has feels like a win for both of us. I think that she feels the same way about my academic career.

Ours is a professional partnership, even though we have very different academic jobs in very different settings.

Thinking in terms of two academic jobs but one academic career might have some downsides. Does this become an excuse not to compromise? To put the career aspirations of one of the partners above the other?

To justify a specialization in a couple’s domestic labor, where one partner ends up doing more than their share of family labor when they’d rather be doing the professional work in which they were trained?

Maybe.  And certainly if this 2-job / 1-career idea systematically disadvantages one gender (for different-sex couples) over another then we would have a problem.

My sense is that the days of academic wives systematically taking a back-seat to their academic husbands career are over - or at least numbered.  (Is this wrong?).

Can the choice to navigate and evaluate one’s academic career through the lens of a shared path be freeing and liberating?

Would we worry less about our academic careers if we felt like we were doubling our chances of finding some success, rather than diluting those odds for one of the partners?

Does this sort of framing do anything to help with the very real challenges of paying the mortgage or making the car payments (or paying for the kid's college) faced by academic couples?

Would thinking about marriage and academic jobs in this way encourage more grad-school originated marriages?

Should grad school training expand to not only encompass career navigation strategies, but also advice on balancing dual academic careers?

If you are one half of a dual-career academic couple, how have you navigated your careers?

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