Concerns of a Trailing Spouse

Dear Labby,

My spouse and I are PhD postdocs, working in different labs and currently on the job market for our first independent positions. Although we are at about the same stage in our careers, my spouse’s postdoctoral work has been wildly successful, resulting in four high-impact first-author papers. My spouse interviewed at a top research institution, received a great offer, and is now very keen to accept it. For my spouse’s future research there are great resources and many opportunities for collaboration. My own work has not been quite as successful. I have one published first-author paper and one review article and have one manuscript submitted. My work has also not been quite as impactful as that of my spouse. The institution that made the offer to my spouse is aware of our dual career situation and has offered to work to find a position for me. I think it is unlikely that I would have independently been offered a position from this institution if not for my spouse. That makes me hesitant, since it seems that I am being forced upon them. What should I do?

Trailing Spouse

DEAR Trailing:

Labby congratulates your spouse on getting a great offer from a top research institution. Dual-career situations are extremely common in science, and most institutions have learned to anticipate this issue when they are recruiting. The initial big question is what does the institution mean when it says it will “work to find a position” for you.

First, your spouse must not accept the position until your position is completely worked out and defined on paper. Now is the time that you both have bargaining power. Once your spouse accepts the position, that power is largely lost. If the institution is enthusiastic about hiring your spouse, then they will work to accommodate your needs.

Second, what type of position do you want? If you prefer a position in industry, for example, the institution may not be able to accommodate you, and you should focus on whether or not appropriate opportunities are available nearby. If you prefer an academic position, you must carefully consider what you might be able to accept and still set yourself up for a successful career. At the bottom end an academic institution might offer another postdoctoral position. Or the institution may offer you a non-tenure-track or research assistant professor position. In some institutions, this position allows you to focus wholly on your independent research without teaching obligations. Beware though, in some institutions, such a position carries less independence, requiring you to work under the supervision and control of a senior investigator. Also, this position often requires that you generate your salary entirely from grants.

Overall, if you are planning to do independent research, the major questions you need to ask are the degree to which the institution will provide laboratory space and initial support to get your independent research program off the ground. If you are applying to a medical school, the institution might offer you a position in a clinical department. If your work is translational, the appointment might provide access to clinical collaborators, but sometimes PhDs can find themselves less valued in a clinical department. Whatever the offer, ask to talk with others who hold similar positions at the institution and make sure it is something that you believe will allow you to be successful.

Crucially, your spouse must have your best interests at the top of their priority list, meaning that they must be willing to decline the position if your needs are not met. Finally, do not hold onto the perception that you are being offered a position not because of your own talents but because of those of your spouse. Instead, take up the challenge to demonstrate to your new departmental colleagues what an extraordinarily brilliant decision it was to recruit you when they did.


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