Friday, 20 May 2016 13:46

When to Bring Up Spousal Hiring

Like ~ 80% of other women in STEM disciplines, I am married to another PhD. We are both biologists and often collaborate together, but have very different research programs. He's now tenured and I am a post-doc. We would like to move closer to family, so I am applying for academic jobs and have had several on-campus interviews. When would you recommend bringing up the spousal hire situation? For each interview, I've done this at different times depending on the feel and size of the institution and/or when the illegal questions are asked. I've heard many different philosophies on this and still cannot make a decision as to which is the best way to proceed, assuming I get another interview.

When should an applicant divulge their marital status? We all know it is illegal to inquire about marital status, however some entities ignore the rule or more commonly an interviewer inadvertently introduces the topic. Can there be advantages to discussing marital status and issues of a trailing spouse in advance?

Microbe Mentor reached out to several colleagues to gather their responses about how to handle this situation so many of us have faced.  Beth Lazazzera, an Associate Professor at University of California – Los Angeles, comments “I think the best time to tell an institution about your spouse who will also need a new job is once you have an offer.  It is very natural for the issue of being married to come up during informal discussions.” 

There may be an advantage to broaching the topic of a trailing spouse as it may give the hiring institution more time to come up with a position for the spouse.  Dr. Lazazzera continues, “However, too early on in the interview process, and the possibility of having to find a position for a spouse can inadvertently cause your application to be looked at less favorably.  Thus, I would argue that it is best to bring this up after the offer is made.”

Dr. Amy Cheng Vollmer, Professor and Chair of Biology at Swarthmore College, concurs and advises “to have nothing about the spouse [mentioned] in any documents:  cover letter, recommendation letters, etc.  Let the candidate's own merits alone get her the interview.  In most cases, I would not even mention it during the interview; instead nail the job lecture/talk!”  

Dr. Vollmer further notes that you should consider the employer’s hiring atmosphere in general.  “Spousal hire is always tricky, especially at small schools where faculty positions cannot be generated quickly.  But even small schools in and near metro areas are in contact with other institutions. Assistance with spousal employment is definitely possible.”

In the event that marital status is brought up during the interview – even though it should be off-limits – Dr. Vollmer comments that “instead of volunteering information, the candidate should ask how the institution assisted spousal employment cases in their previous 3 or 4 hires.  Not only in that department, but at the institution.  That gives the candidate a great deal of information - she should not volunteer much about her spouse, unless the chair of the search committee is sounding very positive.”

As someone who has worked to recruit faculty members,  Dr. Victor DiRita, Michigan State University, thinks that having that information when candidates are coming for a second visit, even before an offer is made, works in their best interest.  “That way, we can identify potential employment arrangements for the spouse prior to his or her joining in on the second visit - which is typical - and their day(s) during the visit can be spent talking to the right people and sharing their CV or resume around.  Waiting until an offer is actually on the table means we've lost a lot of time that could have been spent working on something for the spouse.  In recruiting a candidate, I think the second visit is really a chance for us to recruit the spouse; the more we do on that front ahead of the visit, the better off both we and the candidate will be.”

Ultimately any hire should reflect the job seeker and their skills, not their marital status.  How to deal with a trailing spouse is a common issue in faculty hires, and so departments are prepared for these scenarios. There may be a handful of situations however, where revealing information about one’s partner may actually yield a benefit.  Dr. Wade E. Bell, Director, Virginia Military Institute Research Labs, has hired faculty at multiple institutions over the past twenty years, and offers this perspective: “I have seen in several cases a search committee swayed by a candidate who has revealed that their partner is already a good fit for the community and will not need any special consideration. This behavior can be accentuated following a failed search that had trailing partner issues as a component of the recruitment failure. We all want to hire the best candidate, however many searches yield several highly desirable choices. It is not inappropriate for a candidate to use any appealing aspect of their overall fit for a job given the increasingly competitive market”


Beth Lazazzera has been a professor at UCLA for 15 years, where she runs a research lab and mentored undergraduate researchers, graduate students, and postdocs.  She has also taught classes to undergraduates about Microbiology and to graduate students about Genetics.

Amy Cheng Vollmer has been teaching in a small liberal arts setting since 1985.  She encourages the practice of networking and mentoring for professionals at all levels of training.  She believes that establishing a healthy work-family balance should be a high priority.

Wade E. Bell, Ph.D. is a Professor of Biology at the Virginia Military Institute and Director of VMI Research Labs.  His specialty is eukaryotic microbiology.  In addition to serving as Chair of ASM’s Student Membership Committee, he also represents the Virginia Branch as Councilor at ASM’s Council Policy Committee.

Victor J. DiRita is a Professor of Microbiology and Immunology and Associate Dean for Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies at University of Michigan Medical School, and Chair of the ASM Membership Board. He studies biology and pathogenicity of the human intestinal pathogens Vibrio cholerae and Campylobacter jejuni. He has worked closely with faculty, trainees, and professional development staff to encourage and support career preparation activities by pre- and postdoctoral trainees. In June 2015 he will join the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Michigan State University as Rudolph Hugh Professor and Chair.

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