Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Are academics the loneliest professionals?

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

I was recently talking with a colleague from another campus of my university about older male professors, those who have retired but who still hang around for various reasons. I said (mostly tongue in cheek), that we have two kinds of male emeriti on our campus: curmudgeonly (whom I adore) and creepy (not so much). At the same time, despite their, um, quirkly personalities, these men seem to still have many connections and friends. It made me think about the career trajectories of women faculty--and then I stumbled across a series of blog posts about women's lives as faculty members, and I realized once again how different our experience is from that of male faculty.

I wrote a couple years back about how some faculty, and especially women faculty, struggle with depression. (Fun fact: my blog ranks number one in Google for the phrase "depression in academia," and it's one of my blog's top keyword phrases.) Academia and depression are a nasty feedback loop, a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Are people drawn to graduate school and faculty work likely to be depressive, or do grad school, adjuncting, and the tenure track make us depressed? I sense it's a bit of both.

Making things worse is a deep-felt sense of loneliness. I did my first two stints in grad school alone, sans really close friends. And it was rough. (On the positive side, it made for some good poetry for my creative writing degree--solitude lends itself to self-reflection and lots of time for writing.) I was fortunate to have a partner to support me through my final, successful stab at the Ph.D.--but many people aren't so lucky. And even those who do have partners may still feel isolated from friends and family.

Recently New Kid on the Hallway threw herself a self-described"pity party" because she realized it had been too long since she'd had any summer fun:

But if I'm completely honest with myself, one of the problems is not so much summer, but missing having a group of friends with which to do any of these summery things. I recently read a blogger talking about having friends over to her new house, grilling in the backyard and just hanging out on the deck in the warmth of an evening. And I was so envious that I could hardly stand it. I have all sorts of wonderful friends. But none of them are HERE.

Meanwhile, Hilaire of clashing hats recently had a scary medical situation--she thought she was having a stroke--and came to the realization that she lacks a local support structure:

I feel better now - still some pain and sensitivity, but it's pretty minor.

What I didn't like (well, who am I kidding, I didn't like any of it) was the feeling that the people I wanted to talk to and have there with me were so very, very far away. The one friend here that I really would have liked to call was away. My downstairs neighbour, with whom I've been becoming friendly, wasn't answering her door. It just sucked to be so scared and to feel alone. Yeah, I should have thought of migraine, but I didn't. So I was scared.

The work environment in academia rewards time spent alone on research and writing, which can contribute to feelings of loneliness and isolation. The remedy? Try to be collegial. But be careful. If you think all universities are places where bright, mature people engage in vigorous, open-minded intellectual discussions and treat one another equitably and with respect, you have another think coming. Historiann writes about workplace bullying at her former university, how it escalated, and how it cascaded through her department:

People were filled with ressentiment about the way they were treated, and most of them either became bullies or apologists, explaining that “don’t worry, you’ll still be tenured. That’s just the way we do things. Everyone goes through it, so you’ll just have to suck it up.” There were a few good people who tried to make changes–but they have been easily defeated by the others. Those who were my friends and allies were valiant in their optimism and their commitment to change, but in the meantime, what a life: stomping out flaming bags of poop that someone else is leaving on yet someone else’s doorstep.

Go read the post for some insights on women and the tenure process and how academic bullying might be stopped.

But there is hope for the patient, long-suffering, and slightly extroverted. After reading Hilaire's post, Bardiac reflected that after many years of feeling isolated, she has finally established a circle of acquaintances and friends in her town:

I was thinking about that and Hilaire, and realized that if something happened to me here, now, I actually do have a community to call on. And I'm glad to have realized that. Even if what I need is only a gardening consult, I have friends to call on. It's a really comfortable thing to realize, after feeling sort of alienated in this community.

I, too, have been fortunate to establish a small network of good friends who I can call on in an emergency--and I hope they feel they can call on me, though I suspect (OK, know) they're far better ensconced in the community than I am (having school-age children gives them an advantage). But this network is transient in many ways--my friends who are grad students are on their way to graduation and (I hope!) good jobs far from here, while early- to mid-career faculty members feel the need to stretch their wings and move on. Of course, people in many professions have this experience of losing friends and comrades to bigger and better things, but there's something about the cycles of academic life that can make it feel especially keen--particularly if you feel you're being left behind.

Do you feel lonely? If so, how do you cope with loneliness?


The History Enthusiast said...

This was a very moving post, Trillwing.

I've been struggling with this a lot and it makes me feel better to be reminded that I'm not the only one dealing with it.

It was particularly hard for me when I had been laid up in bed for a week last year and didn't have anyone I could call to help me out. I could barely get to the bathroom on my own, and suddenly I wished I wasn't single and that I had someone to rely on.

Anyway, I don't mean to be a downer, but I just wanted to thank you for writing about this so honestly.

Anonymous said...

One of the main factors in choosing my masters program was the physical proximity to my sisters and parents (parents are 20 minutes away; at the time, both sisters were also 20 minutes away, though now they're about an hour away, one east and one west) so I a built-in support network already. Which was good, because until I started making friends in my program, we didn't know anyone around here; all of our friends were an hour and a half up the road, which when you're working or in grad school, is a lot of travel time for dinner and movies.

Isolation and loneliness been a problem to an extent in my program, though not for everyone. It's a masters program, so a lot of folks are doing this part-time in between work and kids and volunteering, and aren't terribly tied into the program. But isolation has been a problem for those of us going the more-or-less traditional academic route, especially as we all got into our thesis work and started spending hours/weeks/months buried in our research. We've dealt with it by acknowledging the issue and putting together social events and making sure that we talk to our friends, but it's real work, and often, it's work to make time for such things, even though we know they're important.

emily said...

I second the history enthusiast, as the post was really relatable.
i've been struggling with loneliness the past two years that i've been in nyc. i got my ma in a problematic program in a more rural area - and the problems really united the grad students, creating a good group of friends and support. we were known to rally around each other when some really awful stuff happened to us there. but now, in ny, everyone has their own life and on top of that the grad students are forced to work too many jobs just to stay afloat. and for me too, while i have many friends, none of them are here. so i find myself plotting my escape - greatly looking forward to getting back to the midwest and getting a job that comes with health insurance.
there have been so many times in grad school, too many i believe, where i've struggled, called home crying, unable to see the way out. and while i know that i'm not alone, seeing it in print certainly helps.

Anonymous said...

Hi Trillwing--thanks for the link to! Every time I post on bullying, it gets a big response--maybe I should make it a regular feature.

Your post articulates very well a bunch of things that I've been mulling over for a long time. It's kind of surprising (and depressing) to see how many of my male colleagues have been able to move their female partners/wives to follow them for their careers, but how few women with male partners/husbands are able or willing to do the same. What this means is that 1) the women who rise through the ranks of the academy are disproportionately single, since rising through the ranks usually means a stop or two in rural towns in "flyover" states, or 2) women with male partners/husbands refuse to take those tenure-track jobs in rural towns, and so limit their professional horizons in order to prioritize their relationship and family life. What this means is that both kinds of women academics are lonely: the first kind, because they may not have romantic/domestic relationships, and the second kind because they're cut off from work (in many cases) and the companionship of intellectual peers.

It stinks that these are the only two choices for many women. I would encourage all young, straight, single women in graduate school to choose your male partners carefully. I have a lot of friends whose doctor and lawyer boyfriends said "of course, honey, we'll move to wherever you say when you're done with your Ph.D.," but when it came down to it, these guys just refused to consider leaving for the groves of academe anywhere outside of Boston or New York.

Dr. Peters said...

Really great post. I won't go into my own recurring loneliness and depression, but I'll answer the question about what I do. I make crafty things to help myself relax. I've been to counseling a couple of times to get through rough patches. As far as really combating loneliness, I have come to think that it's essential to get involved with the community outside the university. I've done it through church membership, but there are secular opportunities. There are hobby clubs or volunteer organizations--you just have to be willing to put yourself out there. We often tell ourselves that we don't have time, but it's crucial to actively combat loneliness by seeking human connections. Joining a club or church or reading group or something can lead to the close friendships that many of us need.

Anonymous said...

I'll sixth the thanks echoed from other commenters. Frankly, I had no idea how many others struggle with these issues in academia--as students or faculty. (Chalk that up to my own lonliness/depression-inducing tendency to feel like I'm the only one that has a problem, everyone else is fine . . . .)

Being a student is an inherently transitional time, when many people are graduating, transferring, moving around, and the longer one stays in school (or if one returns to school), the longer that period lasts. With all the coming and going, loosing and establishing of ties, lonliness comes with the territory. And any young professional or new grad, it seems to me, will also struggle a bit to situate her/himself socially in a new workplace or residence.

I'm trying to plan ahead to when I return to grad school (again), steeling myself to "put myself out there" as one commenter put it. Often that's the most difficult thing, as isolation, lonliness and depression form a chicken-egg cycle for me. GIven my field, most of the friends from my MA program are literally leaving the country to pursue their research, and it'll be a whole new crew when I go back.

As for strategies, I wish I had more tried-and-true ones. Getting organized from the beginning with my fellow 1st-years was a great help in the master's program. We were literally ordered by the dean to organize a social event, and it so happened that one among us was willing to continue coordinating meet-ups. Over time the group became quite close, so maybe I'll try to keep the tradition going with my class next year. Otherwise, I'm glad to be near-ish to my family (though without a car), and I'll just have to be better about phoning and emailing than I was in my 1-year-and-out MA program.

Anonymous said...

Trillwing, what a discussion you've started.  I'm not in academia, but I can say that loneliness is a huge issue for many people that I know and for hubby and I as well.  I could shrug it off and say that we live in a community where there are many people in the military and, thus, a high level of transiency, but it's more than that.  It's just darn hard to make friends.  I have co-workers that I enjoy being around, but they are not the people who I will call on when it really counts.  Like Sarah, I've found friends at our church (mostly 10 years older than us), but I have to say most of my friends that I can truly "spill my guts" to are hours or states or countries away.  I realize, though, that I haven't done my best to join groups and actively seek out connection. Sometimes it's easier to sit in my corner and not make an effort because for me it's too scary or too much work. Reading all the posts makes me a little braver about reaching out, knowing that there are other people out there who want more connections than they have. Thanks, guys!