Will my spouse be able to find a job around here? For faculty candidates at Virginia Tech, it's an essential question — and a potential dealbreaker for hiring.

Even a die-hard Hokie like Greg Carter ‘97, who was recruited in 2021 to join Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus as director of strategic enrollment communications and marketing, hesitated to say yes before he knew if his wife, Michelle, could grow her career in the New River Valley, too. 

What eased the Carters' minds was Virginia Tech's Dual Career Program and its menu of career services designed to help the spouses and partners of newly hired faculty find satisfying work, on campus or off. “Essentially the Dual Career Program is an immediate network,” said Michelle Carter. “All of a sudden, I had somebody who was knowledgeable, who knew the university, who had those relationships and could give me guidance."

Michelle was already poring over local job boards when she met Dual Career manager Sara Leftwich via Zoom. They talked through Michelle’s hopes for her next career steps and updated her resume. Then Leftwich started contacting Virginia Tech departments where she might be a fit. Any leads she passed on to Michelle, often before they were listed publicly. 

Before the Carters even finished packing up their Richmond house, Michelle was hired as the director of diversity engagement in Virginia Tech’s Office for Inclusion and Diversity “Had it not been for the Dual Career Program, this would have been a much more stressful situation,” she said.

Catherine Piche, a woman in a gingham shirt, types on her laptop framed by a window during a writing retreat sponsored by the Office of Faculty Affairs.
Catherine Piché worked with the Dual Career Program before landing a position in the Office of Faculty Affairs, where one of her responsibilities is to organize writing retreats for faculty members. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

The two-body problem

Couples in academia make up an estimated 36 percent of full-time faculty, and among, them the struggle of finding two tenure-track positions in the same place is so familiar that it's merited its own cringe-inducing name: the two-body problem.

It's not just a tenure-track issue either. More than half of American households are coupled, and most have two incomes. Job offers in new places affect the entire family's economic ecosystem. One partner's career leap can be the other's career disruptor. For the "trailing spouse," relocating outside a major metro area can exacerbate anxieties about their ability to find a job they love locally.

The Dual Career Program, funded jointly by the Office of Faculty Affairs, part of the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, and the Division of Human Resources, was developed as a recruiting tool to improve the likelihood that both partners in a couple will land happily in a workplace. While Leftwich and Dual Career counselor Chelsea Keating are quick to remind program participants that they can’t place people in a job or create a position out of thin air, each year they work with between 70 and 100 candidates, tailoring assistance and resources to a partner's needs for up to a year after their spouse or partner's hire date.

What form that help takes varies from person to person. “The Dual Career Program offers a host of resources and tools to help candidates best represent themselves when searching for jobs,” said Dual Career manager Sara Leftwich. “From updating their cover letters and resumes, to mock interviews and networking, Dual Career is tuned in to best practices that will support our partners within the campus and surrounding community."

For Paulo Henrique Martin, whose partner was a fundraiser at the Moss Arts Center, Leftwich and Keating acted as search committee members in mock interviews. “They were asking me questions like, ‘What made you interested in this position? Why do you think we should hire you?’” Martin said. “It was extremely helpful.” 

Catherine Piché, whose husband was hired as a director of technology commercialization with Link + License + Launch, worked with Leftwich to refine her resume and cover letter and learned to include keywords that would boost her chances of getting an interview. “She had that insider knowledge,” said Piché, who was hired as a program assistant for Faculty Initiatives and Policies in the Office of Faculty Affairs. “She wasn’t finding the job, but she was the one saying, ‘Yeah, this would be a good fit. You should definitely apply for this.’” 

Dual Career's offerings work only if program participants are active partners in the process, said Leftwich. “We give them the resources, but we ask them to actually be looking for jobs too.” In the best cases, Leftwich and Keating only need to identify major employers and industries in the area where a candidate can look for openings. Recently, they arranged a tour of Carilion and HCA Virginia healthcare network for a doctor who was the partner of a top faculty candidate. Job offers were on the table almost immediately.

Husbands Chris Campo Bowen, in a blue shirt, and Michael Robert, in a plaid shirt, laugh together on a cement bench.
After years of searching, husbands Christopher Campo-Bowen (at left) and Michael Robert both found faculty positions at Virginia Tech with help from the Dual Career Program. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

A great landing spot

As a recruiting tool, Dual Career is most effective when it's introduced early on. "As soon as a department is invested in a candidate, that’s when we really want to start working with their partner,” said Keating. “We want to help tip the scale if you’re waiting for them to accept the offer.”

Faculty work-life liaisons, for instance, bring up the Dual Career Program in their 30-minute conversations with finalists. “The university in my opinion really benefits from this program because they get wonderful people who want to come here," said work-life liaison Madeleine Schrieber, a professor of geosciences in the College of Science. "When both spouses are employed, Virginia Tech becomes a great landing spot for them.”

Knowing that Virginia Tech had a Dual Career Program was a game-changer for Michael Robert and Chris Campo-Bowen. The two-body problem had kept the tenure-track faculty husbands apart for nearly a decade. Despite tenaciously reapplying for geographically closer jobs, they spent years living hundreds or thousands of miles apart while working at universities where department chairs confessed they had no way to help their partner get hired. Some of their colleagues had resigned themselves to the distance, but Robert and Campo-Bowen refused to abandon hope.

Their situation finally changed when Campo-Bowen landed a tenure-track job as an assistant professor of music in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. Soon after, Robert had a consultation with the Dual Career Office. On his behalf, Leftwich made connections and calls and floated his CV around Virginia Tech’s Department of Mathematics.

The process wasn’t instantaneous, but the following year the math department asked Robert to come in for an interview. That turned into a tenure-track job offer in spring 2022. “The past few months I've been more productive because I don't have that weight and that uncertainty looming over me in the same way that it has for the last nine years,” Robert said. “The Dual Career Program shows Virginia Tech’s commitment to trying to retain good faculty members in a way that other universities can’t quite provide.”

It's not a genie in a bottle. But as a strategic recruiting tool, said Michelle Carter, “the Dual Career Program is making a significant difference.”

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