Tick Tock: Love or Learning?

I started my PhD program 1 month after my 21st birthday. I was 2 months shy of my 26th birthday when I got my PhD. I am very young to be faculty. I remind myself that if all goes as planned, I will still be of marriageable age when I’m tenured. I don’t have to rush. I have some time. But that’s not true for most (female) PhDs. Our clocks are ticking—biological and tenure.

For those who don’t know, tenure is the goal for any professor. In general, here is the process:

  • Tenure-track assistant professor for 3 years
  • Third year review
  • Semester sabbatical (if you’re fortunate enough to be at a school that gives you this)
  • Another 2.5 years of teaching
  • Submit your tenure file to your committee at the beginning of year 6 (in some schools, this is year 5)
  • Anxiously wait for them to either tell you ‘Congratulations! You have a job for life!orUnfortunately, we are unable to offer you tenure’ which really means: ‘you have a semester to pack your things and find a new job where you will likely have to start your tenure clock over’.

In order to get tenure, schools require their faculty to perform in 3 areas: Teaching, Research, and Service. The weight given to each area differs between schools, but the general rule of thumb is that you need to be excellent in two of them and ‘good’ to ‘very good’ in the third.

I won’t bore you with more of the tenure process, but suffice it to say that at most Research I institutions, you need to publish 5-6 peer reviewed articles in order to get tenure. That’s an article a year (to put in perspective, it generally takes a year to get through the publishing process). At teaching institutions, your teaching evaluations need to average ‘excellent’. That means one ‘average’ course could tank you.

So amidst these high expectations, where do we find time to meet our soul mate?

I’m not sure professors have a good answer for that. Those who do, I welcome your input. Here are the barriers to love I’ve experienced thus far in the Academy:

  • Stress—this was especially true during graduate school. It’s really hard to maintain a relationship when you are emotionally and mentally drained. Who wants to be around someone who is tired, irascible, and just worn down?
  • Time—now that I’m a full time professor trying to cram research, teaching, and service into my days, by the time I get home, I’m exhausted. When I’m asked out on a date, I want to say ‘I only have an hour because I still have papers to grade, a lesson plan to write, emails to respond to, an IRB proposal to submit, and a manuscript revision waiting.’ But I don’t say that. I go out for 2-4 hours and come home even more tired because I’ve used what little energy I had to keep on my ‘date face’ all evening.
  • Intimidation—this is a big one. If one more guy says ‘oh wow! You’re a professor?!?! You must be really smart’, I am going to throw my plate of mediocre food right in his face. I got this so often, I started telling people ‘I’m a teacher’ instead of saying ‘I’m a professor’. This yielded a completely different reaction. All of a sudden, guys were excited and happy to discuss my career choice instead of hastily changing the subject to more comfortable (for them) territory. I only did this twice. I am a professor. I shouldn’t have to alter my profession for the sake of your ego.
  • Paucity of Options—in a previous post (Academia is a Lonely Place ) I mentioned how isolating the Academy is. This is especially true if you are young, a woman, or faculty of color (or all three like me). For those who want to date someone in their age range and/or ethnic group, the pickings are slim. For those who don’t mind branching out, it is common that the men are simply not interested in you. In no way am I implying there are prejudice or racist feelings at play; all I’m saying is that asking a white guy to date a woman of color with a PhD and a solid career is asking him to do what almost no human can: be comfortable with a lot of difference. And when we do find those men who appear comfortable, it’s natural for us to question it. I often find myself asking ‘why are you interested in me?’ As I write this I feel a bit of shame that I have gotten to the point where I can’t view someone’s interest in me as genuine. But experience has taught me that often, I am arm candy for their ego; an intellectual display piece meant to boost their street credibility; a ‘new experience’ or a ‘chocolate fantasy’. But rarely am I just a cool, funny woman they’d like to get to know.

I know that many professors are happily married with families. I know that many professors are happy with just their professional success. But those who want both—they scare me. They are the ones who look haggard, are always rushing around, who show up late to meetings and return emails at crazy hours. They are the ones who can never come out for drinks or attend after hour functions at work. They are the ones whose passion for teaching or research or for their relationship is starting to fade. They are who I fear becoming.

I’m reminded of a Sex and the City episode where Carrie posed the question: Can we have it all?


5 comments on “Tick Tock: Love or Learning?

  1. Jordan says:

    I think that this was an incredibly insightful and thorough discourse on the… plight, for lack of a better word, of female academics. I can identify with much of what you are saying although my experience of course has a different tint to it. As you know, I’m beginning my sixth year of my Ph. D. program and if things go to plan this should be my last year on campus here. I find that many of the frustrations and worries you voiced in your discourse are paralleled in my experience. The first big difference is the situation with the biological clock, of course I don’t have a pressing biological determinant to my ability to have kids at this point, but I would very much like to have kids at an age where I am able to be active and involved in every aspect of their lives as my father did with me and my sisters.. Not the same, I know, but something that is of great concern to me.
    In terms of the latter half of your post addressing Stress, Time, Intimidation, and Lack of options, I completely identify with each of these barriers. I think I should interject that I am not planning on pursuing a career in academia (I could never be a full-time prof), but I have chosen a career path that I think can be equally, if not more offputting to potential mates. I have chosen to enter the military as a Clinical Psychologist, meaning that there will be relatively frequent moving and the potential of being deployed overseas. With the difficulties people have in making marriages work nowadays when they are able to live together the majority of the time, I seriously wonder if I would be able to find someone willing to do what it would take to create and nurture a military family (should I go career).
    In terms of stress, well it’s grad school and that’s pretty self-explanatory, but the troubles and concerns clients bring on a daily basis can definitely increase to emotional stress and drain experienced. In terms of time.. ugh… I don’t even want to think about my current schedule, but the short of it: dissertation proposal, running 2 studies in the lab, running 6 support groups, two additional clients, and research at the VA. Intimidation is also an all too common theme that I have noticed, maybe it’s because I’m a black male in Memphis, but a high level of education is not always as appealing to women (at least here) as one might think. And maybe I’m giving off hints that some of these individuals don’t particularly impress me. After getting a whiff of my schedule it is not infrequent that questions about me being a “workaholic” (which is the furthest thing from the truth) become a concern. The lack of options is a tough one as well, during my 5 years here in Memphis I have significantly changed my dating requirements and with no success. I strongly feel that if you haven’t met the person you’re going to marry before you begin gradschool, there is a 95% chance that you will not meet that person until after graduate school. Even then, I have no idea what those odds are… I do know that I am 27 and within the next two years I will have to move twice, which makes relationships difficult since I despise long distance relationships… Wow, I’ve gone on and on.. I’m sure you will find what you’re looking for and I hope I do too! PS.. Hope I didn’t write too much.

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