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The Next Step in the Two-Body Problem
ACADEMIC COUPLES know all too well the dif- ficulties of having two bodies involved in a job search. Let’s suppose for a moment that a couple has located two good positions at the same institution, in two different departments. One person, however, has administrative aspira-
tions and moves into departmental leadership with significant
success. An opening comes up at the next level of leadership—a
deanship or even a vice presidency. That raises the next step of
the two-body problem: nepotism
Many institutions have rules
prohibiting one member of a
couple from being in a supervisory position over his or her part-
ner. That conflict of interest can be sidestepped at low levels
of administration, but the higher the position in the academic
hierarchy, the more complicated the situation becomes. And if
the couple is trying to move to a new institution, with one part-
ner seeking a top leadership post, the complications become
even greater. At small institutions, in particular, it is difficult to
create a position for the trailing spouse if that position will be
housed in a department supervised by the partner.
What advice might you offer to an administrative hopeful
whose next step on the career ladder would put him or her in a
supervisory position over a partner or spouse? Do you know of
examples of this—for ill or for good?
O visit chronicle.
GENE C. FANT JR.
When my husband was head of school, I arranged
to report to a different supervisor who reported directly on my
work to the trustees. The issue here is keeping the marriage out
of the supervisory hierarchy, and I’m sure there are various
possibilities for doing exactly that.
It’s not only having a spousal relationship in the
supervisory hierarchy that is a potential problem and prima fa-
cie conflict of interest. Having couples in the same department
is an arrangement the wise will avoid.
I have seen many couples in the same department
do very well. Evaluation may have to be farmed out to a chair of
an allied department, but so what? Yes, couples can break up,
sometimes creating problems, but they are also easier to retain.
Many colleagues fall out even if they are not romantically in-
volved. Anyway, what do you do if two coworkers meet and hit it
off once they are already hired? Throw one down a well? Smart
people often pair with other smart people. That can be a great
opportunity for institutions.
Our HR office does not allow anyone to supervise
a relative or significant other. Period. Plain and simple. I’d tell
any couple to check into this long before going down this road if
it is a deal-breaker.
The reality for many institutions may also mean very strict
rules on any positions created as well, particularly if those
aren’t going to be publicly posted.
I can tell you that in the one instance I experienced at anoth-
er institution where a new dean was hired and an administra-
tive position for his wife was created in a different department,
it was a total morale killer for his department and hers. They
lasted maybe a year and a half.
No easy answers here, no categorical policies that
provide justice and compassion. For every example of a situa-
tion that worked there is an example of disaster.
My husband and I are at the same institution,
but were in different colleges when I was dean. That worked
fine. However, I’ve lived through some version of the horror
stories involving partners in the same department. For a while,
as dean, I took on supervision of the wife of a chair. She was
adjuncting in his department. Both were good, well-intentioned
people, but it ended up being a convoluted mess that we all
agreed to end after one semester.
Gene C. Fant Jr. is vice president for academic administration
at Union University, in Jackson, Tenn.
Choosing an Adviser to Help You Leave Academe
MAN Y, IF NO T MOST, doctoral students enter graduate school with the hope of becom- ing faculty members. But when graduate students at the University of California at Berkeley recently hosted a conference on finding nonacademic jobs, it sold out.
According to a Berkeley news release, “a study published
last year in the journal
suggests that only 20 percent of
U.S. doctoral students in science,
technology, engineering, and
mathematics will land a tenure-
track position within four to six years of completing a Ph.D.
Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation reported that in
2009 nearly 50,000 students earned Ph.D.’s in the U.S., the
highest number ever recorded. And, between 2005 and 2009,
American universities conferred 100,000 doctoral degrees but
only 16,000 new professorships, according to the 2010 book
Higher Education?: How College Are Wasting Our Money and
Failing Out Kids—and What We Can Do About It.
So what if you are not in the top 20 percent, or just don’t
want to work in academe?
I switched advisers during my second year of graduate
school. I moved from synthetic organic chemistry, where I could
have easily landed an industrial job without doing a postdoc-
toral fellowship, to photophysical chemistry. My job prospects
dimmed considerably. So I reluctantly looked for a postdoctoral
assignment, but I was careful in doing so. I selected one with
an eye toward maximizing my chances of landing the industrial
research-and-development job that I wanted at the time.
So what should you look for if you want a postdoctoral ad-
viser in the sciences who can help you land a nonacademic job?
Here are some tips:
O Look for (relatively) applied research. Look for research that
can create products in addition to theories.
O Look at the adviser’s sources of money. Is the adviser doing
any sponsored research for corporations? If so, chances are that
corporation may consider hiring his or her Ph.D.’s.
O Some faculty members keep a list of former students and
postdocs, with their current place of employment. Ask to see it.
These are people you may be reaching out to for a job. Look for
diversity on the list—people who have all come from the same
adviser but have found jobs in industry, government, and
nontraditional career tracks (like patent law or technology trans-
O Be upfront in your interviews about your desire for a nonaca-
demic job, and only accept a postdoc with an adviser who is will-
ing to support you in that type of job search.
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Gina Stewart has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the
University of Texas at Austin. She is the chief executive and a
founder of Arctic Inc., which develops sustainable methods of
weed control for turf and agriculture. She is writing a series of
posts about nonacademic careers for Ph.D.’s in the sciences.
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