Single and Fabulous!(?) Unmarried in Academia


I am at a crossroads. Only a couple of years into my career I am faced with the very real, very scary decision of prioritizing professional or personal.

I’ve read many articles and blogs about this issue and unsurprisingly the discourse is centered on women and the choices we are forced to make between our professional and personal identities. So often this conversation is about if married women should change their last name or when women should have children in relation to the tenure process. While these conversations should undoubtedly be had at every institution, I am left wondering where single (i.e., not in a relationship) women fit in this conversation. I hear Carrie Bradshaw whispering in my ear…Single and Fabulous! Single and Fabulous?

I moved across the country to take what turned out to be my dream job. Everything people describe in their ideal employment situation is very true for me: I am able to design my own courses, prioritize teaching over research (this is a personal preference), get to know my students very well because of the small class (and College) size, form strong bonds with colleagues across departments, have my contributions be respected and valued, shape the trajectory of the department and College, have institutional support for attending conferences and funding research, be compensated fairly for my work. I get up every day and look forward to engaging with students, designing new courses, writing manuscripts. I feel excited, challenged and fulfilled.

Then I go home. To an empty house (my dog not withstanding).

I know at this juncture many people will say “you gotta get out there and meet people!” I agree. So I did.

In two years I’ve joined three meet-up groups with different foci. I’ve been a member of all the major online dating websites (the free and very much not free ones). I even hired a matchmaker. I go to movies, restaurants, bars, the mall, the library, coffee shops, the dog park all with hopes of having a casual conversation and making a new friend.

To no avail. This is not because people do not have conversations with me. They do. Then the conversation ends and I watch them leave the establishment hand in hand with their spouse/partner. The same is true for colleagues at work. I have wonderful colleagues with whom I laugh and have great conversations. The problem arises when I—a single woman with no children—want to hang out after 5pm. They can’t. They have children to pick up, spouses with whom to spend time, family visiting, chores to accomplish.

I am one of 173 faculty members at my institution. Of those 173, I would liberally guess that 25 have never been married (If I were to put money on it, I would lower that number to 12). But let’s say it’s 25. Of those 25, I am the only one under 40 years old.

It is quite the dilemma. The harsh reality is that I am in a different phase of life than a 40 year old/married/parent. While I enjoy spending time with them (and sometimes their spouses and children), the things I want to do, the conversations I want to have are hard to come by. You can only handle being a third wheel for so long.

So I find myself spending more time alone than I ever have in life. Even during the haze of graduate school I managed to make connections with people and have a social life. The sad reality is that no matter how much I love my job and my colleagues, this existence is not sustainable.

But do I sacrifice a ‘perfect’ professional situation and go on the job market with hopes of employment in a hipper city with more young professionals….OR do I count my blessings that I HAVE a job (as so many PhDs are outside of the tenure track circle) and keep the faith that I will eventually (seemingly magically) find a man who is unmarried, the appropriate age, wants to have children, is not intimidated by my degree/profession, is interested in me, and with whom I have a connection?

When do I say when? Is it worth the risk?

I guess I echo Carrie Bradshaw in asking can we have it all?


24 comments on “Single and Fabulous!(?) Unmarried in Academia

  1. Anonymous - says:

    Wow! Academia and a Life-long partner -why not still press forward and meet that special someone. The fairy tale of thinking you are going have that person just knock your door…aint happening. – Keep being aggressive.

    I am Black woman who the gift of herpes and I still met my special life partner. I am married and I have two children. (Black over 35, and I was determined to meet someone and I am a survivor of sexual abuse (this is how I acquired the gift) ( I was not going to let it deter me) I am happy to say I am married and I have dated –just like you –online, match matching, groups, friends hook ups, (I dated men who HAD no problem with my gift.)

    But I never gave up.

    I wanted a husband and I prayed to God. I asked God to open my eyes to see the magic of love. I love being around my husband and children. I would truly say to you- please press forward to finding your special love mate. Keep going with the online dating, match-making, etc etc —

    It’s worth it!


  2. teachingimpact says:

    I am feeling exactly the same way. As women we feel more pressure with our time ticking as they say. I have not lost hope, I sometimes feel this way but I am a firm believer that when I am in the right situation in my life to meet the right man he will come. I rather wait longer and meet him at the right time then meet him now and scare him away not being ready.

    One thing I always tell myself and will tell you is NEVER SETTLE! Why should we settle? We are young, professional, beautiful, intelligent women who deserve the best in all aspects of our lives.

    Don’t lose hope! I haven’t!


    P.S. I am in NYC, supposedly a young hip city and it is still super hard to find someone! So don’t think that moving will make much of a difference, it might not :/

    • You being in NYC and still struggling to meet someone is exactly what I don’t want to happen if a miracle occurs and I get a quality job offer in a better city. I don’t want to be less happy at work AND still grappling with similar problems in my personal life. Sigh…thanks for sharing your perspective.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I’m so pleased to see someone putting a voice to this issue. I went through the same situation and found that no one cared to acknowledge the seeming forced choice of single women in small university towns. Many got out within the first 2 years, and perhaps I should have done the same, while everyone else silently accepted that their work would be their life and tried to make that fine. My story has a happy ending, but only through what I believe to be a fluke (I met my husband while leading students on a study abroad program). Regardless, I wish you the courage to pursue whatever celebrates your most authentic self – no matter what happens, then you know it’s you living your happiest and best life.

    • Thank you for the supportive words. This is indeed something no one mentions maybe because so few women are single in academia. I am inspired by your words: celebrate your most authentic self. 🙂

      • singlemamaPhd says:

        I work in academia — recently divorced and 40. I do have to say that there are MANY single women in academia. I don’t know what the statistics are, but in my experience, many of us (if not most) are indeed single, whether that be single/never married or single/divorced.

  4. youngblackprofessor says:

    Single women in academia are not alone in this scenario. Single men exist in academia too, though our numbers pale in comparison to that of single women. Contrary to popular mythology, many of us do not have the pick of the litter. Trying to meet people in a college town that is oriented toward married people with kids and meeting people in such an environment who are not befuddled or threatened by the lifestyle of an young academic is quite difficult.

    As a young black man who works in academe I am viewed as a space alien. Black men with a proclivity towards reading, writing and conversation are not quite as appealing as other types of “authentic” black men. Some women are turned on. Most are turned off. In the work place, most of my married colleagues don’t relate and most of my single colleagues, who happen to be female, don’t trust. So, I am forced to go solo.

    But I wouldn’t trade my life for anything in the world.

    I chose this life fully aware of the costs and benefits. I chose not to get married because I wanted to write books. I chose not to get married because most academics don’t make any money (I am a living witness), a variable that is important when thinking about family planning. I chose not to get married because the academic market is precarious. It offers no real security. Tenure tack jobs and even tenure in today’s climate mean absolutely nothing. Love is a nice thing, but economic security matters.

    I live a nomadic single life and I am happy. I’ve learned to live alone. When the going gets rough I make a determined effort to find companionship. Sometimes I am successful, sometimes I’m not. My life goes on.

    Love the life that you have. Be grateful to the universe that it is not much worse.

    Mad Professor

    • I was hoping a black male academic would read this and post a comment. Black men in the Academy have their own host of issues, one of which you outline here. I am glad you’re happy and content in your career and your life. I hope to find that same sense of peace. Thanks for reading!

    • SingleSatisfiedFemaleAcademic says:

      youngblackprofessor – I’m junior faculty at an Ivy League university as well. Yours was the calculus that I did as I arrived to much the same conclusions. Just as academic black men are viewed as space aliens, so too are female blerds who happen to be Awkward Black Girls. There are many smart Black women who have the total package — looks, brains, and personality — the je ne sais quoi that keeps men interested. In contrast, my natural affect is that of a female Steve Urkel. I’ve learned to mask my goofiness, naivete, and lack of “cool” to a great degree (my parents always prayed that I would!!!), but intimacy requires honesty and being yourself. And even Steve Urkel doesn’t want Stevanna Urkel. He’s interested in the desirable lady, and I was never a Laura.

      So I can’t grieve along with some of my sistas because it’s not as if I had a fabulous time with boys then men and hit a dry spell when I reached the tenure track. Nah, this has been from kindergarten on for me. It’s so much part of my life that it’s part of my identity… it’s not trust issues, it’s just incredulity that any man outside of my family (I’m from a loving, 2 parent home) would value me and see me as a potential partner. I have male friends aplenty, but yes, no one sees me as a wife or mother to their children.

      I think the benefit was that I was relatively young when I realized that no one was checking for me. So, I moved on, and built a life in spite of that. I don’t walk around feeling sad about it anymore… I’m still very happy and friendly and bubbly… I’ve just adapted. I, too, feel as if I’ve been forced to go it alone.

      One thing that I think we underestimate is how much some of this is a side of effect of racism. These are not the kinds of lives that extremely smart people from other groups have to lead or expect to lead. There’s already such a war to fight in order to get to where we are, and once we’re here, we’ve all developed these protective strategies of selfhood that prevent us from opening up enough to form relationships and families. That’s why I advise young mentees (teens, undergrads) to prioritize forming strong families first. Most of those who I know that have it all brought it “all” with them — they were married with children prior to starting the tenure track, with a supportive and loving spouse who shared child-rearing duties.

      But some of us never had that choice because we were never chosen. Our numbers are higher than people might think. We too have a choice: do we move toward bitterness and an unbalanced life… or do we play the hand we’re dealt, remaining open to every possibility, but still enjoying our lives, and living in gratitude? Because “many prophets and righteous men (and women) desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”

      I think of the many thousands gone, countless generations of men and women (from all races and ethnicities) who could choose neither marriage nor education for themselves in the past, and I know they would have wanted us to be as happy as possible, but also to continue their struggle by picking up the torch. What gives meaning to my life is that even if I never marry or have children of my own, my research and scholarship, as well as my advocacy and activism, will mean that the next generation of scholar-activists will not view “career or family?” as a choice… but as a given.

  5. Joshunda says:

    Reblogged this on Single & Happy and commented:
    This is a conundrum for a lot of my friends now: “But do I sacrifice a ‘perfect’ professional situation and go on the job market with hopes of employment in a hipper city with more young professionals….OR do I count my blessings that I HAVE a job (as so many PhDs are outside of the tenure track circle) and keep the faith that I will eventually (seemingly magically) find a man who is unmarried, the appropriate age, wants to have children, is not intimidated by my degree/profession, is interested in me, and with whom I have a connection?”

  6. deereeder says:

    I have no answers. I’m in a happy and committed relationship and I have a great social life… and a job that makes me want to pluck my eyeballs out. I’m a PhD who didn’t pursue the tenure track and the alternatives kind of suck. I’m in debt and feel frozen and chained to this paycheck. I don’t know what you should do, but having a job you actually love sounds like nirvana from where I sit!

    • Ugh…this is exactly my dilemma. I am blessed to have a job I love. But when I leave work I feel like I’m going to pluck my eyeballs out from boredom. I too have some debt that fortunately my salary here allows me to pay off comfortably (also not having children helps). If it’s not one thing it’s another. Thanks for reading!

  7. Table for One says:

    I also struggled with a similar decision during my first tenure-track position. Though I would hardly qualify my job as perfect, I did like a number of things about the campus and my position and probably could have made do had I not felt so socially isolated (the lack of dating options and limited opportunities to befriend other single people in my age group was compounded by living on the opposite coast my family.) I made the decision to leave before I had secured another academic position. I (thought) I could see what my life would look like should I stay at that college and it didn’t look good. I was prepared to leave academia altogether. Fortunately, I did secure another tenure-track position in a city with much better social options (though, to be honest, meeting people outside of the university still takes a good deal of effort). I have been here for a year, made a few new friends, dated some, and am now feeling like I have some roots from which to grow. I wanted to respond to your post because I think as academics we have the tendency to define ourselves according to our academic identities (what we research, teach, etc.) and neglect the other aspects of ourselves that make us whole people. People with families are lucky in some senses because their obligations to their families make it more difficult to lose themselves in their jobs. When I was trying to make the decision to leave, I came to realize that, for me, a perfect job encompasses not only the experiences I have on the campus but what it allows me to be off campus. In other words, if I couldn’t find a way to grow myself outside of the school, then I couldn’t stay. Feel free to ignore this suggestion, of course, but my feeling is, go on the market. See what options you have before you make any decisions. You may find a position that is just as rewarding but in a place that allows you to grow in other ways. Or, you may end up looking at your current situation with new eyes.

    • YES!!! Thank you for this comment. You perfectly summarized how I am thinking about this situation. I need to have space and opportunity to honor who I am outside of work. *nods*

    • Table for One says:

      One thing… My post makes it sound as if going the market is an easy option. As you note, the market is shrinking. In addition, it’s a time-consuming and risky endeavor (deciding whether or not to tell your colleagues, risking them feeling offended). BUT I still think it could be worth it and that making decisions based on concrete options is a much better place to be in than making a decision based on perceived limitations or imagined possibilities. Either way, I wish you the best and thank you for putting into words what many of us are trying to negotiate.

  8. A couple of things:

    From the title of your blog to it’s tagline, as well as reading this particular post and some of your other posts, I’m loving what you’re doing in sharing your thoughts in this space.

    As someone who is currently on the ropes about whether or not to pursue a PhD, I also find your writing to be inspirational because I don’t really access to a lot of examples of POC who’ve done it and are currently doing it.

    Regarding the topic you’ve shared about in this particular post. I am also very glad you’ve chosen to talk about this because in sharing your own experiences, I believe that you’re giving a voice to and making connections with people who might be having similar experiences.

    I agreed with your response to youngblackprofessor that Black men in the academe have their own set of issues to face, but I also am not surprised and agree that much of the discourse around this topic is centered on women and the choices they make, instead of on men and the patriarchal thought processes that serve to blame women for not fitting into roles that ultimately serve to fill men’s needs at the expense of women’s needs.

    You should be able to have all of what you want personally and professionally, and it is my sincere hope that you find what you are looking for.

    Thanks for writing.

  9. Erin says:

    I am 29, and less than a year ago met my current fiance on I am a social worker in the process of applying to medical school. He knows exactly what he is signing on for, he is not intimidated and loves that I am smart and ambitious. They are out there!

  10. John Frazier says:

    You are a beautiful woman. I’m sure this is a problem you can solve. If dreams are everywhere, then so are dream jobs. Maybe even dreamy-er. Lets figure this out. Start with something easy. What types of environments do you like; weather wise? What type of climate will make you wake up smiling every day? Second, can you do for another company what you do for the academic area? By the way, If you have or are close to tenre, if might be easier than you think to cross over to another college, university. Finally, for today, community colleges might be easy for you to get into and many pay pretty well. Well enough for you to trade less doe for a more favorable position to win the King. After all love is not checkers. It’s Chess.

    • Thank you for these supportive words. I am indeed following a similar process to the one you suggested. I have thought a lot about where I’d like to be and what I am willing to sacrifice professionally for personal happiness. I am not near tenure so transfer is not quite that easy but I am hopeful. All I can do is try…

  11. […] honest posts) worth checking out are on the exhaustion of being the token minority, dating (or at least hoping to!) as an academic, and maintaining personal boundaries in professional […]

  12. chunk says:

    Thank you for writing this… and making sure it didn’t get stuck in the drafts somewhere. Often times I feel like people judge me for being so unapologetic about wanting partnership and doing many of the things you outlined in order to try to find it. It’s like saying “I’d like to be in a relationship.” somehow gets translated into “I have low self-esteem.” It can be embarrassing to lay out all of the methods, tips, tricks we’ve tried to get what we want.

    All that to say, I really appreciate you telling your story and I hope you find exactly what you want and need!

Comments are closed.