Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for April, 2013

Don’t Assume they Know

Although the two-body problem is obvious to many of us – especially younger and minority applicants – the people who are doing the hiring are not always so with it. This is especially true if your hiring committee is composed of mostly OlderWhiteMales. Most OWMs are not trying to keep out women and minorities, but they are oblivious. Most committees are required to have women or minorities on them, but they might not have a strong voice, if they are a minority voice. Further, they might also be ignorant of university policies or avenues that can lead to a double-hire.

At the BigStateUniversity that my husband and I ended up at, the hiring committee and the department had no idea how to go about trying to get a spousal accommodation. I did a number of things to help them.

First, at my interview, I asked to meet with other women in physical and life sciences. At those meetings, I asked about being a woman at the university, and I found out that several had two-body problems that the university had solved. This gave me evidence that the university could solve the two-body problem and that these other departments knew how to do it.

Second, I talked to the woman on my hiring committee about the possibility of solving the two-body problem during our meeting. I was lucky that she was senior, and she knew a lot about these issues.

Third, we StuckToThePlan. When the department called with the news they would make an offer to me, I asked about my husband’s search. He had a separate interview at the same place. They said that he wasn’t the top candidate. I told them that I would say “no” to all offers unless we had two positions.

After several weeks of chatting with the Department Chair, so he could negotiate with the Dean about my start-up, it became clear that he had no idea how to negotiate for a two-body hire. I told them it had to be possible because other departments had done it recently. I gave them the department names of the women I had talked to. I contacted the senior woman on my search committee, and asked her to talk to my chair about different options they could exercise. With her help, they figured out how to approach the Dean, and were able to make the spousal hire. HusbandOfScience did not get to negotiate for start-up. They gave him the same package as the theorist they hired for the same position for which he interviewed. Other than that, the solution at BigStateUniversity was ideal. We have been very successful.

Stick to the Plan

When you are trying to solve the two-body problem, you need a plan. Just as important is to stick to the plan. HusbandOfScience and I are big planners. We knew we both wanted tenure track positions, and we knew we wanted to stay together. Our plan was that we would not take positions apart. These seems simple, but when offers start coming in, it is easy to be tempted to stray.

In our case, we AppliedEarlyAppliedOften, and we could stay at our current positions for another year. It was easy to say no. I told offers that I would say “No” to anything that wasn’t two positions. When I got a couple offers, I started playing one off the other. If my husband had received offers, he would have begun the same process.

This process takes trust. My husband trusted that I would not take a job without a job for him. I trusted that he would not take a job without a job for me. Luckily, you have plenty of time to negotiate, so you don’t have to say yes right away. It is also helpful because playing hard to get is good for negotiating.

Remember that during the negotiations is the only time you have any power. At my interview at BigCityPrivateUniversity, the department chair told me that “anything” is negotiable. For BigCity, we had to stipulate housing, and he was trying to say we should negotiate for better housing. Some people negotiate for better parking, I negotiated my husband’s position.

Through everything, the most important thing was to stick to our plan. As soon as you accept a position, you lose your bargaining power.  You cannot take a position and hope to get a second one later. You will have no power later unless you get a second job. At one point, the chair of BigCityPrivateUniversity said that, even though they would only give HusbandOfScience a soft money research professor job, I should still take their job. I said, “You are asking me to destroy my husband’s career for my own.” Of course, he was. Probably a “traditional” candidate may have done this, but we made a plan, and we stuck to it. I think we made the right choice since we are both doing better together, working as a team at home and in science.

Other Ways: Lessons Learned

Although we were successful at solving the two-body problem by applying at the same time, we also learned of another way to go about it. While I was on my second interview at MiddleRoadIvyLeagueInstitution, I told the chair that (1) I was pregnant (more on that in other posts), (2) I had a husband who needed a tenure track position, too, and (3) I had two other offers. They were most concerned about the other offers, especially since one was in the BigCity, also.  This motivated them to try to solve problem 2. After searching, they found that MiddleRoadIvyLeagueInstitution had a policy of allowing lateral moves for spouses. This meant that, if HusbandOfScience was already a professor, they would give him a professor job. Since he was currently a postdoc, they would only give him a postdoc.  Thus, we learned that there was another way to do this – the leading spouse could pull in an older, trailing spouse.

I should mention that this does not always work because some places are not as open to bringing in a senior person as a trailing, but MiddleRoadIvyLeagueInstitution was up for it. If this had been our case, and we had gone there, I have no idea how this type of trailing spouse is treated or feels. I have a friend who recently moved as a SeniorTrailingSpouse, and it doesn’t seem to be super great there, but it has barely been a year, so maybe it will get better. Hopefully, my friend will be able to post about her solution to the Two-Body Problem herself.

One Solution: Apply Early, Apply Often

The two-body problem. This is a physics-term given to a wide-spread issue in science of finding two academic positions in the same geographic area. I will have a lot of information about the two-body problem, which will be tagged in various posts. This is not a woman-only problem. This is a family problem. It tears apart families, makes single moms about a leading edge scientists, and is often hard to solve. For other helpful information on this issue, see FSP.

Some good news: The awareness of this problem has increased and many universities are implementing spousal accommodation policies.

I will tell you about one solution that my husband and I came up with. I hope others will contribute their ideas as guest bloggers, too. I call this plan the “Apply Early, Apply Often” Strategy. Basically, we went on the market at each level at the same time and applied every place that was open.

Apply Early: We also went on the market early for tenure-track jobs. Our plan was to try to get interviews the first year, so we could practice interviewing. We assumed we wouldn’t get positions, and the next year we would be simultaneously on the market for tenure track and new postdocs. Many people do two postdocs, and we didn’t know if that would happen to us or not. We had a plan that included a lot of if-then decision branches. We lucked out and got jobs on our first time out, but it was not expected.

Apply Often: We sent out at least 20-25 applications each. We targeted places that had two posted openings. We each got 4-6 interviews at really great places. In the end, I got a couple offers that I was able to play off each other in order to pull my husband into a tenure-track position at the same institution as myself. This took negotiating skills, which are essential in every aspect of high-level careers – in academia or industry. There will be many posts about the importance and the how to of negotiating. More information on our solution will come in future posts!

Giving Back

Part of the reason why I became a professor was to help people. I love to mentor students. Recently, as I am at the precipice of achieving tenure, I have felt the need to give back to other women in academic science. I hope this blog helps you. Plus, I am happy to have others add their comments and ideas to the blog to help others.

Scientists are well-known critics. We are raised to be critical, but I want this blog to be a spot for positive help. I am reserving the right to remove overtly negative and unhelpful comments. Further, despite the fact that everyone – men and women – have a higher bar for women, I have found most women in science to be extremely competent and excellent. I hope this blog will be a place for women to support women. This is a place to celebrate how amazing women in science really are. I have found other women in science blogs helpful, such as FemaleScienceProfessor, and I hope that this blog can be as successful as that one was/is.

Further, the issues raised in this blog are not for women only – but for people who want a balance between work and life. But, I want to say that choosing career does not make you a bad parent. I hope to have posts about the guilt felt by being a mother with a career and to let other know that you are a great parent – even if you have a career.

With that, I toast to my imminent tenure and this new blog – a new era to mentoring!

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