Dual Career Couples in Academia

ASLO Ethics Forum

This series of articles is published in the Limnology and Oceanography Bulletin and on the ASLO website. The ASLO Professional Ethics Committee receives and deals with inquiries regarding ethical dilemmas and issues, and selected topics will be published here.

Do you have a question? Contact the Professional Ethics Committee at [email protected].


Dual career couples will be subject to and the subject of a variety of political, legal and practical constraints over the courses of their careers, especially if they are employed by the same institution. Here, we explore some of the ethical questions that couples, colleagues and administrators are confronted with while working to accommodate dual careers within the constraints of equal opportunity laws at academic institutions.

Long hours in the field and lab provide unparalleled opportunities for the leisure-challenged nascent scientist to meet a life partner, and the first strong drawbacks of the arrangement are often not felt until the job-search stage. Here, the most common question is "When do I tell the search committee that I hope that the institution will hire my spouse as well"? The applicant is wondering whether to negotiate in good faith by explaining the situation up front and thereby risk never getting an interview or whether to maintain some element of power by presenting this condition to the potential employer after an offer is made. In a recent email exchange in the online Chronicle of Higher Education (Chronicle Forums 2008), applicants overwhelmingly felt that the best strategy was to wait until a job offer was made while those involved in searches favored an early disclosure of the spousal hire issue.

Realistically, legal and practical concerns involved in a job search take precedence over the ethical conundrum that the applicant is experiencing. This is especially true if the applicant is envisioning a tenure track position for his or her partner. Equal opportunity laws prevent jobs from being earmarked for a specific candidate. Thus, even if a second tenure track position is available, there is no guarantee that the original applicant's spouse would be deemed by the department, chair, dean and affirmative action to be the most qualified and suitable candidate. Furthermore, tenure track positions are not readily available and there is generally extensive discussion and negotiation within a department to identify the most necessary research area in which to hire. Although revealing the desire for a spousal hire early in the application process may indeed reduce the number of interviews and job offers that either member of a couple receives, waiting until the end of the interview process to broach the topic is extremely unlikely to increase the chances of acquiring two positions at a single institution. A more productive strategy may be to target institutions that would be substantially improved by the addition of both applicants areas of expertise. Also, institutions that are strongly committed to increasing the number of women on the faculty may be more amenable to the possibility of a dual hire. Under these circumstances, broaching the spousal hire issue early in the interview process may result in broader departmental support for the potential dedication (and definition) of a second tenure track line. It also gives the chair adequate opportunity to argue for an additional hire and to adhere to the legal guidelines for the hire.

Most often, couples arrive at an institution with only one tenure track position and a partner who is optimistic about making the best of the situation and continuing his/her career. A variety of unanticipated political and ethical concerns ensue. This is especially true if the couple shares a research expertise and is working in the same lab. If the tenure-track faculty member seeks to hire the spouse, he or she may be prevented from doing so by the institution's nepotism policy. The spouse may choose to work without compensation, which can further his/her career in the short-term and is unlikely to be discouraged by the university. But this is both untenable and exploitative in the long term. Alternatively, the spouse may be hired by the department as an adjunct or instructor and work in his/her spare time on research. If this research is sufficiently independent from the tenure-track spouse, such a strategy is unlikely to cause concern. However, if the research supports the faculty partner, this may be perceived by other junior faculty as an unfair departmental subsidy to an untenured colleague. Ultimately, lack of compensation for work is probably a larger ill than any unfairness to other colleagues, but couples should be cognizant of ethical concerns regarding work and compensation arrangements. Furthermore, an unambiguous record of intellectual contributions to papers should be maintained by both partners for tenure and promotion purposes.

Over time, non-tenure track spouses may successfully develop and maintain a long-term independent research program by procuring their own grants. The insecurity of being on soft money is often compounded by a lack of recognition from the institution. Peers may unfairly exacerbate this situation by assuming that it is lack of research potential that prevents the trailing spouse from gaining a solid position. In fact, there is probably little incentive for the institution to commit anything more to the couple unless they both threaten to leave.

Although the deck may seem stacked against dual career couples, academia may actually be more willing than businesses or governments to hire couples within the same department. Early career couples should realize that genuine good will towards accommodating couples usually exists side-by side with strong competing agendas. It is a fact of academic life that professionals increasingly come in pairs, and institutions need to take the lead in constructing nepotism policies that do not ultimately encourage exploitation of or discrimination against spouses. Women scientists are much more likely than men to have a spouse who is also a scientist (National Science Foundation 1996). As such, the success of universities at hiring and retaining women faculty may hinge upon the ability of an institution to legally negotiate spousal hires in a manner that is not ethically offensive to or discriminatory against other employees and yet provides equitable compensation for research conducted at and attributed to the institution.


Chronicle Forums. 2008. Spousal Hire Issue. Available online at

National Science Foundation. 1996. Science Resource Statistics: Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science. Available online at

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