Avoiding the two-body problem...
August 19, 2009 11:17 AM   Subscribe

Anyone have career or life suggestions for a would-be “trailing spouse”?

For over 4 years now, I've been in a wonderful relationship with a brilliant academic. He's currently a science postdoc at a top tier university and plans to stay in academia, which I am fully supportive of, but because academic jobs are so scattered and multiple moves common, I've found myself at a loss for what I should be doing.

Relatively fresh out of school, I'm at the point where a lot of options are still open. The man who would be professor is incredibly supportive and encourages me to do whatever I want, but when we first met, he was still in grad school, and I don't think either one of us fully realized how tough coordinating careers can be. We're not married, but we do live together, and I've already followed him across the country once. Plans for marriage and kids are in the future, but not just yet. In the meantime, I'm okay with being the satellite in the relationship, but I want to be satisfied and productive while doing it.

I'm female, in my mid-20's, with a B.A. in English and a truckload of interests, but no one all-consuming passion. I love writing, but have no particular experience other than my degree to prove it. I do have previous experience in university fund-raising, but it feels like institutional knowledge is key for advancing in any university admin position, and until the boyfriend gets a steady professorship, I probably won't be in any one place long enough for that. I really don't mind being an admin assistant, but it's not the kind of thing I want to do my whole life. I haven't entirely ruled out going back to school, but I'm not interested in conducting a long-distance relationship, and I'm also worried about making the two-body problem worse. I'm just not sure what kind of portable career options are open to non-tech people. If you have any suggestions or insights, especially into the “non-academic/academic” lifestyle, I'd love to hear them.
posted by Diagonalize to Work & Money (25 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Event planning, or photography are easily transferable jobs. People are always looking for others to plan and document their special events.
posted by scrutiny at 11:24 AM on August 19, 2009

Maybe getting an MLS would be worth it. I'm not sure what job prospects are like for librarians now, but anywhere there are universities is bound to have at least a few libraries.
posted by oinopaponton at 11:27 AM on August 19, 2009

Marketing seems pretty portable-any small city has a few firms, and might be an easy jump from fundraising to managing accounts or something.

Copywriting is likewise a job you can get at a lot of different places, but might be a bit soul crushing for someone who's actually interested in writing.. all the copywriters I've met have mostly been actors or musicians with a day job.

Finally, freelancing is the obvious suggestion, but unless you are into web stuff, design, music stuff, I'm not sure how well that would work out based on your interests. Freelance writing seems to be one of the hardest professions to make it in, but it has been done.
posted by shownomercy at 11:41 AM on August 19, 2009

I've occasionally fantasized about becoming a librarian, but it seems like those jobs get hit pretty hard when universities go a-budget cuttin'. Still, it's good to know that at least one other person thinks it's a decent option.
posted by Diagonalize at 11:45 AM on August 19, 2009

Ah, freelance writing...it's so attractive in some ways, but utterly terrifying in most others. I'm not sure I'd even know where to start.
posted by Diagonalize at 11:48 AM on August 19, 2009

I'd be surprised if your partner can't get a contract for a position long enough for you to do a Master's degree at the same or a nearby institution. See hwta they offer, see what you like the look of. Start studying.

I love writing, but have no particular experience other than my degree to prove it.

You typed this AskMe into your PC, so you have all the tools you need to start getting more writing experience.
posted by biffa at 11:53 AM on August 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

I know you said "non-tech people," but there's a lot of tech-ish jobs that don't require being a hardcore developer. Try taking a class in web design and see if you like it.

There's also technical project management--I'm currently a grad student but still get freelance work managing website buildouts, etc. And I was also a liberal-arts type person when I got into all this, so if I can do it then anyone can.

And unless you have experience doing coding/web development and you seriously hated it, it might be worth giving it a try (either taking on a project in your spare time or via a class). The most successful freelancers I know are web developers. It's also often easy to get a entry-level job dong such things, at universities or elsewhere. A few basic skills will get you a long way, and it can actually be a lot of fun.
posted by ethorson at 11:59 AM on August 19, 2009

Get some experience writing grants and learning about grant opportunities. Universities often have jobs for someone who gets good at this.
posted by LucretiusJones at 12:00 PM on August 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

MLS is a decent option (I'm one, and I love it) but I'd caution you against going "Oh, an MLS seems cool, I'll do that." It's not something to enter into casually. Also, MLS programs are positively swimming in English and History B.As. If you don't have something to make yourself exceptional (read: tech skills, mostly) it can be very hard to find distinguish youreslf enough to find a job. I had an English B.A. (creative writing, even worse!) and it's my tech skillset that largely got me jobs.

That said, there are two positive things about a possible MLS in your situation: university librarians getting fired/laid off is *extremely* uncommon. Not unheard of, mind you, but rare. What's more likely is that retiring positions won't be replaced, especially when the retiring librarians are in jobs that are now more commonly filled by paraprofessionals -- e.g., cataloging. Also, many universities have policies to hire spouses preferentially, and if your SO is awesomely badass and/or a canny negotiator, he can make getting you a job as part of his hiring package.

If you've got any questions about MLS type stuff, please feel free to memail me. Or post another Ask question about it; it's not like we haven't got tons of representation here.
posted by the dief at 12:01 PM on August 19, 2009

Freelancing would be an ideal option for you but to do it successfully and earn a livable income from it you need to establish some kind of track record which gives you credibility in specific fields.

If you don't mind doing admin work for a while, then list yourself with every temp agency around (plenty of them specialise in certain kinds of industries) and be willing to take on short-term contract work - it's always a great survival job.

One area in which there is generally a lot of short-term, contract work available is inclusivity programmes such as English as Second Language and Language, Literacy and Numeracy programmes. Delivering those programmes well is far more challenging than you might believe, and I promise that the experience of over-coming language barriers will make you a far better writer, if only because it forces you to think about the way in which you use language to convey concepts.

Try to keep perspective. At the moment you're trying to get a foot in the door along with many other twenty-somethings who have a very general formal qualification but limited workplace experience. Leverage your networks, your partner's networks, and the networks of your friends to the hilt - ideally, you want to hear about potential vacancies before they're even advertised.

Unless you have a compelling passion for academia, look for positions outside that field. As a "trailing spouse", you want some professional and social networks which are unrelated to your partner's career. It sounds like you're already basing your own career choices around your partner's, so make sure you establish things in your life which are "yours" and which fulfill you as an individual.

When you began your degree, did you have a vision for how you would ultimately use it? If so, is that still your vision? If what you see yourself doing in the future has changed, then part-time study in another field might be a good option (I'd suggest part-time because if you study full-time at this point you're going to risk being seen by potential employers as an "eternal student" in the future and your lack of workforce experience compared to other almost-thirties will almost certainly count against you in the non-academic world).
posted by Lolie at 12:11 PM on August 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Seconding grantwriting ... several of my friends are grantwriters. It makes good use of your education and if you're good at it, you can make a good living just about -anywhere- doing that.
posted by dacoit at 12:21 PM on August 19, 2009

Thanks, the dief. That's actually really helpful. I've thought about getting an MLS for a number of years, not so much because I think being a librarian would be cool (which I do), but because it seems like a nice combination of liberal arts and technology. I was an English major, but I spend most of my time around scientists, engineers, and programmers, so that probably says something about me. I like technology plenty; I just have no formal training or particular expertise. Did you gain tech experience during the MLS program or independently?

I actually do have a little experience with grant writing, so that's definitely an option. Thanks, everyone, for the reminders!

Lolie, I actually do quite love academia, so your point, while valid, probably doesn't fit in my case. My partner's interests and my interests are rather divided academically, so I'm not much worried about becoming too melded with him. Mostly I'm just trying to be practical about being around college towns for the rest of my life.
posted by Diagonalize at 12:38 PM on August 19, 2009

Independently -- I spent many many years as a Linux sysadmin in an academic library before I went for my MLS. Nowadays library schools make some effort to get tech into their program with varying levels of success, but I personally wouldn't count on an MLS program giving me the necessary technology skills.

If you can exploit the science/engineering thing that would be boffo -- getting good science/engineering librarians is *hard*. But that usually means a BA or Master's in some sort of scientific discipline, unfortunately.
posted by the dief at 12:48 PM on August 19, 2009

You might want to look for campus-based jobs like support services, fundraising, career counselling, etc. Most universities have an HR website for jobs at the university that aren't for students.
posted by pised at 1:08 PM on August 19, 2009

You might want to look for campus-based jobs like support services, fundraising, career counselling, etc. Most universities have an HR website for jobs at the university that aren't for students.

As someone in one of these jobs right now (at this very moment!), I have to say: yes, do this. Not only did the two colleges I've worked for--one large research university and one community college--have great health benefits and lots of vacation time, both paid their support staff to continue their education after 6 months of employment. A university job can help you get another degree for free when you figure out what you'd like to do.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:42 PM on August 19, 2009

I agree about the university jobs entirely. My last job was in university development, and I wouldn't mind sticking with university employment at all; I'm just concerned that I'll be stuck as an admin assistant for not being around long enough to accrue enough "institutional knowledge". This is especially important in development, not so much for grant writing, but certainly for gift officers who need time to develop relationships with donors.
posted by Diagonalize at 1:49 PM on August 19, 2009

I agree, grant writing is a good one; very portable and just about every bigger organization can employ you. As far as I know, universities sometimes have extra-slots for spouses of academics, so that might be something to look into. I am in the same position, but the economic crisis hit hard where we are and the university froze hiring across the board. :(

You can also get a number of certifications (court mediator, facilitator, etc.), which you can add to your resume and which expand your skill set.
posted by Bearded Dave at 2:41 PM on August 19, 2009

A caution about investing in an MLS right now: although the dief may have been correct that "university librarians getting fired/laid off [was] *extremely* uncommon" in the past, a number of states have had to cut or freeze positions at state universities, and in fact I know someone whose non-tenure-track position has just been eliminated from the university budget. As a matter of fact, a bit over seven years ago, I interviewed for a librarian position at the same university, and they were in the process of checking my references when that position was cut. Competition for academic librarian positions is such that they can usually pick among applicants that have a second master's in another area.

I'm not trying to talk you out of getting an MLS, just encouraging you to think of it in long-game terms. If you get married, you might be eligible for tuition waiver at whatever university he lands at. Getting a second master's and/or working at their library in some sort of starting/clerical position would line you up for having an advantage if/when academic library positions become available.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:56 PM on August 19, 2009

Thank you for all the input about the economy. The university hiring freezes have been affecting me pretty badly, which is partially what prompted my question. I was deep into the interview process for a few university development positions when all new hiring was stopped cold.
posted by Diagonalize at 3:09 PM on August 19, 2009

I haven't read all of the responses, but depending upon your partner's field and how much a potential employer wants to hire him, he may also be able to negotiate a position for you. It is a bad economy, but many colleges and universities in less desirable places will bend over backwards to get great faculty. Before he's actually on the market, it's hard to know. But, it's good that you think about what you might be interested in doing, just in case. Even if you do ultimately decide to get an advanced degree, it's nice to have options.
posted by B-squared at 6:18 PM on August 19, 2009

Technical writing (and, to a lesser extent, business writing) is consistently lucrative. If you like to wordsmith and explain obscure technical concepts in layman's terms, it could be for you. Bonus marks if you're good with typesetting / page layout (whether for print or online media). If you thrive on variety and creativity, you might find it mind-numbingly boring.
posted by randomstriker at 7:41 PM on August 19, 2009

I'm not sure what job prospects are like for librarians now

I am pouring concrete these days YMMV.
posted by mlis at 8:40 PM on August 19, 2009

I think my partner is pretty awesome, but he's not really at the heavy-lifting negotiation stage just yet. Maybe in a few years when he's looking at more substantial faculty jobs.

Technical writing certainly has its merits, and I'd probably find some of it interesting, so it's probably worth some consideration, though the "mind-numbingly boring" description does cause a bit of hesitation.

Concrete is good. I have always found it an extremely useful substance. This is helpful information to know.
posted by Diagonalize at 9:05 PM on August 19, 2009

I was going to suggest technical writing as well, just based on this sentence:

I was an English major, but I spend most of my time around scientists, engineers, and programmers, so that probably says something about me.

There are many, many technical writing opportunities available through a contract basis nowadays (I see far more contract openings posted than permanent positions), so that could be a great fit for you. You'd likely be able to find work everywhere you live and it's a great way to get a really wide variety of experiences, learn lots of different software, and try out a lot of different companies and industries and figure out what kind of place you ultimately do or don't want to work at. (For example, I thought I would love writing for a medical device firm and was beyond thrilled when I scored a six-month contract gig at one, and immediately started plotting how I could turn it into a permanent job. Er, no. It turned out to be the worst fit I've ever experienced, and the day I was finished there was one of the happiest of my life.) A lot of my tech writer buddies enjoy the variety so much that they only do contract work; some even follow the jobs around the country so they can try out new places to live as well.

Anyway, good luck to you. Feel free to MeMail me if you have more questions.
posted by anderjen at 9:13 PM on August 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't say I hang out with science and tech types exclusively, but they're certainly a prominent feature of my social circle. Living with a scientist has a lot to do with that, I suspect, but the fact that I have rather geeky interests (video games, puzzle hunts, etc.) likely plays a big part as well.

I'd never really thought of technical writing as having much variety, but the way you describe it makes me wonder if I should start rethinking that assessment. It seems like there's a lot of potential there.
posted by Diagonalize at 9:25 PM on August 19, 2009

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