#1023: “Academia, singlehood, + excuses.”

Dear Captain,

My question today is about academia and/or job opportunities and being single. I am a PhD candidate in a Very Good University in the US, and I will be on the academic job market in a year. I have a very good publication/presentation/committee/topic situation, so I should be doing fairly fine. However, my field is totally dominated by men, mostly from quite conservative countries/cultures. It’s even worse in industry (I have work experience pre-PhD and an internship).

Now, I am absolutely sure I don’t want to get married or have a cohabiting partner or “serious” relationship of any sort. If anything, I identify with relationship anarchy. I am happy like I’ve never been, and I feel like I’m thriving and my best self arises when I am alone and free. I do have many short and long romance stories with like-minded folks who are in the same line of thought, but I don’t have or want any “boyfriend” in the sense that other people seem to want me to have (focused on dating – getting engaged – moving in – marrying).

Usually, in academic conferences, in the informal networking events, or in my department, I get asked when I will be on the market, and if I prioritize going back to my country or staying in the US, this kind of things. I think it’s all fair game and I am thrilled some Big Names in the field show interest in me! But sometimes they ask things such as “will you have a 2-body problem?” or “well, eventually you’ll want to marry, right?” or “our school is in a city with plenty of young men!”. Or more bluntly “how come you are not married yet?” (my age – early 30s – is not a secret). I know those (mostly old, mostly men, mostly conservative) professors may just be trying to be nice(?), but I can tell by the way they look that I don’t fit in what they think is “a good woman” or “a normal person”.

I have told some (younger – some younger than me) professors in my department that I don’t want to marry and they all reply condescendingly “you’ll change your mind!” But they are not the ones who’ll make my hiring decisions (although they’ll write me letters of recommendation) and so I am not that much concerned. What about those from other schools who may want to hire or not hire me a year from now when I am on the market? When I have 5-minute interactions and they ask me topic/advisor/ideal placement/marital status. Should I tell them “I don’t want to marry” and out myself immediately as not-their-idea-of-good-woman? Should I tell them “oh I haven’t found anyone yet” and then lie (or risk that someone will try to set me up – it’s happened before!)? Should I just smile awkwardly and say “I don’t know!”? I also feel that, when I say I don’t want to marry, the person in front of me thinks I am lying. What if I tell them “no, I don’t want to marry, but I do want to have kids and I am very well informed about sperm banks and adoption agencies”. Will this kill forever all my job opportunities because of the single mother stigma?

It’s all a paradox, because they don’t like women because of the whole marriage and maternity thing, but they don’t like it either when women don’t conform to their standards of womanhood (wifehood?).

How can I navigate this? I do want to have a good academic placement but I want to know who won’t be supportive of my lifestyle to avoid their departments. But also, you know, academia is sometimes hard and there isn’t much choice of placement for a candidate. So at this point I mostly want to say something that won’t close all the doors but will make my point clear enough.

Any help will be welcome! Thanks so much!

Future Professor Badass

Dear Future Professor Badass,

As tempting as it would be to say a robotic “That is a sexist question” or give a long rambling Boring Baroque Response involving your theories of Relationship Anarchy whenever this comes up, here is the strategy I actually advise:

Them:Will you have a two-body problem?” (For people outside of academia, this means will you need the university that wants to recruit you to also factor in a job for your a fellow-professor spouse) or “But surely you intend to marry someday?” (Ugh) or “Good thing there are lots of young men here!

You:Thanks for asking. I’m lucky that I don’t have to consider that right now in my search and can just look for the best fit for my work.

Them:How come you are not married yet?” (This is a weird, rude question but I too have had older people from outside the US ask me this as if it’s a normal question. Then again, we in the US ask people what they do for a job right away, for this week’s Manners Are Relative reminder).

You: Smile awkwardly and say “I don’t know!“, as you suggest! Or, “It just hasn’t been a priority!” or “Search me!” or “I love being single” or “Has my grandmother been talking to you? It’s a question under much discussion in my family, believe me” or “Haven’t felt like it, I guess!

Whatever you say, keep it light and vague. The more you can answer calmly and confidently, without apology, the more people will take your cue in how they react.

 

 

I know all of this is sexist and invasive and weird and assumes heterosexuality when it should not but the individual people who ask you this think they are being kind and even helpful, especially if they are trying to recruit you to their campus. They want you to be happy and anticipate issues that they might have to work around so that you will want to stay forever at their school. They want to figure out if they have the budget to hire you and a spouse if they want you badly enough. They don’t want you to take the job and then leave in a year because it’s a romantic and sexual wasteland or because there’s no industry in the town except for the university and your (theoretical) partner can’t find work. It can be awkward attempt to mentor you, at least in some cases, so if you can find a way to be vague but positive and deal with the intentions (rather than the effects) of the question it will help you connect.

I wish it were not so, but right now you need a job so someday you can be the colleague who doesn’t ask newcomers these questions (or asks in a way that is actually helpful).

Answer with your vague positive statement, some version of “It’s not my biggest priority right now, which makes me feel very lucky! I have the luxury to just think about finding the right fit for the work I want to do. I know not everyone has that.

Then ask them questions about their lives.

  • “When you moved to [City Where University Is Located] what was it like to get your bearings?”
  • “Any advice for settling in in [City]? Where do the people who love it here shop/eat/hike/live?”
  • “Was it a difficult adjustment moving from [Country of Origin] to [City]? What was the biggest surprise?”
  • “What are the things about [City] that really make you feel at home?”
  • “Were you married when you moved here? How does your spouse like it here? What do they do?”
  • “How did you and your spouse meet?”
  • “Did you have to deal with a two-body problem? What was that like? How does the university generally deal with those?”
  • “What do you remember most from your first year of being a professor here?”

You can turn the conversation to their research or their teaching or questions about the students or the department, too. People like to be asked questions about things they are experts on, and in my experience professors like this even more than most people. Use their weird question as an opportunity to make a human connection and find out more about them as people and the place as a place to live and what you’re getting into. Be remembered as someone pleasant to talk to, focused on her work, and someone who asks good questions and is a good listener.

You’ve got this and you don’t need to make excuses for something that isn’t actually a problem. Good luck in your search.

 

 

 

202 comments
  1. ASJ said:

    I mean, in regards to the question “why aren’t you married yet?”, what kind of answer do they seriously want? It’s not like marriage is a two way street that involves a whole other person or anything… oh wait.

    • Elektra said:

      “Like a praying mantis, my biology compels me to devour my mates post-coitus. It makes the whole marrying thing kinda difficult”

      • doctormead said:

        “Alas, my betrothal contract with the Crown Prince of Latvaria is iron clad, and, since he is currently being held in prison by Dr. Doom, I’m in a bit of a quandary.”

        • Iolanthe95 said:

          This made me laugh so hard I almost sprained something!

        • Alas, my betrothal contract with the Crown Prince of Latvaria is iron clad…

          And since he is currently in a love triangle with Catwoman and Wonderwoman, I am left without a proper marriage! Fortunately my work in Academia gives me solace.

      • Oh it’s against the customs of my home planet. We Astrans swear an oath of eternal promiscuity, you know.

        • canadakate said:

          I would like to move there!

      • Proffie Galore said:

        Oh, but I *am* married. I just keep them all locked in the basement.

    • seriously.

      and even if it weren’t impossibly sexist, there’s no non-personal answer to this question. do they want a list of my shortcomings as a partner, as detailed by my exes? or my impossible list of requirements in an acceptable partner? or my personal hangups that prevent me from committing to someone appropriate? or the traumas and mental health issues that kept me from dating? 😀

      an option: “i’ve vowed only to marry and since they’re currently taken, i’m biding my time until they’re on the market again.” (don’t mention the voodoo dolls and curse tablets)

      • oh, i think i messed up the formatting, it should say “i’ve vowed only to marry married celebrity”. i put brackets around it as a variable.

        • K`shandra said:

          WordPress will try to parse anything in brackets as HTML. $MARRIED_CELEBRITY should work as a variable format. 😉

    • Goober said:

      “I guess I just haven’t met the right horse yet. It’s tough, because horses don’t get out to social events much.”

    • Also it assumes that you’ve been single all along, when there is always a possibility that you were married once but are now divorced or widowed. It’s just not as lighthearted a question as people who ask it tend to think it is.

      • roramich said:

        great point.

      • VG said:

        This is true. I was widowed in 2006, and since I was only in my mid-30s at the time and still don’t “look old enough” to be a widow, it really catches people off guard when they ask the question and I say “I used to be married, but my husband died a long time ago.” At this point it’s more upsetting for the asker than it is for me, since I’ve had 11 years to live with the idea and it’s brand new to them (I’ve ended up reassuring people who started crying upon hearing the answer) and I really wish people wouldn’t ask at all. I never ask anyone myself, just because I know what a can of worms I could be opening!

        • tommy said:

          VG, me too. i was widowed at 27 and am 48 now. people get very upset when they first hear, then they immediately ask “what happened???” the answer is “sometimes 27-year-olds die.” i don’t necessarily want to launch into details instantly if i don’t know them. you’d think they didn’t know that a person can die at any age.

          • …you’d think they didn’t know that a person can die at any age.

            Americans don’t know that. Living in a culture that glorifies youth means that people live forever, you know.

        • untonuggan said:

          Yeah I had a friend whose partner died before gay marriage was legalized, plus his death was tragic and awful (not that any death of loved one is *good* but there are less terrible ways?) So when people asked him why he wasn’t married it was an awkward clusterfuck of “well I couldn’t legally marry the person I wanted to when he was alive, and I’m still grieving.” And 9 times out of 10 the asked tried to cover the awkward by encouraging him to “get back out there” which just, no.

      • onyx said:

        Asking why someone isn’t married is sort of like asking why someone doesn’t drink alcohol. There are a lot of possible answers. Every single one of them is Incredibly Personal, and a handful are outright traumatic.

      • Sarah said:

        32 year old widow here. It’s been 178 days. A cab driver asked me somewhere around Day 65, and I wanted to leap out of the cab.

        • tommy said:

          i’ve been through that, sarah. i get it. sending you hugs if wanted.

        • I was in my early 30s when I was widowed. The people asking thing sucked so much. Hugs if desired.

        • Liz Black Dog said:

          ugh, eighteen years here. welcome to the shittiest club no one ever wanted to be in ❤

    • Cora said:

      I’m a big fan of responding, in an ultra-calm, hm let’s figure this out together fellow smart person tone, “What an odd. question.” Then just looking at them expectantly. If the person asking gets really red and stumbly, you can always move on to one of the Cap’s question to defuse.

      • This would be great for purely social occasions.

      • PrairieChick said:

        I like asking the questioner, “Why do you ask?” It lets them think a little, and may provoke a legitimate concern on the questioner’s part.

      • “What an odd. question.”

        Often useful, but not when talking to someone who might decide if you get hired, which was the LW’s goal.

    • GreenDoor said:

      “Just lucky I guess”

      “Why are you still fat/bald/covered in acne? (Insert whatever apparent physical “flaw” you spot on them”

      “Because I can’t mate in captivity.” (I personally used this one on several of my ultra-conservative Catholic relatives. Loved the reaction.)

      • roramich said:

        WOW. no. fat is not a “flaw” and this person is going to be ON THE JOB MARKET!!! Thrown some kind of insult back at this will have the OPPOSITE effect of what she wants. good grief. AND AGAIN FAT IS NOT A FLAW OR AN INSULT!

        • Nope Octopus said:

          Neither is being bald, or having acne, for that matter. I mean WOW. And also YIKES.

        • Amphelise said:

          Agree. Nor is bald or having acne for that matter. That’s a gross, body-shaming attitude.

        • Lizards80 said:

          And either is bald or covered in acne.

      • Ellen Fremedon said:

        I love “Because I can’t mate in captivity.”

      • If your immediate response is to suggest that being fat or bald or covered in acne is an insult, then I have doubts you don’t think those things are truly okay. And I highly suggest you think about why that is.

        • TO_Ont said:

          In the example it’s being used as an insult, though, no?

    • whingedrinking said:

      I mean…it literally has two answers. It’s either “I don’t want to [because I’ve prioritized other things]” or “I can’t”.

    • Marthooh said:

      If the questioner seems to be truly well-intentioned, and if you don’t mind taking a risk: “Has anyone ever been grateful to you for asking that question?”

      But not if a job’s at stake.

      • nnn said:

        Oooh, I like that one! Adding it to the list of Things To Say At An Appropriate Opportunity!

      • That could be dangerous, because the questioner would appear rude at best, especially if they are read as female. At worst, the questioner could be branded a troublemaker, a rebel, not a good team player, and a host of other negative things that could torpedo their reputation for good.

    • stellanor said:

      I never know what people expect. It’s like when my Catholic granny would ask me when I was going to give her grandchildren when I was in college, single, and not even casually seeing anyone. WTF did she expect? That her unemployed 20 year old grandchild was going to go out and be artificially inseminated?

      I think the actual intent of both my granny’s question and the “why aren’t you married yet?” question is to communicate “You are not living up to my predefined super old-fashioned bass-ackwards nothing-to-do-with-you-personally expectations for your age and gender, you should get on that.”

      • Beth B said:

        My father used to bemoan his lack of grandchildren to me, when I was likewise in college, single, and not even casually seeing anyone. (I have some much-older siblings, so this is not as weird age-wise as it sounds.)

        I would say, “Dad, do you WANT me to be a single mom as a college freshman?!”

        “Well, no, of course not,” he said, “but one of your siblings could give me grandchildren.”

        “Then, why are you saying this to me instead of them?”

        “Oh,” he would answer earnestly, “I don’t want to pressure them!”

        Finally I got him to knock it off. He still doesn’t have grandchildren (and would still really like them), but at least now that we’re all fully adult we all get the I-don’t-want-to-pressure-you treatment where he manages to restrict himself to occasional fairly ignorable hints.

        “Why aren’t you married yet?” from a total stranger is something else again, though, eesh. The couple of times I’ve gotten that, all I was able to dredge up for a polite small talk kind of answer was a shrug and something like “uh, I dunno, it just hasn’t happened I guess. ANYWAY SUBJECT CHANGE.” As others have said, it’s hard to think of what would be a GOOD answer for that one.

    • johann7 said:

      I never, ever know what they’re looking for. The most charitable read I have (if we’re considering suspecting total self-absorption to be more charitable than suspecting manipulative puppeteering of other people’s lives) is that they think I am great (and you are, for when it happens to y’all) and can’t imagine that there isn’t a line of people around the block just dying to marry me (also necessarily that said presumed line contains people who I think are great) and therefore it must be an intentional, unilateral decision to be single.

      I usually respond by asking if they’re proposing or have someone in mind, and only once has someone ever had someone in mind (who was already dating somebody; pro tip for anyone trying to play matchmaker – check this before trying to set people up).

      • B2 said:

        I usually respond by asking if they’re proposing or have someone in mind

        Huh. That’s the most charitable interpretation of that question I’ve heard yet. They want to set LW up but want to check if there’s a reason not to first XD

      • Parenthetically said:

        If it’s people I know, I assume they either just think I’m great and want others to recognize that romantically, or they’re really happy in their own marriages and want me to experience similar happiness. If it’s strangers, I assume they’re buttholes. *shrug*

    • nnn said:

      Everyone needs to start responding to this question with a baffled look and “What…what kind of answer were you looking for?”

      And then come back here and post any answers they give, because seriously – what kind of answers are they looking for?

      • ahahaha, yes!
        those of you who have the social capital, -please- do this and report back.

    • ladysugarquill said:

      THIS. It’s sad that “ask the guys that will not marry me!” is not true and probably not appropriate in this case, because that’s what I’d like to say -_-

      • Jennifer said:

        I will straight up say, “Nobody wants to marry me.” (Actual answer: well, they changed their minds on that, but still true.)

        I mean, really, what kind of answer do they expect?!?!

        However, I can count on one hand the number of people who have been genuinely shocked that I am permanently single. I am so the poster child for Old Maid Spinster (except for the cats, I’m not home too often so I don’t have pets) and people really don’t expect that I’ll ever find anyone. Unless some dramatic Act of God happens, anyway.

    • Paulina said:

      I used to use “I don’t know.” (casual shrug.) “The guys can’t seem to keep up with me, I guess, or aren’t inclined to try.”

      There was at least some truth to it, at least if the reasons given by two of my exes were genuine. They weren’t interested in being the second body of a two-body problem (the one who would have to move to fit the other’s career prospects), and figured that with me they someday would be. But yes, it needs the interest and cooperation of a whole other person to happen.

      I never used it in a hiring situation, though.

    • Adrian said:

      What they WANT to hear is “I’m not married because I am so devoted to my work I have no time for a social life. I haven’t poked my head out of the lab long enough to go on a date, and don’t intend to.”

      • abba cddc efgefg said:

        This is not true! As people have said below, they’re trying to figure out if you have a two-body problem, in an effort to help with recruiting you.

    • Chris said:

      “I would find it incredibly difficult to keep my life as head of a large, clandestine, criminal enterprise hidden from a spouse.”

      • Nanani said:

        Entertaining, but 100% wrong for your possible/prospective boss.

        Unless its 100% right.

    • Christine said:

      I just calmly give the (true) answer of “Well, at one point I was fairly certain I was going to get married soon, but I was wrong” and shrug. It was about 5 years ago now, so I’m over it but it tends to shock people into changing the subject.

      • nnn said:

        That’s interesting! That’s actually an accurate description of my situation, but it never occurred to me that replying that way would make people change the subject – I would have guessed it would make them interrogate me about my heartbreak. Maybe I’ll give it a try if an appropriate opportunity should arise

    • TootsNYC said:

      No, no–you just go down to the Spouse Store and pick someone out and pay for it.

  2. Emma said:

    I love this reply. Impeccable advice, Captain. Particularly this part: “Thanks for asking. I’m lucky that I don’t have to consider that right now in my search and can just look for the best fit for my work.”

    It’s such a positive spin. I also really dig asking them questions afterwards. It removes awkwardness and also gets the point across. So excellent.

    • Being positive is always good. You might also try, ‘Honestly, my career is a bigger priority to me. I’m having such a great time living like this!’ Then start enthusing about all the good things in your work and life, thus changing the subject.

      And if they insist on circling back to, ‘But wouldn’t you like to get married?’, shrug it off with, ‘Ah, I was always one of those little girls who dressed up as a dinosaur/spaceman/knight/whatever rather than a bride.’ (It’s less threatening for a certain kind of man to picture an unconventional little girl than an unconventional woman. Not good, but you can use it.) Keep the focus on what you DO want to do, and keep switching back to it.

    • Tree said:

      It’s really probably a small-talk question more than anything. They think “oh, I have to speak with this stranger. What do I say?” And blurt out things like “you’re tall!” Or “why aren’t you married?” In my experience, they’re not really looking for an answer, they’re just filling the silence. Turning it back to them, so they can talk about how they met their spouse or got started or their love of insect grooming makes you look good and also spares you, for a time, any more awkward questions.

      • Smudgely said:

        Insect grooming 🙂 🙂

      • untonuggan said:

        Yup. I have a phone full of humorous cat memes because it’s way more fun to talk about than the awkward questions that follow “what do you do?” (I have a disability and can’t work.) I started telling people I have a disability, fill my time with [hobbies], and am a 24/7 valet to my cats. Then we move on to cat memes.

        It’s only been awkward once and that was someone who hated cats and didn’t provide any small talk alternates.

        People follow your lead.

      • sconn said:

        Yep, everyone has their things that everyone is always asking about. For me it’s “wow, you have your hands full!” (I have four small children) and/or “are you done?” Many people with large families get upset about these because they read an implicit judgment in it. And I’m sure some people really are hinting that you shouldn’t have so many kids, but everyone who ever says this to me is just starting a conversation about the most obvious thing about me.

  3. bostoncandy said:

    I like this script! I wonder if validating and redirecting the intent might be helpful as well, like “It’s so kind of you to want to make sure this opportunity is a good lifestyle fit for me! Although that’s not a concern for me right now, one of my favorite hobbies is Underwater Basketweaving and I spend a lot of my free time doing it… do you know of anywhere I’d be able to practice it in the area?”
    That might also validate the sort of humanizing aspect they likely imagine they are playing to, and their sense of themselves as being nice for asking about this.

    • MsM said:

      I like the redirect idea, but I think I’d start at the “That’s not a concern for me right now” rather than validate them for asking. Or alternatively, maybe you can turn the concern around on them: “Oh, gosh, I hope that’s not something you’d ask in a less informal setting.”

      • bostoncandy said:

        Good points MsM! I especially like the “Oh, gosh,” etc…

  4. Abby said:

    When people ask me similar questions about kids, I usually say “oh, that’s not on the horizon right now” or something to that effect. It’s enough for most, and the conversation can move on.
    More people are just thoughtless than rude in my experience, and that keeps things professional / friendly without lying or giving away personal information.

    If someone gets really pushy, a very short “I can’t” almost always shuts down that conversation. I don’t mention that we “can’t” have kids because we’re use birth control. Anyone that brazen does not need an opening to opine on my reproductive choices.
    That would be kind of a hilarious answer to the marriage question, imo. You’d leave the asker quite confused.

  5. It’s tricky. They might be just “being nice” but it’s also an opportunity for them to find out more about whether it would be hard to retain you if they hire you. (Lots of two-body-problem situations end up resolving by moving closer to one person’s job). So if you had some scripts that would give the message that you are realistic about staying in one place if the job’s good enough, like “I’m keen to develop a research program and a teaching portfolio over the long term on one campus”, this would be an opportunity to deliver them. “What’s the housing market like here?” might be another way of illustrating that. If you’ve already owned a house that you’re going to sell when you relocate, get that in the conversation fast because that quickly pegs you as the kind of privileged-grownup they are and they are thinking grad students aren’t. Or if you have opinions/experience in conversations about lawn care, about dog training, about being in leadership positions in your community (a condo board, a sports league, a big fundraiser for an uncontroversial charity), work those into the conversation sometimes. If you have family who live near their institution, “This is my mother’s hometown and all my cousins live here” “My sister and her husband work across campus” work that into conversations too – but that’s more for a later stage when you’re targeting specific departments, not making conference-dinner conversation with a group.

    Be careful about connecting “I don’t plan to marry” with “I want to focus on my research and academic career” because you may be inadvertently giving insult to some of their wives. If I were in your position, I wouldn’t even hint at the possibility of kids in my future in those kinds of “casual-but-not” conversations, not just because of whether you have a partner (you will probably not be dedicated to work) or you won’t have a partner (that is a weird thing), but because it’s still pretty new to have female faculty members raising children, from the POV of male faculty members in some traditionally-male enclaves such as engineering.

    If you don’t give them any answer they understand, some of them will conclude you are lesbian, and others will wonder whether you are in a secret relationship with a married man, possibly a faculty member. Now if you were already a single parent when you went on the job market, they might not trust your reliability but they would understand that once you got a job you wouldn’t want to move.

    In an actual academic hiring process I got asked by a faculty member (not someone on the hiring committee, but still a member of the department who had a scheduled meeting with me) whether I was married … I know that it never occurred to that faculty member that (a) he was breaking the law, and (b) as a woman moving at mid-career, I might feel particularly vulnerable about that question.

    • Brookfield said:

      Just a note about “breaking the law” by asking about whether someone’s married: in the USA, it’s not illegal to ASK this kind of question… but it is illegal to make hiring decisions based on the answer. He was certainly using bad judgment by asking, since you might then have grounds to wonder whether your answer led to a bad job offer (or none), but most likely he didn’t break the law.

    • Mykie said:

      He wasn’t breaking the law asking the question. It’s breaking the law to factor your answer into their hiring consideration (hire the unmarried one or the man who won’t get pregnant, etc). That is why HR prefers people don’t ask because if they legit don’t know the answer, they could factor it into their selection. But it’s not illegal to ask that question.

    • Renita said:

      Just a point of clarification here…

      It’s not illegal to ask if someone’s married, or pregnant, or whatever. It’s illegal to make that a factor of your hiring decision. But it IS a question that should be avoided, because of the potential for it to look like that’s part of the hiring decision.

      • johann7 said:

        It’s not necessarily or always illegal to ask, but it can be here in USA (if, for example, only women are asked; becasue of the overwhelming gendered pattern concerning who can and can’t become pregnant, asking about pregnancy is inherently discriminatory and thus probably inherently illegal): https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/practices/inquiries_marital_status.cfm

      • It is illegal in the jurisdiction in which that story took place.

      • And university HR departments often have their own rules, stricter than the state’s. On every committee I’ve seen in action/sat on, it’s “illegal” according to the U’s own standards.

    • Methib said:

      Many years ago, 26 to be exact, I was let go from my research position in Biotech because I was pregnant. My immediate supervisor, who was at the grant distribution meeting, told me they said those exact words, that it wouldn’t be ‘appropriate’ to renew a grant for someone who would “not be dedicated to the work”. I was devastated and tried to fight it, to no avail. I ended up staying at home with the baby for about 2 years before trying to get back into science, but the gap in my resume was an obvious indicator that I had a child. I never have had so much as a refusal letter to a resume submission since, despite trying on and off for almost 15 years.

      BTW, at the time I was the only woman working on the floor of the building. I have held out hope that it’s better for women now, but it really got me to see you use that exact phrase here today.

      • Wehaf said:

        I know this is off-topic, but there are several groups, both for-profit and non-profit, dedicated to help women get back into STEM careers after time off (often, but not always, for family reasons). If you are still interested in going back (it wasn’t clear when the on/off attempts ended, if at all) you can search for “career re-entry STEM” or “career re-entry biomedical” or similar and see if any of the options (e.g. “returnships”, re-entry fellowships, etc.) appeal to you. I went through the re-entry process in a related field and it is thankfully much easier now, though not actually easy.

        • Methib said:

          A quick search turned up an amazing site for engineers getting back into the workforce! Although at this point I’m not going to go back. At 53 I don’t have the energy to start over again, and I have a stable job, that is no where close to research, but challenging enough. I haven’t seriously looked in about 10 years, and by then I had adjusted my attempts to trying for admin positions in university departments. I bet I’ll keep peeking at those re-entry sites though. It gives me a positive outlook for you and others.

          Advice for the Letter Writer, and other women who want to be in STEM and have children is to make your intentions very clear that you are returning, long before you go on your maternity leave.

  6. Elektra said:

    I don’t have anything useful to add, but standing ovation on this one, Captain.

  7. Roramich said:

    As a current Professor Badass, I co-sign the captain’s advice! Keep it vague as possible, assure them there is no problem they have to worry about, and talk about the exciting research, theirs and yours! Go you!

  8. DeltaDelta said:

    All the flirty snark in me would answer the “why aren’t you married?” question with, “because you’re already taken!” and a playful punch on the arm.

    Appropriate me says the Captain’s advice is fantastic and far better than the flirty snark that I’d deliver.

  9. HRPerson said:

    Keep in mind that in the US in an interview or even recruiting-type situation, asking about your marital status or family situation is illegal. Now, knowing that it’s illegal and responding to it in a job interview are two entirely different things. One good response is “My marital/family situation does not have an impact on my professional ability.” That’s kind of clunky, but you get the idea. Find the ending to that sentence that works best for you. Also depending on the situation, I have looked at the interviewer and asked “Is that a question you ask every candidate?” to “Wow, that’s an illegal question.”

    In more social situations, I generally stick to vague answers and return the question – “I’m really happy right now. Do you plan on having children/getting married/etc.?”

    • How have they responded to “Is that a question you ask every candidate?” and “Wow, that’s an illegal question”?

      • yasmara said:

        This is a common misconception. It’s not actually illegal to ask, but it is illegal to make a hiring decision based on answers to these types of questions (in the US – your country may vary). So a lot of companies/organizations recommend to hiring managers not to ask the questions in order to simplify everything.

      • HRPerson said:

        Since I’m in HR, getting that question is, for me, a really good indication that I don’t want to work there. Responses have varied from blank stares to huh, I didn’t know that type answers.

        So, yeah, while it isn’t actually technically illegal to ask those questions, according to the EEOC, questions ranging from are you married to do you plan on having children to what are your daycare arrangements “may be regarded as evidence of intent to discriminate when asked in the pre-employment context.” Close enough to illegal in my world.

  10. Ann said:

    Yeah, I get well-meaning people telling me at length how to manage pregnancy and childbirth as an academic. You know what? I’m infertile. But not open about it. It’s awful to sit there on the receiving end of a detailed lecture.

  11. Watership Up said:

    ” “How come you are not married yet?” ”

    It seems like the goal here is to progress swiftly on to being an actual real breathing person that your conversation partner can engage with as an individual, rather than a generic person-shaped outline who is expected to conform to expectations.

    I’ve found a variation of the following helpful

    “It’ll happen if it’s meant to be, but I’m pretty happy at the moment and really enjoying
    -finding out more about this lovely city
    -my research into termite social dances
    -doing things with all the new friends I’ve made
    Say, can you recommend a good coffee place not too far from campus?”

    The useful part is the ‘if it’s meant to be’ line then a subject change. For such a meaningless phrase it’s remarkably hard to engage with it, esp if you move the conversation on and it allows you to tell no lies or engage with any expectations.

    • newlife said:

      I love this answer. I use a variation of it on myself when I wonder if I will ever have another romantic relationship. It reduces my stress and lets me focus on living my best life now.

  12. rhythla said:

    I agree with the Captain – the vaguer the better. The recruiters are just trying to think of all possible scenarios and if they know you are going to leave quickly, they likely would rather not hire you. Speaking as someone who hires people, I know that is true of me. I know better than to ask rude questions, but if I know your goals, I can work with you (by trying to accommodate you if I hire you or prevent us both heartbreak by not hiring you).

    I never want to have kids either, so I have experienced the same reactions as you, LW. I have found it really is better to be vague or non-committal because my honesty tends to prompt more questions from shock or curiosity. A lot of people assume that me and my SO are going to have kids (he’s already been there, done that so he is not interested in kids either) so we get questions a lot.

    Recently, one person (sweet but a little dramatic) was like, “And one day you’ll have kids!”
    Me: nah
    Her: yeah! You’ll make beautiful babies together!
    Me: we don’t want kids
    Her: Why not?!
    Me: I’ve never wanted them and [SO] already did the father thing, so he’s cool
    Her: Who knows what God plans! Maybe you will!
    Me: nah, I’ve had a permanent procedure done that prevents me from having kids
    Her: MAYBE THERE WILL BE A MIRACLE
    Me: *internally* I hope not or I want a refund on that procedure

    She is a sweet, kind person but she just didn’t get it. But I didn’t take it personally, which is what I recommend in your situation (not to mention it’s a good strategy in general, see also: The Four Agreements).

    Good luck, LW!

    • Generally, a miracle is defined as something you WANT to happen. If you suddenly wound up pregnant, you’d probably define it as a curse.

      Good luck on not being cursed, btw.

      • rhythla said:

        Right?! Thanks! I am keeping my fingers crossed that the 99.99% rate is accurate.

  13. JennyWren said:

    I’m so glad you explained “two-body problem” because otherwise I would have assumed it was a really gross way way of referring to the “problem” of future pregnancy, i.e. your body and your baby’s body.

    • Amazed said:

      I thought it was a reference to astronomy’s “three body problem” regarding how three (or four, or N) masses orbit each other myself!

      • AllanV said:

        I think that actually is the origin of the phrase as used in academia.

  14. 30ish said:

    As a fellow academic, I think the script the Captain suggested is excellent. In my opinion, the question about the “two body problem” is kind of understandable, and “why are you not married yet” very clearly is not. It could be helpful to you to make it known you don’t have a two body problem (I would think this makes it more likely for you to get hired), but you don’t need to go into any detail with that, such as letting people know that you’ll never want to marry.
    As for how to deal with sexism in academia, first of all, ugh – it’s really annoying. Basically my take is that people will think what they want to think. You can’t possibly prevent them from applying their strange ideas of what a woman should want to you. It sounds like you’re dealing with all this very well and it’s really all you can do from your end. Good luck!

    • That’s a good point about the two-body problem being understandable. So, if they ask “Why are you not married, yet?” you could answer it as if they were asking, “Do we need to prepare for a two-body problem?”

      So, “Why aren’t you married?” gets “A two-body problem is not an issue for me.” You might even add, “Because of personal reasons.” This implies that you have really thought out the issue, and that you’re not going to explain the reasons, as they are personal.

  15. Sarabeth said:

    Also an academic, though definitely a different (and much less conservative, it sounds like) field. I second the advance to consistently, and blandly, route the discussion back to your academic work. Saying, “yes, I’m lucky not to have to deal with a two body problem” is great. So is, “I guess it just hasn’t happened, but I’ve really enjoyed my time here in City X.” If they are trying to tell you that there are relationship options for you in their new city, I wouldn’t take that as a huge red flag. It signals a blind spot, yes, but they are hoping to convince you that you’ll be happy there. It’s probably enough just to say, “oh how nice” and change the subject. If you are on the market for a tenure-track position rather than a postdoc, part of the hiring calculation is always going to be not just “will she take the job if offered” but also “will she stay here, or is this a stepping stone to something else.” Committees shouldn’t factor personal stuff into that, but they absolutely do; I see it all the time.

    I would not bring up kids in any way. I’m in a less conservative field, and did not mention my kids even when I was interviewing while pregnant with the second one. You just don’t know how people will take it. For every person who thinks, “oh good, she’s thinking about reproduction, that’s a sign of adulthood,” you’ll have at least one who thinks, “kids? She’ll never do enough research to get tenure.” Just deflect. If anyone asks directly, you can say, “oh, I’m not thinking about that right now.” If they know you are single, that should be plenty, since it doesn’t sound like most of these people have single motherhood by choice on their radars.

    (As an aside – for women with kids, I do think there are arguments for mentioning them. They are not going to stay a secret forever, and seeing how they react may play a role in your decision about whether to take the job. But when kids are still a someday-hypothetical, I’d strongly advise against bringing them up).

    • CrushLily said:

      I approached my now supervisor while six months pregnant. I’m partnered but unmarried. You could see his internal struggle of how to ask me if I could do the work required when I was obviously going to have a baby in a few months while trying not to say anything discriminatory and/or illegal. It was like an elephant in the room! But he took me on and asked me to do a PhD when I had a four month old baby so in the end, my work spoke for me. He’s been my champion ever since.

      A few years later, I told someone at a conference I was pregnant (#2) and she said, ‘but you’re not married!’ Wasn’t sure we’re to go with that so I just said ‘Well, it didn’t matter the first time so I guess it doesn’t now!’

  16. GrumpyZena said:

    I think you are giving people too much info when you respond. Yes, it’s a sexist question. You are on the money there, friend. Buuuuut as women we constantly have to do the calculus of “not putting up with this bullshit” vs “not shooting ourselves in the foot”. And as the Captain said, the best way to navigate that is often with truthful vagueness and a redirect, especially because most people are just trying to make small talk and they don’t pause to consider what might be problematic about their topic choices.

    Keep these phrases in your lexicon: “Oh, I’m quite happy being single”, “It’s not my cup of tea”, “That’s good to know”, etc, etc. Because you ARE happy being single, it sounds like traditional relationships aren’t your cup of tea, and I’m sure that it is good to know that there are lots of eligible people in your area, even if you never make use of that fact yourself. Really, you don’t owe people your life plan or a breakdown of your feelings on relationships, and they (almost) never want that from you. They (usually) aren’t even trying to decide whether you measure up to society’s standard of what an ‘acceptable” woman is. It’s just that society had decreed that this is acceptable small talk to make with women of a certain age (but usually not men), and here we are.

    • I hate that calculus. It’s my least favourite kind of calculus.

      • Emmy said:

        I hate it even more than integration by parts.

    • “It’s not my cup of tea” about marriage may well be taken as ‘because I like my own gender.’
      Just a heads up, if you’re in a very conservative field, that may not work to your benefit.

      This information brought to you by anecdotal story of a man who said ‘not my cup of tea’ about marriage….

      • GrumpyZena said:

        I guess I’m so used to my liberal bubble (and my own same sex marriage) that it didn’t cross my mind that there are still people out there who don’t include same sex couples in the list of “traditional” relationships. Our idea of a good time is burgers and Twin Peaks after our toddler has gone to bed.

  17. Molly Grue said:

    As someone who is also on the academic job hunt, I do want to note that while this question (‘”Are you married?”) is common, it is also illegal, at least in the U.S. It is hard to avoid in friendly chit-chat without looking like a unemployable prig, but the Captain has some good strategies for downplaying.

    Older women in my department told me about hiding the fact that they had children while they were interviewing, I’m hiding the fact that I haven’t any; it’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation.

    This is a good time for the technique that we call, in my household, “Look! The Han Dynasty!” (it’s a long story). In short, be vague and change the subject. I keep a couple of “harmless” topics for the inevitable social occasions (as far as my colleagues are concerned, I have two hobbies, house restoration and cats, both of which provide endless humorous anecdotes), and you can’t go EVER go wrong in asking an academic about their own work.

    • Darcy Pennell said:

      According to Ask a Manager it’s not illegal in the US to ask questions about children or marital status, but it is illegal to factor the information into a hiring decision. Good hiring committees will avoid asking because they couldn’t have used the information if they didn’t know it. But they aren’t breaking the law by asking.

      • HarleyM said:

        It’s not even illegal (under federal law – state laws differ) to factor information about children and marital status into hiring decisions, so long as all* sexes (and races, colors, religions, and national origins) are treated equally.

        *In theory. I wouldn’t be surprised if some courts have limited the protections of the law to xx and xy only.

        • spd said:

          many states do, in fact, prohibit family status in hiring decisions. This isn’t a legal advice situation so I don’t want to nitpick, but check your state laws if you’re ever in a situation where this might be a thing.

      • QoB said:

        Practically speaking, that’s a distinction without much of a difference if you’re the candidate.
        AAM is *the best* though.

    • meadowphoenix said:

      I do want to note that while this question (‘”Are you married?”) is common, it is also illegal, at least in the U.S

      I would like to note that the question is not illegal. In fact, there’s really not many questions that are illegal to ask in hiring. Making hiring decisions based on a protected class category is illegal. So, if you get sued for discrimination, you don’t want to have evidence that this (or any other area of illegal discrimination) was a concern for you, and so cautious lawyers will tell you to avoid asking outright like this to keep it simple.

      • Darcy Pennell said:

        meadowphoenix I should have waited, your response was better than mine 🙂

        • jo said:

          Both were good!

      • Renita said:

        Oh, thank you, I just posted similar above, sorry to repeat you.

  18. Maggie said:

    As a former academic in a very small, remote town, I can definitely say that some of these questions would come up not-infrequently when we were interviewing potential faculty members!
    On the one hand, the university had noticed a real pattern of hiring-then-losing youngish single professors: they’d move up, want to find a partner but wouldn’t within the very limited dating pool, and leave for a bigger setting. They wouldn’t *NOT* hire someone based on their relationship status, but they would want to be clear about whether the interviewee would really want to accept said job and live out in the sticks, as it were.
    Similarly, the school would go out of its way to help profs with partners find a job for their significant other in the area, because otherwise it’d be hard to get them to stick around, but they’d want to know about the possible situation ASAP to get a head start.

    On the other hand, the way you’re being asked some of these questions is gross and invasive and bad.

    The Captain’s suggested positive turnarounds are perfect, and would be very effective on the faculty members I knew (who really were trying to help, but not necessarily doing so in the best way). If you portray “no, I’m good!,” they’ll very likely follow your lead.

    • I forget what I called myself said:

      You could well have been in my town! I have been on two hiring committees, one of which we were hiring two people so 3 new profs. My chair (I am staff, not faculty) Is the warmest, most considerate person you could meet. That led to her going on about the childcare options on campus with one of the candidates so much that we were all a bit uncomfortable. I think she realized it herself and backed off with subsequent ones.
      The reality of where we are is that we do lose younger people to larger places due to limited options in finding a partner (you’re better off bringing yours with you but they may not be able to find a job), childcare quality and cost, K-12 education and extracurricular opportunities. We really wanted to find people who would be happy and excel so we did want to be clear about the pros and cons of the jobs. It was a tricky, very fine line.
      We were very careful but I am sure we made some missteps that could be read quite differently than we intended.

  19. professora said:

    Congrats on your excellent & badass achievements, LW.

    Being on the Market can be scary even under the best of circumstances, and the Elder Statespeople of Departments (as they often like to think of themselves) are occasionally lovely people and occasionally Are Not. Two things to remember: you are interviewing them also! If they bring you to campus, they will want to sell you on the place. Do you want to work there badly enough to deal with these people as departmental colleagues on the day-to-day? For me it was yes, YMMV.

    I’m pretty sure in the US it is actually against legal university hiring practices to ask questions about marital/romantic status at interviews, but at dinners and informal gatherings, at their campus, such Less Pleasant People totally might.

    The Captain’s advice is really great, as usual. My tactic while on the market was to be engaged: I never SAID I was engaged or anything at all about my romantic status, but I wore a ring. I actually did have a partner at the time who was portable & could work from anywhere, so when anyone asked, I would have just vaguely communicated that about my status — I might not have even given a name — and then directed it back into one of the Captain’s suggested avenues.

    I recognize this is on some level letting them win, but… I really wanted a job. And I got one?

    You’re going to do great, I bet. Good luck and remember to be kind to yourself. 🙂

  20. Greyeyedminerva said:

    If anyone interviewing you for a job asks you about your marital status or family panning concerns, they are breaking the law. Period, the end. Even if they are just asking you to determine “fit,” it is still illegal. If you get this question from any hiring committee, I encourage you to report it to your field’s professional body/placement service (I have friends in my field who have done this in the past, and our placement service responded well and told the interviewers to stop asking these questions, and they did).

    That said, if in the moment someone asks you a question that crosses or even tiptoes up to the legal line on the subject of marriage/family and you respond with “HOW DARE YOU ASK ME THAT ILLEGAL QUESTION!!!!!”, you will be perceived as a jerk and will not get the job. It is a delicate balance.

    This is how I handled it when I was a single lady searching for a TT academic job: give the bare minimum answer to their question, smile, and change the subject.

    Example:
    Interviewer: I have kids and I would love to give you information about school districts in the area! Will you be bringing a family?

    Me: No, it’ll just be me. *smile* So what is it like to live in this area? (Or, “Tell me more about that graduate survey course you were mentioning!” Or, “This is a great coffee – how are the restaurants around here?”)

    • Intptt said:

      As has been said several times in this thread, it’s not illegal to ask. It’s illegal to use the answer to make a decision.

  21. HarleyM said:

    I would suggest avoiding questions about how they/the university handled the two-body problem. While expressing interest in and connecting with the recruiter is a good thing, too much interest in this specific area could convey a personal need for the information, whether or not such need exists.

    • A former grad student said:

      I would like to second this. I was a grad student in a conservative, male-dominated field for a couple of years (at a major research university in the US, but not an absolutely-top-ranked one, if that matters), and my department conducted two searches during my time there. “We like this candidate, but do we like him enough to cough up the money for a job for his wife (who was also on the job market that year)” was a conversation that happened very explicitly (and where I, a lowly first-year grad student, could hear it).

      When someone asks you if you have a two-body problem, it’s because they’re thinking seriously about hiring you; a “no” from you makes hiring you much, much easier than a “yes.” Following a “no” with enquiries about how the university handles two-body problems would, in my old department, have been read as an indication that you aren’t currently married, but might well get engaged between now and hiring time–it would be seen as “no I don’t have a two-body problem right now, but I expect to have one in the future.”

      If the letter writer’s field is anything like my former field, *all* of the questions described (including “why aren’t you married yet?”) are aimed at figuring out if LW is likely to put her hypothetical spouse and children ahead of her research; in my old field, anything a candidate said to indicate that spouse and/or children are likely to come first caused them to move *way* down the “desirable job candidates” list (the sexism comes in because male candidates are much less likely to be asked these questions in the first place–it is simply assumed that they will put their careers ahead of any spouses/children they might or might not have).

    • No-longer-single-academic said:

      I agree with this. I am also a female academic, and I’ve been in several formal interview situations, as well as more informal situations (e.g. at conferences where the person was asking similar questions in order to gauge whether to try to recruit me for a position or post-doc fellowship). The key is recognizing if they are being nosy, or if they are seriously interested in hiring you and are trying to figure out what your needs might be. I honestly did not have a spouse or two-body problem, so in several of the latter cases, I just answered something like “that’s not an issue for me!” If it became apparent that they were asking in order to make it clear to me that they could hire a spouse (or related, that they had a great maternity leave policy), I would actually turn the question back on them and say something like “well, spousal hire/maternity leave isn’t on my radar right now, but I do have aging parents. Can you tell me about the options at your university for family medical leave?”

      In formal interviews, you will sometimes meet with someone from the administration whose job it is to tell you about their benefits. I went to several of those meetings, and they always told me that my questions were confidential and would not be passed on to the hiring committee. Then, I would be showered with pamphlets about maternity/paternity leave. Again, I found that in these situations a simple “not an issue for me” followed by “tell me about leave to help with an aging parent/family medical emergency” worked exceptionally well. In these cases they WANT to tell you all about all of the helpful things that they can offer and they can be weirdly disappointed when you don’t have a spouse or impending pregnancy to talk about.

      For schools in rural settings, sometime I would get the “this town can be lonely for single people. I hope you are bringing someone….” with an upward inflection that was kind of like a question. These I countered with “actually I love rural settings because I will be looking for a place to keep my horse!” Replace “horse” with “snowshoeing hobby,” “25 rescue dogs,” love of star-gazing,”….etc. and again, you’ve successfully deflected the question.

      • I love this because it’s not only a redirection away from the annoying (doesn’t apply to me) question, but also get into the issue that actually does apply to you. Very honest, and I would hope, effective.

      • abba cddc efgefg said:

        This is such good advice! Seconding all of it, as another academic…

  22. Cora said:

    Is there any way to get both the question and the answer into The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education? I’m serious. Both of them, and many other academia-related publications, have covered this multiple times; but it has to be repeated as often as possible for it to really get through to at least one more person.

    I’m aware of that the fact that there are some professors who will never, ever, get the damn message, but there’s no harm in trying. Sexism in academia is still unbelievably rampant — after two decades, I’m still fighting the “Oh, yes, you’re the pink collar, go fetch me some coffee” shit. Other people beyond the Awkward Army need to see this.

  23. Paulina said:

    As someone who is an established professor in a male-dominated field, and has done interviewing of more recent candidates, I find this to be excellent advice. Bravo, Captain.

    My only quibble is with one of the sample questions to ask the interviewers: the LW should stay away from asking about how they solved two-body problems and how the university deals with them. Questions from an interviewee tend to be taken as more than just getting-to-know-you chat, they’re often taken as being about things the interviewee really wants to know. So if the LW asks about how two-body problems are dealt with, they are likely to assume that she has one, despite her denials. Similarly, a single woman asking how people met may get dating advice; that’s less of a problem hiring-wise, but may be uncomfortable to the LW in the short or long term.

    LW, when I’ve been talking to our faculty candidates, what I’m looking for in questions from them is for them to be exploring the things they need to know for the life they want to live here and the career they want to have here. We’ve had candidates who didn’t ask anything much about the city or the university or about people’s research areas or anything much, and they didn’t come across like they even wanted the job. Someone who’s done some research into the area and is asking for inside information about how it works in practice — that comes across as engaged and committed to staying. Candidates with or planning families ask about schools, of course, but we’ve had candidates who ask what the housing is like in certain areas of interest to them, options for how to get around town, farmer’s markets, the local music or craft beer scene… whatever interests them that shows they’re interested in more than just wherever they can get a job to get their foot in the academic door.

    As for the assumptions that some male professors make that every woman will someday have a family…. well, in my department, all female faculty are single, and all but one of the male faculty at some point married, but I don’t know if any of the men have ever noticed this correlation (or have remembered my mentioning it). Trying to get a job is not the time to educate them about the role gender can play in the life choices we have and make, however, or in the wide range of choices that anyone may make. Go forth and be badass.

  24. allyschild1 said:

    Hi LW! 🙂 Fellow female academic here (it seems to be female academic week here at Captain Awkward, which has made me feel considerably less alone in the world). Following up on Molly Grue’s comment above, my experience during formal job hunts (as opposed to recruiting events, ‘casual’ chit-chat, etc.) that well-run hiring committees will not ask you anything about your personal life unless you bring it up first yourself. I’ve had friends go on campus visits visibly pregnant and not only did the committees never bring up the pregnancies, everyone at least pretended to accept my friends’ assertions that there was nothing that would hinder them from beginning the job the next academic year (in both cases, the friends got the jobs, yay!) All the advice I ever received was not to bring up anything about your personal life until you were in actual negotiations for the job. Ethical committees respect and expect this, even knowing that they may be ‘surprised’ down the line when the first-choice candidate ends up asking for a spousal hire, or maternity leave right away, etc. You can use your judgment as to when it may behoove you to reveal anything personal. In my case, I was at a campus visit for a job in the rural midwest that has had some retention problems due to location, two-body problems, etc., and the chair of the committee, seeking some way to gauge my commitment to accepting the job, should I be chosen, told me at the very end of my interview about some personal difficulties she had encountered living there. I then decided to be honest and say that I’d had an engagement break off as a result of job market stress the year prior, but that I was almost glad, since it freed me to look for the best job I could, anywhere I could. (I am now at this job, also yay!) On other visits, I never mentioned anything at all about my marital status because it didn’t seem relevant, and I was no worse off for my reticence, either.

    The academic job search is a grueling process and you are right to be wary of the special difficulties that women encounter while on it. Wishing you so much luck and endurance. Keep us updated!!

  25. Convoluted said:

    So, my department (male-dominated, STEM) just did a faculty search. And while it is not ILLEGAL to ask about your marital status or your (current/planned/never-ever-gonna-happen) children, I know it’s on the list of DO NOT ASK questions that the hiring committee and department are given before the interview process starts. According to my professors, the hiring committee is allowed to talk about their own situations ( ex: Oh, yeah, the schools around here are great and my kids love it!) but it is extremely frowned upon to ask the potential candidate.

    While you aren’t quite in that formal a situation yet, I would take that sort of comment as a red flag against that person’s department. Captain’s advice of a non-answer and a redirect are spot on, particularly when you are networking outside your department and have a limited amount of time. If I only have five minutes to chat with someone that could get me a job later, I’d rather it be about my research (or their research, if you’re familiar enough to ask an intelligent question that will help them remember you favorably later).

    Also, although a little too late with the younger professors in your department, I would adopt a TELL NO ONE policy. In my field, everyone knows each other somehow and telling one person, especially if they don’t see a reason to be quiet about the information, can lead to many people knowing. You want people to have to ask you instead of being able to access second- or third-hand information (especially if the gossip twists to portray your decisions in an unfavorable light).

  26. Pippi said:

    At my university there’s a long list of things we’re not allowed to ask a candidate. We can’t even chat about spouses and kids over dinner during an interview visit, even though it’s a natural ice-breaker. (Unless the candidate raises it first.)

    It all feels very unnatural, but on balance it’s a good thing. There are so many Old Dudes (and, depressingly, a whole new crop of Young Dudes) who just don’t get it, and have to be told firmly what they’re not allowed to say.

    Of course, none of this applies to other interactions, like chatting with potential future matches at a conference.

    The Catch-22 is real. (“If you’re a woman you have to be a Good Woman, but Good Women aren’t good at this job.”) No good advice here, except to keep at it till you find a department mostly populated by decent people, that you can call home.

    • Pippi said:

      Just want to add, if you haven’t already, check out the archives of Female Science Professor http://science-professor.blogspot.com/ (but be prepared to have your blood pressure raised.)

  27. Thanksforallthefish said:

    I think the advice is excellent. The question “how are you not married!?” is one of those terrible sexist “compliments” that’s also kind of a neg unfortunately. It’s as though they think what they’re saying is “you’re so brilliant I can’t believe no one already snatched you up!” but also the subtext is kind of more “what is wrong with you that I can’t see it on the surface?” it all sucks and there’s no “good” response to that. There’s always the possibility that someone is matchmaking in their head with that question.

    Still CA’s scripts are great.

    • S said:

      The Captain’s scripts are excellent, but for the “how are you not married” there’s always the the classic “I’m flattered by your interest, but I consider myself married to my work.” Very likely they’ll be flustered by your (mis?)interpretation, and when you offer them an immediate subject change, they’ll take it gratefully.

      Another way to approach the two-body, are you/do you plan to be married question is to say, “It’s not something I’m thinking about, really, my current focus is on establishing my career.” This suggests that you aren’t actively looking right now, but are open to the idea. If they’re from a culture where arranged marriages are common, you can even say “I’m letting my parents worry about that,” which could be read as “it’s their job to find you a husband” when all you mean is “they’ve asked me the same question.”

      • TO_Ont said:

        I’m not personally a fan of that one, because it could so easily be taken as perpetuating the idea that someone (at least if they’re female) who cares about marriage will be less career focussed, and someone (at least if they’re a woman) who cares about a career will be less marriage focussed, or that (at least if you’re a woman) they are somehow in conflict.

        Who knows if they would make that connection, but it’s the connection I immediately make myself when I hear that! So I stear away from it, personally.

        • I’m with you. Additionally, if the questioner happens to be married to a woman who has a job other than housewife, it won’t go over well.

          • twomoogles said:

            Oh interesting, I wouldn’t take it as saying someone shouldn’t be married and work, but more as “my career is so all consuming I don’t have time for a person too!” kind of like “I’m married to the sea” or something. Thanks for the alternative perspective of how it could read…

        • lunchcoma said:

          In addition to that, I also think that particular construction suggests a person who places little value on any sort of life outside of work, including the parts of it that are unrelated to romance or marriage. There are some fields that very much prize such people, and it sounds like academia may be one of them, but it can also suggest poor patterns of self-care and a risk of burnout to other people.

          It also might set up unreasonable expectations that the LW will be devoted to work above and beyond even the usual high expectations of the field, which I think may present some problems given that the LW seems to have some level of interest in romances with likeminded people, parenting, and other aspects of life beyond research and department politics. The “focus” and “priority” and “right now” language seems to get some of the same work done without being so absolutist.


          • It also might set up unreasonable expectations that the LW will be devoted to work above and beyond even the usual high expectations of the field.

            This

    • Thistledown said:

      I welcome this question in personal contexts where you can answer things like, “I’m alarmingly bad in bed.” But everyone doesn’t share my sense of humor.

      • Yeah, the problem here is how to answer the question in what amounts to an informal job interview, not how to answer snoopy busy-bodies, who need to be reminded that it is none of their business.

        Whenever someone asks me an impertinent “When” question (When are you going to get married/have children/go on a world cruise), my go-to answer is “Three o’clock.”

        I find, in social situations, the more absurd the answer is, the better.

  28. Margaret said:

    I’m an academic, and I was asked this a lot–for the first ten years of a 13 year tenured job, I was single and in a small, rural college town. Your colleagues may be rude and invasive and lack social skills (which could be because they think they don’t have to be polite to you as much as it could be a function of the bubble academia tolerates in high performing men especially), but as several posters have said above, it might be a serious question about the university’s interests. If you are interviewing for tenure-track jobs, which are increasingly rare, a department will have a nearly obsessive interest in choosing someone who will stay for 30 years–academia is one of the fields with pockets of lifetime employment. Someone who turns out to hate a small rural town with no community of their people, whether it is a religious group, LGBTQ critical mass, a theater that shows foreign films, jobs in the professional field for their significant other, services for a child with a disability or special health needs, judgmental about a non-traditional relationship….whatever it is, if a tenure-track or tenured professor resigns and leaves, the department faces the real threat of losing the line permanently.

    When I was a grad student, I saw a classmate marry a man who was hyper local to our grad school–his family owned a farm and he intended to stay there his whole life. She had not thought through the fact that academia is like the world’s crappiest sports draft (this metaphor worked to get my family to understand why I couldn’t just put in an application at the school down the road from my parents’ house). There might be 8 jobs the year you first go on the market, and they’re in places you’d never have thought of working. She either didn’t have this discussion with him, or believed in miracles, because when she starting applying, things hit the fan and, since they had a young child at this point, she faced living apart from him or giving up academia (or in a best case, doing adjunct work locally). Similar thing.when classmates were interested in military officers who would need to be mobile globally.

    It is also unfair but true that women in academia are expected to do a lot of more of the soft-skill work, whether it is being on the touchy-feely committees or immediately getting handed the department’s majors club and a shit ton of advising. Doing this, plus the kind of tenure-track publishing you need to do to be tenurable, plus family demands can suck in a big way. I also saw people separate over a spouse not understanding the way departments demanded investment in the form of articles, a book manuscript and being available for Saturday recruiting fairs and meetings of the Anime Club.

    Because of that, even though it is not legal to ask these questions, or base their decisions on it, the term “fit” comes up a lot. Will the candidate be a good colleague, will he or she stay for 30 years without loathing the place or leaving, Your mentors and jackasses in the field are being both realistic and rude, although that’s also pretty typical of academia.

  29. Rhoda said:

    Being adamantly single might actually be a plus in the job search. I think it’s a thing, in some workplaces, where the older males doing the hiring think that a younger female will “just quit and have babies” and is therefore not a “good investment”.

    • Anonstronaut said:

      The problem with that is you’re considering the issue logically, when most misogynists are just going off pure dislike/distrust/outdated views of women. I would imagine the demographic that thinks women will just have babies and leave their career almost 100% overlaps with the demographic that thinks women SHOULD just be having babies and leaving their career and doesn’t trust anyone outside of the gender stereotype mold.

      • Nanani said:

        THIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIS

        Not an academic but saw my female peers lose their jobs one at a time upon marriage and/or pregnancy. The above describes that former boss. very. very. well.

  30. Dear LW,

    I love the Captain’s advice. Especially: her recommendation that you get onto the topic of research (theirs and yours), her recognition that many of the men are probably married to women with careers.

    I’d like to add a nuance.

    If your interlocutor brings up their two-body experiences, consider volunteering something like a laugh and “That’s not a problem I have.”

    Yeah, they were fishing for an answer, so if you want to, you can give it.

    Good luck in your search.

  31. The Awe Ritual said:

    I am not in academia, but I do say to people who ask, “Right now I’m married to my job.” 1. This is true: my job requires way too much flexibilty to consider consistent friendships, let alone sexual relationships (if I make plans, they somehow find out and schedule me, I swear); 2. They don’t need to know that I’m lithroromantic, and I don’t care to explain (or be judged for) my “special snowflake sexuality” to people who are just making chit-chat.

    Which is comes off a pat in a job interview, but… shrugs. If you are looking for a personal wiggle-out, that has worked for me.

    • IrishEm said:

      How about “I’m married to the sea”? It can neither be proven nor disproven…

      ALso I think I’m demi but after Googling lithoromantic seeing you mention it, maybe that’s what I am. Thank you for broadening my knowledge of both the world and myself!

  32. EllenS said:

    Great advice as always from the Captain.

    I’d underline it by saying that you don’t owe anyone a deep answer to a shallow question.

    Beyond being shallow, if you are in the US it is illegal for potential employers to let marital or parenthood status (or plans) affect a hiring decision. So by being vague, you are graciously protecting them from being horrible people. How kind of you!

    There are many variations of “I have the luxury of focusing on my work, and I’m making the most of it!” Use them liberally.

    For every “why aren’t you married,” there is also an older person who wants to annoyingly remind you that these are “the best years of your life” and you should enjoy them because “they’re gone before you know it.” Hopefully this approach will flip that switch in their heads and get them back onto the work-talk track.

  33. cheef said:

    My favorite of the Captain’s possible replies to “Why aren’t you married yet?” (yuck!) is “I love being single! Now about this subject change…” A response that’s positive (about what you /do/ want and enjoy) versus negative (about what you don’t) is less likely to lead to more annoying questions. Even folks with different rudeness barometers are going to be less interested in rejecting what you say you enjoy than in asking follow-up questions about an opinion that strikes them as unusual.

  34. Perfect advice from the Captain! It also has the added benefit of making the LW seem more stereotypically feminine, since women are traditionally expected to be good listeners who are more interested in others than themselves. This can only be an asset with conservative men from traditional cultures.

    • Paulina said:

      That’s a pitfall, though. In hiring, there are usually other candidates that eventually will be compared. Being self-effacing enough to appeal to some ideas of suitable womanly behaviour (which doesn’t sound much like Future Professor Badass anyway) can also put her at a significant disadvantage when being compared to another candidate who kept the focus more on themselves and participated more in the discussions on other things. She will need them to see her primarily as a future colleague — yes one that they can be comfortable with, and is interested in them and their work, but definitely someone who gives the impression of being a future highly successful academic, and someone whose work, ideas, and energy will be an asset to the unit and university.

      • Thank you for the correction.

  35. Retired Professor said:

    I like the scripts offered for how to answer. I agree with some of the other commenters that you don’t want to ask the same questions back during the interview stages. In my academic hiring experience, we took into account the questions that people asked as indicative of what matters to them. This sucks because it turns into people asking what they think they “should” – but that’s how it goes.

    One good thing about the academic interview process is that there is usually some time after you receive an offer to investigate or ask questions (sometimes even visit again). That’s your chance to ask the questions you really do care about that you don’t want held “against” you during hiring decisions. For example, you should ask what things are like for people who prefer to be independent/single-living or otherwise uncoupled & possibly speak to other young hires in your field/field adjacent on this. You don’t want to go somewhere that truly would be a culturally bad fit if you’re not half of a couple.

  36. Future Professor Badass said:

    Thank you so much for your response, Captain. I think it’s the perfect script. And thanks to everyone who has commented – especially academics! It makes me feel less alone, plus it is always nice to know how hiring decisions work from inside (in departments other than my own).
    Thanks!

  37. Also in Academia said:

    You should also check out the book The Professor is in: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job. She has lots of scripts for these sorts of questions.

  38. Triptrop said:

    Delurking because I am a tenure-track assistant professor of biochemistry at a Prestigious US Research University and was still nursing my baby at the time I was on the job market, so I have some knowledge in the area of being questioned about your life choices when pursuing an academic position in a traditionally male-dominated field.
    During the interview process, in the US, it is actually usually against policy to ask interview questions about your family and marital status. (Not illegal, but against policy. At least it was against policy at all 8 of the institutions, public and private, large and small, that interviewed me). And it is illegal to use marital and family status as a reason to hire or not hire a qualified candidate. I know, for example, that during previous discussions of candidates in my department, conversation has started to drift towards whether the candidate was facing a two-body problem and it got shut right down. It doesn’t matter. It’s not allowed to matter. So hopefully that’s a comfort.
    BUT. It will come up, because faculty are forgetful, or “forgetful,” or are 90 years old and just can’t imagine doing things differently than they were done in the 50s, or see themselves in you and genuinely want to chat about the things they think you may have in common. And in those situations, I think the Captain’s advice is spot on:
    “Ah well, luckily none of that is a problem for me and I can focus on finding my best fit academically.”
    And if they press, you say “You know, I’d really rather discuss your recent paper in the Journal of Subject Change because it has these exciting implications for my work.”
    I never, ever, had to do more than this to get the conversation to drop. And if it will not drop, then you should feel fully within your rights to alert the search committee chair, in a gentle and professional manner, that you are being pressed on your marital/family status, and is that part of their search process? Because no: no it is not.

  39. IrishEm said:

    I like “it’s never come up.” Or “It’s not an issue.” And move swiftly on. Also someone’s suggestion of I don’t mate in captivity? CHANNEL YOUR INNER GIANT PANDA!!!!

  40. Kitty said:

    “Two-body problem”

    Wow, do universities really make a new job for a spouse as well when they want to hire a candidate?

    • Rana said:

      Sometimes, yes. More often it comes in the form of providing information about local job markets. Generally speaking, unless you’re an Impressive Someone they really want to hire, the most a spouse can expect is some sort of vague administrative or adjunct work. A university’s ability to provide both partners with equally satisfying work is rare; a small college generally can’t manage more than a part-time position helping out in the library or similar.

    • johann7 said:

      We don’t generally create entirely new positions, but spousal hiring preference is a thing. A lot of academic departments typically operate with fewer faculty members than could be housed in the department, covering classes with ad hoc instructors, graduate students, etc. so open positions that spousal hires might fill are not uncommon.

    • Snow said:

      They don’t do it that frequently, but they should do it a hell of a lot more often (says the tired and cranky grad student on the job market with a two-body problem.) Grad students frequently marry other grad students. We sink up to a decade of time in grad school, and if a university will only hire one half of a couple, the other half has to give up a career they have spent a decade training for or choose to live long distance from their spouse. Hiring a spouse means the university is likely to retain 2 loyal employees rather than going through the immense time and expense of a hiring process only to lose that person if their spouse gets a better job in another city/ state.

    • B said:

      As a physician, I can say it’s pretty common for places to try to match couples if both are physicians (or both are in health care). It’s even formalized at the training level with the “couples match” for residency and fellowship.
      … my husband’s a teacher so they can’t really help out directly there 😛

      As to the LW’s question; no need to share the full details of your marriage plans. Most people are probably just trying to get a sense of what you might be wanting to know about; except the “why aren’t you married yet” question, little more rude! Though I like the interpretation that maybe they are asking if you want to be set up there too. Hahaha (eww?). Do dudes get that question too? I don’t know. I know I’m still trying to figure out the line of letting lady applicants know my experience having kids in this training program has been immensely supportive without putting any “of course you will have kids!” weird emphasis or whatever. And I figure someone who is very single may be less interested in hearing about that. Ehh, we do what we can to try to make everyone feel supported.

    • Kathleen Scilla said:

      I knew 2 married professors (married to each other) in the same department that shared a professorship. They each got half a full professor’s salary. One had the title of professor, and the other was a senior lecturer with full professor rights. (Something to do with university policies regarding serving on committees and such.) They also each had half a normal teaching load.
      This is one of the more unique solutions to the “two body problem” I’ve seen.
      I’ve also seen 2 people get hired in at the same time at least in part because they were married, but I also know that the department was looking for professors that had the two people’s research areas. But it was definitely a factor that they considered.

      • Rana said:

        Yeah, I worked with a couple of colleagues who had a similar arrangement. Apparently their fights over office space in the early days (they shared an office at first, though later they had their own) were epic.

    • Emmy said:

      In Econ it’s pretty common for couples to go on the job market together. How many hires we make and at what level is kind of a crapshoot year-to-year based on the current faculty, who’s on the market, and who we think we can get with the money we have. So even if we’re not specifically looking for, say, a labor economist, we might offer to joint hire a labor economist and a macroeconomist if we really want the macro person.

    • KS said:

      It also depends on just how desirable the candidate is. I worked at a university that handed a big-name research professor hire’s spouse a director-level job leading an entire support department in my area. I don’t think we ever even heard their qualifications.

      Much, much weirder to me is when high-level university administrators accept a position at a new school and bring key personnel of their staff with them… I interviewed for a job at a small university that had recently gotten a new president, and it gradually became clear that not only had the president brought the VP for my area with him from his previous institution, the VP had then ALSO brought along the director who would be my boss. Through a multi-state move. I was deeply weirded out, but apparently that’s not very unusual?

    • No-longer-single-academic said:

      My department tries as hard as possible to come up with spousal positions for all incoming post-docs. We don’t have many full professors, so that kind of hiring only comes up every 10 years or so, but we do have 5+ new post-docs every year. There have even been spousal positions made for post-docs who came in on their own external funding. The thought of course is that we want to make the post-docs as happy as possible so that in the event that they decide to apply for a big grant (ERC, for example), they will stay here.

      I also live in a country where it is standard to list your age and marital status on your CV. I have mixed feelings about this, since I come from a country where this is very much not standard.

  41. An idea, with no lab testing:

    -Well-Meaning Person: “Why aren’t you married yet?”
    -You: “Not in the cards right now, I guess!”

    They don’t need to know if you’ve doctored the deck so all the cards are coming up “no thanks.” Cards! They happen! Nobody’s problem! Similarly, I suggest using “stars aren’t aligned” or maybe a passive “It will happen when it happens.” The idea with this is to make your marriage status a “problem” that neither you nor Well-Meaning Person can solve, so then you can’t be pressured about it.

  42. Jenesis said:

    I love the advice of turning the awkward, invasive questioning back around on the asker.

    “When are you getting married?”
    “Oh, I hadn’t ever really thought about that! But since you mention it, how did you and your wife…”

  43. slythwolf said:

    These scripts are amazing. I’m not in the LW’s exact situation but I definitely field those kinds of questions and these examples of how to be super relaxed and positive and not make it into a big deal are very helpful to me.

  44. Kt said:

    Another possible response: I guess everyone takes a different path in life! Avoids value judgements and broadens the scope of discussion.

  45. Judas Peckerwood said:

    “It’s all a paradox, because they don’t like women because of the whole marriage and maternity thing, but they don’t like it either when women don’t conform to their standards of womanhood (wifehood?).”

    It’s not a paradox, it’s a patriarchy!

  46. Madbusyprofparent said:

    I’m a genderqueer academic with a family, and I would not take any offense to the response, “I’d rather focus on my career right now.” Everyone who’s done it knows that it’s really hard to balance family and career on the tenure track.

  47. Mustela Furo said:

    The Captain mentioned someday being the colleague who doesn’t ask these questions, or asking in a way that would be actually helpful. What are some ways a hiring committee can find out if the person might be really committed to the job, without being so awkward and intrusive?

    • Amy said:

      I don’t think there really is a non-intrusive way. Ultimately the factors that would keep someone from feeling fully committed to a job do tend to be very personal, and therefore very difficult for a hiring committee (aka a group of strangers, ultimately) to ask about without it becoming awkward and overbearing.

    • Amy said:

      Also, though, for most jobs in most fields, I don’t think hiring committees SHOULD be looking to figure out whether a candidate will be 100% committed to the job forever. The vast majority of working adults are doing their jobs because they want to make a living–they hopefully get some satisfaction out of it and are somewhat content with it, but they’d move on if a better opportunity came up, or if life circumstances changed in such a way that it was hard to do both (e.g. a family member has a medical emergency and needs a caregiver). Their employers probably also aren’t super committed to them–they want to keep good workers, sure, but if the role shifted and the person was no longer such a good fit, or the person’s performance dropped for a bit, they wouldn’t hesitate to replace them.

      Of course, there are roles and fields where expecting a higher level commitment is reasonable (for example, a school is making a pretty strong commitment to their employee when they offer a professor tenure, so of course they want a fair bit of commitment in return). But if you look at the working world as a whole, in the US at least, those are more the exception than the rule.

    • Paulina said:

      What I do is listen to what questions they have for us. Someone who’s interested in having the job long-term, and isn’t desperate, will be asking the sort of questions that they need answers to in order to make that level of serious decision.

      I also tend to ask questions about what they think they need for their career to thrive, and where they see things going. Partly this is to sell *us* as being caring, thoughtful, and supportive, partly it’s because we really do need to know if there are specific needs that we can match with resources around us as soon as we’ve decided to hire them, and partly it’s so we can get an idea of the fit, while also determining if they’ve thought those things through.

      This would be for a tenure-track position, mind you. For contract work such expectations would be out of line; we should only expect a serious commitment if we’re willing to make one.

      • Anonyish said:

        I’d agree with this, and add that I think it is in the interests of the hiring committee to focus on the professional aspects, not the personal ones. You can’t know whether your married person will divorce next year, or your single hire get a new partner. But there is the phenomenon of the person who isn’t really interested, will demand all sorts of special accommodations, enjoy them for two years, and then go off to a job elsewhere with minimal notice. At the end of which you haven’t got a staff member, and your existing staff are pissed off that they had to cover the teaching that new person was let off etc. You don’t need to ask about romantic life to identify that person.

        • Paulina said:

          Yes, exactly. And it’s very presumptuous to think that we can quickly extrapolate the professional implications from someone’s personal status, especially when they have likely thought through the implications and options far more thoroughly and specific to their own preferences and circumstances than a hiring committee would have. I can think of five off the top of my head where the obvious or stereotypical assumptions were flat-out wrong for the academics-in-relationships involved.

    • Nanani said:

      Not assuming family situation has anything to do with commitment to the job, and structuring the job so that work.life balance is possible for everyon leap to mind.

    • Amazed said:

      Just my personal opinion on the subject, but I’d say be transparent.

      Captain spoke at length about the person behind the invasive questions, and how they very well might be coming at it from an understandable position. In that case I’d say frame the question as a statement of that position, be up front and open about the fact that you’re asking something this invasive.

      So “Will there be a two body problem (because we’ve seen it be an issue, and can totally work with you if there is)?” would become something like: “We’d also be open to talk about accomodations for any potential two-body problems.”

      It may not be possible (especially not if it’s out of surprise that they’re not married yet, rather than an actual wish to accomodate!)

    • I think that’s where that terrible “Where do you see yourself in five years?” question comes from, but everybody knows to lie on that one if they actually hate the city and plan to get out as quickly as possible so I don’t know how much good it does.

      I have some pretty strong opinions about “commitment” to companies because in my field the only way to get a meaningful raise is to change jobs. Commitment is earned by paying people fairly, managing them fairly, giving them as much autonomy as the position allows for, and generally treating them like human beings. It’s not something you can expect people to just show up with.

    • nnn said:

      It’s not about *finding* people committed to the job – if they weren’t into the job they wouldn’t be applying for it. It’s about *keeping* people committed to the job. Which is not the role of the hiring committee, but rather the role of management as a whole to create a combination of work, compensation, and environment that people don’t want to leave.

    • KellyK said:

      What about just mention it straight out? “Because this is a tenure-track position, we’re really looking for someone who can commit to at least X years. Does that match up with your long-term goals?”

      Not only are questions about marriage and family intrusively personal, but they also don’t really get at the info you want. People can be any combination of married, single, childless, or kid-having and still stay at a job long term. It’s more relevant to know if they’re planning to stay long term, how interested they seem in the job, and how much thought they seem to have given it.

      • nnn said:

        Yes, this! As a worker who only ever wants long-term positions, I’ve found that every new job search brings new and baffling questions that I can’t figure out why they’re asking or what kind of answer they’re looking for, and only later learn or figure out is an attempt to determine if I’m in for the long term.

        I want the same thing they do, but these bizarre irrelevant questions are getting in the way of my actually letting them know that!

  48. My father is a professor and my mother got her PhD when I was in high school, so I can say from personal family experience that the two-body problem is no joke. When my mother got a job a four-hour drive from my father’s job, when I was working at my first job post-college, my coworkers clearly thought this meant they were in the process of divorcing and I was in denial. The professors I was still in touch with socially all said one of the following: (a) “ughhhhhhhhhhhhh yeah. Been there, done that. Didn’t really want that t-shirt.” or (b) “thank God my spouse never wanted a PhD.”

    So, yeah, I think this is heavily a question about whether you’re going to want to move in five years to be closer to your spouse and the Captain’s answer here is PERFECT. Also, the fact that you are unattached is genuinely a plus (no trailing spouse with an MFA in Basketry that a Use will Need to be Found For) but oversharing is not, so just stick with “lucky you, you don’t have to worry about a bonus overeducated extra person showing up in Smallltowneducationville if you hire me!” and leave it at that.

    • Vasha said:

      I once rented my spare room to a guy who had a job at the university in my town, and his wife at one five hours away. He’d stay here during the week, and drive down and see her on the weekends. His job was only for a year, but hers was tenure-track. He was delighted that she had a better job than his, and told me how proud he was of her accomplishments. I think they’ll be okay somehow.

  49. Amy said:

    As a single adult woman, when people try to push back on me being single, I generally stick to really noncommittal responses like ‘who knows what might happen down the line!’ It doesn’t give people a lot of room to try and matchmake or otherwise interfere, and it’s also light and unserious enough that people don’t tend to interpret it as me being an Unconventional Woman Who Needs To Be Reminded Of Her Place In Society. It also tends to be the end of the discussion, since there’s really nothing to say in response to it. Plus, it’s easy–since I always say about the same thing, I’m never on the spot trying to think of what to say.

    OP, it sounds like you have similar goals here–tell people that you’re single and won’t be bringing along a spouse needing a job, but also not leaving space for them to interfere or judge harshly. Maybe you can come up with a similar statement for you to fall back on when the topic comes up?

  50. Queen of scarves said:

    Them: Why aren’t you married yet?

    You (cheerful and breezy): My standards are too high! + subject change

    Maybe too flippant, but I love this idea.

    I like the captain’s suggestions for.getting them to talk about themselves

  51. the815 said:

    This is excellent advice. While the snarky replies in a safe space are cathartic (and perhaps necessary for your mental health), keeping it light and vague is absolutely the right thing to do in a professional setting. The added context that they’re trying to be helpful with these questions helps put things in perspective (the part that, since most people do want to marry, they’re actually trying to gauge how happy you’ll be in their town).

  52. I love you, academia, but UUUGGGGHHHH. I’m sorry you’re dealing with this, LW. It won’t fix the problem necessarily, but finding your “Women in *Field*” groups, if you haven’t already, might at least give you some respite and a group of people to network with who know the deal. And if there aren’t any and you’re feeling especially ambitious you could look into starting a “Women’s Lunch” or something at one of your field’s major conferences. My field is also male dominated (though getting much better), and I make a point of going to my academic society’s Women’s Breakfast at the big conference every year, even though it’s at like 7AM. It’s always well attended.

  53. UGH but also so familiar. Qs about marital status/desires, etc., are illegal for a hiring committee to ask, but in a social-professional situation, are fine. And whatever you say might indeed get passed on to a search committee. In all my years on the market, I never had a terrible experience in this realm, but many people have. I highly recommend perusing Karen Kelsky’s The Professor is In site and book for some good canned answers (many similar to the Captain’s). The larger issue people might be trying to get at (other than satisfying their own curiosity) is, “will you be happy here or will you bolt after 2 years because your partner can’t find a job/you can’t find a partner/etc.” So one blanket answer is always, “I’m not anticipating that issue. [pivot] Can you tell me more about the undergrad mentoring program X mentioned?” GOOD LUCK, the academic job market is many levels of misery.

  54. S.H. said:

    I don’t have anything to add to the topic, other than saying that I think captain awkward gave some really good simple but direct advice.

    I will, however, share a funny story that happened to me. I was in a lobby, waiting for a job interview when I was quite young. The receptionist (also young, and maybe thinking this was just fiendly discussion) asked me if I had a boyfriend. In my nervous mode, I automatically answered, “No, thank you.”

    The second after, I realized what I said and we both laughed, but I didn’t end up having to discuss my romantic situation farther.

  55. thepaintedlady said:

    My favorite answer to questions that oversimplify obtaining things that *some people* spend lots and lots of resources and sometimes huge chunks of their entire adult life trying to obtain (spouses, houses, children, jobs that don’t suck, etc) is “Well, I tried to pick one up on my way home last night but they were all out at the (husband/house/baby/career store) so I guess I’ll have to try the old-fashioned way.”

    Most people get the point that whatever the reason is, it isn’t as easy as just deciding you want one. And those that don’t are usually confused enough to leave you alone.

    • thepaintedlady said:

      And obviously, the bit about trying the old fashioned way is optional. I’m also all about the deadpan “Because I don’t want one…..” that is my standard answer anytime anyone asks why my husband and I don’t have kids.

  56. placeinthisworld247 said:

    I HATE these questions too, LW, because to me that question implies that one is not worthy of love or attention if he or she is not married or having children, which is totally untrue! Also, many people (including Past Me) want a relationship because they think they will be sad and miserable alone. That is not necessarily true either! I am in my mid-thirties, single and having no children, and I think this time has actually been one of the happiest that I’ve ever been in my entire life! LW, I would tell these people, “I am happy and content with where I’m at right now, and that includes my present career and marital choices. If that changes, I will definitely do something about it on my own volition.”

  57. Zombie Bunny said:

    I work as a casual admin for my local school board (basically instead of being a ‘supply teacher’ I’m a ‘supply secretary’), and a lot of the admins I help out/supply for are in their fifties and/or are retiring. Inevitably, a lot of those women ask me if I have kids. The question threw me for a loop the first time, because my first instinct was to say, “I’m too young to have kids!” … Which, y’know, made more sense back when I wasn’t 26 years old and didn’t have at least three friends with two kids each.

    I finally found a solution recently when I was asked again: “Do you have any kids to worry about?”

    “I AM the kid that is worried about,” I said. And she laughed, and no follow-up questions were had, and now that (or a variation on it) is my new go-to. I’m not sure how there’s a way to spin the answer re: marriage, but as long as you’re friendly about it, you’ll be fine. There’s no real way to stop the asking ahead of time (because there’s no preemptive strike against well-wishers, and thank goodness!) but you can certainly make the conversation pleasant but fruitless for the inquirer.

  58. My reply to the kids question: “Yes, I have a daughter. She’s X years old and she’s a great mouser.” The person would pause and then figure out I was talking about my cat. Then the conversation would be diverted to pets.

  59. “It’s all a paradox, because they don’t like women because of the whole marriage and maternity thing, but they don’t like it either when women don’t conform to their standards of womanhood (wifehood?).”

    LW, if you specifically want to navigate the paradox, maybe you could mention relaxing with a feminine hobby? AKA i’m still a lady, if not a wife.

    ie, Oh, my academic work leaves me too busy to find a good man, so in the evening I relax with my knitting/painting/embroidery/baking cookies….

  60. Hucking Fell said:

    I’ve had some luck with tangential anecdotes, so maybe that’s worth trying for you?

    Interfering relative: “Why aren’t you married yet?”
    Me: “Oooh, I was just reading an article last week on (customs of remote or historical people) (mating habits of X species) (sex or marriage in X fictional universe), and it was absolutely fascinating! Do you know, they (insert ancedote here)…”

    If you can keep the anecdote going long enough, it becomes socially awkward to circle back around to “But why aren’t you married yet?”

    Then there’s always the vaguely polite complete non-answer, like “Oh, I’m fine – but thank you for thinking of me, I appreciate it” which often works because it follows the structure of a real answer, without actually giving any information.

  61. Emma said:

    I’ve been asked in job interviews if I have kids. (This is illegal over here, unless the same questions are asked to the male interviewees. They don’t get asked this question, I’ve checked.) I usually cheerfully respond that I don’t even have a goldfish.

  62. kaimcn said:

    I’m in the middle of a separation (thanks Canadian divorce laws!) but if anyone ever asks why I’m not married, I look forward to staring into the distance and and sighing, “oh I was, once.”

  63. “How come you’re not married, yet?”

    “Because I’m too hard to get. Now, about the subject change…”

  64. iiii said:

    “Why aren’t you married yet?”
    “I’m waiting for a sale.”

  65. carllinita said:

    Maybe a little trivial, but thanks Captain for providing that little sidenote that Manners Are Relative. I’m a bit of an oddball who’s been on both sides of the spectrum (US-born, non-immigrant parents from another country, spent most of my life hopping/studying back and forth between the two countries, which. Allows for +5% chance at One Heck Of An Adolescent Identity Crisis.) I fully understand the inappropriate nature of questions about marital status and other private-as-heck matters, but I also can’t help but bristle at possible US-centric perspectives of, “God, non-USians are so WEIRD and RUDE.” So thanks Captain for being considerate of that!

    Also, LW, you have a new fan! This humble recent-college-grad/hopeful-future-grad-student would love to be like you when she grows up. Where do I submit my application to be Future Professor Badass’s future badass RA? 😋

  66. Portia Longfellow said:

    As a polyamorous biromantic ace person, some of my favourite go-to responses to inquiries about my marital status are, “I’m deliberately single (and loving it)!” or “I’m an aspiring spinster. I’ve got two cats already!”

  67. Pibble said:

    My view as a career academic scientist is that the askers want to know if you will move or quit to be with a partner, or need a job for a partner. Any new academic should, when asked, just say ‘no’ answer. Unless a potential employee wants the hirer to give a job to their partner, or the partner is also a great catch, it ain’t nobody’s business.

    “Thanks for asking. I’m lucky that I don’t have to consider that in my search and can just look for the best fit for my work.” is the perfect answer to any inquiry regarding your family plans. The ‘lucky’ implies that the potential employer is lucky too, because they won’t have to deal with this scary woman-problem. Drop the ‘right now’ to sound unequivocal. The academic field is tough, use every trick to redirect your potential employer to the important stuff – ie, you will bring them success and riches through your amazing skills and knowledge.

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