Friday, June 29, 2007

Too Many Couples?

I found this odd article via some blog or other. The anonymous author seems to have a bee in his bonnet about couples getting jobs in academia, and invents a number of of bizarre and implausible excuses to back up his prejudice.

I'll start off by agreeing with one point he makes - it is rather silly for a candidate to keep quiet on the subject up to the point at which a job offer is made, only then to spring the surprise "I need a job for my spouse too". That just wastes everyone's time in the case when a suitable second position is impossible. It may be illegal for interviewers to ask (in some countries: probably not Japan) but that doesn't mean the candidate can't mention it themselves. We have certainly always been upfront about our position: it may have put some people off, but (as I've mentioned before) I think others have seen the obvious benefits of capturing a couple who are likely to settle relatively easily and who are not liable to suddenly get up and leave due to external circumstances To be fair, the author does mention this one point in favour of couples - at least in the particular case where a department has had an excessively high turnover of staff.

On the other hand, given the prejudice the writer shows, maybe candidates feel justified in waiting until they have shown themselves to be the best, before giving the panel a reason to reject them out of hand.

Apparently the biggest reason for not hiring a couple is that he cannot tell whether they will vote together on departmental decisions. If they agree, then their 2 votes carry more weight than one person. Well, they are two people, so that's obvious enough. One could equally argue that if they disagree, then the committee does not benefit from their judgement and they might as well not be there. The author doesn't explain how this is any different from any other random pair of faculty members. I guess in his world view all faculty members are paragons of objective judgement, unless they fall under the spell of a wicked spouse, at which point they lose their critical faculties and do what they are told. Maybe the stupid spouse is told what to do by the clever one - an advantage that other stupid faculty members don't have. Maybe, just maybe, some rational discussion actually results in them agreeing, because the accumulated evidence of their joint experiences supports a particular decision. Rational discussion? Who'd've thunk it?

Better still, another reason for not employing a couple is that they cannot be trusted to keep secrets from each other. I suppose if your authority depends on mushroom management techniques (and although Jamstec has raised this approach to levels I had never imagined possible, it is hardly unheard of in the west), then the concept of staff actually sharing information might well represent a threat.

He emphasises how anyone stupid enough to marry someone in the same field has only brought their troubles on themselves, so they should just put up with whatever they are offered. Well, it's a free market and good candidates can be just as picky as good employers. He might as well have simply advised people to not marry academics at all - which I wouldn't have found grounds to disagree with, what with the low salary and job insecurity etc (#include std.whinge). But that's a general point that goes beyond couples in academia.

He claims that small departments may not be able to function properly with even a single couple, and even a large one won't cope with 3. The number of scientist couples of my acquaintance is very low (I know of a handful by reputation), so I ask if anyone can back up that serious allegation with any specific cases. As far as I can tell, the couples usually make a strong contribution, although whether their relationship actually has a substantial role to play in that is not clear. I would however guess it is usually more of a help than a hindrance, eg in terms of helping effective collaboration and flexibility in coping with workplace pressures.

Maybe I'm reading a bit too much between the lines, but I get the impression of an old middle-class white man who rather likes the old middle-class white man's club that is academia, and who rather wishes that inconvenient things like wives and diversity and lives outside of work didn't interfere with his collegial life. Tough luck, buddy. It's not 1950 any more.


EliRabett said...

As far as hiring goes there are several issues you have not mentioned. First is that the couple may not remain a couple, and may split explosively. Second that one of the couple may be much more skilled than the other. Here is another take

Unknown said...

Thanks for this post, you have brought up an important issue in academia. I will share with my take on this subject, and my personal experiences as Chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech. As chair, I am strongly committed to increasing the diversity of my School and particularly in encouraging the careers of talented young women. Many female academics are married to male academics (the reverse is not particularly true). If you want to hire and retain top female faculty, it is likely that you will have to deal with a faculty position for the spouse (who is often in the same field). In my School, we have a total of 28 faculty members, with 4 couples. I have hired couples where both are strong academically. This has worked very well for our school, we have a stable situation for these faculty members and each is suceeding independently. In summary, I encourage spousal hiring where both faculty members are strong

James Annan said...

Eli, I was mainly addressing the linked artice, not the whole subject.

Yes, couples may split, and that is likely to adversely affect their work for a while, and may cause one to leave. That's pretty much just as true if they have jobs in different areas. I bet workplace affairs are a bigger problem, and having a spouse on the other side of the country (or another country entirely) is hardly free of that risk. Can you show me a single department, anywhere in the world, that embodies his spectre of two or three embittered former couples? There may be one, briefly, before one of them moves on. But two or three, indefinitely? Come off it. It's just absurd scaremongering.

Incidentally, I am horrified by the suggestion (on your link) that people advertise jobs when a spousal hire is already planned. I complained vehemently about a similar policy in a previous job - that was not for spouses, but for converting a contract to a tenured position - and the policy was eventually dropped.

The comment there about "spousal hire doctors" is funny. Of course there are lots of trailing doctors, nurses, teachers, accountants...they heal us, teach our children, etc etc. It's just not so clearly visible, because they can generally find jobs more easily and do not have to arrange it in an up-front manner. The basic problem in academia is the oversupply, not the spouses. In the case where the spouse is good enough to have a job somewhere (which frankly they generally are), they are not unfairly taking a job but are only swapping a distant post for a local one. In fact the couple will overall probably accept a package a little below their overall ability justifies.


Wow - 4 couples. Those pesky different-name types are hard to spot sometimes :-) I guess the stream of high-quality research coming out of your department is a sign of the dysfunctional, cliquey and resentful atmosphere that they generate :-)

EliRabett said...

Hi, Judith was pretty straightforward about both having to be equally strong. You have to remember that Dean Dad and I are not exactly at top twenty places (Judith is) and the situation down here is a LOT different.

As to one of the two spice leaving after a split, first you have the department choosing up sides before one of the two leaves. And then of course, they may not leave, and often when one leaves you are left with the worse of the two. Just saying.

James Annan said...

Actually Judith said "strong" twice, not "equally strong" at all. Good management is about getting the best out of your people, not just hoping to select a winner based on a few minutes perusing their CV and asking trite questions at an interview.

I don't think one can strongly defend the success of a system that puts people like Motl in tenure-track positions in Harvard (for example). He must have done more harm to their reputation than any number of "trailing spouses" could have done. But I'm not saying people should make offers they are not comfortable with, just objecting to the mindset that couples are trouble that is best avoided.

Along with the oversupply, I see the delusions of grandeur of mid-ranking departments as a big part of the problem. They talk in terms of only selecting the "best" and claim that employing a spouse will require them to drop their standards, but by definition most of them can only expect the average. It's always likely to be the people with get up and go who will get up and go, that is why the department is mid-ranking in the first place!

How much of the mediocre dead wood in your department is made up of trailing spouses who were left behind by a breakup? With no a priori knowledge, I'd bet on a big fat zero.

EliRabett said...

On the one hand in mid or lower ranking departments there is often an avoidance of the best on the grounds they will leave. IMHO this is stupid, because these are the people who would actually build the department. If they do a good job they will be lured away, but their association with the department will build the department's reputation, so you hire the next.

In this context you use what you have, and if hiring couples, geography, whatever gives you a leg up you should do it, but you should not be blind to the issues involved.

James Annan said...

I think it may even sometimes be a fear that bright young (or even not so young) things will show up the incumbent mediocrity for what it is.

I once had the experience of not being offered a job because they thought I was too good. Well, perhaps it would be less conceited to say that they had another post about to come up that was better suited to my particular skills. I'm sure they were right, but the lack of open communication - and the fact that they took about 6 months to actually offer me the other job (after the procedure of advertising it and going through another interview etc) - was rather stressful at the time. I ended up basically taking on the earlier job on top of my official one, when their original selection left...