[Paleopsych] CHE: The Bachelorette in Academe
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Sun Feb 6 16:33:33 UTC 2005
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
By SARA M. BRADSHAW
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
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
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
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
E-mail me if you have problems getting the referenced articles.
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