Stacey Patton

Assistant Professor of Multimedia Journalism at Morgan State University

Wandering Scholars ISO Tenure—and Love

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Image: Abbe Depretis.

Meet Abbe Depretis. She’s a cute, bubbly, 31-year-old visiting assistant professor at Temple University who is finishing up her dissertation at the University of Maryland at College Park. She’s also single, and she’d rather not be.

“Now that I’m in my 30s,” she says, “I want stability.” For some time now, Depretis has been hoping to meet “a guy who is interesting to me—someone to come home to at night, to eat with, to talk with, to help pay the bills, to have a foundation with.”

Sounds simple enough. The problem, Depretis says, is that as a scholar, she’s had no choice but to spend the past decade prioritizing her career over her personal life. For one thing, she’s had to respond to the wobbly labor market by moving wherever the jobs happen to be. That means living in places where the dating pool feels shallow, and it means never hanging around long enough to build roots. Over the last three-and-a-half years, Depretis has relocated from a steel town in Pennsylvania to a residential suburb of Maryland to a military town in Virginia and now to Philadelphia, where she lives in an up-and-coming “hipster” neighborhood, as she calls it.

On top of all that moving, there’s the difficulty she faces once she does get to settle in. Juggling the demands of academic life—the dissertation-writing, the teaching, the relentless CV-building—has left her little time and emotional energy to wade through the fiber-optic hot mess of online dating. She’s tried, here and there, but the results have been underwhelming. On a dating profile, Depretis described herself as “caring and compassionate, a traveler, dog-lover, fun, and playful.” She suspended that account about two weeks ago, though. She was tired of receiving nasty, sexually suggestive messages from men.

“I’m thinking of trying it again, but I just don’t have much faith left in the process,” she says.

Read Abbe Depretis's story: 'I Have to Remember to Put on My Dating Hat'

Depretis isn’t inclined to put her academic career on hold to find love. But she has considered making other accommodations. Among the possibilities: freezing her eggs, just in case the time for a serious relationship and a family doesn’t arrive for a while.

The One-Body Problem

There’s been much attention paid to the challenges that academic couples face, especially the so-called “two-body problem,” the difficulty scholarly couples face in finding jobs in the same state, let alone the same institution. But less is said about the “one-body problem”—the one facing single academics in their 30s and early 40s, like Depretis. These singles often find themselves sitting out the dating game until and even after they find stable employment.

They do so, researchers say, for a number of reasons that are unique to academia. Pursuing a postdoc, a visiting professorship, or a tenure-track position often requires a flurry of relocations. Moving to parts of the country where dating options are fewer can be isolating and depressing, especially for women, LGBT professors, and scholars of color who say they are naturally inclined toward more cosmopolitan settings.

Mary Ann Mason, co-director of the Center on Economics and Family Security at the University of California at Berkeley, has heard many complaints from single faculty members who fear small college towns will put a damper on their personal lives.

“They don’t want to go to some little place in Kansas where there’s not many dating possibilities,” says Mason, who studies gender and family issues within academia. “There are status issues. People are married up and they tend to marry younger. There’s no social life and you don’t have the same large professional class as in cities.”

Hollis Griffin, a 37-year-old, gay assistant professor of Media Studies at Denison University, is just finishing his second year on the tenure track. Denison is about a 45-minute drive east of Columbus, Ohio. It’s a rural area, with farms, prairies, and quaint houses, but only a few blocks of commercial activity.

“If you have a family here, it’s great,” Griffin says. “But when you’re gay and single, it’s like landing on Mars.”

Read Hollis Griffin's story: 'I Decided to Commute for Love'

Beyond the geographic hurdles, the academy just demands a lot of time and attention out of its young scholars. If you’ve got papers to grade, research work to pore over, and service to do, something’s got to give. Often, it’s your personal life.

That’s a problem, says Mason, because scholars are getting Ph.D.’s—and their first steady jobs—at an older age. The average Ph.D. now comes at 34; the first job in the mid-to-late 30s.

“The culture has changed,” she says. “It’s accelerated in the academic world because it takes longer to get the degree. Academic women defer marriage and family, and many have stalled in life in terms of their peers in other fields.”

Last year, Mason collaborated with two other researchers—Nicholas Wolfinger, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Utah, and Marc Goulden, director of data initiatives at Berkeley—on a book, Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower. Wolfinger explains that in the 1960s, academic women were more likely to choose either career or family, one or the other.

“It was often assumed in 1960 that the price of professional success for women was forgoing a family,” he says. “Now it’s perceived as more realistic that women will have it all. But for academic women, that doesn’t pan out. The numbers support this.”

Indeed, once Depretis finishes her degree and, hopefully, lands a tenure-track position, the odds of finding love won’t necessarily shift in her favor. Researchers say that academic women are more likely to be single, divorced, or childless than women who pursue other careers.

And for professors of both sexes, there’s another downside to being single: You may get extra work. “A department chair may say, ‘I can’t give this committee assignment to Betty because she’s married. I’ll give it to Barbara who is single and has more time’,” says Wolfinger. “Single faculty get asked to dine with candidates.”

But for many single scholars, the real problem isn’t a bit of extra service. It’s the feeling that others—inside and outside the academy—view them as somehow incomplete.

I spoke recently with Robin (not her real name), a 40-year-old graduate student in history who is finishing up her dissertation at a research university in the Midwest. Robin identifies herself as an “urban coastal queer;” she has been single for almost all of graduate school, she says, because her university is “very straight.”

Robin didn’t ask me to withhold her name because she’s ashamed of her sexuality. Instead, she says, she’s embarrassed that she’s still single at her age. The cultural assumption, she says, is that by a certain age, you’re supposed to have found a partner and have children. Otherwise, you’re not considered a legitimate adult.

“I’m not yet on the tenure track, and so it’s hard to prioritize,” she says. “I have concerns about what my future is going to look like if I can’t find myself a position in a community where I’m comfortable. I don’t want to be a single academic for the rest of my career.”

We spoke with four scholars, including Depretis and Griffin, who describe how their pursuit of academic careers has affected their dating lives. Click through below to read their stories.

Abbe Depretis
visiting assistant professor of strategic communication, Temple University

"People don't realize how much being single can affect your dissertation completion."

Brian Clardy
associate professor of history, Murray State University

"It’s not like I’m going to go on a date and talk about the implications of the 1945 Yalta Conference."

Tikia Hamilton
Ph.D. candidate in history, Princeton University

"There's a whole bunch of academics walking around, feeling alone."

Hollis Griffin
assistant professor of media studies, Denison University

"I've run into students while on a date. That was humiliating."

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