This post is going to sound mopey, even though that’s not how I feel. I’ve just occasionally been frustrated trying to explain to various people that dating in grad school is much different from dating in college. In college people were naive, many still focused on the short-term, and most people just looking to have fun and/or feel safe. Dating after college seems to open up all sorts of new difficulties. So, partially as an exercise to myself, I just wanted to think through what those difficulties were. I’m not happy about them, and occasionally somewhat bitter. But I also know moping about them won’t change anything. My goal is more acceptance through understanding.
For anyone that isn’t clear on this, grad school isn’t particularly friendly to dating. (At least in science/engineering/mathematics grad school, which is the assumption I have for the entire post.) There are so many reasons for this that it’s hard to know where to begin. But it’s utterly obvious to people actually in grad school. I’ll try and sort out the various reasons. I’ll give the caveat, though, that many of these are negated, reversed, or lessened if a) you’re a female in science/engineering/mathematics, or b) you have a strong support system already in place in the area.
- Time: Grad students have bizarre schedules. They’re usually busy during the day and, except for rare terms where they have funding, the night as well. Probably the weekend too, to some extent. Grad school is hard on existing relationships where the couple is already devoted to each other, so it’s even worse on potential new relationships.
- Gender Imbalance: Most science/math/engineering graduate programs have a serious gender imbalance. Usually males are over-represented, but in some biological fields females seem to be over-represented instead. Regardless, the under-represented group usually consists of already taken people–either engaged, married, or in a long-term relationship. Don’t expect to find anyone to date in your program or cognate programs. (And this is in direct opposition to a good number of colleges, that try very hard to have a roughly equal gender balance.)
- Isolation (in University): Meeting people in other departments can be difficult. It sometimes is easier in a university town because everyone is associated with the university, so many mid-to-late 20-somethings are grad students. But the small towns might also encourage very insular environments. And in larger cities just forget about it. Outside your department, you’ll have an easier time meet anyone other than grad students.
- Isolation (outside University): Even meeting non-grad students takes work if you don’t have an existing support network in the area. The easiest way seems to be finding some hobby and getting really into the area community for that hobby. But then your dating is limited to whatever people are also interested in that hobby. Which can be unfortunate, if anyone you start dating through that hobby thinks you’re more into it than you actually are.
- Current Paycheck Size: Grad students just don’t make a lot of money. No one dates a grad student for the money.
- Future Paycheck Size: A grad student might become a professor. In that case no one dates a professor for paycheck size either. It’s certainly enough to live on, and even happily live on it. But even though the top researchers in their fields make lots of money, the average professor has a much more modest income. And that’s only a stable job if they get a tenure track job and if they get tenure, probably sometime around or after they’re 36. A grad student might also leave academia, in which case they’ll probably get paid more. But if they leave academia there’s still a lot of uncertainty what that will be, and most people have a hard time really believing that a person would leave academia after going through an entire PhD program.
- Future Location Uncertainty: A professor goes wherever they can get a job. And they don’t necessarily have a lot of say in where that is. There is a bit of a trade-off between location and research opportunities, though. So if you’re willing to give up research opportunities you have more freedom of location. But that’s an awful lot to give up for someone if you’re not utterly sure you want to be with them. And it’s an awful lot to give up for someone if you haven’t already made at least one major life transition together. Just as importantly, if you move to a small, isolated college town then whoever you’re with might have extremely limited profesional opportunities. Of course, leaving academia gives you a bit more choice. Even then, you move to where you can get a job. It’s more likely that you’ll get a job in a major city than in a small, isolated college town, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty.
- Non-Uniqueness: Where there’s one grad student there are lots of grad students. So don’t expect to stand-out in your academic meritude. Furthermore, the people you’ll stand out to are probably the ones you’ll (or at least I’ll) find least attractive. After all, if someone has so little curiosity and contact with the academic world that they think being a grad student is just amazing, there’s a good chance they’re pretty clueless in a lot of areas. I don’t deal with clueless people well.
- Status: It’s true that grad students are intelligent hard workers. And in college-educated society that has a certain status associated with it. But for college-educated people in the know, they’re also aware that lots of PhD candidates don’t make it to actually get a PhD. And Master’s degrees are less impressive since they’re becoming so common. So you’re not really impressive until you actually are wearing a robe. You’re move impressive if you go to a really good program with some sort of name brand. (Like an Ivy or some such.) But if you’re trying to date where you’re located then you’re hardly the only single grad student from that institution. So, as before, don’t expect to stand-out.
- Life-Cycle: Guys aren’t the only ones that get so busy building up a career and dealing with their lives that dating becomes an undesirable distraction. There are also single females which, because of whatever’s going on in their own life, aren’t particularly looking. They’re probably open to being swept off their feet by that perfect someone, but they’re not actively looking and willing to make compromises in what they want. Unfortunately for me, these people are often amongst the most attractive to me.
Some of the above go away once you leave grad school and your life settles down a bit. Or not–if you decide a settled life just isn’t for you. But I have an occasionally nagging fear that some of the above bullet points will persist and just never get better. That college was the easiest time to attempt dating, and after that everything is just gets more difficult and stays difficult. Though, like I suggested in the beginning, part of that may just be that most college dating is inherently unserious and for fun. Everything’s easier if it’s just done for the lolz.