Friday, September 28, 2007

The liminal existence between single and married

It's an oft-remarked-upon irony that single people look longingly at the reassurance and certainty of marriage, while married people working within the constraints of connection imagine that single people must be having so much fun with all the potential and choices and freedom.

As the reader may have noticed, I would love to find a promising relationship. And, as I've mentioned elsewhere in these pages, I almost married someone. Nothing dramatic happened: marriage was on the table from the first weeks, we made decisions together always keeping in mind a joint future, talked about what our children would look like. In various ways, we both screwed up and actually going from the hypothetical to the actual didn't seem to fit in the real world, so we ended the relationship a few years ago. He missed me for awhile, but he found a serious relationship before I did. At times I really missed parts of his personality, our rapport, and the plans that we made together, and I regretted having not put more effort. I expected that one day I would get a call informing me of his engagement and it would be final. Meanwhile, I dated.

The other day I had a long bout of regret. I thought about all the compromises that I hadn't wanted to make. Some compromises are the sort that most couples need in order to get along, but there's another layer of compromises due to his job which extend into what would ordinarily be my individual decisions. There's a compensating layer of benefits to his job, although the benefits themselves have disadvantages. That day, I thought that if I knew I could be happy and settled, I would make every single one of them.

The day after, his phone number showed up on my cell phone. His number, but not his name. The break-up was a few years ago. Several months ago, I erased his name from my cell phone, after a pleasant but tearful 4 hour conversation during which we decided we couldn't expend the emotional energy more than once a year, if that.

I debated whether I should pick up. "Right, it's him and he wants to get back together," I said to myself as I picked up anyway.

We chatted for awhile, and then he said that the real reason he was calling is that he had something to tell me.

"Congratulations," I said.

"Oh, no, quite the opposite." So he was calling because he wanted to get back together. We reached no conclusions other than that it would have to occur over a long period. We should talk occasionally and maybe see each other. We spoke for only 45 minutes, a short conversation.

Since that phone call, I've been living a liminal existence.

I feel the total freedom and complete loneliness of singlehood, and wonder if I'm radiate desperation as I try to meet new people.

I remember simultaneously the constraints of connections: on my job search, and on my individual choices. I wonder how I could have ever been willing to compromise so much. When it was not a possibility, I was so willing to accept the constraints, and indeed I had these thoughts of being willing to compromise so many times in the past. Now that it's a possibility, it seems like too much.

Beyond seeming like too much, I sometimes fantasize about escaping it and running off with his exact opposite, "Andy".

It's so much easier to want what I don't have.

Dating through the lifespan: compatibility and availability.

As the weekend comes, the dating ruminations begin.

I was recently reflecting on the nature of dating over the lifespan. In middle school, the mere acknowledgement that someone likes you is enough to send you into cartwheels and flips, and that's really all you want anyway, is the affirmation. In high school and college and a bit after, as it comes to light that someone likes you, that is often enough to start a relationship, assuming you feel similarly.

At some point beyond college, the game changes. Everyone's had enough relationships that they realize that many people could be great boyfriends or girlfriends, and many more with whom there is mutual attraction, and two additional variables come into play: compatibility and availability. It seems like these latter two variables attain higher importance with age.

When I was in high school or college I would have been thrilled and amazed at the number of men with whom I enjoy good chemistry and a good rapport. Finding just the people to date that I did was hard enough. Now, chemistry and rapport gives me a small warm feeling, but if the person turns out to be married or involved I feel silly and embarassed. As Miss Manners says, flirtation is a no-commitment activity: there's no "so what are you going to do about it?" to follow. And yet, if I've been having a great conversation with someone where it turns out he's married or even just has a girlfriend and I'm not even dating anyone, it can feel like I've transgressed a boundary.

In fact, the large number of guys who feel compelled to mention their girlfriend in the first 10 seconds of exchange would seem to indicate that it would be a bit transgressive to continue the conversation as it had been.

Last night, I was having such a conversation with someone that I corresponded with from an online dating site before I moved who told me when I came that he started dating someone. It was a fun conversation on a pretty boring topic, commuting, when his (presumptive) girlfriend showed up. Right away, he explains to her that he was giving me street directions. The perhaps too-obvious solution to seeming to flirt with someone's boyfriend is to shift the conversation to her --- perhaps not the most convincing indication that I was only talking to him until someone who is actually interesting (her) showed up --- so I did. I'm still meeting new people and hearing her life story in brief was interesting, and we had an almost good conversation, but there was this pall of awkwardness which hung over us, and eventually I found a transition point and left somewhat awkwardly.

It's strange to now be living in a dating world in which there are lots of good prospects, all taken. While there were periods by the end of college where it seemed like absolutely everyone was dating someone, we all knew that it wasn't even close to permanent.

So that's availability.

Compatibility is not as well-defined and differs a lot between people, but I find it just so fascinating that there are all these factors that if they were different, I would have an entirely different life. In the generality, everyone knows that single variables can change which of many potential outcomes occur, so that's not interesting in general. Contemplating the potential realities is fascinating, though. If I decided I didn't want to have kids, if I moved to a different city, if I had a different religion or no religion at all.

I could marry someone who is sweet and empathetic and cries a lot, or someone who runs on adrenaline and doesn't understand why people are imperfect. I could marry and support a starving artist, someone whose profession gives me a public role, someone whose profession is lucrative but makes him absent. All these things are true in generalities, but the funny thing is that they really did happen, and it's strange that if one switch were flicked, my life would be totally different.

Perhaps the necessary vagueness makes this uninteresting.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Negotiation skills, and my current position

Some other blogs have been discussing whether universities teach
the social skills students need in order to be successful, and whether they should. They're talking more about undergrads and office politics, but there are also plenty of skills that grad students don't get unless they position themselves well.

Negotiation skills are the first set of skills that I exercised first on the job market and then in starting a new position. In my discussion of the job market in my previous post, I think that I sound like a reasonably competent negotiator: nothing counts unless it's in writing, I turned down a job whose salary seemed like the university was getting an incredible bargain, and I even managed to bump up my salary at a job that I liked. What follows is a detailed description of how I really screwed up in negotiation, and ironically in the only position where it makes a difference: my current position.

For negotiating on the job, so far the best that I can say is that I hope that I've learned from my mistakes. As I alluded to in an earlier post, last year I did very well on the job market. Due to the timing of offers and crucial information and being strung along by my only tenure-track prospect which ended up dissolving, it was very late before I actually was settled in a job. In the end, once the dust had cleared, my choice last year was between (a) a fellowship at this university which let me do anything that I wanted including working on this project that I'm currently working on (salary 1.1X, using the salary scale of the previous post), or (b) a job on this project at the same university which paid more than 50% more than the fellowship (1.7X). Since this project would have been my choice anyhow for the research, I decided to take the higher salary. Money isn't everything, but all other things being equal, it's obviously better to have more. And it seemed to my myopic vision like they were more or less equal. The fellowship wasn't perfect, after all --- it had one or two serious drawbacks not true of this position. Nonetheless, I've regretted that decision virtually every day.

Before I took the job, I attempted to get them to define the position better and tell me exactly what my role would be, but the project was just starting, so they said they were just figuring it out themselves. They sent me the grant that they had written me in on, complete with the salary. I had been extremely careful for the past few months not to trust any agreement which was not firmly in writing, but in this case once the grant was approved, it seemed like this was as good as an offer letter. I was busy with dissertation details, moving details, and apartment-looking and packing, that the technicalities of offer letters were not uppermost in my mind. For a long time, the grant proposal with my name and salary on it, and the knowledge that the grant was approved, was the closest that I had to an offer letter. After so much diligence during the bulk of the job search, I actually moved to a different part of the country for a job without an offer letter.

In my defense, I did this because the PI is a well-funded straight-shooter --- very busy and distracted, but he had enough projects that I could work on, and I really do think that he took responsibility for me, that I don't think that I took an actual risk to move. That is, there was no danger that I would arrive and discover no job at all.

When I first started (no offer letter yet), I found that I was doing lots of tasks which on other projects would have been delegated to an administrator. When I mentioned this to the PI, he was very understanding and he said that he could get an administrator from elsewhere in the department. He did get an administrator who took care of the details. A few weeks later I found out indirectly that he had hired the administrator out of my salary, so my position was now 50% time. I realize that there's no free lunch, but he hadn't even mentioned that hiring an administrator would have any effect on my salary, and a 50% cut certainly deserved a mention. I almost resigned right then --- of course, there was nothing to resign from since I didn't have an offer letter yet, and the prospect of looking for a new research position when I still had to finish my dissertation and had already moved was depressing. Half time didn't seem terrible, since I did have a lot of side projects to work on. So I went with it. He said that I could take on another project if I wanted to go up to full time. Of course, it's a far better deal to do mindless administrative stuff for twice the salary than to take on another project which requires thinking --- administrative things can be done when you're too tired to do real work --- so naturally it was really inconsiderate (to say the least!) for him not even to mention that there was such a big financial cost to getting rid of the administrative tasks.

Once I started the job under the offer letter, I found out that half time means benefits are far more expensive so my effective salary for a 50% job was not 50% of the original salary, but actually 45% of the original salary since the university doesn't subsidize insurance premiums as much. It's totally sensible, but I didn't foresee this until, yet again, the last minute.

I was a very well-paid graduate student because I took on extra jobs once I finished coursework, but as of now I'm making less this year than I did as a graduate student. That's just plain demoralizing.

The zeroth rule of negotiation that I learned from all of this: don't negotiate until you have something to negotiate. I didn't have a job description or an offer letter, and as exciting as I found the project (and I realize my excitement is not coming through), I still didn't have a job description or offer letter, and it was not a job.

I'm proud that I negotiated so well for the jobs that I didn't take. I just wish that I'd negotiated for the job that I did take.

Last year's job market: post-mortem

Before this year's job market starts, I want to recap last year's.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I started on the job market in October, rather than in the summer, and the bulk of my applications went out much later than that.

In vague outline, here are the offers that I had and what happened with each:

1. A postdoc at a good place where no one does research even slightly related to mine gave my first offer, even before some places had interviewed me. The offer was exploding, and I had exactly six days to decide. It required teaching one course a semester, and the salary was so low that I couldn't help but think what a bargain they were getting to get someone to teach for so little money, only a bit more than teaching assistant pay. The guy making the offer said he really wanted me to come, but he seemed impatient about answering my questions --- by this point, I'd spoken with dozens of people on the phone, and compared with all of them he just didn't seem so interested in me. I asked my other prospects if they could hurry up with offers, and one place ponied up with an offer, and I decided I liked that one better, so I turned down this postdoc.
Salary: X

2. The offer which replaced the postdoc involved teaching too. I had really liked them. They really liked me. And for many reasons, the job just seemed to fit really well into my life narrative. I negotiated what seemed like a substantial increase in my salary. And I was so much on the verge of accepting the offer that months later, friends that I don't see very often ask how I'm enjoying it there, and I liked the idea so much that holding the offer in my hand as I went on one interview probably cost me that job because it affected my mentality. At the last minute, I was advised that for a non-tenure-track job a purely research-focussed job would be far better for my career, even if I ultimately want to focus on teaching. So I turned it down.
Salary: 1.5X

3. One research position made me an offer for a 10 month position, renewable yearly. They said it was pro forma that the position would be renewed, but right there in ink all I had was 10 months, not even 12. And for substantiative reasons, it was not a good position. Salary: 1.8X for 12 months, but it was only a 10 month position, so effectively 1.5X

4. A research position which was good in some ways and not in others. Particularly notable, one of the mentors was fantastic, but there were some serious drawbacks. Salary: X

5. A postdoc at my current school, which let me do whatever I wanted. They were really bright and interesting, but there were also some concrete details of the position which were undesirable and somehow it felt wrong. Salary: 1.1X

6. My current position, which I'll discuss in another post. Full-time salary: 1.7X.

I also had a lot of interviews, and a few notable almosts:

Almost (1) An offer letter for a tenure-track job sat on the hiring administrator's desk for apparently more than a month. They had had me down for one interview, and they kept expressing extreme interest, they mentioned a (very good) salary and terms, and acted like this was an offer and asked me for my reply. I kept asking for the paper. They wanted me to come down for another meeting, perhaps with the big cheese. I kept asking for the paper. I finally agreed to go to this second meeting, though it seemed like potentially a waste of time since I still didn't have a letter. We set the date, and I was on the verge of buying tickets perhaps a few days before the meeting, when I got a call from one of the prominent profs who happens to be a real straight-shoooter, the kind of person who's just brimming with good will and everyone likes and trusts. The straight-shooter apologized and said that the position had been retracted for the foreseeable future due to a circumstance that I'd known about. That circumstance had given me reservations about accepting the position, but the person recruiting me assured me that it was fine. The person recruiting me had been my continual contact throughout the process, speaking with me before I applied, and reassuring me that the delays were normal and the position would go through in the end despite the circumstance. The straight shooter had said the person recruiting me would give me a call later, but of course I didn't hear from them again. The position will presumably come up again eventually; I'm guessing they won't ask me to apply, and something makes me think that if I did apply they might wish that I hadn't. Salary: 2.6X

Almost (2) The interview that I had when I was holding offer #2. They liked me, but they weren't sure that my focus aligned with theirs. Which they were absolutely right about because I was convinced that I was going to accept offer #2 so my interviewing must have been off as I was thinking of myself at the type of place of offer #2 instead of theirs. Unfortunate. Some institutions will not hire you ever if you have an unsuccessful interview. In this case, I would guess it's not forever closed to me. Salary: I don't know, but about 2.5X.

Almost (3) A tenure-track job at a good school said that I was their close second. The person they hired instead had tenure somewhere else, and was willing to take a non-yet-tenured position in order to relocate geographically. Clearly no contest, but boy was I flattered. Salary: 1.6X

Finally, beyond the offers and almosts are the "not even close" calls --- a few jobs that I applied to did not seem to really exist. I don't mean cases like almost (1) where they were really trying to fill a position and the position didn't go through, but cases where there was an inside candidate or cases where they were hiring for a position that they didn't have recruitment funds for. The latter was particularly eye-opening.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The job market cycle

Last year, I had a great plan for finishing my dissertation. I was going to finish my dissertation. And then start a job search. And if I started the job search too late, I could stay on another year as an RA or just publish everything that I need to publish before I move on with my life. And I thought that I wanted to work in one of two semi-academic institutions anyhow, and both seemed reasonably interested in me.

But somehow we started having job market preparation talks with our program, and career services had job market preparation sessions for everyone, and I spoke with a professor after his talk and he asked if I was on the market so I devoted a week to preparing materials which I ordinarily wouldn't have done. CV, cover letter, teaching statement, dissertation abstract, research statement, writing sample!

So last year I started relatively late, which is to say, I didn't start in July when the first of the job announcements go out. This year, when July rolled around and I got the first of the announcements that I planned to apply to, I'd recently resolved my own job situation, so was only off the market for less than 3 months. I applied to this postdoc in mid-September, and just a few days after submitting my application got an interview.

Wow, what a relief to have something go right now.

The best and worst part about moving

Simultaneously the best and worst part about moving somewhere you've lived for a long time is that in the few weeks before you leave, you start to realize how many friend you have (hopefully), you feel like there's nothing to lose, so you open up to people and events and places you might otherwise not look at before, and even meet many more new people than when you're just living somewhere statically, and make sure you do as many of the things that you always wanted to do before you go. So you have all these amazing memories and a gigantic appreciation for the people and place, and you have an even better social experience than usual.

And then you move. When you first move, you're so busy getting furniture and all the things you need to call a place home (Ajax, a broom, phone service) and then assembling all your furniture that you don't even have time to think. And it's kind of nice to admire your new rice cooker or bookshelves. And you discover a kooky grocery store or fruit stand, or try to optimize your path to work. But at a certain point you want to be normal. And after so much support and love and outpouring at home, you don't have anyone there and people back home have gotten self-absorbed again. And it really has nothing to do with you being away --- people are almost always self-absorbed until something makes them not be self-absorbed anymore.

Okay, it's been said before and it's definitely a truism. But yes. It is true.

Random acts of kindness

Today when I opened my mailbox, I discovered within it an issue of US News and World Report addressed to me with a forwarding sticker on it. Under the forwarding sticker was my original name and address. I logged into the US News website and it informed me that my subscription began on August 31, the day after I moved, and that it was paid for through September 15, 2008. Year-long subscriptions only cost $15 (this way they increase circulation and get more advertising revenue), so it's not an extravagant gift. It's a mysterious one, though.

Who likes US News so much, or would think that I like it so much that they would get me an subscription? It doesn't exactly seem like something popular with our age demographic.

The person, whoever it was, must have known that I was moving because I think everyone did. And they must have wanted not to tell me about it, or else they would have asked for my new address.

Very sweet.

Dissertation anxiety

I told myself that I would allow myself to blog for five minutes about how guilty and anxious I feel about starting back with a paper. I have a paper which I have done virtually no work on since February 2005. I see these dates and cringe, and realize that the current version may be better-written and have slightly more background information, but I have done no actual research on this paper for 2 1/2 years. I think about all the time that I wasted over the past two and a half years, and contemplate that this is more than half of a college career, and that in fact the literature review now needs more articles because I had such a delay. I think about all the papers that I will have to write after I finish this paper, even just to finish my dissertation. Once the dissertation is done, I have to submit it (in two separate papers) for publication, and then I have to start in on two projects that I owe to two different research groups (one obligation is 1 year old, but they keep writing to me to ask how I'm doing; the other obligation is probably about 3 years old, but I don't actually know.)

Meanwhile I am accruing more research debt by having accepted this postdoc which requires me to work on this project. I have done work on the project before arrival here, but haven't done any work since. I had the option of a postdoc which would have required nothing of me in the same place. It had some practical disadvantages, and (dating again) they wanted me suspiciously too much, but if I had that postdoc I would be making more money and would have no responsibilities other than to finish my own work and go to occasional seminars. I pass the building of that other postdoc every day and sigh.

My credit score is stellar. My research debt is in the crapper, and realistically I think that I really am in deep trouble to have accepted more research obligations because I can't see that I will fulfill all of my obligations in the time-frame that I have for my postdoc research. That is, at some point I will need to put a lot of work into the postdoc research, and I will then be in danger of not finishing my dissertation, or at least my owed articles. I am gradually gradually climbing out of the hole, but it is painful. I avoided this paper for the five semesters and three summers, partly because at my proposal defense, my committee, which had a full year to critique this paper, came up with all kinds of new and impossible objections and made me defend myself on the spot. And partly because of the usual syndrome of seeking instant and social gratification in teaching rather than the hard and solitary work of research.

As I get back to the paper, ideas which were once clear in my head (I think) are now cloudy, and I wonder if I will ever be capable of high level research again, or will I be one of those professors who produces mediocre low-level research for the rest of their career. It is also embarrassing that I can't find all the files on my computer which are associated with this paper, and it will take much longer to reassemble everything than to do it in the first place. I also missed the chance to submit it to something really top-notch, which I could have done if I had written the paper within a year, rather than within 3 years.

The clear answer to all of this anxiety is that I'm looking way too far ahead. The answer is that this afternoon, I have one definite task to do. I will do that task, and then I will have one fewer task to continue. It's an enjoyable task, once I find all the files. But as I look for the files, the thoughts come to my head that I can't believe that I misplaced all these files.

I'll leave you with an anecdote. A guy writes to a reknowned rabbi in a distant village saying that he keeps having intrusive thoughts, and he is coming to visit on such and such a day. It's pouring and the journey is hard, and finally he comes to the rabbi's house. "Rabbi, I'm here," he shouts, knocking on the door. No one answers. He goes around back, and there is only one entrance to the small house. He shouts and knocks for a full hour before giving up and slumping defeatedly against the door in his fatigue and sleeping in a puddle on the doorstep. In the morning, the rabbi opens the door and discovers his visitor. The guy says, "Rabbi, where were you? I arrived last night and knocked and knocked for a full hour. Why didn't you answer the door? I was sleeping on the doorstep, so I know that you must have been home when I was knocking."
The rabbi says, "I can decide who I allow into my house, can I not? Now, about these intrusive thoughts you are having. . . "

Monday, September 17, 2007

A mixed day: moving progress, no defense progress, asking out a gay man

1. One of the truisms of academic life is that it is difficult to move. As illustration, today I learned how to print from my computer (getting drivers for the printer which work with my own unsupported laptop because my computer hasn't come in yet) and how to use email, and the process took more than an hour. But now I can print.

2. The assistant of one of my committee members is fed up with giving me the committee member's schedule, and has largely stopped answering my emails. Which makes it even more difficult to schedule a defense from thousands of miles away.

3. I bought some of my furniture from a very cute guy who seemed smart and like he knew how to think with both halves of his brain. He lived in the middle of the distant suburbs with his brother, and mentioned that they were moving to different apartments --- his brother to the city and he just outside the city. Being new to a place gives me the right to take liberties, so afterwards I emailed him and said I'd love to have coffee with him. He wrote back, saying he'd be thrilled. I found his name online associated with having helped out a much younger gay artist in a place that he travels to on business, so it seemed most likely that he was gay, but I didn't have any other evidence on the subject. After some phone tag, I delayed calling him, partially nervous that he was straight, and partially nervous that he was gay.

In talking about moving, he would sometimes say "we" and sometimes "I", so finally I asked who he was going to live with. I expected an answer like "boyfriend", "girlfriend", or "roommate" and then the conversation would continue as normal.

Instead, he said, "Boyfriend. I hope that's not disappointing for you."

I was taken off-guard by the thought that I might be disappointed. "That's terrific," I managed.

He was silent. "Are you still there?" he asked.

"Yes, I said that's terrific to be at that point in your relationship," I repeated.

He continued this awful conversation, "I mean, I would have thought you would have picked up some signals that my brother is moving in with his boyfriend, and I'm moving in with mine, but if you didn't you would be disappointed."

I'm totally in disbelief that this conversation is happening. I have some gaydar, and admittedly I didn't pick up immediately that either he or his brother were gay, but I am definitely missing the "I'm going to move in with my boyfriend"-dar. Given his level of social skills he's showing right now, I don't think he has it either.

"I don't know why I would be disappointed. I live in a neighborhood with lots of gay men," I say as if it wouldn't even occur to me that anyone would ask this guy out.

The conversation continues for several more exchanges like the above until I finally change the subject back to something not so embarrassing to me.

4. The thing which bothers me the most about this exchange is not that this guy was gay, but that he has a boyfriend. Seemingly everyone here is married or dating --- definitely a larger proportion than where I lived before. And every single person that I have ever dated is dating someone. I try not to think about that, but I keep being reminded of it.

Who to date

On this academic blog, I'm writing about dating partly because it is a big part of my life, but also because it's a subject which is, I think, academically important and not discussed all that much. Psychologists examine romantic preferences, and economists talk about the market for marriage, but it's still a huge mystery how people form their romantic preferences or even what it means for people to be a good match.

So a few more observations:

1. Intelligence matters. Being very reductionist, assuming that the multiple dimensions of intelligence can be reduced to a single metric, there are differences between the top 10%, 1%, 0.1% and 0.01%. Some people are smart, and others are really smart. If this metric exists, I can't say that I have a cut-off, but I do know that some people are smart and interesting to talk to yet I never feel absolutely blown away by their intelligence. I was in a very serious relationship with one guy who was very people-smart and sweet and appreciated me in ways that I really cherish, but he never blew me away, and it was weird feeling like I was clearly smarter than he was in a lot of ways. Maybe it's elitist or sexist, but on the other hand some women will only date men over a certain height (usually 5'10" is their cut-off, so they exclude more than half of the American population and much larger proportions of some ethnic groups) and readily admit this preference.

In person, it's clear whether you get along and you don't have to think too much about intelligence, but having not had much of a chance to meet people in person, I turn to online dating. It seems like a very large proportion of online profiles are bland, "I like to have fun. In the winter, I enjoy skiing, and in the summer, I play golf. In my spare time, I watch TV and hang out with friends, and we have a good time together. I can be both funny and serious." Some of these people who say absolutely nothing distinctive in their profiles may well be interesting and smart people, but I would think that eventually a smart person might look at their own profile and realize that they've written a whole paragraph of generalities and tautologies.

The intelligence thing can work in my favor sometimes. Men who blow me out of the water intellectually, and I would feel intimidated to be in the same courses as they are in, are still interested in me even though I am intellectually nowhere near them. I find it incredibly flattering that a guy who got his Princeton math PhD at age 22 would actually want to date me.

As a feminist, I'm not sure what I think about this situation.

2. Dating is all about probabilities, and therefore stereotypes. Given my preference for smart men, there are lots of indicators of smartness, such as having advanced degrees and having attended an elite undergraduate college: such people are more likely to be compatible with me, though clearly people who do not have those attributes could also be compatible. Assuming that a degree from an elite school is only a signal of intelligence rather than adding any value to people (which as such a graduate, I think is a pretty reasonable assumption), given the choice between someone from a mid-rank school and someone from an elite school, the elite school person is a better bet. Say that 10% of the graduates of a middle-rank university could have gone to an elite school, but didn't. If the probability that an alum of an elite school is otherwise a good match is p, then the probability of someone from a middle-rank school is 0.1p, so without knowing anything else the elite school alum is a better bet. Still, there are way more people from middle-rank schools, so maybe eventually I'll get lucky if I keep dating them, especially if I go for populations from these schools which are themselves elite, like difficult majors.

I'm not an economist or decision theorist, and I know this model misses quite a lot, but they do have something with this signalling idea. The outcome, though, feels elitist.

3. Appearance matters, and there may be such a thing as too attractive. After dating a guy who was 5'6" and so sensitive about his height that he lied by 2 inches on his online dating profile, as well as reading a book about male height (Size Matters by Stephen Hall), I started noticing that people do seem to cluster by height. The median height of my friends at home (previous city) is considerably lower than the median height of another group of friends in the same social milieu.

Stephen Hall's book says that adolescent height determines some aspects of self-confidence, even for people who grow taller eventually. He's speaking more about men, but I think I must have experienced the female equivalent: height doesn't matter, but I know that in adolescence I was not the most socially skilled. To this day, I feel like some people are too cool for me, and I have to push myself to socialize with them in spite of my (almost certainly incorrect) assumption.

Nonetheless, I went on an early morning date this summer with a guy who was a terrific match on paper and we had a great email exchange and he said he was very excited to meet me (an expression of optimism which made it clear that he was new to online dating!), and yet literally the second that we met I knew it was wrong. He was tanned and muscular with a masculine jaw and neat hair, though he wasn't tall; wore a polo shirt, mirrored sunglasses, and neatly pressed khakis; and carried a black briefcase as if it were nothing. He was clearly good-looking and smart, and I can't say that there is a specific aspect of his appearance which is a give-away of non-compatibility, but somehow he is just not the type of person that I am used to hanging out with, and I wasn't the least bit attracted to him. Indeed, it turned out that we had mutual acquaintances, and one of his closer friends is someone that I've never felt like I had anything in common with. I am open to trying new things, and so I decided to make the most of this hour or so. I can usually make conversation with anyone, but the time crawled. I was determined to find points of connection, and apparently he was too because when exactly 45 minutes had elapsed, at 8:15 he said he had to go to work if he didn't want to be late. I know he must have been in particularly early that day, but I don't blame him for not continuing the torture. I didn't enjoy it much either.

So it is a funny paradox: in essence, this guy was too good-looking for me to be attracted to him.

This may be related to the fact that in some social venues such as after a department seminar, I'm very socially comfortable, and people say that I'm clearly an extrovert and they can't imagine that I would ever describe myself as shy (as do many politicians, apparently). In other social venues, such as a party with business school types, I feel shy. While I can still push myself out there to interact, I know that I have more signs of nervousness such as smiling and laughing too much, a higher voice, and tensed face/neck muscles, and am more likely to say totally inane things. I have no political ambitions, but I would like to be socially comfortable in all environments.

Does dating depend on the job search?

One of the subjects in the debate about women in academia is that women come to tenure-track jobs just as they want to have children, which they've deferred until their 30's. Whether that's a good idea is another question --- babies are never easy, and from talking to women who have had babies in grad school, they really appreciated the flexibility which doesn't exist as much when you're working.

In my case, and the case of many women in my position, I'm coming to critical job points having not even met anyone that I want to marry. While the job search is easier without dual career needs, it is harder because I am still constrained to cities with lots of singles. A well-meaning professor who is well-respected by presidents of small colleges mentioned to the president of a top-10 small college three or four hours from the nearest liveable city that he should hire me, and then suggested that I email him. If only he could have recommended me to the president of Barnard! It's obvious that a young single person simply can't live in the middle of nowhere if they want to get married, and even moreso if they belong to a specific ethnic group and need access to a mosque or Armenian Orthodox church or whatever with a singles scene.

I'm in an awkward position of being not obviously partnered but claiming in the passive tense things like, "there are unfortunately lots of geographical constraints on my job search this year", as I said to a guy recruiting for a desirable position at a really top university in a small city who wanted to interview me. And then there are questions of the commute --- there are lots of universities within a 2 hour radius of desirable cities. Could I swing any of those? Could I, who has never had any kind of commute at all until this year, endure more than a 1 hour daily commute each way? Is it economically feasible to have an apartment near the university and one in the city?

Women who are married and want to have children can be open about their needs for a "family friendly" university and the difficulties of a dual career search, and I know that's difficult. I know many couples where one member has taken a suboptimal job (and in many cases, that's the husband, actually) because their spouse got an offer that they couldn't refuse. Women who want to have children, but don't even have the prerequisite life partner and so have more steps to go through before they can have children, cannot discuss their needs. So we're left to the passive voice, and all are pursuing jobs in the same cities.

Which comes to another issue: choice of partner. The stereotype is that women want to marry someone who is at least as accomplished as they are, and men are not as concerned with this as long as the women are smart; this stereotype seems to be true, but exactly how this works and why raises questions like how women choose careers and whether women who go into pink collar jobs are choosing not to be as ambitious, which is a huge can of Larry Summers worms. Regardless of whether or why it's true, the argument from the stereotype is that highly-educated straight women are in a difficult position for dating: their male peers are willing to date women who aren't as educated, so their counterpart pool is smaller than it could otherwise be.

If that's true, in choosing cities to concentrate their job search, women in academia have to think about which cities have the largest pool of comparable men. Off the top of my head, I can think of less than a dozen US cities with reasonably large pools of educated and intelligent men. If that weren't restrictive enough, there are differences even within these cities. A gay friend of mine who has a non-academic career with lots of smart people, has lived in several of the cities and told me that he felt that only one city had a gay dating pool where he felt like he had a good chance of meeting intelligent people with similar values; for instance, one city should have had lots of smart gay men, but not only did he not find them, but there was lots of casual hard drug use. I've also lived in several of the cities, and I've found dating to be easier in some cities than others. None of this is to say that dating is impossible in any of these cities; it may just require more searching to find the smaller number of potential partners. It does mean that I have clear preferences among this already small number of cities.

All this adds up to the inescapable conclusion that my dating life depends on my academic success: in order to have the best chance at a good job in a good city, I need to work to publish as much as possible as quickly as possible in time for next year's job market. I'm a strong believer in Boice and others who say that optimal working leaves sufficient free time to have a satisfying personal life, so I won't say that this is a paradoxical conclusion. It is strange, though, that we talk about women being less ambitious for their personal lives, but right now it seems that I have to be more ambitious for the sake of my personal life.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Highlights of my life

This post is going to be very boring for those of you who aren't interested in minutiae like grocery stores and furniture, but I'm proud of myself for having organized my life reasonably well in the first two weeks of living here.

- Furniture: I came to the apartment with just 4 chairs, but now it's nearly fully furnished from a combination of Craig's list, Ikea, Staples, Salvation Army, the alley across from my new apartment, and Target. Everything that I paid money for is solid wood except for my purple end table. Bedroom furniture cost a bit under $600, living room $95, dining room $215, kitchen $115, bathroom $26. Of course, there are innumerable small things that one does not normally think of as furniture, like the shiny red brand new toilet plunger which I hope stays in its pristine state, which add up far faster than furniture does.

- Food: I love my home (previous) supermarket. It has cheap produce, families with carts literally piled high with food speaking 40 different languages and paying for their groceries entirely with cash, wacky announcements with phrases like "You'll be dancing in the dairy aisle...", and tortillas so fresh that the steam condenses inside the bag. The new city has a diverse population too, but I'm in a yuppie neighborhood with only the usual mainstream and upscale stores. Cheap produce is important not just because I'm cheap (though I am) --- it means that I buy a lot more of it and therefore cook and eat extremely healthily, with larger proportion of my diet consisting of vegetable stews and the like, than if I had to pay retail.

I was thus thrilled to run across a supermarket with more than a passing resemblance to my home supermarket --- it has a wacky name, and is clean and even a bit swanky-looking, but is much more inexpensive than the mainstream supermarket and with all the brands I'm used to, though still slightly more expensive than my home supermarket. So I stocked up on way more food than I could imagine eating, and my purchases came to a whopping $60. I love supermarkets like that.

- Unpacking. A mantra's been rattling around in my head "Unpack with the end in mind," which is I think a variation on a dissertation writing mantra. The end, of course, being that I hope to be in a new job at this time next year, and will therefore have to move again, and I want to unpack so that packing is as easy as possible. I'm donating belongings that I didn't miss while they were packed away, leaving most of my books at my parents', and keeping nearly all of the packing materials. As of today, everything is either unpacked and in a good place, or on my bed.

I put together my last two bookcases today, and moved them around the apartment until I found the perfect place, and installed my stereo (probably a pretty good stereo when it was first bought in 1994), and was amazed at how good the acoustics were since I put the speakers high and spread apart, and the right speaker on the right side. My books are all in their place. And there is still lots of room for my roommate to get furniture when she comes.

- Work: I had the usual expected surprises of a new job: no phone, no computer, no reimbursement, no computer password, no network printer access, and an immediate need to print reams and reams of new material in order to start doing actual work, which I haven't done yet. I have managed to complete a draft of a paper for an upcoming conference, submit 2 job applications (9/15 and 12/17 deadlines), and start an application for a prestigious pie-in-the-sky fellowship, all of which is work, but none of which is what my job pays me to do.

- Parking: For the first time in my life, I have free access to a car, but once it's in a parking space I don't want to leave the parking space ever. I have my parents' old car on loan for furniture shopping and package hauling. I've learned to coordinate my schedule by the parking rhythms and restrictions, and I'm afraid that if I went out at a time when spots are generally not available, I would wander the neighborhood for an hour looking for parking, at which point I could have just dropped the car at my parents' and taken the train back. So I just don't go out except at those times. My neighborhood has attractions which draw both hipsters and sports fans, and is also densely populated in itself. The wonder is that it is ever possible to get a parking space at all, but in fact my apartment is perfectly situated that I can observe the parking situation at different times of day all the way down the street.

- Crime: Thankfully, no experiences relevant to this yet, but it's a difficult city for crime. I grew up here, and I frequently tell people about the mortality rate in my high school graduating class: 3 out of 800 killed over the four years. Recently I ran across some old high school newspapers and was reminded that my high school classmates were perpetrators as well as victims --- several of the papers had stories about high school classmates arrested for violent crimes like stabbings and shootings, which I have a hard time wrapping my head around.


I'm a new postdoc, so new that I don't yet have my Ph.D. After a bunch of confusion on the job market last year including a tenure-track offer letter where apparently the hiring administrator decided that he didn't want to hire anyone into that position (I know the circumstances and they have nothing to do with me), I scrambled at the very last minute and ended up with a postdoc doing scutwork on an interesting project working for a famous professor at a mediocre university in the city I grew up in.

I'm very homesick for the city where I went to grad school, where all my friends live, and as a substitute for human companionship, I've decided to start a blog. Why reach out of and touch someone, when I could instead reach out and touch many people, after all.

Some relevant facts about me: I'm a single woman, in that 28-34 age bracket --- old enough to be sensible and confident, but young enough not to be sensitive about my age --- and I'm living in a pretty big city.