Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Balancing academia and personal life: dating

One of the oft-mentioned aspects of the work-life balance in academia is that women start their quest for tenure just as their biological clocks suggest they have children. Tenure committees have adjusted to this reality, gradually: though I found it interesting that when faculty were offered allowance for parental leave, no women took it, just a few men, presumably because women didn't want to be perceive as taking advantage of their gender.

A facet of the work-life balance that people tend not to discuss very much is how dating interacts with academia. Parenthood is clearly all-absorbing, but dating is challenging in its own way. I won't compare the two in terms of difficulty, but I do want to list the challenges of dating while in the early career stages:

1) Dating interferes with the job search

- The two-body problem limits where a couple can go, but dating poses more restrictive limits. The cities where someone who is single, educated, and over 30 has a decent chance of meeting a future spouse are very limited (SF, LA, Seattle, Chicago, Austin, DC/Baltimore, NY, Boston, Philadelphia, have I missed any?), and that's without any extra considerations such as cultural factors which may further limit it. I had a great inquiry this summer from a place in a decent size city where it would be just fine to live if I were married. It's not socially acceptable to say anything about dating, so I just said, "Unfortunately, the geographical constraints are tight this year."

- Dating is time-consuming: simply reading through internet profiles on several websites, writing or replying to innumerable emails, finding events where there might be other singles and attending them, and having a series of 1-2 hour coffee meetings can easily expend 10 hours per week. This time is generally unproductive: you walk away not having gained or learned anything from the experience which will help in the future.

- Dating is unsettling, which is distracting. I don't think it's coincidence that all of last year when I was not in any relationships, I was spinning my wheels unproductively; I finished my dissertation only this year when I got into a 2 month relationship. The beginning and end of relationships always involve loss of sleep and inconsistent concentration.

- Dating and the job search both require "good time". In academia, you learn to invest your bright-eyed bushy-tailed time into the difficult work, and move to the easy stuff when you are tired and incoherent. You can't make a good impression on a job when you are tired and incoherent, however, so you have to divide your good hours between research and the job search, and yet find enough good humor and cheer to bring to dating in the evenings.

- Dating is enough like the job search that it's hard to do both simultaneously: go to a website where you try to find profiles of people or jobs which seem like good matches, reject a few, get rejected a whole bunch, hope that something pans out and fear that nothing will, and try extremely hard not to get demoralized.

2. The job search and academia interferes with dating.

- Frequent travel especially for long periods introduces discontinuities into relationships: I don't know if my most recent relationship would have turned out differently if I hadn't spent 3 weeks away (with only a couple short returns in that interval) after two weeks of fantastic dating; at the very least, we could have figured out sooner that it wasn't a match rather than a month of limbo.

- The feeling of impermanence means that it's difficult to initiate relationships in the last few months of a stay anywhere, and yet too early to start looking in the new place, so that time is generally wasted, and the first month is spent getting set up and oriented and figuring out how to meet new people. Even at the beginning of the year, there's a real cognitive dissonance about applying to jobs while simultaneously cultivating a new relationship.

- Lots of otherwise nice men and women have a chip on their shoulder about education, making it slightly difficult to meet new people. Not a dating anecdote, but before I moved here I was talking with a potential roommate looking for 2 roommates for a 3 bedroom. She asked why we were coming to her city, and I replied that my roommate and I were both postdocs; she was quiet for a moment and then said, "Oh. I just have a BA. I hope that's okay." It's easy to say that she just has something wrong with her, but the conversation had been going great before that; I have seen her around at parties in the neighborhood, we have mutual friends, and she seems like otherwise a great person. Like many people on online dating sites, I screen out native English speakers with bad spelling and grammar, but if they know my educational level or profession, I have to go to great lengths to manufacture another reason so I don't look like a snob especially if they have a blue-ish collar job. A primary school teacher or librarian could reasonably screen people by their grammar, but for a PhD to do so, it's regarded as snobbery.

There are some good facets of dating while on the job search.

- Dating improves social skills. Every week, I have hour-long appointments with at least one stranger per week, and my social skills have gotten good enough that I almost always connect with my interviewer or date, even if it's not a match.

- I'm used to the cycle of excitement, critical examination, and reconsideration, and my accuracy anticipating rejection has improved immensely.

- No two body problem, and I can proudly declare that on dates if it comes up. Um, I mean job interviews. I'll leave that in. I can also declare it on dates.

- Academia gives me a way to meet new people in a new city and bond with them, even in totally different fields.

- The cities with good dating are great places to live.

- Within the constraints of the dating cities, I can make the decision which is best for my career, and don't have to accept a lesser job for someone else. Some of the compromises that couples make for each other improve the relationship, but others jeopardize it; I know one couple where she got her favorite tenure-track job so he accepted his least favorite job (basically, in industry) so she could take it and didn't like the job much better once he took it; after hearing from each of them how this decision was made, I have a hard time seeing how he could stay in this relationship and be happy, but who knows. By contrast, I know a couple where she finished before he did, and got a fabulous tenure-track job, and they came together to the new city; he is way underemployed as an adjunct although he is completely brilliant and certainly a peer of his wife, just in a less in-demand subfield than her subfield, but he seems content.

Irrespectively, it's still a bit lonely when I'm among academics and realize that I'm the only single, which happens increasingly often, even with people a step or two younger than I, like graduate students or god-help-me freshly-graduated post-college RAs.

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