Loneliness in academia

My thinking has always been that if you sacrifice everything to your job, then you should not be surprised if you end up at 55 or 65, alone in a house with only a cat and nobody calling you.

The first thing I did when I finished my Ph.D. thesis is to go hunt for a wife. I put everything else aside: research, almost all job hunting efforts, teaching gigs… I often forget about this part of my life, but for almost 6 months, I was doing nothing else, but trying to start a relationship with a woman I’d love for the rest of my life. I found a great, beautiful, extremely smart lady (intelligence was the criteria for me) and we’ve been together almost 7 years now, and we have a great son (14 months old now). Maybe I take it for granted sometimes, but I really shouldn’t. The important point is that it didn’t happen by accident. I worked really hard to find the right woman, and it was my full time job for a little while.

The person I met worked as a freelancer over the Internet (and still does), so moving was not a big no-no: the truth is that you should expect to have to relocate when you hold a Ph.D. and want Ph.D.-level jobs. Sometimes you can have to relocate quite far as well (which I avoided). I also don’t think it is fair to ask someone else to drop everything because you have to move. So, if you just got a Ph.D., the hunt for love is actually more complicated.

I don’t know how many of my colleagues are single. I would estimate that among Ph.D. holders my age, around 30%, maybe only 20% of all of us are single…

Household Opera comments on The “single woman in a rural college town” blues and she cites an interesting account:

When I was not in the classroom, the silence became deafening and I became clinically depressed. I love to read and I love solitude, but like everyone, I need some social interaction.

My colleagues, on the other hand, often worked at home, and when they came into the department, they shut their doors and hibernated. Having spouses and families at home, they had no need to create social relationships at work. I found myself drifting with my only interaction being with my students or a clerk in the grocery store.

I don’t know how real this problem is for single Ph.D. holders. It seems like it can be a real problem, and apparently, more so for a woman.

I also think that women may tend to forget too easily that their window of fertility closes around 40. Most women are infertile at 45. And even if you have kids after 40, they stand a much higher chance of having all sorts of medical conditions. While a 40-year-old man can start a family, a woman should think twice about it, assuming she even can anymore.

I think we should rethink the entire academia roadmap. People used to become university professors after getting a degree, maybe a master, then the Ph.D. became a requirement, and now, in many fields, you need at least 4 years of experience after the Ph.D. if you are to get close to a professorship. All the while, the expectations at every step become tougher and tougher. The trend is clear: as competition increases, we will hire older and older professors… and these people have sacrificed more and more for their work…

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

8 thoughts on “Loneliness in academia”

  1. Interesting comments, particularly since I live in Sackville, home to Mount Allison University. The town has a pop of ~5,000 and there are about 2,200 students here. I’m not sure sure how the single professors can live in a such a small town. Maybe there’s a potential niche business here – connecting rural profs via some kind of social networking service. hmmm?

    Hope you’re feeling better soon.

  2. It is not easy to meet the right person at the right time and at the right place. When you hold a ph.d., the constraints are exponentially increased. I like Daniel’s idea to actively hunt a partner. Taking it as a full time job. The problem in a small village is that you probably approach someone too close to you at work. It is embarrassing if the relation does not work.

    But on the other side, I just wonder if it can change in big cities, because I met many single professors from big cities like Paris, Munich. Some are married once. As a woman, I probably understand why these professors can’t keep a family. Since they love their career so much that it appears to be they love themselves too much. And they are trained to be so “picky” in any work. They need some really intelligent and prefect women to understand them, better someone who work as equally hard as them. Womon professors have all the same problems and in addition they have problems from their gender. Many books said it is nearly impossible to get a tenure position while raising a child. Then what is your choice? Olympic separates men and women in the game, but not in academic.

    Maybe professors are just a lonely group. It is the side effect of the career, or the career disease. We need to ask compensation for this if the statistics prove that we are really suffered comparing to other professionals. But many other professionals also have their career diseases. I just saw the movie “million dollar baby”. I do not understand why a woman chooses to be a fighter so as to be punched. I feel the same for a man fighter too. But she seems to understand the game and enjoy the game, from training to competition. Then nothing to complain. Anyway, you enjoy the game.

  3. Interesting entry. I’m glad you wrote it. I was just at the Northern Voices blogging conference and I’ve been thinking a bunch about topic-related entries vs off-topic entries vs personal entries. I think this is a great kind of post because a lot of your readers have similar characteristics (intellectual, very involved in their work, can easily spend too much time in front of computers). Thanks for not sticking too closely to your “topic” and for sharing some advice.

  4. Great topic! My blog, “Confessions of a Community College Dean,” may
    be of interest to you. It, too, deals with the intersections of academia
    and family.

  5. I am basically ‘giving up’ an academic career for the sake of my personal life. Not that I think there would have been a career for me anyway. When I look ahead at academia all I can see is instability, insecurity, a lot of relocation and an exceptionally poor chance of ultimate success.

  6. Satsuma: I think it is almost always possible to pursue an academic career if your standards (salary, relocation,…) are low enough.

    There are people, after sacrificing everything for 12 to 15 years who become big shot academics. There was one such case in my morning paper… 12 years as a post-doc very far away… on top of his Ph.D. which took several years… after all of this, he came back to his home town with a great job offer. Of course, this could have never happened… maybe he would have been stuck another 10 years in some underpaid job. Maybe also he sacrificed a lot for his career… how much did he sacrifice to it? Was it worth it?

    From the outside, such stories look great. The guy is a brilliant scientist with a decent job (he doesn’t make a ton of money, despite what people think). He looks like a winner, and he is… but people have no idea what he had to sacrifice.

    We easily forget that guys like Einstein had terribly bad love lives. Einstein had a kid somewhere. Who knows what happened to the kid.

    We have to question our values… is science, is academia, worth more than family?

  7. Post-pandemic, this experience of isolation, loneliness, and sacrifice is so very pronounced. I am an administrator of a CS PhD program, and we are really trying to manage this. We’re looking for effective speakers on this matter, to address students and faculty. Something/someone to promote mental wellness, the importance of taking care of one’s whole self. Have you ever come across a speaker on this topic? Do you have any advice?

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