about spousal hires

I’ve talked to a lot of people over the years about how to handle the “two body” problem where your spouse needs a job, too, and your goal is to live in the same house as your spouse.

I can explain what I know about the “rules of the game” regarding spousal hires, and also give my advice about the personal work you need to do to be ready for this. The spousal hiring process usually creates severe stresses on a relationship and I believe it is important to know your priorities or you are at risk of being chewed up. The post is long and has 3 sections: (1) About timing of the discussions; (2) Institutional rules, explaining that these vary from not helping spouses at all at one extreme to providing jobs for spouses at the other, with most falling somewhere in the middle; and (3) The need for spouses to talk honestly with each other (but not necessarily outsiders) about their priorities. 


The rules of the game, supported by the law, are that spousal issues do not get brought up until a department has decided to offer you a job. It is illegal to ask about a spouse until after a job offer is made. If everybody is playing from that rulebook, if the chair and you both know the rules, the conversation goes along these lines: “We’d like to hire you. I need to put together an offer. I’d like to talk over what we’ll need to do to get you.” Depending on whether you are a new Phd or already have a job, there will either be some sort of statement about a usual starting package or some inquiry about current salary and desires. You say, “I’m really interested in this job. One consideration will whether my spouse can get a job.” The chair says, “Thank you for telling me. Can you tell me more about your spouse and what they are looking for?” From there, the trajectory varies depending on the situation. You do need to tell the chair about the spousal situation early in the negotiating process, as soon as they have made it clear that they will be making an offer, especially if you hope/want the department or institution to help with your spouse’s job search.

A chair ought not to get mad at you and accuse you of holding something back when you tell them you have a spouse whose job will factor into your decision about whether to take the job. However, a chair may legally say, “We are not in a position to help your spouse get a job and we still need your decision within the next three weeks.”

If your spouse does not want the department’s help in finding a job, you negotiate your job independently and your spouse does their own research.

If you do want the institution to help with your spouse’s job and if the institution’s response is not a blanket refusal to help, if the institution and chair have their act together and want to recruit you, what should happen fast is that the chair will want to talk to the spouse about the spouse’s current job and goals/interests/requirements, collect a cv/resume, and develop a list of places that might hire the person. If your spouse is seeking a tenure-track position in the same department, they presumably already have their application materials from the search. This means that the spouse should be ready to engage this process as soon as an offer to you is on the table.

It is not uncommon for departments to try to figure out in advance whether there is a spousal situation and this often has a gendered component, with assumptions being made that male spouses are less flexible about moving than female spouses. All these questions are illegal, although they are not always ill-intentioned, as a chair might want to give you information about how the spousal process works as part of trying to recruit you.

It is NOT illegal for YOU to tell people that you have a spousal issue before receiving an offer. Whether you should do this or not is a complex question with no easy answers, but the odds are that it is less against your interest to make such a disclosure if you are male than if you are female.

Institutional Rules

Institutions vary greatly in how they handle spousal hires. At one extreme are the dinosaurs that view any spousal hire as unwarranted favoritism. Back in the dark ages of the 1960s, before the women’s movement, having your spouse also be in the tenure track in any department at the same university was considered “nepotism,” although for some reason it was not considered nepotism to employ a faculty spouse with a PhD as a low-paid research staff member or teaching adjunct. Although those days are gone, some institutions still refuse to give any special consideration to faculty spouses, especially for tenure-track positions. Refusing to give consideration to spouses is entirely legal.

At the other extreme are institutions that have special pots of money explicitly set aside to provide salary support for faculty spouses and are willing and able to create new staff or even tenure-track “lines” for qualified spouses.

In the middle are most institutions that have varying levels of routinization about how they handle spousal issues while being constrained by existing budget lines.

A key issue that organizes the whole process is whether your spouse is in the same field you are, or a different one. Another is whether the spouse is seeking a tenure-track appointment or is interested in (or willing to settle for) a staff appointment. If the logical employer of your spouse is the same department, the whole decision is internalized. The department makes a decision about whether it can afford the package of you and your spouse. This, in turn, depends on what resources or resource flexibility they have in their college, their evaluation of you and your spouse compared to their perceived alternatives, and internal political issues around the hiring that get more complicated when two lines rather than one line are at stake.

If the spouse is in a different field, some other unit will be involved in the hire, and the process gets more complicated. Universities vary greatly in how well institutionalized this process is and the cultural norms involved.

My institution is located in a small city so we have long had well-established rules of the game for how spousal hires work, including some modest supplemental funding with guidelines that are less generous now than they used to be, due to budget constraints. Our rules are that no new positions get created, that the “lines” always count toward budget totals, but that there is a college-level contribution to a spousal hire, such that the hiring unit pays ⅓, the originating unit pays ⅓, and the college pays ⅓ of the first three years of a spouses’s salary. After that, the spouse is to be covered by the regular budget of the hiring unit. The person hired as a spousal hire must always be considered fully qualified and useful for the hiring unit, but they do not have to be the person who would come out on top in a national search to fill that position.

Within the same institution, some department chairs will be familiar with the rules and how things work, while others will be befuddled or annoyed and not necessarily prepared to know or follow their institution’s established practices. Because spousal hires are routine on my campus, it is ordinary business to send a spouse’s c.v. or resume to potential hiring units to ask them if they’d be interested, and it is considered good behavior to give the person serious consideration if appropriate, knowing that your own department will be on the initiating end the next time.

My campus’s rules always considered unmarried partners, whether same- or opposite-sex, to be “spouses” for the purpose of spousal hires and I believe this is the norm on most campuses.

Personal Decision-making

Any couple facing a two-body job market situation must be honest with themselves (but not necessarily with others) about their priorities. They have to decide how they are going to rank the cost of living apart versus the cost of one of them being suboptimally employed, and how they are going to rank each person’s options in their joint decision making. They need to know the limits, the conditions under which they will walk away from a job if the spouse is not satisfied, and the spouse needs to know under what conditions they will refuse to move to the new location and/or what the minimum acceptable requirements are for moving.

This process can be very stressful on relationships. Some couples come to realize that they value their jobs more than living together or, in some cases, being married. Other couples realize that they prioritize living together and are each willing to sacrifice job prospects to benefit the other’s prospects and operate under a joint optimization model. In some cases, couples realize that their priorities are asymmetric, that one values job over relationship and the other values relationship over job. In some cases, the asymmetry is acceptable to both, and in other cases recognition of the asymmetry provokes a break in the relationship.

It can be very stressful and ego-bruising to be the partner who is less wanted in the job market. Academics are a competitive bunch, and feeling competitive toward your spouse can be destructive of emotional intimacy and support. I remember hearing a quotation from a male physicist whose wife was a much more prominent physicist: “Honestly, I wish I could be as good as her, but I’m not and I’m happy to be with her and to do what I can do in my work.” But not everybody, regardless of gender, is able to do that. Feelings about yourself and how your professional identity is linked to your sense of self can go very deep. As do the feelings about what makes for a good marital relationship and how you feel about how your needs and goals are being valued in the relationship and how much you value the needs and goals of your spouse. Having to face these intense issues can be extremely stressful.

The ways you balance these tensions are issues have to be highly individual.

I know of a prominent sociologist, now retired, who spent nearly all her career living apart from her spouse. It is only in retirement that they are now sharing the same house on a permanent basis. They are still married, appear at least to outsiders to be happy, and this arrangement worked for them for decades. They did not have children, which probably would have made this kind of arrangement more difficult, but I do also know couples with children who live in different cities and spend long weekends together.

But I would never say that being willing to live apart from a spouse is some sort of litmus test of professional seriousness. My spouse and I lived apart for the first year of our marriage and this was enough to convince us that we wanted to live together and were willing to sacrifice job prospects to make that happen. At a crucial moment, when I had the opportunity to move from a third-tier to a first-tier academic job, we faced these choices. We were able to affirm the centrality of our relationship and each of us expressed the willingness to sacrifice a job prospect as part of considering the needs of the other person. In this emotional context, my spouse decided he was willing  to move; we also made some choices that allowed the move to be a positive move for him. And there was an awareness that there was a debt that might have to paid later, and was paid later when I absorbed costs I did not want to absorb to permit him to take a job he really wanted that involved traveling while we had small children.

Another issue that can come up that has nothing to do with jobs is where to live. American academics are nomadic and are expected to engage a national market with no regard to the location of their extended families. The academic herself may realize she wants to be close to family, and often a spouse has no particular job issues or constraints but does want to live near family. These issues of “place” also may need to be part of frank discussions in couple decision-making.

I want to reiterate that although I think it is essential for a spousal couple to talk honestly with each about values and priorities and make some joint decisions about how they are going to face the job world, I do not believe they owe it to anyone else to tell outsiders (including their advisors and certainly including potential employers) what those decision rules are, and in many cases it is in their interest to keep their decision rules private.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

3 thoughts on “about spousal hires”

  1. Just want to add a different perspective here–at my institution, spousal hires would only be possible if there happened to be two already-advertised positions. We do have spouses on faculty, but that has happened when a trailing spouse was able to be considered for an advertised job, typically in a subsequent year (or perhaps has picked up some adjuncting for a while). In fact, when I was hired I was told it would be a violation of the nepotism policy for my partner to even receive and hour or so services from the campus career center (my partner is not an academic but would have benefited from a little more knowledge of the local job market before we moved). I totally understand, of course, that this may make us lose good candidates to institutions who can play this game, but I do want job-seekers to know that not all campuses have the flexibility to play at all. If you ask and we say no, it could be because we are a$$h0le$–or it could be because we have absolutely no choice in the matter.


    1. Thanks, Mikaila. As the OP said “Institutions vary greatly in how they handle spousal hires. At one extreme are the dinosaurs that view any spousal hire as unwarranted favoritism.” Agree that some campuses will not help you at all. I think an implication in couple decision-making is that you have to decide whether you will try to identify places with such policies and entirely avoid even applying to them, or immediately decline a job offer if they report that is their policy. These issues are why many academic women end up in big cities. I think my campus decided it “had” to work to accommodate spouses because it is in in a small city with a limited job market and was losing too many top candidates.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I just wanted to note that as someone who spent 20 years at one big public and was department had for 10 years at another, that I agree entirely with olderwoman…my experience is very similar


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