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A Hypothetical On Leverage


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So here's a hypothetical that I may or may not be faced with soon. My fiancé and I are applying to the same programs. We are unwilling to split up (duh) and we're hoping to strike gold and both get accepted somewhere. There are a few programs for which each of us are better fits than the other, i.e. one of us probably has a better chance of getting in than the other. Here's the question: if one of us gets into a program and the other doesn't, but we have reason to believe that the program in question really really wants the one of us that they accepted, should we try to find some way to haggle with them to somehow get both of us in (maybe a conditional acceptance or something of the like)? Is this too fishy? Does it have a chance of working? Other thoughts?

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sounds like something that would be difficult to do.  I would not do that but that is just me.  The best case would be if one of you was on the waitlist and then MAYBE it would increase the chances of coming off the list but in all honesty that sounds kind of unethical on both sides.  Schools are interested in you not in two people...i'd think they would not change their stance based on a conditional acceptance, they have a lot of other applicants I'm sure who would be more than willing to comply with the offer they get without a condition.  Also why wouldn't both of you want to go to your respective best fit schools?  Try long distance?  Maybe try to get into schools that are near one another.  

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I just had an interview where I was able to speak to the program director honestly about the significance of my significant other. My situation is a little different: I am applying to a masters program - my fiancé has a masters, works in his field of expertise, but is contemplating PhD work in a slightly different field from mine. I found the director to be really supportive. She told me if he wants to pursue a PhD, she "can help with that." 


I know not every adcom member is the same, but most people understand the importance of relationships. I don't really see this as a "leverage" situation. It is just a fact of life. If either (or both) of you get interviews, my advice is be honest about your desire to stay together. Who cares if some curmudgeon is put off by it.

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If you are in a position where it's a deal-breaker if you both don't end up getting into the same place, it might be worth discussing with the program director. There might not be anything they can do, but if you definitely aren't going if your fiancé doesn't get in, what do you have to lose?

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I don't think suggesting the OP do long distance is a helpful nor is it a reasonable suggestion. They have already decided not to do this, and I think one major issue in academia is that the "two body problem" is a large stress factor in the lives of many academics and even the reason for some people to drop out of academia, yet there is no universally good solution! 


Luckily, having both partners apply to the same program is much easier to solve that two partners in two different departments. Here, the same group is making the decision for both of you. 


I do not think it is unethical at all for one partner to try to pressure the department in accepting the other partner as well. This happens a lot at the post-doc/faculty level and there is a lot of literature on the web where academics discuss how to best implement policies that support hiring a couple even when there is only one spot. For example, a department can give up a future hire to hire two people at once (see: http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2003_03_14/nodoi.4790439354486772529). Of course, I think this is a bigger problem for permanent job hires instead of temporary grad student "hires" and so departments are probably more willing to work harder to figure out solutions for permanent job hires than for grad students.


That said, I have known of cases where departments have made sure to accept both partners of a couple. I think it would only be unethical if the two partners are vastly different in skill and one partner would not even have met the minimum criteria. However, if both partners meet the minimum, then it's not unreasonable to pick the "lesser" (no offense intended, I'm just going to use "strong" and "weak" for simplification) partner over other qualified candidates. There are lots of advantages to doing this:


1. If one partner is strong enough, picking the strong partner + weak partner might still be more beneficial to the department (measured in net input of skilled workers) than 2 other candidates that would rank in between the strong and weak partner. This is particularly true if the strong partner would not be attending the school without the weaker partner. 


2. Grad student attrition is pretty high (around 50% in the sciences). A partner that is able to stay together and work at the same school is less likely to leave. So, it's also more beneficial to the department (if measured in terms of amount of skilled PhDs produced) if they are going to be certain to get 2 students that are going to finish. 


3. Many PhDs that want to be in academia end up leaving academia because of two body problems. Maybe one partner will get a tenure tracked position but not the other so it makes more sense to move for the tenure tracked position. This might result in the other partner not remaining in academia at all, and "we" (academia in general) lose a skilled worker. This could be avoided if two-body-friendly policies are implemented. This is more of a post-PhD level problem, but the same ideas should apply at the grad school level too.


So, to the OP, I would definitely say it is a good idea for you guys to let your schools know that you are a couple and would like to be in the same program. Whether you reveal this fact at the application stage or after one of you gets an acceptance is a hard question to be decided by you. I guess it's past the application stage now, so perhaps it's best to wait until one of you gets the acceptance. The person accepted should be the point of contact, I think. Like the above poster said, if you are for sure not attending without your partner, then there's nothing to lose if they can't accommodate your request. 


Since you say that one of you is a better fit in some programs and the other in other programs, it sounds like you are both fairly "equal", which is a good thing. There are some dangers of getting accepted as a "second body", especially if the skill levels of the two people are not equal. For example, a school might accept the second person just to get the first one and plan to flunk the second person out during quals or something. So, I would strongly recommend that you try to find a good program that is not only willing to take both of you, but also a good fit for both of you!


Good luck! Please let us know how it goes :)

Edited by TakeruK
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I have mixed feelings on the "two body problem," but I will say that if you want to try to leverage a department, you should let them know your situation before you/your fiance receive any rejections. Trying to leverage one of you in with a rejection in hand will be way harder than letting them know early that neither of you will be attending if the other is not accepted. 

Another possibility, if that doesn't work out and only one of you gets accepted this year, is for the one who isn't accepted to wait and reapply to whatever program the other got into. There might be some benefit to this as well, since they can make connections in the department by attending functions (and even lectures, etc) as an SO. 

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