Earlier this year I got married.
To a fellow academic.
The Guardian recently published an article, which emphasised the damaging effects of the temporary, mobile lifestyle of academia, particularly as a postgraduate or early career researcher. The author of the article came to the conclusion that academia is incompatible with a “family life”. Needless to say it has provoked many discussions between my wife and I, as well as amongst my colleagues.
It is not the first time this topic of discussion has come up, and there is a definite ‘general’ mindset that academics need to be free of any ties in order to achieve success in the highly competitive atmosphere. However, while there are a great many obstacles to overcome in academia, and it’s true that a stereotypical ‘family life’ (whatever that actually means) is probably off-the-table, I prefer a more hopeful outlook to the situation. This post is thus stimulated by the desire to take an approach to the topic other than the often dismal media portrayal. So I thought I’d contribute my two cents, and present my ongoing experience as someone who has recently ignored all words of warning, and gone ahead to do what makes me happy in my personal life alongside my academic one.
The short version is: I met my wife, Robyn, studying Archaeology at Exeter, we bonded over shared interests of Bronze Age burnt mounds and metalwork (as you do!) and, 4 years later, here we are.
That period between then and now, however, was spent living between 1 and 4 hours apart, intermitted with many conversations about what priority we should be giving to our careers vs. our lives together, and how long do we realistically want to be doing this for.
Personally, I don’t consider this much different from how many relationships operate, at least to begin with – academic or not.
Our outlook from the beginning was to focus on our respective career paths: hers towards heritage and museums work; mine towards the mysterious beast that is academia.
My path led me to my PhD. Robyn’s path also led to a PhD.
Her research does not focus on the Bronze Age, or even Archaeology particularly – she’s now a Cultural Geographer studying Cornish Clay Mining.
I consider myself – us – very fortunate; my study area (the South West) and Robyn’s (Cornwall) align pretty much perfectly geographically, and although her research is undertaken in Penryn, while mine is based at Exeter, we are technically part of the same university. This, for many in academic relationships, will be considered a success story, as we share training opportunities, pay days, and term timetables.
Academic relationships, however, come with academic complications. Within 10 days of being married, Robyn had teaching commitments that took her to the other side of the world for 10 days.
Similarly, between my teaching commitments, access to resources, supervisor meetings, and various other opportunities, not to mention the spread of my research (from Cornwall to Dorset) I inevitably spend quite a bit of time sleeping on friend’s couches, or living on trains; I am, as my Dad recently put it, “still half-living in Exeter.”
Then, of course, there are conferences: never in convenient locations, always at awkward times. There’s a good possibility that our first wedding anniversary will be spent apart at coinciding conferences with me in the Netherlands and Robyn in London.
Finally, we have the general uncertainty of the future. My PhD finishes next September, Robyn’s finishes in the following year. What happens after this for each of us consists largely of funding applications to wherever will take us, and most likely for only limited periods of time, or applying for whatever job we can, again probably a temporary contract. A current prospect I’m exploring could take me away for 6 months before our first year of marriage is even half over.
You get the picture.
This is not an easy situation. And I have sadly seen more than a couple of relationships affected by a tumultuous, uncertain life with an academic. People not in academia often struggle to understand why academics are so willing to engage with this fraught and frantic lifestyle, and why so many sacrifices in terms of job security, work-life balance, and indeed personal health must be made for so little financial gain – it can, in many ways, be devastating to one’s personal life.
I’m conscious as I write this that I am a lucky one – in marrying an academic, I have married someone who understands the demands of this lifestyle as the price of pushing the boundaries of human knowledge (whether we should have to be meeting these demands is a matter for another blog post).
However, I would argue that while academia has a variety of unique issues, the overall picture of short-term contracts, late night working, and travelling for business, is not a unique problem. Many professions require mobility for their work or necessitate unsociable hours (think about business, nursing, or teaching for instance); and increasingly the idea of a “job for life” ceases to exist. There just seems to be a stigma in academia that we have it particularly hard, and this should stop us from having a successful personal life.
I accept that at my present stage in life, I have few commitments tying me down – namely, no children and no mortgage – so my outlook on all of this might, and probably will, change. For my life in academia to be successful is going to be difficult and uncertain and almost definitely remain unstable for at least the next decade. Probably even more so married to another academic. Of course, I haven’t even touched upon the inherent issues for the time out of academia Robyn will have to take when we choose to start a family.
But I work alongside people who do make this lifestyle work – travelling to conferences, leading lectures, gaining post-docs – while also managing a family.
And these people give me faith.
I also know that if I’m going to tackle this sort of life, I’d rather do it with Robyn alongside me, even if that meant on opposite sides of the country.
The real question at the end of the day is: Would I change anything?
Not a chance.
This blog post is inevitably anecdotal and I appreciate that there are a huge number of other factors that play into decisions about balancing academia and a family life. I hope at the very least it stimulates a discussion that doesn’t simply dwell on the idea that we, as academics, can’t possibly have a life that includes both academia and a happy home life.