[Paleopsych] CHE: The Bachelorette in Academe

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The Bachelorette in Academe
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.1.28


    A Ph.D. in history finds that a rural, small-town campus is no place
    to be single


    When I received the offer, everyone congratulated me. I had landed a
    tenure-track job, one of the old-fashioned kind, with a light teaching
    load and plenty of time for research. What more could a young
    historian want?
    Only one person voiced a concern. My adviser asked hesitantly, "Are
    you sure that a small town in a rural region is a good place for a
    single woman?"
    Eager to show that I was a dedicated historian, I quickly asserted
    that Rural Town in a rural state out West would be an OK place for me.
    Hadn't I moved to Madison, London, the Bay Area, and a whole host of
    other places by myself? And hadn't I been successful in finding
    relationships and carving out a social life in those areas? Why should
    Rural Town by any different?
    Even as I answered his question, I worried. As a scholar of
    18th-century British history, I knew that jobs in my field were few
    and far between. I was fortunate to receive any job offer at all.
    Still, I had serious doubts as I called to accept the position.
    That year, the buzz among graduate students was all about the
    difficulties of being part of a two-career academic couple, and the
    tensions caused when one partner became the "trailing spouse." Each
    time I told people about my new job, I was told how fortunate I was
    that I was single and did not have to worry about finding a job for a
    No one thought to raise the issue of how difficult it would be for a
    single person to live in a rural town in a rural state that emphasizes
    "family values." And like many single people, I was too embarrassed to
    point out exactly how worried I was.
    I was not single by choice. I had always wanted to marry, and I had
    dated throughout college and graduate school; somehow I just had not
    found the right person. Moving to Rural Town would, I was pretty sure,
    make it even more difficult to find Mr. Right (or Professor Right).
    At the orientation for new faculty members that fall, I discovered
    with a sinking heart that, except for a new colleague in my own
    department who was gay, every one of the newly hired male faculty
    members was married.
    Still, I believed that I could make a life for myself. While I studied
    the 18th century, I lived in modern-day America: The Internet, cheap
    long-distance phone service, and air travel would help me build a
    That first year at Rural Town taught me the limits of technology. I
    was looking for someone with whom I could interact at the end of the
    day -- not a person I could e-mail in the nearest major city more than
    eight hours away. Telephone calls helped, but they could not replace
    an afternoon spent with a friend. Finally, airline tickets proved
    prohibitively expensive, and traveling anywhere meant changing planes
    multiple times and spending an entire day in airports.
    Technology had done little to transform Rural Town, too. It still
    lacked theaters, museums, interesting lectures on politics, walking
    tours, good cafes, and even good bookstores in which I could while
    away a lazy Saturday. In place of those, the town offered only an
    eerie silence. I couldn't even find a good nonacademic book group. I
    had never really understood how isolated certain parts of the country
    can be until I lived in one of them.
    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.
    By Year 3, I was desperate enough to give up my tenure-track job for a
    non-tenure-track one -- a two-year appointment as a visiting faculty
    member with a higher teaching load. The university was still in a
    small town, but the campus was only 40 miles from my hometown and just
    80 miles from a major metropolitan area.
    My situation, however, improved only marginally. True, I was now able
    to date, and I commuted nearly every weekend to the large city in
    order to do so. I was also able to spend time with my family. But my
    depression continued to deepen.
    At some point I began to realize that my problem was exacerbated by
    the culture of academe. In both of my jobs, I lived in quaint rural
    college towns with populations under 20,000. Everyone seemed to have
    partners or families, and those who didn't were students. The towns
    seemed to have no room for people like me who were neither students
    nor family members.
    Moreover, moving from a tenure-track job to a visiting one only made
    me more irrelevant on the campus. Academics often candidly admit that
    they don't bother getting to know visiting professors because the
    person will move on in a year or two. Two of my 12 colleagues never
    even bothered to introduce themselves during the two years in which I
    worked there.
    Gradually, I realized that the only solution to my problem was to
    leave academe. I couldn't wait around for a tenure-track job in a
    better location that might never materialize. Much as I loved history,
    I could not sacrifice my life for it. While my transition to the
    nonacademic world was difficult, I ultimately found a wonderful job in
    a city I love -- and yes, I found a job that enables me to practice
    Leaving has given me an opportunity to meet people -- among them, Mr.
    Right. My greatest revelation came, however, not when I met Mr. Right
    (that was a revelation of a different order) but rather when I met a
    woman in one of my three book groups (that's the good thing about a
    city -- you can belong to lots of book groups and none of the members
    will know that you are seeing others).
    Bright, funny, and well-read, Emily had dropped out of a Ph.D. program
    in history. She was single and working as a librarian. Tentatively I
    asked her, "But you are so bright and you have such a passion for
    history, why did you ever drop out of graduate school?"
    Her response: "Early on, I realized that academe has no office
    culture. I know office culture is always seen as a joke, but I
    realized that as a single person, I was going to need some interaction
    at work. Academe couldn't offer me that -- but a library could."
    It took me a while to mull that one over: Librarians are more socially
    outgoing than academics? Admittedly, there was a little envy on my
    part, too: If I was so smart, how come I hadn't figured out, as Emily
    had early on in her graduate career, that I wasn't going to be
    spending large chunks of my academic career sipping sherry with my
    colleagues while we discussed a range of issues?

    Sara M. Bradshaw is the pseudonym of a public historian who lives and
    works in a metropolitan area on the East Coast. For an archive of
    previous First Person columns, see


    3. http://chronicle.com/jobs/archive/firstpersonarch.htm

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