Tenured Tammy: giving up tenure for love?

Well, not exactly, but read on anyway.  From the mailbag at Historiann HQ:

I am a tenured assoc. professor at a mid-level university in what would generally be regarded as a decent location. I’m applying for a job at a decent SLAC in what would also be regarded by most as a decent location. While this is a fine job, the only reason I’m applying for it at this juncture in my career is because they also hiring in my husband’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) field, where his skills put him at a relative advantage in the job market (at least compared to a humanities Ph.D. like me).  He is just finishing his Ph.D., and is applying for entry-level assistant professorships.

My question is, how do I word the cover letter to convey my willingness to accept a demotion without being presumptuous or insulting?  (Since this is clearly not Harvard, they won’t assume that it’s natural for me to want to take an untenured position there.)  Should I be up-front about my ‘two-body problem?’  Should my husband mention it in his letter?

Your thoughts, Historiann?


Tenured Tammy

My advice, Tammy, is to be totally up-front about your personal situation.  Since you’re tenured and apparently are happy enough in your present position, it’s best not to let search committees fill in the blanks as to why you’re seeking what amounts to a demotion at another college in another part of the country.  (Has she been terminated for moral turpitude?  Is she just a bitch-on-wheels?  Are the villagers with pitchforks running her out of town?  I’m afraid the reasons they’ll imagine or invent won’t be flattering to you, human nature being what it is.)

I also think honesty is the best policy in this case, because if being up front about your personal situation is a problem, then you won’t be happy working in that environment.  You’re in a different situation than two unemployed people seeing entry-level positions within a reasonable proximity.  You’ve got a job, and a tenured one at that.  You’ve got nothing to lose by putting all your cards on the table, whereas I generally think it’s best for the Unemployed Ursulas not to mention two-body problems unless and until there’s an indication that a search committee is interested.  In those cases, I think it’s best to let the hiring department get invested in Ursula’s candidacy and get excited about the prospect of hiring Ursula, wonderful Ursula, before Ursula lets them in on some of the complications that may involve.

But, I realize that I’m just thinking about Tammy here.  As a tenured Associate Professor myself, perhaps I’m too concerned about giving strangers on the search committee something to gossip about.  Readers, do you have other advice?  Do you recognize Tammy’s plight, either as a job-seeker who gave up tenure or as someone on a search committee?  Am I dooming Mr. Tammy’s career by counseling such shameless honesty?  How would you finesse this to the benefit of both job-seekers?

0 thoughts on “Tenured Tammy: giving up tenure for love?

  1. I have not been in this exact position either as a candidate or on a search committee. However, I have done enough searches and had enough students on the job market to know that sometimes funds for bringing people to campus are very limited. If Mr. T already had a job offer there, I think it would be a plus (hey, if we invest in bringing her to campus, and decide we want her, she’s likely to come!) However, at this point he is only an applicant. One would hope they would call the other department and say “Is Mr. T one of your top candidates, because it looks like this situation might give us both a chance to get good people,” but it’s also highly possible that they will say “Too iffy, too much trouble.”

    What I would suggest is along the lines of: “Although I am quite happy professionally at Current University, I have compelling personal reasons for wishing to move to the SLACtown area and am therefore applying for this position in the awareness that it is an untenured assistant professorship.” I don’t think this will occasion too much gossip–they may speculate as to whether it is a partner or an elderly parent you want to be near, but it would be pretty clear that it’s something like that.


  2. How likely is it that Husband will get hired there – is it just one of his 50 applications, or what?

    I more or less ditto Ruth and she has good phrasing. But another scenario could be to wait and see if they are seriously interested in him. At that point apply. A nice scenario would be that if he goes there, they have Tenured come in as a visiting for a year and then hire Tenured to tenure. Or else to the tenure track.

    We got a letter a while back from someone in a similar situation. She said in her letter that family reasons were bringing her to our area. This particular candidate didn’t end up making the short list for reasons of field but if she had, those family reasons would have been a plus. We’d have said, good, she’s serious about coming, she’s not just testing the waters. There’s nothing to lose by being up front in these situations.


  3. I think these issues are tricky on all sides. Applicants hope that separate departments will coordinate their searches, but that probably won’t happen (unless there’s an explicit program to do so already in place), if for no other reason than they almost certainly are each (and separately) committed to identifying their top applicants, and who one is partners with is rarely if ever a relevant criterion. Even two searches in one department are probably unlikely to do that kind of coordinating, meaning that the “too iffy, too much trouble” comment will probably never even be uttered, because the “compelling personal reasons,” whether specified or not, are unlikely to affect how the file gets evaluated in all the early rounds. And if the candidate is strong enough to be a finalist, that kind of iffy-ness is clearly out of the picture already.

    And even if one partner gets an offer, different schools will have a broad spectrum of supplemental offers they
    might extend to partners, if they can offer anything at all. My experience has not been as “nice” as the “nice scenario” described by Z–but I’m still hopeful for the future.

    I like the language offered by Ruth (indeed, I may use a version of Ruth’s language in my own job searching this year), but the best advice I would give to the Tammys would be for both to be the strongest candidates possible.

    One bit of “academic folklore” that I recently heard was that search committees will simply discard overqualified candidates from their pools, regardless of whether or not their letters explicitly state that they’re interested in the job as advertised. Let’s hope it’s not true.

    Good luck to the Tammys, I say.


  4. Thanks, everyone, for your thought on this. I also think that Ruth’s somewhat vaguer language than I suggested hits the mark. Z’s scenario is optimistic–but it could happen, right? Maybe the trick is in letting the STEM department get invested in Mr. Tammy first.

    Tom, in my experience, the academic folklore you recount is not true (at least, not in my department). My department brought in an “overqualified” candidate to campus for an interview more than once. We looked at their applications as a real bonus–the opportunity to hire someone who was writing a second book already and an experienced teacher for an assistant professor slot. (We even hired one of these people!) However, neither of these candidates had tenure at their institutions when we hired them–they had moved around a few times already, and so were untenured at their current institutions (although clearly tenureable just about anywhere.)


  5. Yeah, a willingness to surrender tenure might well be an invitation to the sort of gossipy “fill[ing] in the blanks” behavior that Historiann warns about. But the “overqualified” trope is just nuts. One of the unexamined truths of the academic trades is that function is fungible through the ranks, rather than variable. That is, you do essentially the same things the week before you retire from your last job as you did the week after you figured out where the bathrooms are on your first one (presumably late in the semester in question in both cases!). Hopefully you do them much better, but essentially you do the same things. Whereas in actual industries, promotion is virtually always to a different “job,” often to a different town, generally to a different physical office space, and usually to a different matrix of responsibilities, privileges, supervisory regimes, and access to crucial gradations of the “firm’s” best “customers,” etc. It would be hard to map much of this complexity onto the existing system of academic rankings. The current president of the AHA could reasonably well next year move and effectively “assist” in a department in a remote, under-resourced state teachers college somewhere. Ze might well go bonkers, to be sure, and/or give anxiety fits to hir new colleagues by blurring the totemic cluster of already-murky status markers that we learn to read and function with. But it wouldn’t be quite like a global brand manager/VP in some corporation firing up a cash resister at a dollar store.

    So kudos to Historiann’s department for intuiting this obscure fact in practice, rather than just theory. Maybe we should be training search committees to think more rationally and effectively rather than coaching candidates about how to write more nuanced application letters?


  6. The only reason I’ve ever seen an overqualified candidate not considered is if the committee was unimpressed for some other reason.

    I think, DEFINITELY let the STEM department get interested in Mr. Tammy first. Maybe my experience is unusual, but I see these sorts of arrangements made quite regularly. Not for everyone – both candidates have to be good, and fit, and so on. But department chairs *do* coordinate searches and I notice institutions see a lot of advantages: they figure they won’t lose either person, they know that the two will share expenses so it will be either easier to get them at lower prices OR their standard of living will be higher than if one comes alone, so they’ll be happier, etc.


  7. And not to mention, they’ll be happier living together than commuting between distant cities! Thanks, Z, for the reassurance that “overqualified” people are considered in other departments/institutions.

    Indyanna, you’re exactly right that the job description is mostly static compared to people in other professions. I think this is why people sometimes suffer from “post-tenure letdown,” or as in the case of a friend of mine, “post-tenure rage!” It’s the realization that your “promotion” entitles you to do the dumb things you had to do as an assistant professor (only with the added “plus” of more service work, usually). Other people in other lines of work get a NEW JOB when they get a promotion. We’re grudgingly permitted to keep our jobs.


  8. I vote for on the side of those waiting to see if Mr. Tammy gets some interest. It is unlikely, I would have to say, for a SLAC (or anyone else) to be able to cope with the idea of someone starting out all over again on the tenure-track. While the situation makes sense in a way, in another way it doesn’t, and academics will have trouble wrapping their heads around someone wanting to begin all over again as an assistant professor, marriage or no marriage. Why, exactly, are you throwing a wrench in your career for your husband? Doesn’t it make more sense for you to go on the market and be you, and then bring him along as trailing spouse, either where you work now or somewhere else? Am I missing something?

    Go to the chair you have now, explain the issue and say you regret you will have to go on the market unless they are able to do something. This strikes me as easier than a complicated dance with complete strangers who have no reason to care about the well-being of either one of you.

    Good luck


  9. This comment isn’t specific to the operational question of what Tammy should do in this specific situation. Indeed, she should probably make a tactically-cautious and fairly conventional opening move (chess-wise) rather than a philosophically-interesting but ambiguously bold one that might confuse an SLAC. But on the larger question: in dynamic societies or economies people make all sorts of mobility decisions and trade-offs all the time. Different geography for less money (Ken Griffey, Jr.); bigger challenges for more risk; new interest in gardening sub-arctic perennial species; late emerging location-specific environmental allergies, or whatever. When they go to work they bring whatever market bushel of skills they had before. Employers sometimes (maybe even often) will see opportunities for themselves in playing the interstitial “float” in these situations. They only look weird to academics because of all of the oddly cultish or vestigially medieval things we do in other spheres of our tribal practice.

    A hiring authority–whether a search committee or a grizzled HR operative–probably should look less at what it can wrap its head(s) around than at the empirical utilities of the factors of production in a specific transaction. i.e., if you can get extra experience or diversity of perspective at presumably a somewhat lower price, that might be the preemptively smart move to make. The counterintuitive applicant in question might even confidently be predicted to make bolder moves, with bigger payoffs, in places where it really counts academically, whether that be the classroom or the investigative archive and laboratory environment.

    Back to Tammy: I just walked back from a conference in West Philly to downtown with a cluster of scholars from various institutions. The question of spousal searches, hires, retention strategies, etc. came up, independent of this specific thread. Hard to summarize any consensus, but I thought I was hearing somewhat more anecdotal negatives than positives about the practical outcomes of the category as a whole. But some of both, to be sure.


  10. Thanks for stopping by to comment, Tenured Radical. Tammy, TR asks a great question: why not approach your current institution and ask if there’s anything it can do for you? They’re already invested in you–why wouldn’t they want to keep you around (or at least avoid having to search your position again? Unless the peasants with pitchforks really are trying to run you out of town?)

    It seems like the easiest thing to do, compared to both of you schlepping it on the job market.

    And you’re right, Indyanna: “They only look weird to academics because of all of the oddly cultish or vestigially medieval things we do in other spheres of our tribal practice.” We do have an exotic job search culture. In what other lines of work would expertise be looked at as though it were a bad thing in an applicant?


  11. I hope Tenured Tammy doesn’t sacrifice her career because of her partner. Her partner should follow her. I agree with the Radical’s advice, which might be a good first step. But, let’s be honest, I don’t have a clue.

    OT @Indyanna: Did you go to the Antipopery Conference? How was Milton’s keynote?


  12. Ortho: I don’t think Tammy is looking to “sacrifice” her career. I think she’s trying to ensure the happiness of her husband and her marriage. I too hope this doesn’t necessitate a harsh either/or choice for her, but I think it’s wrong to assume that one’s independent career equals happiness. I think that’s sometimes a big mistake that academics make, thinking that the key to their happiness equals a job, or a better job, or tenure, or this book or that book getting published. Love and family count, too.

    One or both partners in academic couples have to make sacrifices in order to have both careers and a life together. I know lots of women who have agreed to play second-banana to their husbands’ careers, and fewer men who have done the same for their wives. But, Tammy’s husband chose his graduate institution in part because of its proximity to Tammy’s school (her e-mail above was redacted). It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me that he should hit the job market and see what comes up.


  13. Ortho: Yes, that’s the conference I went to, although I only went to the last afternoon sessions, since I wasn’t in town before that–plus the closing reception, of course. What I saw of it was very interesting.

    The discussants on the way back into town included people who had negotiated spousal/partner hiring situations, late stage dissertators imminently facing the same, and people who had transacted them on the hiring side for departments. The conclusion wasn’t all that forlorn, just very cognizant of all of the hurdles and snags on all sides. Let’s hope the current economic meltdown doesn’t render all of this business academic, as it were. In the early ’90s (remember, Historiann?) there were several years in a row with lots of announced searches followed by lots of announced search terminations. Maybe the Treasury Dept. can buy a few thousand tenure-track openings from hurting universities and auction them off?


  14. I remember the 1990s well, Indyanna. I think I got offered (and accepted) one of those 1990s jobs that SHOULD have been terminated mid-year! Sucks for me, I guess.

    I like your idea of a buyout for tenure-track slots. The commonwealth will be so much better off if all history departments get an increase of 20% in the number of regular faculty they have, courtesy of the Federal Government. I love it, in fact! My department would get at least 5 more hires. (Oh, wait–that would probably mean that I’d have to chair a search committee. Cancel that!)


  15. One bit of “academic folklore” that I recently heard was that search committees will simply discard overqualified candidates from their pools, regardless of whether or not their letters explicitly state that they’re interested in the job as advertised. Let’s hope it’s not true.

    In my experience, it’s true, at least if “overqualified” means “already holding a higher rank than the advertised position”. One reason is concern for appearances: if you hire a previously tenured professor from a comparable institution into an untenured position, it looks like you are exploiting this person. It doesn’t matter whether the arrangement was acceptable to everyone directly involved, since most onlookers won’t have any way of knowing that. The net effect is that this sort of situation always makes the department look a little worse.

    A second reason is concern about being taken advantage of. The applicant may cheerfully accept an untenured position and then complain bitterly about the unfairness a year later, and may even have intended to do so all along. Administrators often find this argument compelling, especially since the department sometimes colludes with the applicant. If the administration won’t approve a tenured hire the department wants to make, one way around it is to make an unusually senior tenure-track hire and then shortly thereafter assert that equitable treatment requires granting tenure now rather than in six years. The fairness argument really is rather compelling, but that means administrators are unwilling to let the situation arise in the first place. Unfortunately, there’s no credible way to say “Gee, I promise I’ll never argue that my experience merits earlier promotion than you originally had in mind for this job.”

    A third reason is that mere willingness to accept a demotion looks bad to some people. If you say “Of course, I’d require a tenured position” it sounds confident and reinforces the idea that you are a valuable scholar. If you say “Please hire me! I’ll take whatever I can get” it sounds desperate and undermines your bargaining position. Of course, not everyone will be influenced by this, but just a few key people can sink an application.

    So overall I’m not optimistic about this approach. I’d actually suggest that Tammy follow the opposite route (as Tenured Radical suggested). Academia is just not set up to handle tenured professors as “trailing spouses” of untenured professors, but the opposite is quite common.


  16. I do think it is important to note that Tammy is in a very limited field, with very few job openings a year. In contrast, her husband has a lot more opportunities. While it does make sense for her to be the lead spouse because she is further along in her career, the very small number of job openings in her field every year makes getting any position a long shot, much less a position at an institution capable of making a spousal hire.


  17. I do think it is important to note that Tammy is in a very limited field, with very few job openings a year. In contrast, her husband has a lot more opportunities. While it does make sense for her to be the lead spouse because she is further along in her career, the very small number of job openings in her field every year makes getting any position a long shot, much less a position at an institution capable of making a spousal hire.

    That’s true, but it’s fully symmetrical. Just because her husband finds a job at some school, it’s no more likely that they will have a position for Tammy than that any other school would. (Well, maybe if her husband is a superstar, the school will be so excited to get him that they will generate a second position for Tammy from scratch. If that is true, then it is clearly the right way to go.) So the lack of positions in Tammy’s field is going to cut down the possibilities a lot, regardless of whether this filter is applied first or second.


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