The Single Body Problem

I am tired of having my conscious and painful sacrifices, of which there were not few, dismissed because they center around the fact that I am single in academia.

I have been in a monogamous relationship with my career for the past decade. It has shown me new places, taken as much of my love and devotion as I give it, and I’ve even met and spent time with different members of its family (personality, cognition, well-being). Outside my career, I’ve been single for 6 years and faced the unique and too rarely discussed challenges of The Single Body Problem in academia wherein (primarily) early career academics face challenges around being single and career progression. In pursuit of this dream I left behind friends, family, a man that loved me and, along the way, men that could have. I am tired of having my conscious and painful sacrifices, of which there were not few, dismissed because they center around the fact that I am single in academia. It’s not uncommon to see coupled academics lamenting the freedom of being single; the ability to move at a moment’s notice for the next great offer, and to think solely about oneself and career. I won’t debate that there are perks but for a moment, let’s discuss the challenges.

We the single academics have listened to you, the coupled academics, about your stories and challenges, we have recognized and empathized with them, and we believe in continuing those conversations, but it’s also time to expand to regularly include The Single Body Problem.

First, an important acknowledgement: I’m a straight, white, cis gendered woman without children and I can only speak through my experiences around that. Mine is far from the only narrative and it’s critical we hear and read about The Single Body Problem experience from a diverse group of people, and we have invited and encourage others from different groups (e.g., women of color, single parents, members of the LBGTQ community) to share their experiences in Cultured Scene. Second, to the coupled academics that immediately want to bogart the discussion and tell myself and other single academics about the challenges and heartache that come with The Two Body Problem, I’d like to say, with all due respect, sit down, this song isn’t about you. We the single academics have listened to you, the coupled academics, about your stories and challenges, we have recognized and empathized with them, and we believe in continuing those conversations, but it’s also time to expand to regularly include The Single Body Problem. The Single Body Problem doesn’t negate The Two Body Problem and vice versa, it’s not a competition. Single academics want to be equally heard, which is not too much to ask.

Dating is so draining that in an effort to bring some humor into it, I started #AcademicAndDating to share my stories, horrible messages, and generally laugh a little at the absurdity.

Let’s start easy, work our way in, with the most obvious challenge that comes with being single: When you’re trying not to be. Dating someone you like and want to spend time with is lovely, but dating more generally, in my experience, is awful. If you’re looking for a new partner, there are things they tend to ask and like decisive answers on, like “Where are you going to be living next year”, “What are you doing with your life”, and “Why are checking how internationally employable I am?” If you’re single and an early career researcher, you’re probably going to respond with an awkward smile and a quick survey of your nearest exit. As a straight woman I run into the plethora of sexist responses to my education, independence, and ideological views, primarily on feminism. On multiple first dates men have told they would never call me Doctor in response to me saying I love having the title because it means I’m not longer Miss or Ms. Dating is so draining that in an effort to bring some humor into it, I started #AcademicAndDating to share my stories, horrible messages, and generally laugh a little at the absurdity. Dating, particularly for women, is also potentially dangerous. I’ve had men contact me outside of dating apps without my permission, use alternative numbers when I’ve blocked them, been scolded, as if I was a child, for deciding not to go out with them, and received multiple unsolicited and inappropriate messages on social media (though that’s not specific to being single). Dating sucks.

Let’s set aside dating for a moment (everyone needs a break from time to time) and discuss moving. Often mentioned as one of the big perks of being a single academic is the ability to take whatever job you want without worrying about bringing another person along. However, it turns out that other people are super useful for moving, or so I’ve heard. I’ve done three international moves solo (UK, USA, and Austria), two of which were within 18 months of each other. In countries like the UK where flats are furnished, it’s easier. You’re still dealing with the cost and getting all your necessary belongings in two 23kg suitcases, a carry on, and bag/purse (plus pets and, if you’re disabled, medical cooler/transportation device and necessary equipment), but at least you don’t have to buy furniture. You can probably find a local pal/cab driver to help you get all that to the airport and then it’s up to you to check in and then eventually drag it to your new destination. In countries without furnished flats (or where they’re too expensive) you have to manage purchasing, moving, and constructing furniture by yourself. Have we talked about the cost of this move? You’re usually covering it by yourself. My first postdoc paid nothing for moving expenses, my current one in Austria allowed me to apply and successfully receive a moving grant for €2000, which helped enormously but didn’t cover everything by a long shot. Yes, coupled academics need to find jobs for their partners, schools for their children (note: single academics may have to do this too), and generally have a lot to do, but single academics do quite a lot solo and they usually do it with one less important resource, a local support system.

Single academics uproot our lives, we move somewhere new, and we often leave our support system thousands of miles away.

Now to the harder realities of being single. It can be very lonely, even when you’re the healthiest of people. So often dismissed when The Two Body discussion comes up, the perk of having someone that (possibly) moves and supports you throughout your career. I won’t deny relationships are difficult, particularly if you’re doing long distance (remember, I said we heard you), but they’re at least intended to come with support for one another. Single academics uproot our lives, we move somewhere new, and we often leave our support system thousands of miles away. We also sacrifice parts of our personal lives for our professional ones – those perks that people envy come with serious costs as well. With the advent of the internet things are easier; some of my closest, most supportive friends are from Twitter, but single academics come into a new place usually knowing few, if any people. Every time we move, we start our local support system from scratch. You can be happy being single but still lonely as you try to build new friendships. We’ve read the articles, we experienced the hardships, we know academia is incredibly difficult; being alone in a new place and rebuilding a new support system while considering your next move only makes it harder. Even when you’ve done the unthinkable, landed a permanent job, you’re still going to have to do a lot of things by yourself but at least now you can build that support system with the idea that you’re not leaving. Maybe you paint your flat or buy a heavy saucepan, I don’t know, whatever people with permanent jobs do. At the worst of times in my career, I (with help from others) dug the well of my own despair so deep I couldn’t see out and no one was in the general vicinity to peer in. Being a single academic comes with cost, it can be lonely, so please find your empathy and make room to see and support single academics and our struggles.

What can you do?

Hopefully, you’ve read this and decided you want to build a better world for single academics, what can you do? Well first, listen, without offering advice or judgement. Coupled people don’t usually appreciate unsolicited advice on how to handle their partner and/or children and similarly, single people lamenting their challenges aren’t always looking for advice on how to not to be single (also much of the advice is contradictory and more than a little sexist). Also, consider the lack of social network and be sympathetic to that. I’m not saying offer to be their shoulder to cry on but maybe recognize that things may take longer for single academics because they’re managing it mostly by themselves (yes, parents and friends help but it falls to you most of the time) and try not to get frustrated by that. PIs, postdocs, and students all have extremely busy lives but the sheer offer of a ride from the airport is invaluable, along with advice on how to get settled into the area and handle any governmental things. Offering to introduce single academics to more people, different groups, is also generally appreciated (I mean don’t push or pity, just offer). Universities, do you host regular events for new postdocs? I see them for students but postdocs get ignored despite the fact that we’re usually at an age where it’s hard to make new friendships. Not specific to single academics, but offering relocation money would reduce privilege and increase diversity as a whole. While we’re at it, can we normalize therapy, even for psychologically well people? Because if you don’t have a support system, I’m all for paying for one that’s professionally trained. Finally, coupled academics, I’m going to say it again because it’s important: It’s not a competition. Many of us will happily listen to your struggles with The Two Body problem if you’ll agree to not use it to demean and belittle The Single Body Problem. Being single can be a joy and a pleasure but it brings challenges that we have to acknowledge and address, so that being a single academic doesn’t mean feeling alone. Starting with hearing and acknowledging the challenges in our singledom and sacrifices would be a good start.


Editor’s note: This essay will form part of a series on the Single Body Problem. If you are interested in sharing your perspective on this, or on any other issues affecting early-career researchers, please contact us at journalsec2@eslrsociety.org


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