This post is about the “love life” of an academic, particularly aspiring female academics. It was inspired by a wonderful weekend conversation that I had with a dear friend and colleague. I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long time but never had the courage to write it because it hits very close to home. But I was reminded that day that many of my female colleagues out there are going through the same self-doubt and need to know that they are not alone.
The trailing spouse
Nobody tells you about the personal price you have to pay as a woman trying to make it in academia. Now I don’t want to exclude my male readers here — I know you have your battles too. But in my 10 years+ of being in academia, I’ve started to notice a pattern. Almost all my male colleagues in the early-career stage (i.e. PhD or Post-docs) who’ve had to relocate for the job have partners or wives who moved with them. Conversely, almost all my female colleagues in the early-career stage who’ve had to relocate for a new post-doc or PhD are single.
Here’s the thing. It is a really BIG ask for your partner to give up or put on hold his/her job, career, aspirations so you can pursue your career and your passion, with no guarantee that you’ll actually make it to tenure. For various reasons, it seems women are far more willing to make that sacrifice for their partner than men. I can count with one hand the number of female colleagues I know who were lucky enough to have a boyfriend willing to move with them. In all those cases, their partners were also at the early stages of their working life, not quite fixed on what they wanted to do or simply were up for a bit of adventure.
When I started on my academic journey, I took it for granted that I would enjoy the same flexibility and commitment from my partner as my male colleagues. I was sure that I would have my cake and eat it too. But as I went from my PhD to my post-doc and then another post-doc, I realised that boyfriends are not the same as girlfriends. I would get my cake, but it would have an expiry date.
Love and letting go
This is not something anyone will tell you when you are starting out on your PhD as a woman. At various points in your academic journey, you will have to choose (consciously or otherwise) between sticking it out with academia or sticking it out with the man or woman you love. There will be numerous points in that journey where you will question if this job, this project, these abstractions that you are pouring your heart and soul into is worth that breakup, worth starting over in a new city, finding new friends, starting new relationships.
Which ever way you choose to go, it will be painful and there will be a deep sense of loss. The question you have to ask is which one will hurt more. Regret from not taking that post-doc offer, or regret from not seeing where this relationship might take you. I am rather agnostic when it comes to love. So I believe love, once lost will be found again somewhere else. In the end in comes down to which one you find is harder to let go of.
Path of least regrets
It seems rather obvious and simple now when I look back on all the junctures in my life when I was making this choice, over and over again. I did not realise I was choosing. I did not think that I would have to choose. After all, all my colleagues have their wives and girlfriends with them. At some point I started to wonder if I was the problem. Perhaps I was the reason why my exes never wanted to move with me.
But now I know it’s not me. And I am not the only one. As an academic and a female, you will be faced with this choice more often than not, because we are not the trailing spouse and the world of relationships is not quite adjusted to that idea yet. Just remember that it is not you. You’re not the problem. Your experience is the symptom of a bigger change happening in the world where women now have opportunities to forge careers of their own, and the conventional ideas of a stable relationship, who gets to move, and who gets to follow are in a period of adjustments. So if you ask me, if you have to choose, don’t take the path of least resistance. Take the one of least regrets.