Tag Archives: Academia

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

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Hi Captain!

Okay, here’s the tale: I’m two years out of undergrad and was applying to grad schools this past winter, so emailed my senior thesis adviser to ask for a letter of recommendation (he’d already written me one for a fellowship a year ago). He never responded–after a month I checked that he wasn’t on sabbatical, sent another email, and then called his office and left a phone message, and finally figured that his lack of response was, in itself, a response. Fair enough, no one’s obligated to recommend me, but I was a little confused by why he didn’t simply reply and let me know that, which would have given me more time to find a back-up recommendation. But I got into my first choice program, and I really don’t bear any kind of hard feelings.

Here comes the question: he was the faculty sponsor of a club I was very heavily involved with as an undergrad and am still pretty connected to now, and since I’m planning on visiting friends on campus still in said club in the next few years, it seems not unlikely that we’ll bump into each other–if it hadn’t been for this, I would probably have deliberately stopped by his office to say hi. It was a pretty small department, and while I was working on my senior thesis we met once a week and talked about developments in the field, etc., as well as my actual paper.

As a college professor yourself, do you have any insight on how I should handle this? Should I go say hi anyway and just not bring it up? Assume that this means he doesn’t particularly want me to come say hi? Scripts for bumping into him? I get that a student-teacher relationship probably isn’t going to be a friendship of equals, but I would have liked to be friendly, since he’s a fun person and a great teacher, and I would have enjoyed getting to hear his thoughts about my continuing academic work.

Many thanks!
-Unrecommended (she/her pronouns)

Dear Unrecommended,

Next time you visit campus, pop in and say a quick hello to the guy. You’ll probably never get an answer as to why no recommendation and since the need has passed and you met your goal it’s hardly worth pursuing one at this point. There is a greater likelihood that your request fell through the cracks than that he hates your guts. You didn’t do anything wrong, and saying “hello” on your schedule and your terms will let you put this behind you and not spend your whole visit stewing about it or dreading when you run into him. You learned a lot from this person, you’re carrying on in the field, and I think all is (or will soon be) well. You got this!

For students requesting recommendations after some time has passed:

  • It’s not a strange request, it’s part of the job. Though if the professor is an adjunct, know that they are writing this for you in on unpaid time and that they might be harder to get a hold of.
  • If they say “no,” it’s not necessarily personal: I will say “no” rather than write a lukewarm or negative letter (who has time for that?), I will also say “no” to writing too many letters for the same opportunity.
  • In your initial request, say immediately that you are asking for a recommendation and for what (don’t make us guess at what you want). Briefly remind the professor who you are, what class you took with them and when, a little about the work you did then. Give them the “elevator speech” about what you are applying for and why you want to do it. It’s not personal if they don’t remember every little thing about you and your work.
  • Be ready to collaborate a little bit. I will sometimes ask students to send me a few bullet-points that they’d like me to include in the letter, or if there’s anything they’d like me to play up or mention specifically. I’ve had profs ask me to write the whole letter and then give it to them to beef up & sign. Writing part of your own letter is awkward (and a tad unethical?) but it’s not uncommon. Bottom line: Help the person help you.
  • Send the person all the info for formally addressing the letter – “Please address the letter to Graduate Selection Committee, Department X, University Y, Complete Mailing Address.” And work out all the logistics about confidentiality & submission ahead of time – sometimes it needs to be in a sealed envelope on letter head with a signature over the flap that you collect and mail in with your application, sometimes there’s an online submission process. You need to be knowledgable about how to submit this thing and not make the professor Google it the night before the deadline.
  • Give the person lots of lead time and have a backup plan. Also, I would advise telling them you need it about 3 weeks-1 month before you actually need it, so you have a cushion to find a backup plan.
  • Send a thank you email and let them know the outcome of your application. (We like to brag on you.)
  • If you weren’t the greatest student, own it, but don’t shame-spiral about it. I know that my students are dealing with adjusting to college, big important life stuff, mental health stuff, money stuff, etc. and that how they do in one class is not the whole story of who they are and how they are going to do. Someone who comes back a few years later to say “I was having a really hard time personally when I took your class, and I know I wasn’t always the best student, but here’s what I learned from you and how I applied it. I really turned things around, and now my work now is about x, y, and z,” is telling their teacher a GREAT story. We deal in growth and change, after all. ❤

What am I missing, Awkward-demics?


Dear Captain Awkward,

I am a woman who is a graduate student. One of my fellow students, a man who I’ll call Nigel, takes up a lot of space in seminar. He speaks over people, interrupts, makes noises while other people speak, and doesn’t wait his turn. If unchecked, he will dominate seminar and prevent nearly anyone else from speaking. Nigel doesn’t seem to interrupt other men, but only other women of all ages, including our instructors. Multiple female professors in our department have noticed this behavior and taken steps to correct Nigel. Multiple women and men in our department notice and have commented on this behavior. I know of at least one occasion where one of our peers has said something to Nigel about this behavior. None of this has had an effect on Nigel, and he continues to run roughshod over his peers whenever he is able. The only professor who doesn’t seem to mind Nigel’s constant interruptions is his adviser, Dr. John Smith.

What I am struggling with is a recent turn in my relationship with Nigel. While in the past I’ve managed to hop over this missing stair, things have come to a head and I’m not sure what to do.

Nigel made a point in seminar last week that was incorrect (not to mention offensive). I spoke up, noting the factual error only. He told me that I was wrong, and something in me just couldn’t let it go, so I didn’t. This point applied broadly to my research, and was entirely unrelated to his. In the two classes we have had since this time, he has interrupted me each time I have attempted to participate. Every. Time. This has made it difficult for me to participate, and other people are noticing, which is embarrassing me. I really despise conflict, and I hate to think that this is becoming a ‘thing’–being professional is important to me. At the same time though, I refuse to let a rude dude prevent me from participating.

Today, in seminar, we came to a head–he said something, I disagreed, he told me I was wrong, I disagreed, he attempted to explain something to me, I told him that the issue wasn’t with my knowledge and that I didn’t appreciate it, and Dr. John Smith (his adviser) asked us to ‘agree to disagree’. I feel like instead of seeing the issue with Nigel, Dr. Smith thinks I’m the problem. I was harsh–my exact words were “I don’t need a lesson on this, I have google”. That wasn’t ok for me to say, so maybe I am? He also told me I didn’t know what I was talking about–how do you respond to that?

Captain Awkward, I don’t know what to do. I’m tired of having to learn around Nigel. I’m not sure there is much doing if the professor of this class doesn’t mind or notice that the missing stair is missing at all. I’m frustrated that I am being antagonized, and I’m frustrated with myself for taking the bait. I’m frustrated that I seem shrill or antagonistic. It feels to me that this is much more an issue with Nigel’s professionalism than mine, BUT it has affected mine as well and I’m upset with myself about that. I’m not afraid of letting it be awkward, but I do not want to develop a reputation of being ‘difficult’ in my department.

I am too close to this issue to see straight, so I’m reaching out to you. Any scripts, advice, or suggestions for living with Nigel and managing my own responses to him would be very much appreciated.

Thanks so much,

Grad Student, Interrupted

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The Bachelor group shot

“One of you lucky ladies is going to get tenure!”

Hi Captain (& friends),

I have been dating an awesome guy for a little over a year now. It’s not really my style to gush over a romantic partner, but this is possibly the happiest and most comfortable I’ve ever been with someone. However, we have one big difference: I’m a graduate student getting my PhD in a science field, and he never completed his bachelor’s and is currently working in the service industry. He’s taking online classes and collaborating on a startup, but doesn’t plan to finish his degree.

This doesn’t bother me, or adversely affect the relationship. He is extremely intelligent and genuinely interested in my research work, and I like hearing wild stories from the club he works at. He challenges my ideas and experiments in ways that are interesting and helpful, since they’re not coming from within the academic culture. And besides, we have a lot of shared interests, like programming, caving, and gaming, where we are at similar levels of accomplishment and feel like we can challenge each other.

But this doesn’t stop me from getting anxious about the education discrepancy. When I first met Boyfriend, my out-of-town friends told me I needed to be aiming higher. All my in-town friends are grad students / PhDs, and they’re all dating other grad students / PhDs. They spend date nights writing new theorems; I spend date nights playing Starcraft. It can make parties a little weird: “Oh, your partner developed an entirely new model of fish ecology? That’s awesome! Mine couldn’t come because he’s still washing tables.”

I already have a lot of anxiety about my career. Thanks to ever-present imposter syndrome, my brain loves telling me that I’m my department’s pity hire, I actually don’t know anything about science, and I will crash and burn horribly. So now I’m afraid that I’m somehow sabotaging myself and my career with this non-academic relationship. Is it going to turn me into a lesser scientist? Am I wasting time? Are my priorities all out of whack? I feel awful for making this all about me and my flawed, academia-instilled value system, but my brain won’t shut up about it. For what it’s worth, Boyfriend knows about this anxiety and tries to help (like, by scheduling Thesis / Startup Work “Dates”, to help with my fear that I’m spending too much time with him and not enough time in the lab).

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I’m in grad school for creative writing. It’s hard. Right now, I’m taking three classes, which means that I’m reading 500-plus pages a week, in addition to commenting on my classmates’ writing and producing a poem every week. Plus, I’m teaching a basic composition course for struggling writers, and a literature course (for the first time ever), so I’m writing lesson plans and grading essays for nearly 60 students. AND I work ten hours a week to supplement my stipend enough to buy things like toiletries, books and the occasional beer on a Friday night. Also, I need to clean my apartment and do laundry and run errands sometimes. And in addition to all of THAT, I’m expected to participate in meetings, go to outside lectures, and attend all the readings by my classmates and visiting writers. And I WANT to, because oh my god I love school. School is the best thing ever. I work my ass off and I LOVE IT. This is not really about grad school.


What people think an MFA is like.

Except it kind of is. I have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, which causes, among other things, crushing migraines and extreme fatigue. And there’s no cure for it, because ovaries, ew. Mostly, I manage. But there are days when I can barely drag myself around, and did I mention all the stuff I’m supposed to be doing? Sometimes I can’t do it all. Sometimes my whole body feels like a bag of wet sand that I’m not strong enough to lift. Sometimes I have to lie down and rest before I die. So I miss the reading, or the lecture, or the lunch meeting.

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I have an academia related question for you. I graduated from a small liberal arts college in May 2011. I enjoyed my time there immensely. I was able to form some awesome relationships with my professors and some administrators (most of whom were my bosses for part-time jobs or internship supervisors). I moved to Japan for work about 6 months after I graduated, and I’ve been here ever since. Before I left, I visited my university and said goodbye to my friends and professors (and let them know about my moving/work plans). We all said the familiar refrain: “Let’s keep in touch!”

Question 1: Do professors *really* want to keep in touch? Or do they just say that to make you feel better as you leave the comfort of the college bubble?

Question 2: If they do really want to keep in touch, what are some appropriate, non-awkward ways to do that? 

I’ve thought about emailing small updates, but every time I sit down to write one it feels awkward in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. I feel like I’m imposing on their busy schedules if I ask questions about them/their lives, but I feel self-centered if I only give information about my life. Is there some sort of script that could work in this situation?

Full disclosure: While there are no immediate grad school plans, I do want to go back eventually. So I might be requesting references at some point in the next few years. But I really would want to maintain some sort of contact even if I didn’t have grad school aspirations/need someone to say nice things about me.

Do you (or the Amazing Awkward Army) have any ideas on what is the most appropriate/least awkward thing to do here? 

Thanks for your time!!
B. A. (Bachelors of Awkward)

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The Puns

Alternate plan: tell them you’ve changed your name to Kate Beaton. (Seriously, everyone go buy her book! WE LOVE YOU KATE BEATON)

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’m an undergrad English student who just got published for the first time (yay!) and I’ll be starting work on my capstone thesis next semester (although I’ve already started reading and outlining and stuff like that). My family is currently very supportive and thrilled for me- also yay! Problem is, I’m not sure if that will continue once they actually read the paper in question. I promised to get them copies of the journal in the heat of the moment when I first announced my big news, and now I’m thinking that might not have been such a good idea.

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